Bells of Beguinage in Leuven, Belgium

We visited a Beguinage in the Flemish city of Leuven with Marie-Louise and George-Henri, Eric’s mother’s lifelong friends. This brickwork fairy-tale borough originated in the late middle ages, almost a thousand years ago when a women’s movement known as the Beguines arose in northern Europe. These women were not nuns, per se, but they lead a quasi-monastic life in closed communities, devoting themselves to prayer and labor. We had already visited a picturesque Beguinage in Bruges, but in terms of scope and serenity, the one in Leuven really took our breath away.

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Tiny Carnival at ‘Art en Marge’ in Brussels

Just a short walk from Halle Gate is ‘Art en Marge’, a marvelous little museum dedicated to my favorite kind of artists. “Outsider” is perhaps the most slippery and contentious label you can throw at an artist, but there is a meaningful use of the term and this museum does a wonderful job of doing it justice. Upstairs was a little room brimming with homespun carnival rides, and I played with them all.

-Eric

Belgian Sax Head

The historical center of Brussels is always teeming with odd and cheeky street performances, but something strikes me as especially Belgian about this guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s dressed as Magritte. There’s something else to it, a je ne sais quoi that I lack the Flemish words to express. Like a spirit animal or something. He just seems at home here with Tintin, Mannequin Pis, and beer.

-Eric

A Rousing Bloomsday in Dublin

In 2011, me, Eric and our friends Allison and Ariel read James Joyce’s Ulysses together. I fell in love with its carefully crafted schema and felt immersed in Dublin. I had a copy of Ulysses on my iPhone and flipped through it on long train rides.

So when our round-the-world tickets from AirTreks.com got us as far as Italy in May and we were looking for the next stop, we both thought of Dublin. I found a cheap flight from Milan to Dublin on June 9 — in time for Bloomsday — and we were all set.

Bloomsday, for those not in-the-know, refers to June 16: the day the book takes place beginning in the morning and ending late in the night.

We quickly realized when deplaning in Dublin that we were not in Italy anymore. A gale-force wind and freezing rain greeted us. I quickly donned my torrential raingear and did not take it off until we left for Scotland a week later.

From Dublin

We headed directly for the James Joyce center to sign up for activities. The next day we braved the cold and wind on a “Footsteps of Leopold Bloom” walking tour that included Davy Byrne’s pub and Sweney’s chemist — both featured in the novel. Our guide was a Joyce scholar and motorcycle enthusiast who treated us to dramatic readings along the way.

After the tour, we discovered my favorite place in Dublin: St. John Gogarty’s pub in Temple Bar. Sure, I’d heard about Temple Bar and all the drunken silliness that goes on there. But Gogarty’s with its rousing band, delicious pints and scrumptious seafood chowder (with brown bread) is, I think, the best place on Earth. Between readings at St. Stephen’s Green and other Bloomsday-week activities we returned twice more. Take my advice and buy a CD from the band even if you think it’s silly. One of the bandmates said after a long chorus of Molly Malone, “You’ll be at home saying to your spouse, ‘Remember when we were sitting at Gogarty’s’ and you’ll put on the CD …”. He was right.

By the end of Bloomsday we had walked miles but still didn’t want it to end. Maybe just one more pint. We headed across the street from our hotel to a shady looking pub, which turned out to be a not-shady-at-all Japanese restaurant. Inside we found our tour guide and the staff of the James Joyce Center, along with Senator David Norris (who we saw reading at St. Stephen’s Green earlier), conversing with Joyce himself!

From Dublin

Though it turned out not to be Joyce — no matter how convincing — but a hat seller who lived across the street from the Joyce Center. The employees had seen him many times and wanted desperately to dress him at Joyce. They finally asked and he was more than willing. Now he plays Joyce every year.

Gladiator Sit-Ups in Pula, Croatia

Our unscheduled stop in the Istrian city of Pula rewarded us with unexpected Roman goodness on a grand scale. The whole town was abuzz with an Imperial reenactment fair, and the streets teemed with ancient foods, ethereal choirs, and marching Legionaries in full regalia. This public square was occupied by a group of gladiators, preparing for bloodsport in the amphitheater later that evening.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

After half a year of “unbelievable” natural beauty, we found ourselves lost among the surreal and seemingly endless cascades of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. We walked non-stop all day, and with the aid of a well designed network of trolleys and ferries, we managed to take in virtually every lake in the park. This excursion was certainly worth the extra hassle of discount bus travel (we did hop off a bus in the middle of the woods, after all). Our only regret is that we didn’t allow more time.