Flight, Part One: Above and Below the Clouds

Everyone in Belgium — EVERYONE — complains about the weather. It is often grey and it rains quite a lot. Grey isn’t a pretty color for one’s surroundings, you know? Nevertheless, there are positives. First, it isn’t too hot in the summer. Ahem, usually. Recent days excepted. And second, the cloud cover makes for a generally mild winter, with highs and lows in temperature that are not too many degrees apart. Next, all that rain makes for a lot of green, all year long, and it gives us gorgeous and plentiful flowers in the spring. And finally, when viewed from above, those clouds, so grey and often formless from below, make for a beautiful and alien scene. So after nearly 50 years of flying, I decided to take some photos of the exotic cloud-scape as well as some of the more familiar Belgian landscape below. These were taken on approach to Brussels International Airport, Summer 2015. Comments in the captions. Enjoy. 

From really high, you can see the blue of space above.

From really high, you can see the brilliant midnight blue of outer space above.

You could be in a spaceship on your way out of the atmosphere of earth.

You could be in a spaceship on your way out of the atmosphere of earth.

And if you catch a little of the sun above, you can really feel as if you're in a different world.

And if you catch a little of the sun above, coupled with that golden horizon, you can really feel as if you’re in a different world.

Can you see the sea below? But it isn't, you know. It's just the sky below you!

Can you see the sea below? But of course, it isn’t; by this time, we were well over land.  That blue is just the sky below.

Sometimes it just seems like an alien landscape.

Sometimes it just seems like a extraterrestrial sort of landscape.

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Or a tidal wave approaching on churning seas.

Once you pass through the turbulence and emerge into the atmosphere below the clouds, the world is suddenly familiar and foreign at the same time. What is known of the world meshes with what is seen, and the world appears before you, but in a form you barely recognize. From above, the grey days take on a beauty unforeseen.

Once below the clouds, you can see how important agriculture is to Belgium.

Once below the clouds, you can see how important agriculture is to Belgium.

Bear in mind by now we are pretty near to the airport and the farmland is expansive.

Bear in mind by now we are pretty near to the airport and the farmland is expansive.

 

There's a lot of forested area in the country as well. Makes me feel at home.

There’s a lot of forested area in the country as well. Helps this North Carolina girl feel at home.

A patchwork quilt is so cliché, but it IS apropos.

A patchwork quilt is so cliché, but it IS apropos.

And it wouldn't be Belgium without a castle. Belgium has many castles, most of them still in the hands of old, noble families.

And it wouldn’t be Belgium without a castle. Belgium has many castles, most of them still in the hands of old, noble families. See the airport tower in the upper right?

Belgium's landscape is a muddle of fields, estates, towns. What's not to love ? Well, other than the grey.

Belgium’s landscape is a muddle of fields, estates, towns, and the ancient and the modern. It is beautiful, in its way.

Belgium’s grey days, seen from above, are exotic and beautiful. From below the clouds, you have to find your own reasons to see its appeal. I have found mine. In spite of the grey.

 

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Mariemont

California Redwoods. You wouldn’t expect to find them in Belgium, but last Spring my friend and I found some!

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Mariemont is a lovely arboretum with walking paths, gardens, a (the?) Royal Museum, a little no-frills café and trees from literally all over the world. From California, Argentina, Japan and China (among others), the trees make for an impressive canopy and backdrop for an afternoon of ambling.

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There are ruins of Charles of Lorraine’s castle and out buildings, overgrown with vines.

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But the pièce de résistance is a Rodin sculpture called Les Bourgeois de Calais. It is one of twelve bronze originals produced by Rodin — others are in Paris at the Rodin museum, in Calais, Copenhagen, London…! And this one is verdigris in the middle of a field of flowers!  The piece is based on an incident during the Hundred Years War, when King Edward III of England took Calais. He threatened to kill everyone in the city unless the major businessmen — the bourgeois — would sacrifice themselves to him, offering him the keys to the city along with their lives in exchange for the citizens of Calais. The sculpture depicts five of the businessmen as they exited their safe haven and walked to their presumed doom at the hands of Edward III. I’m not sure if it’s legend or truth but no matter; the sculpture is a masterpiece.

Here is the piece as it rises out of the flowers.
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I was overcome by emotion as I looked at the expressions on the faces of the businessmen. Rodin succeeded in revealing a range of the men’s desperate feelings and I very nearly wept with them.

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The piece moved me so much that I almost did not take any photos, thinking I couldn’t do it justice. Of course, the photos don’t, but I’m awfully glad I took them so that I could share it with my readers. And so I could remember from my own lens. It moves me even now, as I go through the few photos I took. To say the piece is an emotional one greatly understates its impact.

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Visit Mariemont if you make it to Belgium. Here is how you get there.

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Sunset over Tuscany

Tuscany: a feast for the senses, indeed. These striking sunset photos were taken near Siena when some friends and I were there over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday. Oh, yeah, and the food was spectacular, too.

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La Rochelle, France or Wilmington, NC with Older History (way older)

Spent the last five days in La Rochelle on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline of France. This is a city dating to the tenth century and with historical ties to Henry II, the Knights Templar, the Hundred Years War, the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. There are significant buildings, excellent restaurants, and sandy beaches. A trio of towers stand watch over the old and new harbors, and out in the Atlantic, Ile de Ré, Ile d’Aix, and Ile d’Oléron wait as sentinels to the mainland. I was excited about visiting the area largely because of this interesting history and the potential to walk on the beach. I was unprepared for how much the area would remind me of my hometown, Wilmington, NC. From the smell of the salt marshes to the dunes climbing up from the shoreline, there was plenty to make me homesick.

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Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle

La Rochelle

La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle

Even a classic Chevy truck!
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But lest I actually think I’m back home in the the Southeastern US, La Rochelle and the region of the Charente River assert their French-ness with their historical landmarks that simply can be found nowhere else but Europe.

La Rochelle proper’s Gros Horloge, or Big Clock:
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Walk through the archway underneath the clock to La Rochelle’s shopping area in buildings that date to just this side of the middle ages. Here you’ll find everything from classic French discount shopping at Monoprix to fancy boutiques with artisan items or designer labels.

Her cathedral:
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Two of her three towers that guard the Vieux Port:
La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

St. Sauveur Church:
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My friends in front of La Boussole, the restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life. Seriously. This calibre of food is rarely found in a small town like my beloved Wilmington. Maybe close, but…this is FRANCE, for Pete’s sake!
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Some historical sites on nearby Ile d’Aix:
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And on the watery trip between Ile d’Aix and the mainland, homage to Cardinal Richlieu:
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Fort Boyard, rising out of the ocean like the man-made island that it is:
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The nearby region’s Romanesque church will certainly NOT be found in the New World!
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La Rochelle

La Rochelle

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What I think is rapeseed growing in the region:
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La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

And Betsy tagged along. She had fun, I think. I wonder if the smell of the salt air made her homesick, too?
La Rochelle and Ile d'Aix

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Rome: through the eyes of a pilgrim

Rome. Home of pasta, the Pantheon and the Pope. Here are the Colosseum where gladiators fought for fame, fortune or survival, and the Circus Maximus where Nero used early Christians as human torches for evening festivities. A bundle of contradictions, this ancient historical city is also a modern metropolis where anything you want is at your fingertips. I’ve wanted to visit Rome for some time, and finally, at the outset of my third year living in Belgium, I managed to get there.

Of course I wanted to see The Big Three: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.

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Biggest disappointment: the Colosseum. Huge and, ahem, colossal, but truly in ruins inside. Nevertheless, the gravity of all that happened there made an impact as I wandered through with the crowds. Twelve euros but if you buy a Roma Pass, you can get in free. Most surprising: the Pantheon, which I found completely by accident when looking for a restaurant for dinner.

Grandest: Saint Peter’s. Besides housing Michelangelo’s stunning Pietà (be prepared to be taken aback by this beautiful piece of Mary mourning her dead son), the place is massive, from the soaring ceilings and thirteen foot statues to the seven feet wide ribbon that runs along the ceiling containing the recorded words of Christ to Peter, like “upon this rock” (meaning Peter) “I will build my church, and the powers of hell won’t overcome it.” And the piece de resistance? The tomb of the Saint is under the crypt, below the basilica! (Take a deep breath, and then let it out slowly: WOW.) I was disappointed that you can’t actually see his tomb; but I walked by the spot that is over it (it is well-marked) and for me, it was enough to release some gratitude and admiration for the fisherman turned apostle and friend of the Lord. Free, but not easy; there are a lot of crowds.

The places I desperately wanted to see, however, did not disappoint this pilgrim. I was looking for historical relics of my faith, and I found them. In spades.

San Giovanni in Laterano was the first Christian church building in Rome. Dedicated in 324 and named for John the Baptist, it is the official cathedral of Rome and the home church of the Popes, and it even contains the chair the new pope sits on upon being named. It also has a giant statue of Emperor Constantine, under whom Roman Christians were finally free from persecution, and the towering main doors were salvaged from the Curia, or Imperial Senate. High over the altar are impressive and highly detailed mosaics. And if all that isn’t enough, the church contains two important  and oft-disputed relics: the heads of Saints Peter and Paul.

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

The soaring interior leading to the altar

The soaring interior leading to the altar

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The glorious mosaics, housing the relics, and the papal seat

Across the street from San Giovanni in Laterno is the next stop: La scala santa. The Holy Stairs are the very steps Christ climbed in the very early morning, after he was arrested and beaten prior to his crucifixion. It was at the top of these stairs somewhere that Pilate asked our Lord, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Made of stone, they have been covered with wood and contain little glass-covered holes that you can look into and see what are purported to be drops of the Savior’s blood. The stairs were transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem by Helena, mother of Constantine. If you want to climb them, you can, but only on your knees, and only if you’re prepared to pray on each step. The only cost to do this is paid in knee pain.

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I didn’t climb them. I considered it, but then I thought about my right meniscus surgery. And so I didn’t. The events of that night and early morning hang like dew in the air of that place though, and they demanded a right response; for me, the response was to pray, and so I did.

Next on the list: San Paolo Fuori le Mura, or Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. As the name suggests, this church sits outside the ancient city’s walls. Also original to Constantine and the fourth century, it is one hundred percent new since the nineteenth century, after being destroyed by fire. But it is one hundred percent worth seeing for one reason: it contains the supposed remains of the great writer of much of the New Testament, Saint Paul. This visit moved me even more than I had imagined. Paul is arguably Christianity’s most influential human outside of Jesus, and Jesus is also God, so that gave Him quite an advantage. And I’m not sure I need to say “arguably” up there; he may have written as many as fourteen of the twenty-seven books of New Testament, for goodness sake! He ultimately died for his faith, in Rome, probably under Nero, at about the same time Peter did. Paul, because he was a legal citizen of Rome, could not be crucified and so was likely beheaded.

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

Saint Paul's eternal flame, the chains that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

Saint Paul’s eternal flame, and the chain that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

Final stop on this day’s pilgrimage: San Pietro in Vincoli, or Saint Peter’s in Chains. This is an unremarkable church except for two important items. The first item, you might’ve guessed, are Saint Peter’s chains, from when he was held prisoner. The second is Michelangelo’s masterwork, Moses.

Moses was intended to be a giant tomb piece for Pope Julius II, but Michelangelo kept getting pulled away from it to work on other things. He loved this particular work and you can really tell he did when you see it. Moses sits in the middle, holding the stone commandments, and he is depicted as he might have looked after just seeing the Israelites with their golden calf. His tensed leg, preparing him to rise, his arm reaching across his body, and his flowing beard all suggest motion. He is flanked by Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. The visit to the church is free but do take a euro to put into the slot so the lights come on and you can see it fully. (Hey, we all gotta make a living!)

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

Detail on the chains' case, the chains, painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Detail on the chains’ case, the chains themselves, and a painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Peter’s chains themselves are protected by a case made just for them. One of the details on the case makes reference to the death of the saint: an upside down cross. Unlike Paul, Peter was not a Roman citizen, and Christian tradition tells us that when it was apparent he was going to be crucified, he insisted that he be crucified upside down because he said he was unworthy to die like the Lord! (There is a very dark and moving painting of this in the Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.) The chains are supposedly two sets: one, the set that held him when in Mamertine Prison in Rome; the others, those which held him in Jerusalem. The latter would be the very set from which the angel released him, a story recorded in Acts chapter 12.

Seeing Peter’s chains was very moving for me, as was seeing Paul’s tomb and the Holy Stairs. I know it’s hard for some to believe the relics are actually real, and I understand that there is the distinct possibility that many of them are not what they are claimed to be. Nevertheless, the possibility that they actually are real affects me, and my introspective nature takes over; I think about the person associated with the item and what they mean to my life today, and hopefully these thoughts translate into actions and make me a better person.

There were too many places in Rome that I wanted to see; I didn’t have time or they turned out to be not worth the visit. For example, Mamertine prison, where Paul was almost certainly held, and where some believe Peter also was kept before his death. But I read in a guide that I like a lot, Rome by Rick Steves, the prison isn’t worth seeing anymore; it’s owned by a tour bus company and the artefacts were not preserved. Too bad; Paul did a lot of writing there. But perhaps it’s best; too much introspection isn’t good for one’s mood!

All the churches had extravagant nativity scene. My favorite was the one at San Pietro in Vincoli because it was simple and colorful. Maybe you’ll like it, too.

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More than London

When Jolly Old England pops into your mind, I’m guessing the images that accompany it are like these:

St Pancras, named after an actual SAINT, not after the internal organ, the pancrEas.

St Pancras, named after an actual SAINT, not after the internal organ, the pancrEas.

House of Parliament and Big Ben

House of Parliament and Big Ben

London's Tower Bridge

London’s Tower Bridge

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

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The Proverbial Changing of the Proverbial Guard

The Proverbial Changing of the Proverbial Guard

London! The NYC of the UK, it’s a hot spot for theatre, fashion, music and the arts in general. And every time I cross the Channel, the Motherland (almost all my ancestors were English, Scot or Irish, except for my maternal great grand-mother or grand-father, who was, I think, a full Cherokee in the mountains of North Carolina) blesses me to another treat for the senses.

This time, however, it took me quite by surprise.

One of the many lakes in the Lake District

One of the many lakes in the Lake District

England’s Lake District. I think it may be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Centuries-old stone fences run through farm lands

Centuries-old stone fences run through farm lands

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I really don’t know why this area surprised me.  My ancestors settled in Western NC because the Smoky Mountains reminded them of home. “My” Blue Ridge mountains harken back to the Lake District’s magnificent hills, valleys, and lakes,with their own smoky fog clinging to them.

My friends are quite lucky to live in such a magnificent place. Can’t wait to return.

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The Estate of the Chateau de Seneffe

This weekend I discovered a little-known gem: the gardens of the Chateau de Seneffe in Hainaut, Belgium. Only dating to the Eighteenth Century, the grounds are lovely and the chateau appears to be in good shape. We didn’t go in, my friend and I, but we certainly enjoyed the lovely summer weather, not too hot nor too humid. Summer is the time when smart people like the Belgium weather. At least most of the time.

The Eighteenth Century Castle of the Domaine of Seneffe

The Eighteenth Century Castle of the Domaine of Seneffe

The grounds are spectacular, with everything from an aviary to modern sculptures to a wide variety of flowers.

Collage2 It’s a relaxing place to walk, with long and picturesque paths. Pretty views greet the walker from every angle. There’s the couple hundred year old castle as well as anachronistic sculptures by Mauro Staccioli from 2014. It’s a very interesting place.

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There’s an aviary with parakeets and other exotic birds, once a status symbol of the rich, and an orangerie, as well as an old ice house; it stored ice for the residents of the estate to use, a luxury only attainable by the most wealthy.

The Ice House for the Chateau

The Ice House for the Chateau

The flowers and trees are lovely and varied. Currants, Rose of Sharon, and the surprisingly fragrant milkweed delight the senses.

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Only a half hour from Mons and not a lot more from Brussels, the park is open until eight p.m. for walking, but you have to go earlier if you want to visit the castle or the brasserie. Lots of grass means it’s cooler on the grounds than in the nearby towns, and in air-conditioning deficient Belgium, that’s a welcome benefit.

The English version of the website is not available, but the French language one is here. Take a few hours and take a walk. It will be good for the body and the soul.

 

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