From thought provoking to bonkers: Part 2. Love, affection, sensuality, play and respect in Oslo’s Vigeland Sculpture Park

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This gallery contains 16 photos.

This is the second of three short blog posts about sculpture. The previous piece and the introduction to is contained in a first post from Bruges in Belgium. The second post really works well as a photo gallery, because words … Continue reading

Celebrating cycling in Bruges

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This gallery contains 18 photos.

This post is a photo gallery of cyclists and cycling taken while I was wandering the streets on our recent visit to the lovely city of Bruges. My wife calls this sort of behaviour “stalking” and seems permanently worried that … Continue reading

Impressions of Bruges – beautiful canal city of Flanders

Photo Kevin MaynePhoto Kevin Mayne

I wrote recently about Belgium’s undiscovered gems of history and tourism. Bruges in West Flanders is not one of those, it is possibly one of the two or three best known places in Belgium to visit along with the WW1 battlefields and Brussels Grand Place, especially for the English speaking world.

I have previously been there out of the main holiday season when the cobbled streets, squares and canals were not over-run by fellow tourists so it was with a little trepidation that we booked to go to Bruges on an overnight visit in early August. We hoped past pleasures were not going to be swamped by the sheer volume of people, especially as we were introducing two friends to Bruges for the first time.

No need to worry. Despite the fact that it was much busier the town retained its charm, beauty and sense of history throughout the weekend. In fact just a few minutes from the hot spots around the main market square there were oases of peace and tranquility tucked away to delight the senses, and the camera.

Photo Kevin Mayne

That is helped by the fact that the city has very low traffic volumes and speeds. It isn’t quite car free, but here the pedestrian is king, closely followed by the horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and tour boats.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

In visual terms there are some wonderful set piece locations that should feature in any montage, especially the views over the canals.

Photo Kevin Mayne

The open water area in front of the gate of the Beguinage is especially stunning at night.

(To see the photos below at their best click on any image in the gallery and it will appear full sized on your screen.)

But the best of Bruges also encourages me to look beyond the set piece, especially to look up above the heads of the tourists. There the Flemish stepped gables mingle with the grey rooves of the great churches and the coloured facades glowed in the sunshine of a bright day.

Of course while I was there I couldn’t help be drawn in by the fact that Bruges is one of Belgium’s top cycling towns, so in the next post I’ll post a little photo essay on the cyclists of Bruges, but for today I’ll just let these picture of the city speak for themselves Definitely one of my top recommendations for any tour of Europe, not just of Belgium.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Facing our Waterloo – time for the 200 year birthday party

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This gallery contains 19 photos.

This week is the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, by far the biggest thing that ever happened round here so the various layers of Belgian local government and the former allies have finally got their act together to … Continue reading

Riding The Ronquières Inclined Plane. One of the world’s largest canal-boat lifts – by bike – from the inside!

Wednesday’s bike ride was enjoyable enough because of the cycling.

But there was one other feature that made the day memorable, not least because it came upon me completely by surprise and gave me unprecedented access to a Belgian transport landmark.

I was cycling along the Charleroi-Brussels Canal that makes up Ravel 1, one of the longest off-road cycle routes in Belgium. It was deserted and a thick mist had come down so there was a sense of riding along a narrow closed corridor.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I got my first surprise when I realised I had started cycling out onto a huge viaduct with the ground disappearing away to the mist on my side. As someone who sometimes suffers from vertigo this was more than a little un-nerving but the infrastructure was big and wide so I was quite relaxed.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Then out of the mist came the shape of a lock gate so I cycled up to the edge for a look, but the view made me stop in amazement. There was no lock gate. In fact there was not even a canal. Below me there was a something resembling a huge railway yard sloping into the distance, with not a drop of water in sight.

Then I realised that projecting down the hill was a boat sitting in a massive tank of water. The tank was on wheels and it was waiting to descend the slope.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I had stumbled onto The Ronquières Inclined Plane, a boat lift that can carry up to 5600 tonnes of water and boats between the two levels of the canal almost 70 metres apart in height. It is a notable local landmark and visitor attraction but I hadn’t paid enough attention to the maps to realise that it was on this section. Taking 8 years to build in 1968 it replaced 18 lock gates and is still the largest boat lift of its kind in the world.

After a few minutes taking in the view of the long slope disappearing in to the mist I rolled my bike down only obvious route out, a steep ramp down the side of the structure. To my amazement I popped out almost under the giant tin bath carrying the boat, right beside the huge cables that pulled and lowered them down the ramp.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

It was canal infrastructure on an enormous scale, made all the more impressive by realising the weight of water that was above me. I was having a close encounter with one impressive piece of engineering.

I was a little surprised to discover the cycle route ran right down by the works but I enjoyed the descent, it was amazing.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I now know that it is over 1400 metres long, which is why I could hardly see the end in the mist. However there was a shock at the bottom when I found it came to a complete dead end against a huge wall and some locked gates. Ooops, I had the dawning feeling I was not meant to be there and I had come into a part of the works that was really not for visitors. And now I had to climb back up the 1400 metres of steep incline, although it did give me a spectacular and imposing sight view of 5000 tonnes of boat and water creeping down from above me.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I puffed my way almost back to the top when I noticed a side gate where I was pleased to throw my bike over the top and get out on to a service road and back to ground level. From there I was able to ride round the sides of the embankment and reappear at the bottom and look back up to the top shrouded in mist once again, only this time from the right side of the fences. And in all that time I never saw a human being and I was never challenged by a security guard or anything. A remarkably laid arrangement that gave me a privileged access.

Photo Kevin Mayne

In the summer it is possible to ride a cruise boat up and down the lifts and to go into a panoramic tower that looks down over the spectacular works and the surrounding countryside but I rather enjoyed the way this monster came to me out of the winter mist. I may not have had a railway set as a child, but I am a bit of a sucker for spectacular engineering and by chance I had a very special view of Le plan incliné de Ronquières.

Now I know it is there I may well go back, but I very much doubt I will get anywhere near the workings. As well as my dull and misty photos the incline has its own supporters association with some spectacular photos and a fuller history, I shall read up on it properly before I go next time!

Brussels for Christmas

Brussels Atomium from below Brussels Chocolate

Remarkably I have hardly published any conventional travel content about Brussels on the blog despite my two years of working in the city.

The visit of family for Christmas is an excuse for an old fashioned tourist trip to the capital of Europe, with the twist that I have two teenage nephews to entertain so we have to pick out some sights that provide lots of wow. A small nondescript statue of a boy peeing in a fountain really doesn’t cut it I am afraid, the Manneken Pis must be the most underwhelming icon of a city I have ever come across.

belgium

The Atomium however, now that’s more like it. Out to Hysel, emerge from the metro to the symbol of modern life from the 1950s and work our way up into the structure. The high speed lift takes us nearly 100 metres up the central shaft to some great views from the top level, then there is chance to wander round most of the modules and levels where there are exhibitions and displays about innovation.

Atomium view Brussels View of Brussels from the Atomium

It is cleverly done because the lower levels have no windows, just an occasional porthole so you lose all sense of which level and which direction you are moving. Plus they have added some fun by playing with the linking escalators, for example one has been darkened and has coloured lighting and spaceship-like sound effects which appeals to big kids as much as younger ones. My first time inside, but a big tick box for the Atomium.

Brussels Atomium escalator

Mini-EuropeOutside the Hysel entertainment area is a bit sleepy for winter but as my visitors come from outside Europe we have to wander into Mini-Europe and have a bit of fun with the impressions of 28 countries of the EU. It is all a bit twee but they put in some good enough impressions of the countries and lots of mucking about such as steering your boat round the harbours, making Mount Vesuvius erupt, ringing the city bells and chasing thieves round Paris so it sort of worked. Some very odd exhibits which made me chuckle – somehow the entire display for Luxembourg consisted of a motorway bypass, which seems a bit unfair. Some sort of Belgian joke?

Time for a Belgian delicacy before we go back to the city. Waffles with the lot? Of course!

Gaufre Waffles of Belgium

Then it’s back into the city centre of Brussels and the order of the day is very much Grand Place by day and by night, the Royal Galleries and window shopping seemingly endless quantities of chocolate. Now that’s a Brussels we can enjoy.

Grand Place Brussels day Grand Place BrusselsChristmas Grand PlaceRoyal Galleries BrusselsChristmas display Galleries Royale Brussels Brussels beersMacaroon display shop window Brussels

Grand halls, parks and sculpture of South Yorkshire in autumn’s glory

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This gallery contains 15 photos.

We have just returned from a weekend in South Yorkshire which was looking stunning in autumn sunshine. Not quite Peak District, not quite Yorkshire Dales, the hills and valleys west of Barnsley around Penistone are just as stunningly beautiful for … Continue reading

I can if she can – not despairing in Taipei

TaiwanBrief update on the cycling in Taipei story.

Managed to hire a bike from one of the cycle hire stations which are positioned along the linear riverside parks which have some of the most impressive leisure cycling infrastructure I have seen. They run for miles right round the city.

TaiwanBut then I knew I was not going to be satisfied unless I actually rode in Taipei itself which meant passing through the flood defences and out into the terrifying kingdom of the scooters.

TaiwanAt this point I always believe what makes cycling possible in a new city is a role model.

And as I approached my first entry into bedlam a woman on a cargo trike pulled out slowly and sedately from a side street and instead of heading for the side of the road she boldly took up the whole lane of the busy highway.

“If she can, I can”

Another vote of thanks to the fearless cycling women of Taipei for your example.

More, lots more, to follow.

Hey dude, somebody moved the country

Walloon Brabant Belgium

We were pottering about last weekend trying to learn a bit more about our new home area, Brabant Wallon (Walloon Brabant in English) and we ended up in the pretty town of Ittre.

It is a small and charming rural town with a long history back to the time of the Romans and an impressive chateau which disappointingly has private grounds.Brabant Wallon BelgiumBrabant Wallon Belgium

But one of its main claims to fame is that it is the recognised geographical centre of Belgium, for which it has a pair of grinding stones topped by this proud marker right in front of the town hall.Ittre Walloon Brabant

However there is a catch. Sometime around 1990 the geographical institute noticed that they hadn’t updated the official geographic centre since 1919 when the German speaking communes of Belgium were added to the east of the country.

And dear Ittre discovered that it had been living on false pretences for nearly seventy years and the centre was moved. However the monument seems to have puffed out its chest and decided to carry on regardless and nobody is going to challenge civic pride by demolishing it. So Belgium has retained two geographic centres, the sort of compromise that makes this country work.Brabant Wallon Walloon Brabant

A tale of two Italian cities – removing the tyranny of the car transforms the visitor experience

Padova cyclingI am currently processing a whole sequence of photos and stories about my visits to the two Italian cities of Verona and Padua (Padova).

But here is an opening thought. They are only 50km apart, they share many aspects in common in terms of size, culture, antiquity. But in just one aspect of policy one has been returned to us as a liveable, likeable vibrant city. The other is being strangled to death by laissez faire.

Verona is still gripped by the absolute tyranny of the car. There has been almost no attempt to restrict the disfigurement of the city by congestion, parking, noise and fumes. The restricted area in the city centre for motorised traffic is tiny and any priority given to alternatives is minimal. There are almost no cycling and bus lanes. All but one main square has full access to cars all day.

But of course in true “I do not despair” spirit this doesn’t stop me finding cycling in and around the city being an uplifting feeling, not least because it is a beautiful place, but by far my best moments were quite roads and corners, where I could find them.

A week later Padua. Nowhere near as celebrated as Verona internationally and with much fewer tourists.

Yesterday morning I wandered into the city early on foot and last night I was able to shoot around the streets on a borrowed bike from my local hosts.

Immediately outside the hotel I came across the first of 150km of cycle paths. And then once I had slipped past the boundary of the old city walls I was almost immediately into the extensive pedestrianized centre. It isn’t entirely car free, there are designated through routes and access is allowed to some areas. But at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning the contrast is just incredible.Padova market

The streets were not silent – oh no. But the sounds were precious. Firstly people talking – as they walked and cycled and opened the many market stalls. But best of all the almost permanent sound of rattling metal – bicycles on cobbles – the endless array of cheap town bikes that dominate the Italian domestic cycling market bouncing their way around the streets.

It reminded very much of my trip to Bologna in May, again not such a celebrity city as Verona but one where civic pride manifests itself in giving the streets to its people and its visitors. As an international advocate for cycling and sustainability the most important lesson I keep being given is that we spend a lot of time addressing national and even international policies that affect cycling. But within the same country, the same funding climate, the same road laws, the same culture local political will is the determining factor in whether a city wants to be liveable or not.

I will be posting a few more highlights from my visits in the next week or so, but I’ll complete this post with two photographs.

Both are cathedral squares. Which one would you like to spend time in?