Monday, November 26, 2018

A Quick Stop in Brussels, Then on to Southwestern Scotland

We wrapped up our biking in Europe for 2018 in our last blog entry with our departure from the Netherlands.  In today's entry we'll take you with us for a quick look at the touristy heart of Brussels, then on to Scotland where we poked around Glasgow, New Lanark and Loch Lomond.  In the blog entry to follow we'll move on to Edinburgh and Stirling.

We have now visited several renowned cities in Belgium:  Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Liege among them.  Since we needed to change trains in Brussels to get on the Chunnel Train to the UK, we decided to spend an afternoon and evening there to have a little look about Belgium's capital and largest city.  There were some wonderful sights, but our overall impression of Brussels was that it was crowded and more worn-out-looking than we expected.

Our visit was tightly focused on the prime tourist area, which may have led in part to our jaundiced view.  We started with the most well-known sight, the statue know as the Manneken Pis. It is quite small and tucked into a corner location 3 blocks from the plaza that is the main focus of the city.  But you see reproductions of him everywhere in the souvenir shops that line the streets for blocks around, and also in the chocolate shops, which are nearly as numerous.  This leads to some interesting photos when tourists line up for their photos within aim, so to speak, of the little boy.

If you ask an American to name foods Belgium is famous for, you will probably get chocolate and waffles as your primary responses.  (Ask a Hollander and you will almost certainly get frites, what Americans call French Fries, as the response -- but that's another story).  And, yes, there are also all sorts of waffle stores, and some that are happy to provide you with chocolate and waffles.  You see folks with waffles embellished with all sorts of goodies walking around the tourist center of Brussels.

The chocolate shops, by the way, have all sorts of ways to draw you in.  Not interested in consuming a chocolate version of a bare-bottomed boy?  How's about some nuts and bolts?  Would you like those wrenches and pliers in milk chocolate or dark?

Three blocks north is the Grand Place if you're a Francophone, or the Grote Markt if you choose to speak Flemish or Dutch.  In any language it is truly grand.  It is on almost every list of the most beautiful public spaces in Europe.

This square is dominated by the Town Hall, which displays enough statues to populate a town of some size.  It has seen much, including the public burning in the square of Protestant heretics in 1523, only 6 years after Luther's posting of the 95 Theses.  In 1568 the Count of Hoorn and the Count of Egmont were beheaded here, starting the Eighty Years War between the Hapsburgs and the Dutch.

The Town Hall was a bold display by the city authorities of the power and influence of the city, which was self-governing.  To bring them down a notch, the Duke of Brabant, who ruled all the land around the city, had an impressive palace built across the Grote Markt, staring down the Town Hall as it were.  It's now the Museum of the City of Brussels.  To be more precise, its successor is.  The duke's place had been so damaged over the years that it was reconstructed about 150 years ago in Gothic Revival style.

 Flanking it on the north side, and filling in pretty much all the remaining spots on the west, south and east sides of the square, are numerous other grand structures that are collectively referred to as the Guildhalls, since most of them once housed guilds such as those of the weavers, the carpenters, the bakers, the boatmen, the brewers, and the haberdashers.  Pat yourself on the back if you are one of the few people left who remembers what a haberdasher is, or does.

We wandered for several hours, and did come across one pleasant park and a decent example of the sort of Art Nouveau ironwork Brussels is famous for, but without a guidebook we were unable to discover any others.  We also encountered a lot of less than edifying streets, a few poorly maintained parks, and quite a bit of urban grime.  Picture the less scenic parts of any large city, and you've seen the same.  We were simply surprised at how much of it there was.  The Germans have a useful word, sehenswürdig, literally "worthy of being seen."  Our take on Brussels was that there was not enough that is sehenswürdig to warrant a return.

Part of the logic for the overnight in Brussels was to get an early start the next morning for the UK.  The Eurostar train through the Chunnel to London is plenty fast, just over two hours, one of which we "got back" thanks to the time change.  But London was only a change of trains, and the next train did not travel at anything close to 300 kph (186 mph).  It added nearly 6 hours to our journey, plus the wait for the train.  We didn't get in until after 7 pm.  

As we approached the Chunnel (the tunnel between France and England) there were miles of high fences topped with barbed wire and lit up at night by searchlights, all to keep illegal immigrants from hopping on freight trains headed to the UK. 

At St. Pancras Station we stopped to photograph some of the Eurostar trains, and then our own little baggage train.  That's it, folks, everything we brought to Europe this summer!  The tandem, bike panniers and a few items of clothing are in the two large suitcases, and everything else is in the two backpacks and one small suitcase.  The hotel in Glasgow will hold the large suitcases while we travel to a few destinations in Scotland, including a week in Edinburgh.  We'll then spend another night at the same hotel in Glasgow before flying back to the states.

Our sightseeing menu for southwestern Scotland was two nights and one full day to see Glasgow, one night and two full days to see Loch Lomond, and about 24 hours to see New Lanark.  We'll start with the latter, the one that is least well known to tourists but in many ways the most interesting.  It was a mill town built by David Dale in the late 1700s.  In 1799 his son-in-law Robert Owen bought it and decided to try running it in a progressive way.  Instead of selling shoddy goods and food at exorbitant prices in the factory store, he charged just over wholesale.  At a time when children sometimes started working in factories at a young age, he required all children under 12 to attend full-time school.  Older children could work in the mill but only for shortened hours, and had to attend school part-time.  Comprehensive medical care was provided.  Wages were increased.  Other mill owners expected him to go bankrupt from his "wasteful" ways, but instead he ran an efficient factory with some of the most loyal employees in the UK.  Owen in fact became a wealthy man.

The factory lasted long after Robert Owen, and later owners were not as inspired, yet the factory continued in operation until 1968.  Six years later a non-profit corporation was founded to restore the complex, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  And a darned attractive spot.

One of the mill buildings has been converted into a hotel where we spent the night.  We slept that night with an open window to hear the gurgle of the mill race carrying water under our building, and of the River Clyde running alongside it.

And we had much to dream about from our day in New Lanark.  Several of the buildings are now run as a museum.  In one room machines bounced back and forth apparently spinning cotton.  The employee might be listening to music, but more likely is simply protecting his ears from the loud machinery.  In another we could see the impressive coal-powered steam engine that was installed in the mid-19th century to power the mill in the event of low water in the Clyde.  A diagram shows how this one engine could power every machine on five floors of the adjacent mill building.

The schoolhouse has been restored, though with fewer benches than it must have had in its heyday.  The younger students were here for much of the day, then older children late in the day, and adult classes were offered at night on a voluntary basis.  A few times a year they would hold both concerts and dances here, perhaps similar to what you've seen in film dramatizations of Jane Austen novels, but of course with working-class participants -- not quite the strata of society Ms. Austen wrote about.

Yet another building had life-sized recreations of laundry day and of sleeping arrangements in the lodgings.  Trundle beds were common since the room also functioned as a living room, dining room, and more.  Think 'studio apartment for a family of 4 or more.'  The former dormitories have been attractively remodeled into apartments in the past few decades, and are now what we refer to in the US as a condominium, i.e. an apartment that one owns.  They are popular, and when one comes on the market, we were told, it disappears quickly.

Above the mill complex are the Falls of Clyde.  The four larger ones have a combined total drop of 134 feet (40 m).  The water power once ran the mills, but nowadays it provides approximately 17 megawatts of electricity to the Scottish grid from two hydro plants.  When we visited there was still enough water running over the falls to impress us, as they have impressed many others before us, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, and the painter J.M.W. Turner.

Our next destination was Loch Lomond, a 22-mile long lake that is a bit over an hour's train ride NW from Glasgow.  The train brought us to the town of Balloch at the bottom of the lake, where the River Leven drains the lake into the nearby River Clyde.  Our boat was waiting on the bank of the Leven to take us on a one-hour ride up the lake to the heritage village of Luss, where the boat icon is located on the map to the right.  It was exceptionally scenic, and the captain pointed out several interesting mansions along the way.  One of them, the luxurious Cameron House Hotel, is now rebuilding after a terrible fire the week before Christmas, 2017, in which two of the hotel guests died.  The cause is still unknown.

Across the water in the distance loomed Ben Lomond, poking up almost 3,200 feet above us, its summit shrouded in the clouds.  Houses along the shoreline petered out quickly as we left Balloch, and the valleys rising to the west were stark as they climbed away from the lake and the thin ribbon of trees alongside it.

Beneath us was an unseen boundary, the Highland Fault that marks the division between the Lowlands to the south and the famous Scottish Highlands to the north.  Nature has made the Highlands ruggedly beautiful, but they have never been an easy place to live in thanks to the thin soil and hard winters.  The line itself runs NE and SW, pretty much under the town of Balmaha and the larger islands in the southern end of Loch Lomond.  The two mansions in the photos above are just south of the fault, the valley in the last photo clearly above it.

Our boat wove its way through these pretty islands.  On one, a boating party was enjoying a pleasant picnic.

A week later, when visiting the Scottish National Gallery, we encountered a painting done in 1810 by John Knox that captures the grandeur of Loch Lomond and the Scottish Highlands.  The area we explored by boat is behind and to the left of the man on the crag in the middle distance, and the town of Luss we were headed to pretty much where he is pointing with his outstretched arm.  As you can see, there's a lot more to the lake that we did not get to.  And then there's what's down below.  Courtesy of the British Geological Survey, the second photo is a computer recreation of what the lake would look like with the water removed from the deepest part, which is about 500 feet down, similar to the depth of some of the larger Finger Lakes in upstate New York.

The town of Luss was charming.  Many of the flower-bedecked houses were built for workers in a slate quarry outside town.  The church claims to have been founded by Saint Kessog 1,508 years ago, although the church structure there now is just under 150 years old.  It's estimated that 750,000 people visit the church in a year, even though the parish only numbers 400 souls.  The churchyard includes one hogback stone that is estimated to be from the 11th century, when Vikings ruled this area.

After exploring the small town we headed up a road that rises into the hills to the west.  After an hour of climbing we had not yet reached the end of the road, but decided we'd gotten a good feel for the countryside.  We had passed only two houses, and seen two or three others in the distance.

When we were almost back we saw a path off the the right that had been upgraded from just a village walkway into the town Faerie Trail.  We didn't have the guidebook and probably missed some of the nuances of faerie life it no doubt explains, but we did enjoy viewing the charming faerie houses along the way.  So bewitched had we been by the town, the valley climb and the faerie walk that we ended up hiking ten miles, and were most happy to see our cozy room at the Loch Lomond Arms that evening.

The next morning we of course had the standard "full English breakfast" of bangers (sausages), scrambled eggs, fried tomato, beans and toast.  However, we were in Scotland, so of course we also had the option (politely declined, thank you) of having haggis.  We then walked the full length of town -- all 0.2 miles of it according to Google -- to the town pier for another boat ride, this time across Loch Lomond to Balmaha on the eastern side.  Ben Lomond finally shed the cloudy cap it had worn the day before.  Ahead of us was a conical hill named -- surprise, surprise -- Conic Hill.  It marks the Highland Fault as it rises northeasterly out of the lake. 

Heading north along the lake is one of the UK's many great walking routes, the West Highland Way.  Parts of it are quite rugged, but in this area it hugs the shore and provided us with yet more views of this scenic place before we caught a bus back to Glasgow.

When we first decided to visit Scotland for 2 weeks, we knew we had to have a limited itinerary.  We also wanted to see at least one place in detail, and the consensus of travel books and friends both was that Edinburgh was that one place where we ought to plant ourselves down for a while.  In our next blog entry we'll describe our week there, in fact.  

But Glasgow seemed like a logical place to poke about as well, particularly since the largest airport in Scotland is there.  Most guidebooks downplayed Glasgow, and after one full and one partial day there, we agree. There are some good museums and a smattering of historical sights to see, and we by no means saw them all, but the city itself did not impress us.  It is somewhat haphazardly organized, a bit spread out, and frankly rather grimy thanks to centuries of coal smoke from its homes and industries that has darkened the limestone buildings that are so common.  Some stones do much worse than others, as you can see from this view of the Necropolis, a renowned cemetery on a hill next to the cathedral.  Unfortunately, many buildings throughout Glasgow also have turned as dark and foreboding as the worst of the headstones in this view.  The Glasgow cathedral, seen from the Necropolis in the second photo, is streaked in black as some of the stone has fared more poorly than other parts.  Nearby buildings are not as bad, but not beautiful either.

The cathedral was the most interesting building we explored.  In a side aisle there was a small exhibit of famous buildings done in Lego blocks.  This is obviously the Lego version of the London Bridge.

Another building we had looked forward to visiting was the Glasgow School of Art, widely considered to be the masterpiece of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  Sadly, it too had a recent fire, this one in June of this year, while we were biking around the Netherlands.  The damage is so extensive that the cause may never be known.  The school has announced plans to completely rebuild it, but that will take anywhere from four to seven years.  Stay tuned for that one.

Another of his masterpieces, considered his best residential work, is known as Hill House.  It's not in Glasgow, but a Glasgow gallery had two rooms from Hill House on display while the house itself is undergoing extensive conservation work.  The first two photos are the rooms, designed both by Mackintosh and by his artist wife, Margaret Macdonald.  As the Hill House website remarks, the design is "an arresting mix of Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Scottish Baronial and Japonisme architecture and design."  It certainly appealed to us.  The third photo (from the web) is an artist's rendition of the controversial 'box' being built around the house to protect it from the elements that have been wreaking havoc with the facade and to a lesser degree the interiors.  It is expected to be complete in mid-2019.

In 1603, when the Tudor Queen Elizabeth died "without issue," the English turned to her first cousin, James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland.  He then took on a second title, James I of Great Britain and Ireland.  In short, a Scot became king of all the British Isles.  The Stuart monarchy however had its own legacy issues, with Queen Anne leaving no heirs when she died in 1714.  There was still a Stuart around, King James II, but he had become a Catholic and been ousted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, so the Brits had to look to a new
family.  Up popped George I, Elector of Hanover, who was Anne's closest Protestant relative.  Poof, no more Scottish blood on the throne of Great Britain.  

Jump a century to 1822.  The Hanoverians were now up to George IV, who assumed the throne in 1821.  He decided to visit Scotland to build some support for the monarchy there.  The intervening century had not done much to assuage the Scots that the British monarchy was also their monarchy.  The king had met Sir Walter Scott some years earlier, and Scott had suggested the visit, and proposed that the king appear wearing a Scottish outfit.  The king spent 'a king's ransom,' the current-day equivalent of over $100,000, on an outfit he hoped would wow the crowds.  It did.  The visit turned into a great success for George.

His niece, Queen Victoria, took over the throne 15 years later.  She actually visited Scotland quite often, and took to dressing her daughters in tartan dresses as well.  The Kelvingrove Art Museum in Glasgow displays today a silk tartan dress made in the 1860s and inspired by Queen Victoria's fashion choice.  The young girl and/or her parents liked it so much on her, as you can see, that they added more material to it when she grew taller.  The irony in all this is that tartans had fallen out of fashion in the 1700s until Sir Walter Scott seized on them as a way of creating nostalgia for a Scotland that might never have truly existed except in his colorful novels.  And despite all the chatter about which clan wore which tartan, almost all of that is a 19th century "tradition" made up to boost sales.  

And with that, we'll pause for today and move on to Edinburgh in our next blog entry.