I want to start this entry by stating that I am no more injured then the last time I posted. Nicole is similarly unscathed. Xena is fine and in my possession. I still have (afaik) all my stuff (except for a handkerchief which I was fond of, alas). Almost all of it is in working order.
I am on a train. When I post this to my blog, I will be in Den Haag. I will now pause for a moment to go find some wood and knock on it.
When I last typed, I believe that I was sitting in a laundromat in Antwerp. I think I wrote about the cathedral. Did I mention that I left Xena tied up outside directly outside the main entrance? Whenever she is alone in a strange place, she fears being left there forever and so urgently tries to attract my attention so that I can come rescue her. She barked loudly the whole time that I was in the church. I could hear her barks echoing. I've come to like the acoustic of external dog barks resonating in large stone vaults. However, I can see how others might not feel the same way. But it really gives a feel for the resonances of a space.
Anyway, when I came out to get her, the ticket seller yelled at me for a bit, saying that everybody was scared to come in because there was an alarming, barking dog next to the door. I apologized profusely and felt really guilty. What if somebody's vacation was ruined because they were too frightened to see the cathedral and they only had half an hour of opportunity to do so (because they went to the museum first or something)?
We biked to Mechellen. The trip was uneventful. Painfully uneventful. Some folks yelled at me for letting Xena run along side the bike in the woods. The LF 2 is really poorly laid out for a long section of in Belgium. It has no signs and it's really boring. Also, people who live close to Antwerp are often unfriendly and hostile and scowl at you in a threatening manner when you say hello as you bike past. And some of them seem to like to deface signs for bike routes. By spray painting over them so you can't read them, or drawing in new arrows pointing in wrong directions or taping over parts or removing signs entirely.
When I got to Mechellen, though, I pulled out my Routard and started calling the three listed hotels. None of them took dogs. In the Netherlands, every hotel takes dogs. In France, people adore dogs. Even in Germany, people are quite warm feeling towards dogs. I think Belgians are desperate to differentiate themselves from their language-sharing neighbors. As such, they're not too fond of dogs.
A friendly older woman approached me and started telling me about her bike tours. She gave the excellent advice of calling small towns' tourist offices before 4:00 so they could book you a hotel. Great advice. She also said I probably wouldn't find a hotel at all for the evening. Yikes.
There may or may not be a lot of hotels in Mechellen, but they're not well marked. In Antwerp, I sort of walked around, looking for hotel signs and knocking on doors. Apparently, I was very, very lucky. Anyway, I biked past and so went into a very swanky looking hotel. There's no camping around there, so I was kind of stuck. But they didn't take dogs either! The woman at the desk, though, was awesome and called a much more moderately priced hotel and booked me a room.
So we ended up at the Hobbit Hotel. I mention it by name because the owners are REALLY REALLY nice and are just starting out and want some publicity. So it's a typical utilitarian two star, but with really good service and good breakfasts. The owners eat the same breakfast as the guests, so it's tasty even if there wasn't an excess of choices. Also, as much espresso as you want. Also, there's wifi in the bar area. It's free, but you have to ask about it before you can get the password. They also offer secure bike parking and I think also bike rentals. It's about 2 km from the center.
I booked two nights because of the cathedral. It's carillon has the most bells in the world. UNESCO lists it as a world heritage site. They have regular concerts, three times a week when the carillon school is in session and one time a week in the summer. The concert was the next day at 3:00. So we walked around, got some food, went into a bar with a gay flag, got some more food and generally slacked until the concert, which lasted a little more than an hour. It was widely ignored by one and all.
Sometimes, laptop artists worry about something often called "performance aspect." What this tends to refer to is the visual component of performing an instrument. For instance, if you go to a piano concert, usually it's possible to see the pianist. You can see her gestures and get a sense of her musical interpretation by how she moves her body. This extra-musical information is widely believed to be the main reason that people pay to go to concerts. If you want to listen to the Goldberg Variations, for example, a CD of Glen Gould may be the best possible musical way to hear it. But if you go to a concert, it won't be as polished, but you can see the pianist moving around. So goes the common wisdom, usually offered as reasoning for why laptop music is lacking.
I bring up performance aspect because carillon concerts have none. Was I listening to a live performance? Was I listening to a MIDI file? I don't really have any way of knowing how "live" is really was, except that bells were actually ringing. The process that activated those bells, however, was invisible. Does the lack of performance aspect make a difference to carillon concerts? Is this why virtually nobody else was paying attention (or are they not as tickled pink as I am by hearing Strangers in the Night dinging out of a church steeple?) I once heard Carmen performed at the Grote Kerk in Amsterdam and others were listening. I think I have too little data to draw conclusions, but it's something to think about. Nobody whines that they can't see the bell-ringer.
After that, I wanted to go into the cathedral, but I really did want to upset anyone like I had in Antwerp. The cathedral had a very large square in front of it, filled with hedges. I tied Xena up, to a tree in the hedge, far enough from the door that nobody would be alarmed to enter, but close enough that it would be clear where her owners were. There didn't seem to be any residential houses nearby. The French and the Dutch don't seem to mind barking dogs too terribly much, so I figured it was ok.
The church had an amazing number of relics. They had St Celestine, who is rumored to have some sort of prophesy (and who is my patron saint, according to me), and a bunch of other saints. So many relics! It was awesome! No cathedral is complete without having several display cases full of human bones. Also, they had the most amazing pulpit ever. I can't even describe how florid it was, covered with animals and plants and saints and crucifixion, frogs, snaked squirrels, apples, all so very ornate and overdone and carved in wood. Pictures will be forthcoming via flickr.
After a while, Nicole got worried about the dog and went outside to check on her. The police were holding her leash. Some woman with two dogs had come by and become very worried about our obviously abandoned dog. (You can tell she's abandoned because she's
wearing a collar has no water bowl near her). The woman offered her water but she wouldn't take it! Clearly, this calls for police intervention. Nicole false claimed to have been unable to hear the dog barking. The police gave her a talking to, but let her keep Xena. You can't take the dog in the church, you can't let her bark outside. The hotel folks would have been happy to look after her (almost too happy, though), so I guess that was a solution. Also, it's a solution to take turns, which is what we did with the city museum and the other church that we visited. I told the hotel owner about this when we came back for the evening and she was shocked. Belgium has too many laws, she explained.
The next day, as we were checking out, she asked if we'd forgotten anything. The dog, maybe? It would be ok if we forgot the dog. Xena is charming to everyone, except to cops and concerned ladies who offer her water.
We started down the path to Leuven, the home town of Stella Artois. The bike route took us down a canal. For the whole day. On the same canal. Although we were instructed to cross from one side of it to another at the halfway point, so I guess that broke up some of the monotony. At least it was easy going. And people started to become more friendly again, which was a relief. Also, the last bit smelled like beer. mmmmm
We got to Leuven and Nicole asked me why it was famous. I suggested we stop for a beer (maybe a Stella) and look at the guidebook. As we got to the Grote Markt, I said, I'm going to guess it's known for it's beer, it's cathedral and it's stadthuis (aka, city hall). That thing was ornate when it was built. But then, on the advice of Victor Hugo, they decided to cover every possible nitch with statues of notable personages from the region. The effect is astounding. It puts Brussels' flamboyant Hôtel de Ville to shame. I've never seen so many statues at such high density. And at the base of every statue were a bunch of tiny bass reliefs showing even smaller people. It's amazing.
We sat down in a café facing the stadthuis and asked for a beer recommendation. The waiter brought us really strong beers. Biking in the hot sun + really strong beer = unable to walk afterwards. Nicole was more steady than I, so she went first into the cathedral and then I went. The inside is charming, plus the altar of the previous church still exists under the newer church. And they have lots of relics. And a life-size carving of a falling horse as at the base of their pulpit, so complete that it actually has a carved asshole.
The town is a college town, and thus has lots of vegetarian food at reasonable prices. I found it to be entirely charming and worthy of a longer visit than I allocated for it, but when I went to find a hotel in town, they were full because of some university event, so we went on to go camp as we had originally planned.
My fietsroutsen maps of the Netherlands have campgrounds marked on them, which is a very useful feature. My Belgian maps not only cover far less ground, but don't mark campsites, only mention their general vicinity. Some of them have had signs from the bike routes, so I just hoped the one right outside of town would be similarly marked.
I thought we might have gone too far when we passed the gypsy camp. (like, with real Romas), but when we got to the top of a hill and could see nothing but rolling fields in every direction, I knew we had gone too far. A family biked up behind us, so I asked if they knew where a campground was. They lived next to one, but it "wasn't wonderful" and the owner was "kind of crazy." How bad could it be? I just want a flat spot and a shower. We biked with them the way there. They explained that the path we were on was only for bikes and agriculture. Also, it was the hilliest part of Flanders. I think I broke a speed record for the dog trailer. They also talked a tiny bit about Waterloo. Napoleon was defeated because he failed to account for the little hollows that run through the hills.
The route was beautiful. Rolling fields (of barley!) on either side. Farm houses in the distance. Moody, grey skies. It was the prettiest part of the trip.
We got the campsite and the owner was, as advertised, kind of crazy. The campsite had a large grey, greasy lake in the middle in which steely grey fish would slither around, just beneath the surface before returning to the murky depths. The fish were huge. The lake was a breeding site for mosquitoes. He insisted the water was lovely. Spring water! Drinking water before it got in the lake. You can't drink the lake water, but right before it goes in, you can. We asked where the showers were. "The toilet is over there, go to the end and then up, you understand?" Showers? "The toilet is over there, at the end." I started to become suspicious, but he started asking questions about our dog. Was she friendly? Had she ever bitten anybody? He proclaimed his love for animals and said that if we ever came back riding a live elephant, we could camp for free! He kept talking about this for a while and the light was fading, so we rushed to set up the tent as fast as we could when he finally wandered off.
Nicole went to powder her nose (for European readers: she went to use the toilet). She came back. "It's uhhh rustic. You'll need to jump over a trench to get there." Good gods, open sewers! ewwww! I went, past the moldy, mossy, abandoned caravans, marked with yellowing "for sale signs" and there were slugs in the toilet. (Not, like, in the building. I mean, in the bowl. I peed on a slug.) I told Nicole that I didn't think it had been cleaned since the Carter administration. She pointed out that there was no Carter administration in Belgium. We started joking about what political event had lead to his abandoning toilet cleaning. Maybe it was personal. Maybe his wife left him and he didn't realize they needed cleaning. Or maybe she had died. Maybe she had forgotten to clean them one day and he had killed her and left them unkempt in warning and protest. As it got darker and the skeeters swarmed, this theory became more ominous. The frogs screeched their mating class in the background. The birds screamed like banshees. It was the loudest campground ever and it was all animal sounds. The less than quarter moon was hidden behind a cloud and I could hear the large fish darkly rising to the surface to snatch bugs from the air and splashing back down to the opaque bottom. Why had he asked so many questions about how mean the dog was? Why was there nobody else in the campground? Who owned all the greenish empty caravans? What happened to them?
We finally went to sleep, although I woke up about a million times. why had the frogs fallen so quiet all of the sudden?
When we got up in the morning, he was no where to be seen. The showers . . . yikes, I wouldn't have mentioned them either. And did I mention how weird the water tasted. Drinkable lake water, eh? We packed up as fast as we could as the greenish clouds swirled menacingly overhead. Xena, usually eager to frolic in campgrounds sat nervously near the gate, anxious to leave. the bottom of our tent was covers with odd roundish, slimy, oozing creatures.
We peddled up to the top of the hill, where we had last seen the bike route and spent a while riding through the town, until we came back to the inexplicably grey camp ground. The route went right past it. And then around the back. And then meandered and then came back to the other side. We didn't see a single person. I started looking for signs from the Blair Witch movie. That's how today started. It got better. And then it got worse.