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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Dark Side of a White Winter

The view looking down Trakų gatvė and toward the Three Crosses

When she first learned that we would be going to Lithuania, my wife was...perplexed, in that she had never heard of the country and no idea of its location. Once she had found 立陶宛 (Lìtáowǎn) on a map and had learned of the long, cold and gray winters in the Baltics, Shu-E proclaimed that she was looking forward to spending the next couple of years in Vilnius. Like many Taiwanese, the idea of snow fascinates her (Hokkaidō 北海道 in winter is a popular tourist destination for Taiwanese tourists), and she is looking forward to a white Christmas.

I, on the other hand, am somewhat warier. Yes, I was excited when it snowed in Japan or in the Washington, D.C. area, but those snowfalls were relatively brief. Vilnius is different, however. It isn't even officially winter yet, but snow covers the ground and the temperatures are falling below freezing. True, our apartment is well-heated and for the most part I'm adequately dressed for the weather. However, icy surfaces are a serious problem here. I've slipped on sidewalks a couple of times already, the last time being earlier this week in which my wrists, tailbone and back are still feeling sore. Just in time, an order I'd placed through Amazon for Yaktrax finally arrived and this weekend was the first opportunity to put them to the test. I'm not prepared to turn into an unpaid shill for a commercial product - let's just say that so far I've managed to remain upright. Stay tuned as winter approaches...

Appropriately enough outside the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, my daughter prepares a weapon of mass destruction:


Stopping in to check out what was on offer at the International Women's Association of Vilnius Christmas Bazaar, held in the former Town Hall. Dense crowds and a lack of small bills and change prevented us from purchasing anything:



The Gates of Dawn (Aušros Vartai) is the last-remaining of five openings that were built into the Vilnius city walls in the early 16th-century. You can still see the round openings that were used for cannons:



Sitting above the Gates of Dawn is the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn, which dates from 1829. It's also known as the Gate of Dawn Chapel of Mary the Mother of Mercy, and holds the Madonna of the Gates of Dawn (c. 1620), a venerated painting of the Virgin Mary among Catholic, Orthodox and Uniate (Greek Catholic) pilgrims. I've visited it a couple of times, and of both occasions people were kneeling on the floor and fervently praying in front of the revered image. Photography isn't allowed, so I've cropped the photo below to get a closer view of the painting (as well as lifting a photo from Google Images):



http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-our-lady-of-the-gate-of-dawn-in-the-chapel-of-the-gate-of-dawn-vilnius-82520880.html

Doing some early Christmas shopping at Aukso Avis, a gallery on Pilies gatvė opened by Vilnius fashion designer Julija Žilėniene. What and for whom shall remain a secret:


Pilies gatvė at around four in the afternoon. Notice how early it gets dark here this time of year:


The Christmas village in Cathedral Square, which opened on November 26 and runs until December 29:


Gedimino prospektas lit up in the late afternoon:


Amber sits on a giant pea pod while an enormous red dress hangs from the rafters in the background at the Gedimino 9 shopping center. You can't make this stuff up:


On Sunday evening, Amber and I returned to the Christmas village in Cathedral Square, this time with Shu-E in tow. We made sure to wear the long underwear in addition to the yaktrax as the temperature was hovering at around -7°C (19°F):


A Czech beer with dinner at Asia Tasty:


Ordering and then eating a caramel pancake at the Christmas village:



Enjoying a Taiwanese-style hot milk tea in the cold evening air:






Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Going Dutch - the final days

The cloister garden of Sint Servaasbasiliek

We left Giethoorn in the morning of Thanksgiving, but not before one last quick look at this charming village and its waterways:


My daughter waits in the cold morning air for the bus to Steenwijk railway station:


After a 3½+ train ride, we arrived at our next destination, the historic city of Maastricht, tucked away in the southeastern corner of the Netherlands, and immediately checked into the Kaboom Hotel. As my friend Jeff put it, the hotel looks like it was designed by college students; I figured it was the result of some hipsters given free reign, while Amber figured it was all dreamed up by some kids. Whatever the origins, the design concept is a success, as the rooms are both minimalist and comfortable. And each guest gets a free packet of Pop Rocks!:


With my wife deciding to rest in the hotel room, my daughter and I set out to explore the neighborhood, crossing the Maas river:


Our feet led us to the Vrijthof, a large square of cafes and shops (and a Christmas funfair in the process of being assembled), and dominated by the Sint Servaasbasiliek church. The origins of this shrine to St. Servatius, the first bishop of Maastricht, date back to 1000:


Admission into the church (like many attractions in the Netherlands, it was free for Amber to enter) allowed us to see the cloister garden...:


...as well as the medieval gold artwork exhibited in the Treasury:





Colorful archway:


The interior of Sint Servaasbasiliek:


The side entrance:


Amber munches on some churros in the Vrijthof:


We returned to the Kaboom Hotel and met our friends Jeff and Barbara in the lobby, who had taken the train from their home in Belgium to meet us for dinner. We dined that evening at Harry's, a local institution since 1912. Though it was Thanksgiving in the United States, here in Europe it was just another fourth Thursday in November - turkey wasn't on the menu, so I ordered the venison stew, which could be the start of a new tradition:


I have a lot to be grateful for in life. One of them is having good friends to spend time with over a fine meal:



Jeff and Barbara spent the night at the Kaboom Hotel, and the next morning I met them for breakfast before they had to return to Belgium. Afterward, Amber, Shu-E and I walked over to the Markt, the commercial heart of Maastricht:


Jean-Pierre Minckelers, the inventor of the gaslight. Apparently, the "eternal burning flame" isn't so eternal:


Amber samples some cheese at the market:


Taking a coffee break:


The day was one of mild disappointment - I'd wanted to go to Fort Sint Pieter to see the tunnels there. The problem was is that visits are by guided tour only, and the only English tour of the day is at 12:30. We would've made it with time to spare, but I missed the street where we were supposed to have turned left; by the time I realized the mistake, it was too late. Such is life, so we had lunch at a small Italian restaurant and then stopped by the Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek church to pay our respects at the Mary Star of the Sea shrine inside, which has been drawing in pilgrims for more than 300 years:



We spent the rest of the afternoon window-shopping:



Inside the train station in Maastricht is a piano asking to be played. This gentleman took up the offer:


Our trip to the Netherlands ended with an evening train ride to Schiphol Airport, where we stayed the night at a nearby hotel before leaving the next morning to return to Vilnius. We had a great time in the Netherlands - I would like to explore more of Amsterdam, while Shu-E preferred Maastricht. Both of us loved Giethoorn, though we had the advantage of visiting during the off-season. Amber took an interest in art of the Dutch Golden Age, but her favorite place had to have been the Kaboom Hotel. And, of course, there was the opportunity to meet up with old friends, and the hope that they will come see us in Vilnius in the time we have left in Lithuania. A lot of Dutch treats in a short period of time.

A Brand Brewery IPA. It certainly wasn't Heineken

Modeling a souvenir (and showing off a gut) back home in Vilnius

Sentiments which I do not share (I just thought it was a funny moment from an otherwise pedestrian film):




Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Going Dutch - the fourth day

The rural idyll

When we were planning our trip to the Netherlands, I asked my wife if there was anywhere in particular that she would like to visit. Shu-E did some research on the Internet, and decided on a small village in the Northern Overijssel region called Giethoorn. I'd never heard of the place, but the photos she showed me on a Mandarin-language website looked nice. However, when I looked up Giethoorn in my Lonely Planet guidebook, the words "the site has become a must-visit for Asian tour groups" leapt off the screen of the iPad. I had nightmarish visions of a once-lovely village collapsing under the weight of all the tour buses disgorging hordes of Chinese tourists. Our lunch after getting off the bus stop in Giethoorn (and before reaching the canal area) was, in fact, interrupted by a large group of noisy middle-aged Mandarin-speaking women, and things didn't look much more promising when we passed a Chinese noodle restaurant as we walked toward the bed-and-breakfast where we were going to stay that Wednesday night. But the tourists never materialized (the lunch group apparently got back on their bus and went elsewhere), and Giethoorn turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, one of the most idyllic locations I've ever visited. Chalk it up to traveling out of season.

A last look at our hotel room in Amsterdam before checking out:


Getting to Giethoorn from Amsterdam involved taking a train from Amsterdam Centraal station to Steenwijk, then ride Bus 70 to the village. The view while waiting for the bus outside Steenwijk railway station:


Lunching on a pancake:


The B&B De Galeriet Giethoorn, where we spent the night in reasonably-priced (though cash-only) comfort:



After checking-in and dropping off our bags, we spent the rest of the day wandering along the canals, admiring the scenery and letting the village work its charm. The area can be explored by bike and boat, but we were content to let our feet guide the way:







A stork's nest. We didn't see any of the birds in Giethoorn; we haven't encountered any in Lithuania, either, though we've been told they're quite common:


A gaggle of geese rest in a field. The Netherlands is a densely-populated country, but open spaces dominate the Dutch countryside:



Amber makes a friend:


A couple takes a boat through the canals:


It doesn't get more much more pastoral than having sheep graze on the lawn:


Dining that evening at the Ristorante Fratelli:



Even in the chilly night air, the village retains its charm:



Back at the B&B, reading the entry left in the guest book by a Taiwanese visitor. My daughter added her impressions:



On a cold day in late November, my wife and I fell in love with a small Dutch village. Giethoorn is one of those places where I could see us purchasing a small house as I approach retirement, and settling down to enjoy its mystical charm...

...until I remember the tourists that show up in droves during the peak season (between 150-200,000 Asian visitors a year, according to numbers found online by a friend of mine), and then the dream turns into a nightmare of having to put up signs in Mandarin, Korean and Thai (as we saw in Giethoorn), asking people not to trespass in our garden and press their noses up against our living-room window glass to have a peek inside.

Then again we could always live there during the chillier, darker months, when things become quiet and quaint. And we could always fund our retirement by opening up a Taiwanese tea stand...

Dutch treat: