Saturday, June 28

More of Brussels


It's taken a while. Finally, here are more highlights from our time in Brussels. My last post signed off with us wandering the picturesque Grand Place. Just off the plaza is a narrow, winding laneway called Rue des Bouchers. It literally translates as the "street of butchers". Since medieval times this cobblestone street has been home to food traders.

The butchers of history have long since been replaced by several blocks of quaint cafes and restaurants. Seafood seemed to be the most popular cuisine on offer. Many displayed their wares in grand presentations of fresh fish and shellfish on ice at their entrance. We stopped for a lunch of steaming mussels and fresh fish.


Rue des Bouchers ends at another of Brussel's spectacular sights. Galeries St-Hubert is an elegant arcade extending for two blocks. Its passageways are capped by a stunning, vaulted glass atrium. Along its length reside many of the city's most exclusive boutiques and several vendors touting the finest Belgium chocolates.


We eventually made our way towards the Upper Town. This district is home to the Royal Palace and several delightly shaded parks. We wandered through Parc de Bruxelles with its grand fountain and on to Parc du Cinquantenaire where a ceremonial arch commands the skyline. We flopped on the grass, soaking up the sunshine for several sleepy hours.


On Sunday we made our way the city's outer suburbs to see the Atomium. This unusual building is probably the most reasonable symbol of Brussels. Its consists of nine giant steel spheres, linked by slender tubes. The entire structure rises more than 100 metres above the city. The design is based on the crystalline structure of an iron atom magnified more than 165 billion times.

The Atomium was built 50 years ago for the 1958 World Fair. We spent more than hour exploring its interior. Many of the tubes house escalators that carry visitors higher and higher between each sphere. Sadly, the day we were there was rather warm and the metal interior had become uncomfortably hot and stuffy.


We finished our weekend in Brussels with a coffee in the Grand Place, then returned to our hotel for a final cocktail on its roof-top terrace. All too soon it was time to board the Eurostar and head for home. One more weekend gone, another European city uncovered.

Friday, June 27

A miracle

My Dad visited the liver specialist on Tuesday. The family had steeled itself to hear to the worst having already been told Dad's cancer was inoperable. Imagine our surprise to learn that his cancer is a rare, slow growing type that's easy to remove in a short two-hour operation. My Dad's been scheduled for surgery next Wednesday and should be home by the weekend. His liver will regenerate within two weeks, leaving him with nothing more than a simple scar to show for his experience. This unexpected turn of events is nothing short of a miracle.

Tuesday, June 24

Brussels


In years past, Garry and I have briefly driven through Brussels enroute to other nations. Last weekend we finally got to see the city up close. I surprised Garry with a couple of Eurostar tickets at Kings Cross station on Friday night. He's not an easy man to fool. However, following months of marticulous planning, I'd successfully convinced him we were headed North. Our final destination was a mystery until the moment he was presented with his passport and escorted to neighbouring St Pancreas Station.

Brussels is a relatively easy destination to reach. The new Eurostar link puts it within two hours of London. This meant we could kick back and enjoy dinner on the train, yet arrive rested at our hotel shortly after 11.30pm. I booked us into Be Manos, a funky boutique hotel close to the station. Web reviews rave about it. We weren't disappointed. Our room was huge. The service was friendly. The public places were fashionably smart and genuinely comfortable.


Saturday was set aside for a walking tour of the city's most popular sights. Our first stop was Manneken Pis, a tiny black statue of a small boy peeing from a high ledge into a corner pond. The site was easy to find. As we turned the corner of quiet side street, we were greeted a large noisy crowd. The scene was made all the more surreal by the almost dismissive size of the statue in question.

The first statue on this site was erected in 1619. Since 1698 it been traditional for the statue to be dressed in a miniture outfit. Over the centuries visiting heads of state have donated tiny national costume for the lad to wear. On Saturday he was wearing some sort of sailor suit. I'm not sure which nation this represents. No doubt my description will spark a diplomatic incident. Stay tuned.


Our next stop was The Grand Place, the traditional heart of Brussels. Its a cobblestone square surrounded by incredibly ornate Flemish Renaissance buildings. Most prominant is the City Hall, also known as Hotel de Ville. Built in 1459, this building can only be rightly called a truly stunning architecture masterpiece. Its entire facade is adorned by 137 statues and intricately carved window frames, capped by a 96 metre wedding-cake spire. On Saturday the entire spectacle was complimented by a colourful flower market in the plaza's centre, surrounded by bustling cafes.


I'll share more details about our time in Brussels tomorrow.

Monday, June 16

Celebrating friendship


Friends and family came together for surprise birthday lunch in honour of our friend Martin (that's him with his mum above). His partner Jonny arranged a private room at a local Soho restaurant where more than 20 guests enjoyed an afternoon of fun and laughter. Afterwards, eight of us went on to a local cocktail lounge to continue celebrating until the final tube train was ready to departure.


An unexpected highlight of the evening was a hilariously camp pianist who appeared next to our group, playing a medley of high-energy contemporary songs including Abba's Dancing Queen and Cindy Lauper's Time after Time.

Summer scaffolding


You may recall earlier posts about our leaking roof. The landlord has finally acted. A five-story scaffold was recently installed across the front of the house, giving repairmen safe access to our roof. Yesterday morning we had two men appear mid-morning without warning on our roof. It's always a shock to witness two pairs of boots wander past the bedroom window at eye height. We're five floors above the street.

Scaffolding is a surprisingly common site in the neighbourhood. Properties are constantly being repaired or renovated. I've come to realise this is yet another sign of living in a nation alive with history. In Sydney scaffolding is rarely seen beyond a traditional building site. Most homes simply aren't old enough to require major repair.

In London local Council's establish Conservation areas to protect the character of certain neighbourhood. These preservation orders force owner to repair older structure rather than alter or demolish them. Our street forms the boundary of one such convervation area - one of 36 in Camden Borough. Other well-known conservation areas include the historic villages of Hampstead and Highgate, the formal Georgian grid of Bloomsbury and Nash's stuccoed terraces fronting Regent's Park. Our street and those surrounding join the list thanks to a series of attractive nineteenth century red-brick housing estates.

Over the years I've watched fascinated as multi-storey residential buildings become encased in scaffolding for months on end. New sites appear every week. We currently have at least four in our street. Sometimes the entire site is also covered by an enormous temporary roof. This protects the building from the sodden local weather while its original roof is stripped and replaced.

A parting gift

We couldn't believe our eyes! On Friday tenants in the ground floor garden flat moved out. It was clear they'd departed. We came home to a carload of broken furniture and assorted litter piled in the front yard. The audacity of our former neighbours was breath-taking. Last weekend the same people had walked past Garry and I on more than one occasion as we collected rubbish and removed abandoned household effects from the very same yard.

The local council doesn't collect irregular rubbish without imposing a collection charge. As a result, former tenants constantly dump all manner of household effects in the yard and simply vanish. The abandoned items then sit uncollected for months. The landlord never removes them. In frustration we eventually call the Council and pay for collection or take the offending items to the local depot ourselves.

Needless to say I've made yet another rubbish run to the Council depot today. The yard has once again been restored to its former glory. Long may it last!

Saturday, June 14

Summer fox


The fox first spotted in our neighbour's yard two weeks ago has become a permenant resident. We've sighted it stretched out in the sun on several occasions since. On Friday evening as Garry and I walked to the corner store our furry friend even ran across the road a mere ten metres in front of us. It was quite a sight to see a fox in full stride. I was equally mesmerised by the way it slipped effortlessly over a low brick wall and disappeared through a gap in a nearby hedge.

Tuesday, June 10

Entertaining the Antipodeans


My best mate Brendan arrives in London later this month. He's basing himself in our spare room for four weeks while making brief excursions in Europe. In anticipation of visit I've been planning all sorts of adventures. We already have a long weekend booked in Berlin, a dinner party organised with friends and tickets to the Farnbourough Airshow. Garry and I have also talked about taking a day-trip to Brighton and at least one visit to a West End theatre.

Brendan isn't the only friend in town. We have another couple of friends in London for 24 hours later this month. Jon and his partner are off for a cruise on the Queen Mary. We'll be out for dinner and a mutual update on all that's happened since we last saw each other two years ago.

Unbelievably, yet another mate, Ian, relocated to London last month (that him above). We caught up with him for a lazy outdoor lunch in Soho that continued well into the evening. Garry and I enjoyed another outdoor meal on Saturday. It's wonderful to be outdoors again. Summer is finally here. It also great to have a few familar faces to share good weather with.

Sunday, June 8

A clean sweep


Our landlord neglects our property. Despite numerous calls to the managing agent, the grounds are poorly maintained. In more than two years I've seen the front lawn mown twice and the gardens weeded only once. The path to our door is never swept and litter never cleared. Over time the mature trees shading our entrance have become an eye-gouging jungle.

Today, Garry and I took matters into our own hands and spent the day taming our shameful front yard. We collected piles of litter, threw out rusting junk, lopped tree branches, ripped up tangled vines, swept paths and weeded gardens. We also arranged for the Council to collect an old fridge someone abandoned in the garden. Then, in a moment of madness, we dashed to the local hardware store in search of a few new plants.

Luck was on our side. We found large daisy bushes on sale for £1.99 and attractive wooden garden borders for less than £10. Another hour of work in the garden completed the day's transformation. The end result is spectacular. The neighbours are thrilled. One even knocked on our door with a bottle of wine to express their gratitude. After eight dirty hours, we finally have a home we're proud of.

Saturday, June 7

Recovery

My Dad came home from hospital this week. His recovery is going remarkably well. He's suffered limited pain and has had no post-operative complications. This is encouraging news as bowel surgery does run a higher risk of infection. Dad is progressively eating a wider variety of food without incident and moving about the house with increasing ease. A six-inch abdominal scar will soon be the only lasting reminder of his surgery.

Friday, June 6

Urban Foxes: Part II


The most astonishing thing happened today. This morning I looked out of our window and saw not one, but two, foxes frolicking in our neighbour's backyard. Barely a week ago I wrote a post about urban foxes in London, noting that Garry had seen them in the same yard. I'd never seen one in 2.5 years until now.

I told Garry this evening about my fox sighting. As I spoke, I glanced out of the window. Incredibly, as if on cue, a fox trotted from the shadows and sat in the middle of the neighbour's lawn. That's him in the photo above. We watched, mesmerized, for minutes as our furry (and slightly mangy) friend gave himself a jolly good scratch and wandered out of view. Garry says he's only seen them at night, never in broad daylight. A magic moment for both of us.

Thursday, June 5

Dash across the channel


I went to Belgium today - for six hours. I flew to Antwerp for a business meeting mid-morning and returned in time for dinner. This is my second time in Belgium in the last 18 years. My first visit was equally brief. I caught a bus from Rotterdam to London in 1990 that briefly stopped for a coffee break in the outskirts of Brussels. I can report that today's weather in Belgium was wet and grey, while London was enjoying a bright, sunny afternoon.

My brief Channel hop was effortless thanks to the incredible convenience of London City Airport. This commuter airport is located in the Docklands area of East London. The same area is also home to the city's infamous Millennium Dome, the Thames Barrier and the 2012 Olympic Stadium.

I love London City Airport. I've flown out of it several times over the last six years including several flights to Berlin, Munich and Madrid. The range of cities within its reach is limited only by the type of aircraft able to safely land on its 1080 metre runway. At last count 11 airlines operated from the airport connecting 33 European cities to the very heart of London.

British Airways has even announced plans for two daily trans-Atlantic flights to New York starting early next year. These extended range flights will be operated using a specially configured Airbus 318, seating 32 people. Eastbound aircraft will fly non-stop to London while westbound flight will make a brief fuel stop in Shannon, Ireland.

The airport is incredibly easy to reach. A 30-minute tube ride from Swiss Cottage literally deposits me at its doorstep. Short queues and a quick security transit make it easy to be in the air less than 45-minutes later. With convenience like that it no wonder the airport saw a record 2.9 million passengers pass through its doors last year. In April this year was its single busiest month, processing 298,835 passengers.

By comparison, it takes more than two hours from an aircraft at Heathrow to home. The journey also requires a lengthy cab ride through stop-start traffic, or three train transfers and several cumbersome stairways. I know which transfer I'd prefer!