Home Sweet Home

This is my final blog about my trips in Europe. It has been an absolute blast. From Edinburgh to Oslo, Aarhus, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Leiden, Den Haag, and then to Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Ireland, I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my various excursions.

What’s more, I have been blessed this holiday season to meet so many incredible alumni: Jim, Ian, Mary Jane, David, John, Asle, Amelia, Nikola, Louise, Floriane, Alison, Victoria, Steven, Francoise, Guy and last, but certainly not least, Kenneth, to name but a few, have shown me exceptional warmth and kindness the last few weeks. I hope I repaid them in some small way.

Europe is an extraordinary place. Despite years of conflict, the continent boasts magnificent architecture, a rich cultural history, and hospitable people. At every step I felt I was learning a bit more about the place which, many years ago I used to call home.

But Canada is my home now, and despite my wonderful travels, it is still a certain kind of bliss that comes over me curled up around a log fire with the wind howling at -15C outside. I think the Danish call this feeling hyggeNow that I am safely back with my family, I’ll just take this opportunity to thank the Student Travel Award profoundly for this opportunity – it has been an absolute blast. Even more importantly, I hope everyone had an amazing Christmas, and are looking forward to a Happy New Year!

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The Palace of the Nation

I’m writing this in the Dublin airport, whose rather clinical ambience clashes quite strongly with the beautiful pictures that will populate this post! I have some very fond memories of the Belgian Parliament, and some even better pictures.

I had booked a tour of the Belgian Parliament a couple of days before it was due to happen, so I was quite apprehensive about the whole thing. Generally, last minute bookings tend to be tacked on to larger groups (especially school children), so I was expecting something not very personalised. To my very pleasant surprise, Frederik (a Cambridge friend I brought along) and I were the only two on the tour! What followed was an hour and a half of some of the most beautiful neoclassical architecture I’ve ever seen. It’s fair to say that the Canadian Parliament could take a few internal decorating tips from the Palais de la Nation!

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The Reading Room

Divided into the Chamber of Representatives (150 members) and the Senate (60 members), the Parliament adopts the same colour scheme as the Palace of Westminster – green for the lower house and red for the upper house. However, the similarities end there. Electronic voting is widely practiced and the chambers sit in a hemicycle.

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The PM’s seat in the Chamber.
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Speaker’s dias in the Chamber of Representatives

What is more, the Speaker’s platform is raised, and the floor ornately laid out and carpeted. The rooms are distinctly neoclassical, with roman columns encircling the rooms.

We were lucky enough to make it onto the floor of both chambers. Another difference is that the King no longer attends for the Speech for the Throne. After a particularly contentious throne speech in the 1800s over education policy, Leopold II henceforth delegated the speech to the Prime Minister. Since then, the PM gives the address.

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The Dome of the Senate

Another historical detour: the King is not actually styled King of Belgium, but rather King of the Belgians, since he receives his power from the Belgian people. Belgium achieved its independence in 1830, and at the time democratic nationalism was sweeping Europe. Hence, the small but crucial difference in title was proclaimed.

The Senate was particularly sumptuous and the ornate chairs rather plush. The portraited panels displayed influential figures in Belgian history – Charles V and Philip the Good featured prominently throughout the Parliament, in fact.

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Portrait Panel in the Senate

Another fun fact: Charles V (‘Spanish’ and Holy Roman Emperor), the man who expanded the ‘Spanish’ empire in South America, actually ruled from Antwerp in Belgium. Indeed, in 1575, Antwerp produced 7 times the GDP of all of Latin America. Anyway, that’s enough for this particular history lesson, and more about my amazing trips in Ireland and Bruges soon!

Stepping Into History

Belgium was absolutely incredible. I think I’ve fallen well and truly in love. Thanks to Kenneth, the Vice-President of the Belgian alumni society, I was able to see Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, as well as Brussels. At every point, I found myself enamoured by the spiring beauty of the medieval cities and the placid canals.

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Ghent canal

The first day, we spent in Ghent, which was completely renovated during the 1909 World Exhibition. In other words, the city was completely refurbished, faithful to its medieval origins, for the world to see. Needless to say, the refurbishments succeeded spectacularly. The castle – once the seat of the Dukes of Flanders – maintains its imposing presence on the river, across from the oldest wooden medieval house in Europe. Ghent used to be the centre of the wool and textile trade, and the sumptuous town hall proves it.

I was also introduced to the superb cuisine that is Belgium’s pride and joy. I enjoyed a Ghent specialty, Waterzooi, chicken broth with coleslaw and chicken meat. I was sceptical at first, but it was absolutely the best soup I have ever tasted. Add a strong and savoury Belgian beer, you have a lunch fit for a King (or a Duke).

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Antwerp train station

Later the afternoon, Kenneth and I took a whistle stop tour of Antwerp. The city’s stunningly beautiful Renaissance architecture drew the eye at every term. What is more, Anterwerp surely has the most spectacular train station in Europe. A gift of Leopold II, the terminal entrance could be the facade of an Opera house. I left the city in awe.

That evening, I was lucky enough to join Cambridge alumni for their annual Christmas Party. As soon as I arrived, I was press-ganged (partially my choice) into singing a selection of Christmas carols. We were led at the Piano by Andrew Wise, a Cambridge music grad now living in Ghent. Thanks to many rehearsals with the Emmanuel Choir, I knew the harmony to Es ist ein Ros like the back of my hand – got some compliments too!  As we retired we ate at a charming Italian restaurant in Brussels – a charming end to a charmful day.

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Ghent belfry

Because Belgium was so packed, I’ll add more about my visit to the Chamber of Representatives and Senate in Brussels and the town Bruges tomorrow – some absolutely incredible photos to come!

 

An Historical Tour of the Netherlands

Apologies for another delay – it seems be becoming a habit. Happily though, I am only delayed because of a few more fantastic days in the Netherlands, this time in Leiden and Den Haag (The Hague).

In Leiden, I had a most pleasant lunch with Newnham alumna Victoria, who has lived in the city for 25 years exactly. She’s a Brit who’s raised her children in the Netherlands, so I was treated to a wide ranging discussion of Dutch history and society from the eyes of an adopted native. It was all fascinating.

Leiden sits at the confluence of the Oude (Old) and Nieuwe (New) Rijn (Rhine). Because of its strategic location, it has long been a coveted area, and received city status in 1266.

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The Leiden Keep, the first defensive fortification in the city.

It is also, incidentally, paired with Oxford, UK – as both places have the oldest Universities in their respective countries.

In fact, Leiden was granted the first university in 1575 precisely because it had decided to side with the Netherlands against Spain during the 80 Years War. This was crucial for the success of the Dutch war of liberation precisely because of the city’s strategic location. Indeed, it held out against the Spanish siege for almost four months, and was never taken. That’s hardcore. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd is still celebrated in the city. It is also the home of Sinter Klaas, whose arrival by boat every 5th December is still broadcast live on Dutch Television.

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A picture of the Calvinist Domkerk from the keep. The Protestant reformation played a huge part in Dutch independence.

After we wrapped up our most pleasant lunch along a Leiden Canal, Victoria bid me farewell as I trundled to Den Haag for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, I had less time than I would have liked (my bad planning), but I did manage to see the Binnenhof, or the seat of the Dutch government. Absolutely stunning buildings, although I did not manage to get into the Tweede Kamer (literally Second Chamber – equivalent to the House of Commons),

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The Binnenhof entrance.

but I did see the complex, including the Ridderzaal. The Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) is where the King reads the Speech from the Throne every year. I left enamoured with Dutch architecture and the ancient beauty of the Netherlands’ de facto capital.

That evening, through a series of happy accidents, I ended up at an alumus’ Christmas Party, which was a joy. It was great seeing young people making a life for themselves after University – a good reminder to me that life does not, in fact, end after Cambridge closes its doors!

I leave the Netherlands thoroughly happy – some might say enchanted!

And yet more lights!

Light shows seem de rigueur now in Northern Europe: first Aarhus, then Copenhagen and now Amsterdam! Last evening I had a wonderful time strolling down the Dutch capital’s many canals and seeing some truly breathtaking modern art. But first, a bit more about my day!

I’m staying in Utrecht which, despite being the 4th largest city in the Netherlands, is only a 20 minute train from Amsterdam city centre. At noon, I was treated to an…interesting concert of modern music at the Muziekgebouw. The performers (a harpist, a singer, a bassist and two percussionists) were excellent, but the music was a bit lacklustre. Students from the Amsterdam conservatory, the artists handled rather inaccessible music by Berio and Crumb fairly well. But, having come into the concert not particularly enjoying modern classical music, I left not particularly enjoying modern classical music!

In the afternoon, I then popped to Gassan Diamonds, where I had the most interesting time learning about how diamonds are cut and priced. There are ‘Four Cs’: Carat, Colour, Clarity and Cut.

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The diamond cutter spins 3000 times a minute and is coated with diamond dust (the only material hard enough to cut diamonds).

Depending on the brilliance of the cut, the weight, and the imperfections, you can pretty well approximate the cost of a stone. Brilliance matters because the more facets (and thus the shinier), the less of the rock is actually used. The guide showed us various cuts, from £35,000 to £2000

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Some of the beautiful diamonds on display.

It was pretty incredible to see how tiny differences had a huge impact on price.

Then, I popped into the Het Scheepvaartmuseum (The Maritime Museum) where I was treated to a very cool virtual reality tour of Amsterdam Harbour in the 1700s.

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The ceiling of the Maritime Museum

This was Holland’s golden age, so the place was buzzing. In the exhibits I also got to see maps from the 1600s. There was one, from 1648 marking Dutch independence from Spain, that you could have sworn was an artistic interpretation of today’s map. Truly incredible given the expertise at the time.

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The Map

Finally, I was joined by Alison Fisher, an alumna who is now a translator in Amsterdam. She also hails from Caraquet (!), a place not too far from my neck of the woods. It was great to hear her explain the festival of light, and we managed to capture some really stunning pieces of art. There was even one from Ai Wei Wei that weaves it’s way around the entire city. I was really struck to hear that the Dutch government pays artists a stipend, so long as they register and produce one artwork a year.

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While you can’t see it in the photo, this installation lit up in a spiral.

This is then housed in a library where ordinary citizens can ‘borrow’ the artwork for their homes. Truly an incredible initiative. I leave Amsterdam thoroughly enchanted!

 

 

 

 

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A small part of Ai Wei Wei’s project
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Really stunning piece that appeared as if light was running into the tunnel.

Sea of Lights

I promised I’d post today about Copenhagen, so here it goes. After a 3-hour, very spacious, train ride from Aarhus, I arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday. What followed was two lovely day spent in Andersen’s city.

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A Pagoda in Tivoli

Since I travelled the first day without a camera, I confess I have very few decent photos, but they’re more than made up for by the light show at the Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world, but it doubles as a beautiful set of gardens. I spent my evening wandering it’s lanes and paths taking sparkling photos of the light show. What was once a verdant botanical garden was now a canopy of light!

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One of the more beautiful decorations.

In particular, Tivoli did incredible things with the pond, upon which there was an actual wooden vessel. The park had little chinese-style (Junk to be precise) boats upon which children and their parents were sailing. The lights were arrayed to evoke small lily pads across from what was surely a replica of an 18th century ship.

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The pond from one angle.

Simultaneously, they had strung up the willows and oak trees with lights , so the barrenness of winter was replaced with a brilliant yellow.

Finally, even the rides and attractions managed to add to the allure of the park. Each was strung up in abundance, down to the last detail. For example, the tower was a deep blue that radiated magnificently around the predominantly yellow buildings around it. Despite it being pitch dark, I felt like I was in a near perfectly lighted exhibition.

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The Blue Lights

After my decadent stroll, I joined Floriane, an Oxford and Cambridge Society member for glauwein – a Danish variety of mulled wine perfect for this sort of evening. We had a great chat about life after university, and about how to engage alumni in the future. As a classicist herself, now working in an Art Gallery, it was really brilliant to hear about all the doors an Oxbridge degree can open. Looking for more of this sort of thing in the five days left!

 

Old and New

Denmark has been so fun I just haven’t had time to update my blog. Apologies. I’ll be writing one this evening about Copenhagen, but for now, more about Aarhus. Aarhus is an idyllic city nestled near the edge of the Jutland peninsula, as you probably know from my previous post. However, it’s also a city vibrant with new culture and modern beauty. Indeed, it houses an inspiration art gallery where I spent most of my Sunday.

The gallery, properly called ARoS, from the old Danish name for Aarhus presented its first public exhibition in 1859. Since then it has endeavoured to present the work of modern artists from across the spectrum of mediums. From what I saw the gallery is still going strong! I am not one for modern art, usually, but I was struct by how innovative yet aesthetically pleasing much of the work was; I’m used to getting one or the other, not both.

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Boy

Upon entering the main exhibition, I was immediately greeted by the imposing, yet impeccably sculpted, Boy by Australian artist Ron Mueck. The piece was inspired by aboriginal children hunting in the outback. Venturing further into the exhibition, I saw my first Warhol, the iconic Marilyn. Quite a treat!

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Marilyn

The temporary exhibition in the gallery was also not to be missed, as it was a restrospective of the London School, of which Freud, Auerbach, and Bacon were leading practitioners. The school emphasises a figurative, yet unsparingly truthful portrayal of the human form. This is at least what I got from the guide – I’m sure History of Art students await me on my return to set me straight. I particularly enjoyed the more surreal Bacon works, as I found them more evocative and arresting. Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion, while twisted, had me staring for a good five minutes.

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Two of the Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

Finally, the most contemporary exhibits had some fantastic works by Icelandic artis Dodda Maggy. A specialist in film, she uses cutting to produce beautiful arrangements and piercing images. I spent a good 45 minutes in that exhibit.

After, I spent a lovely evening with alumni Amelia and Nikola, who showed me around Aarhus and with whom I enjoyed a traditional Danish meal. A lovely end to a lovely day!

One of Dodda Maggy’s beautiful works