Monday, 25 July 2011

Monschau, Germany

This obscure small town on the Belgium/Germany boarder is up there as one of my favourite places in Europe. Thanks to my cousin, who is incredibly knowledgeable about about places to see and things to do in Northern Europe (he would have made a great tourist guide, it's a shame he didn't take that career path), I saw many things and places in Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands which I had no intention of seeing, let alone having any knowledge of, but in the end was completely amazed by. During our little road trips, he constantly pointed out places of interest (there's so and so church, there's that cathedral, there's an amazing gallery), explaining the history of a monument or town (that is dedicated to so and so, this event happened here, so and so visited this town on this particular date), and he was excited to take me me to little-known, yet amazing and stunning towns (including Monschau, Leuve, Aachen and Maastricht), which the average tourist would have completely passed by, utterly unaware of what they had missed out on. 

Monschau is situated in Germany, only 2km from the Belgium boarder. The town was originally known as Montjoie (being a French/Belgium word), as it was under French rule from 1795. The name of the town was altered in 1918, when the town was awarded to Prussia, and until today it is known as Monschau. The towns cobbled streets and timber framed houses have change very little over the last 300 years. The town was extremely lucky to escape air-raid bombings during the Second War World, and as a result, is it one of the few towns in the region to be almost completely preserved.

Driving through the Belgium countryside one morning, I was completely unaware about where we were going as we crossed the German boarder - Jean-Marie tended to just drive, as though he made the decision about where we were going on the way there. Even when we entered the hills of North Eifel and began to descend the long winding road down into the valley where Monschau is situated, I had little idea about the uniqueness of the town which we were about to visit. As you cross the bridge from the parking bays, you being to feel as though you have stepped back into time, or are living some sort of Disney fairytale. The town feels somewhat empty and eerie as you walk through the narrow grey cobblestone streets (these streets are only for pedestrians as there is no access for cars - I'm sure the town planners three centuries ago did not envisions cars zooming down these picturesque streets), almost as though you are in a movie set for a film such as Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (that's it, Monschau has a Burton-ish feel to it - eerie, peculiar and magical, especially on a grey overcast autumn day, such as the one when we visited the town - I'm sure it would have completely different atmosphere if you visited on a warm and sunny spring day).

If you take a walk up to the ruins of the 13th century Monschau castle, once the seat of the powerful Counts of Julich until it was besieged by Emperor Charles V in 1543, you are afforded with a spectacular view of the surrounding hills and the isolated town in the valley below. Once there, imagine if you were to place an empty gilded frame in front this landscape, it would be easy to mistake the pointed grey rooftops and church spires, set against the lush green foliage of the encircling forest, as an oil painting from the Danube School - it's almost that idealistic.

If you're in Germany or Belgium, or any other part of Europe, or the world for that matter, take time out to diverge from the regular tourist route and you might be surprised at what hidden gems you might discover. (It also helps to have the assistance and knowledge of a local).

Sunday, 17 July 2011



Beer + Waffles + Chocolate = Belgium. And it's also the headquarters of the European Union. I guess this is what usually comes to mind when someone mentions Belgium. The small northern European country that is usually forgotten about by most western European tour operators, due to its small size and lack of famous monuments and crowd eliciting festivals. People go to France for the Eiffle Tower, Cannes, the Louvre; Italy for the Colusseum, Venice, Tuscany; Germany for Octoberfest and Berlin; Spain for the running of the bulls, Gaudi...but to go to Belgium just for some chocolate and waffles? Despite its humble exterior, Belgium is a culturally and historically rich country, with amazing architecture, picture perfect towns and breathtaking scenery.


Originally I wasn't terribly keen/overly excited to visit Belgium, other than being eager to visit two of my grandfather's sisters and my cousin Jean-Marie, whom I had never met before. So taking the train from le Gard du Nord in Paris, with my great masses of luggage (I always have the best intentions of packing light, but I always seem to go overboard, especially this time as I had to pack for all seasons since I had planned to be in Europe for a minimum of six months), I made my way to Liege, Belgium, not having any prior conceptions of what to expect. During my travels I found that that I was usually somewhat disappointed by places which had been overly hyped-up, and pleasantly surprised when visiting places with no prior expectations - and Belgium was one of the latter.

The meeting point of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands
First World War cemetery

I was lucky to have a private chauffeur driven service whilst in Belgium, many thanks to Jean-Marie, who took a week off work to show me around a number of towns, cities and the Belgium countryside (he was a fantastic tour guide, as he is highly knowledgeable about almost every aspect of the history and culture of Belgium - also having travelled around the country a great deal, he knew all the most worthwhile places to visit). And I was also so fortunate as to be staying just outside the unusual and intriguing city of Liege. At first sight, Liege appeared to be a very dull and grey city, due to its coal mining origins. However, its warm and inviting atmosphere quickly overrode my initial negative impressions. Sunfilled Sunday afternoons are particularly beautiful in Liege, with families leisurely strolling through the city centre whilst you're soaking in the sun in one of the many outdoor cafes.

Brodosplit - A Dalmatian Klapa performing in Brussels

We spent the next week visiting numerous places around Belgium, including Brussels, Luvern, Aachen (including the exact spot where Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany meet), Monschau, Ghent and Bruges (I was so amazed by the final three towns that deserve their own post on this blog). If you enjoy admiring beautiful scenery, visiting interesting towns and eating chocolate and waffles, I'd definitely take a detour through Belgium, if only for a few days, when you're next in Europe.


Teta Antica's little house

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Postcards of Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

                               Sacre Coeur                          Stairway to Sacre Coeur

View over Paris from Sacre Coeur

Carousel and Sacre Coeur

Le Musee de Louvre

Les Halles

La Tour Eiffel

Les Galleries Lafayette

Le Moulin Rouge

View towards Sacre Coeur from Le Musee d'Orsay

Le Metropolitain

Stairway from Montmartre to Sacre Coeur

     View over Paris from Sacre Coeur                          Ile de la Cite

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Les Marches de Paris

No wonder the French are so famous for their gastronomy! Even in the very heart of such a cosmopolitan city as Paris, fresh produce markets can be found in at least one of the many quartiers (neighbourhoods) just about every day of the week. Why would you shop in sterile, impersonal supermarkets when you can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, seafood, meats, pastries, breads, sweets, just about everything for the fridge or pantry (sans packaging and processing), straight from the farm, from people who brighten your day with a little chit-chat or a taste of their beautiful olive sourdough bread? And you'll be helping to support local farmers who, struggling against the monopoly of supermarket chains, drive from the rural outskirts of Paris early in the morning in the hope of selling their goods to the people of this truely amazing city.

These photos are taken amongst three markets which I visited regularly - the fresh produce markets of Auteuil, Le Boulevarde Raspail and La Rue Mouffetard.

Whilst in Paris, I lived in the Auteuil neighbourhood, which is situated in the southern part of the 16th arrondissement (not too far from the Eiffle Tower or the Bois de Vincennes). Twice weekly, possibly on Tuedays and Thursdays (I can't quite remember), there were fresh produce markets on Rue de Boulainvilliers, as well as in the square near the Michel-Ange-Auteuil metro station. I would often stop by to purchase a pastry, or two (there were some almond croissants which were to die for!), and some fresh fruit for breakfast or morning tea. I also pleasantly surprised to discover that every few weekends there was a small, yet interesting antique market at the Michel-Ange-Auteuil market site selling brick-a-brac, framed oil paintings, decorative items for the home and the odd piece of antique furniture.

As mentioned in a previous post, I studied at the Alliance Francaise, which is located on the Boulevarde Raspail. There is a wide medium strip in certain sections of this boulevard, on which once or twice weekly, store holders set up stands under a tarpaulin (presumably too keep the Parisian winter rain out). This market is very busy, as many pedestrians verge off the regular footpath and walk through the markets in order to see what is available. This was a perfect place to buy lunch, usually a baguette of olive sourdough bread (by far the best bread I've ever tasted) and maybe some creamy goats cheese and, if the weather permitted, I'd walk around the courner to the Jardin du Luxemburg and relax amoungst the beautiful sculptures and gardens before going to class to be be utterly confused by French tenses and verb conjucations (when do you use le imparfait, le plus-que-parfait, le subjonctif, le futur, le futur simple, le passe compose....why can't there be just one past, one present and one future tense? It was all just too confusing!)

If you love fresh produce markets, you cannot go to Paris without visiting le Rue Mouffetard! One of the oldest streets in Paris, located in le quartier latin of the 5th arrondissement, it is a gourmet's dream! The street is lined with restaurants, cafes, and small boutique-style shops selling everything from wine to seafood. The store holders are very knowledgeable about their products and are more than happy to give recommendations and samples. No one could complain that there is a lack of variety. There is so much to choose from, that it is difficult to decide what cheese to buy, when there are 100 options, or what wine to drink it with, with another 200 options. Whatever you need for a Sunday lunch for the entire family, or just a quiet dinner for one, Rue Mouffetard will awaken the Masterchef in you!

For restaurant meals however, you're probably best to go off the main drag and into one of the side streets. Rue Mouffetard attracts many tourist, so meals tend to be pricey and of questionable quality.

I'm assuming the stores on Rue Mouffetard are open everyday, but don't quote me on that - they may be closed on the weekends, or perhaps only until early afternoon Saturday, Sunday and Monday, as is the way in Paris. I remember one Sunday going to Les Galleries Lafayette, the world famous apartment store in the 15th arrondissement, only to find the doors bolted shut. It was only then that I learnt that most stores in Paris work only a half day Saturday and are usually closed Sundays and Mondays. Although this could be an annoyance at times, it enables workers and business owners have free time to relax and spend time with their friends and family. The French adore their sparetime, so much so that in recent years they have demonstrated against state discussions about the possible rise in retirement age, the lessening of their legal 6 weeks annual leave and the lengthening of the average working day (but then again, the French hold a manifestation for almost any reason. At least once a week we'd  hear shouting and megaphone sirens from our classroom). The need to have access to stores 24/7, to work stupidly long hours and to work til we literally drop, which is becoming a painful reality in Australia and other countries, is boardering on the ridiculous if you ask me.

In order to get to Rue Mouffetard, I'd suggest that you take the metro line 7 to Place Monge, go west along Rue Lacepede until you reach Rue Mouffetard and walk down hill from there (It's alot easier to follow the crowds downhill, than strain yourself going the opposite direction). The street itself is quinessential Paris - cobblestoned street barely wide enough for one car, beautiful stone apartment buildings with boutiques on the ground floor, street lights suspended from their facades and geraniums hanging from planterboxes - as if it was straight out of a picture book.