Tokyo – Clean, Safe, and Zen

Two years ago at exactly the same time of the year, I was visiting Japan – and had a great time. Having never been to Asia before, I was a bit worried about not being able to find my way around. But it was really easy, especially in the capital, Tokyo, but also in Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Akita.

In Tokyo, I visited the Imperial Palace (though only from afar, you can’t really go inside) with it’s beautiful gardens, Tokyo Tower, Shibuja Station and Crossing, with dog Hachiko (famous in Japan, everybody has his or her picture taken with it), and the Meiji Shrine,  with its impressive parks, where the gardeners sweep the path to the temple with a broom made out of twigs to keep it free of leaves.

Toilets in Japan can be a challenge

I was impressed by the cleanliness everywhere in Japan – you get a wet towel whenever you eat to wipe  your hands, even if it’s just a coffee and a cake. Toilet seats are sophisticated mechanisms that can be heated, and have lots of buttons – and are a bit intimidating, to be honest.

Suprisingly, there are hardly any trash cans in Japan – they were removed for safety reasons. So you better bring a plastic bag and take your trash back home. Also, there are no paper towels in restrooms. It is custom to have your own little towel at hand – you can buy the plain white cotton ones in every convenience store. I still use the one I brought back home as a wash cloth.

I traveled by train, using the JRPass, which is really the best way to travel in Japan. You have to purchase the pass in advance, in your country of origin, because it is only good for tourists. Plan ahead, because you will get a voucher you have to exchange when you arrive in Japan. The line at the counter at Narita airport was quite long, btw. It was a bit annoying to have to wait to get the rail pass after the long flight, but once you have your pass, you are good to go, even on the Shinkansen, the super fast train.

Also, I felt very safe everywhere. The crime rate in Japan is really low.

And I really enjoyed all the little parks and temples that seem to be splattered around town – you can find your inner zen there and take a break from the city’s rush.

Here are some impressions from Tokyo – next Sunday, we will travel to Kyoto.

 

 

Spectacular Sunsets and Interesting Art – Belgium’s Coast

If you need a place to stay while visiting Dunkirk, you might want to take a look at Belgium. I found a nice little apartment via Airbnb, overlooking the North Sea and close to the French border in Koksijde-Bad. It was super relaxing to sit in a cozy armchair behind the panorama window, watching people enjoying the Belgian coast even in autumn, and the waves washing ashore.

Looking north towards the North Sea in Koksijde-Bad at sunrise, from the apartment.

The sunsets to the west over Dunkirk were spectacular – twice a grand finale to the sunny weather during the day.

And there is more to see than “just” sunsets and beach. Walking towards the west along the water brought me to St. Idesbald, home to a surprisingly large museum with art from the surrealist Belgian painter Paul Delvaux. The entrance of the Paul Delvaux Museum is one of the typical little Belgian houses, but most of the exhibition is underground and there is a lot to see.

Delvaux is known for his paintings of nude women, and in the age of #MeToo, it got me wondering where the line is between art and sexism, and whether we should at least have a debate about why and how a certain artist made naked women the center of his work, why all the men in his paintings are fully clothed, and the women bare-breasted.

Paul Delvaux Museum, St. Idesbald, Belgium

PS: If you  are hungry after visiting the museum, how about lunch at the restaurant on premises: Het Vlierhof.

WW II, Operation Dynamo, and the Dunkirk Spirit

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s epic thriller Dunkirk, you know a bit about the story of the Battle of Dunkirk, and how pleasure boats and other civilian ships came to the rescue of British and French soldiers surrounded by the German military in 1940, during World War II at the French coast.

The exact number of “Littles Ships” that participated in what was called “Operation Dynamo” is not known, but an estimate puts it somewhere between 1,176 an 1,588. Not only British civilians risked their lives navigating the beaches of Dunkirk, but also Belgian, French and Dutch citizens. But these civilian boats were only a part of the story.

Visiting the Museum Dunkerque 1940 Operation Dynamo will give you more insight into these days that made history.

Altogether, between May 27th and throughout June 4th of 1940, almost 340,000 soldiers were evacuated, about a third from the beaches, the rest from the harbor of Dunkirk.

The museum, located close to the beach and the harbor, gives an excellent overview over what happened during the days preceding the evacuation, and afterwards, with charts, models, and artefacts. Here, you can read about the mistrust among the Allies, about tactical mistakes that gave the Germans a huge advantage, and the decision to secretly evacuate first the British, and finally the French soldiers, too, from a besieged city. The latter received a warm welcome in England, only to be sent back to France almost immediately, where they ended up captured or demobilised, following the armistice of June 22nd.

And you will hear about the “spirit of Dunkirk”: How a major defeat and retreat became a victory in the public eye in Britain, and helped to muster the courage and determination to fight Nazi Germany.

The war, however, should go on for five more years, and Dunkirk was not liberated until May 9th, 1945, its port and the city in ruins.

PS:
The Museum reopened in 2017 after some major renovation, but will be closed for the winter after November 11th. It will open some time in spring of 2019, after more remodeling.

PPS:
If you want to have a cup of tea on board of one of the “Little Ships” – I highly recommend visiting the “Princess Elizabeth”. The Paddle Steamer is moored in Dunkirk Harbor and a Restaurant and Tearoom.

Mercedes-Benz Museum – Classic Cars Made in Germany

Now you’ve visited Ludwigsburg Residential Palace  and are in the mood to be amazed by something more technical? No problem. Half an hour away from Ludwigsburg is the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

German cars have gotten some negative press, lately, like VW’s emission cheating scandal or the debate about older diesel cars and their incompatibility with German air pollution standards. But, after all, it was  German mechanical engineer Karl Benz who, in 1885/6, designed and built the world’s first car powered by an internal-combustion engine.

You can see a replica of his invention at the museum, among other legends on four wheels.

The place itself is a cool construction, and very kid friendly, too: The kids can get behind the wheel of some of the cars themselves, for example.

PS:

The museum even has an event called “Cars & Coffee” – where Mercedes owners can bring their classic cars and bathe in the admiration of other visitors. Just like “Katie’s Car & Coffee” in Virginia, I guess. This year’s season of the event at the museum ended in September, though.

Ludwigsburg Residential Palace – The Real Castle

Contrary to Neuschwanstein, which is world famous but has also never been more than a tourist attraction, Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg – Ludwigsburg Residential Palace – is the real deal, as far as German castles are concerned. Kings, queens, and princesses have lived here.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Eberhard Ludwig (Louis), the Duke of Württemberg, felt he needed a place that suited his rank. First constructed as a hunting lodge in 1704, the building soon grew in size and splendor. When the Duke moved in, in 1718, for a short time, Ludwigsburg instead of Stuttgart even became the capital of the state.

Some of the Duke’s successors would later spend some time in the castle, using it as a summer residence, throwing pompous parties with fireworks, ballet and opera performances. All together, there are 452 rooms, 18 buildings, three courtyards and  beautiful parks and gardens, blending three different architectural styles: Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. So there are plenty of stories to tell – and a lot of ground to cover. After all, the Ludwigsburg Palace is one of the largest Baroque buildings in Europe to survive in its original condition.

There are two tours available in English, and you have to decide whether you want to check out the rooms of the male inhabitants – King Frederic I and the Duke – or the female ones: Queen Charlotte Mathilde and Hereditary Princess Henriette Marie. Or you stay for two days and take both tours, since there is also the Ceramics Museum, the Fashion Museum, and the Blühende Barock, the permanent garden show with its flowers and the fairy tale garden where kids can meet Rapunzel, the Frog Prince, and other famous fairy tale characters.

Neuschwanstein – The German Fairytale Castle

Germany is know for its castles – and especially, of course,  Neuschwanstein. With its delicate white towers and steepletops, it does look like a castle right out of a Cinderella movie. But did you know that no one actually lived there – ever? King Ludwig II started planning the castle in the late 1860s, the foundation stone was laid in 1869. But the construction took forever, and when the King died under mysterious circumstances in 1886, the castle still hadn’t been finished. It was opened to the public soon after his death, as a tourist attraction.

King Ludwig did live, however, in Neuschwanstein’s sister castle, Hohenschwangau. It is less known, but if you are in the area, why not visit both castles? Make a reservation for your tickets well in advance, because they are in high demand. That way, you know the exact time of the visit. You still have to pick up the tickets on the day of your visit, though. So make sure to get there early if you’re going by car and need a parking space. And enjoy the spectacular view of the Alps.

Oh, and if you are looking for a place to stay because you want to visit the castle early in the morning, check out the hotels and vacation rentals around the Hopfensee. It’s gorgeous there.

The Hopfensee – a pristine lake not far from Neuschwanstein

Brussels: Politics, Art, and Chocolate

When I was visiting Brussels last autumn, I discovered that the Belgian capital is not only a modern city where politicians are debating the future of Europe. It is also a place of art and history – and delicious chocolate, of course.

Going to the visitors’ center of the European Parliament, the Parlamentarium, is a great way to learn how European politics works and how the European idea came about in the first place.  You can spend quite a while there, since a lot of the exhibitions are interactive, and let you explore political Europe and the impact politics has on EU citizens and member states on your own.

Brussels Grande-Place, the central square, is a most-go, of course. I recommend going in the evening, when all the guild houses, as well as the City Hall, are spectacularly illuminated (picture above). Also a must is the Manneken-Pis, the statue of the peeing boy, that has more than 900 suits to wear for every occasion. Its female counterpart is Jeanneke-Pis, much less known, situated in downtown Brussels, too, but hidden in  a tiny cul-de-sac.

If you are looking for a place to have lunch, why not visit the Musical Instruments Museum and take the elevator to the top floor of the former Old England department store. Along with a nice meal in the restaurant, you get a great view of the city. You don’t have to buy a museum ticket to get to the restaurant, btw, going up to eat is free of charge. Check the opening hours.

Right around the corner is the Magritte Museum, where I fell in love with Magritte’s painting “The Empire of Lights”.

Magritte’s “The Empire of Lights”

But an even more spectacular museum, although a bit off the beaten path, is the Horta Museum. The two buildings, situated next to each other, and their rooms, furniture, interior design, and art are jaw-dropping. Every door handle, every window, every piece of furniture is a piece of art. The Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) lived and worked here. It was recognized by the UNESCO as World Heritage site in 2000. I have no pictures to show, since it is strictly prohibited to take photos inside the buildings.

Horta Museum

I did not have the time to go into the most famous symbol of Brussels, the Atomium, but at least stopped by to take a peak. It looks really cool. I guess I have to come back one day to check it out. And, of course, to eat more chocolate – either at one of the chocolatiers inside the Galerie de la Reine, like Pierre Marcolini, or at the shop that was recommended to me as the best place to buy chocolate in Brussels: Mary. I bought a lot, for friends and family (and myself) and everybody loved it.

Beautiful Strasbourg

If you are traveling the Eastern part of France, or the Western part of Germany, be sure to visit the city of Strasbourg.  Little shops and restaurants invite you to stay and shop or eat. Wear comfortable shoes, because most of the historic downtown area is a pedestrian zone, with cobble stones. Of course lots of tourists are crowding the streets, but if you visit the Cathedral de Notre Dame in the late afternoon, lines might not be as long as during the day.  You need a ticket to go all the way up to the top, but can get inside for free and marvel at the architecture of one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in  Europe. During church services, access is restricted. Strasbourg is supposed to be especially beautiful in December, when its Christmas Market is open.

Strasbourg’s history goes back many, many centuries. It was originally a celtic village. In more recent times, the French city was captured by Germans twice, the first time after the 1870/71 war between the two countries, and then again during WWII.  Today, it is the official seat of the European Parliament.

Feste Kaiser Wilhelm II – The Fort to Withstand Modern Warfare

Warfare has always  been a driver of technological innovation, today as much as over a hundred years ago.  At that time, the Germans were seeking ways to protect themselves at the Western front, and against the newest invention of explosives: melinite, much more powerful than black powder which had been in use until then. In 1893, emperor William (Wilhelm) II ordered the construction of a fort that would withstand attacks with this new weapon.

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Lake Dwelling Settlements Unteruhldingen – Remnants of the Stone Age

How was life in the Stone Age? What did people do all day? What did they eat? How did they sleep? You can learn all about that and much more while visiting the lake dwelling settlements in Unteruhldingen at Lake Constance. In German, they are called “Pfahlbauten” – pole dwellings – and that’s what they are. Conveniently built alongside the lake, so people thousands of years ago were close to the trade and traveling routes and would not be impacted by the changing water levels. The first reconstructions were undertaken in the 1920s and 1940, when diving techniques were much less advanced than today. Check out the different life size models of the houses that feature living and sleeping rooms, a stove and work places of people living between 4300 and 850 BC.