Monday, November 29, 2010

A place called Lillo

Belgium is full of surprises. I suppose that in itself is not surprising when you think it is the home of surrealism; the birthplace of Tin Tin and the magnificent Jacques Brel; and the country where competitive cycling is the national sport, and not, as you might expect, football, rugby or even tennis.

Given as we are to forays into our neighbouring country in search of small adventures and unexpected delights, we were thrilled to bits a couple of weeks ago to find a treasure trove of surprises when stopping for a simple cup of coffee in the village of Lillo, not far from Antwerp.

Lillo itself is a surprise. It nestles amidst the towering cranes and container terminals of Antwerp's massive harbour. Virtually untouched by time, it retains its original earthwork fortifications surrounded by a moat and fronts the great estuary of the Schelde. It has its own tiny harbour, which empties at low tide so that the moored boats rest gently on the mud flats. It has also maintained its quaint village centre, which has become home to a number of artists and alternative-minded residents. To go there is to feel a sense of peace, a 'still point of the turning world' like TS Elliot's Burnt Norton.

Lillo was spared when the port of Antwerp was built, unlike many other villages that were swallowed up by the hunger for more and greater shipping terminals. Because of this, it has a timeless quality, and indeed time seems to have stood still there. No surprise then that Koos and I enjoy stopping there from time to time on the way to Zeeuws Vlaanderen.

On this occasion, though, our usual hostelry was closed, so we crossed the empty square towards Het Landhuis, the only café that appeared to be open on such a chill and blustery November day. We went in hesitantly, as there appeared to be a private function in progress, but the proprietor, who was having a smoke outside, ushered us in with a welcoming smile.

After ordering coffee, I disappeared off to euphemistically 'powder my nose', and when I got back to the small bar where we were sitting, Koos was already talking animatedly to a distinguished looking gentleman, who introduced himself as Leo. They were discussing the history of the area, and it transpired that right next door, there was an extensive museum of artefacts rescued from all the villages that had fallen under the axe of industrial development. It was not open now, Leo said, but it contained a marvellous collection, displaying the old ways of the former locals. Hearing our new friend talking so enthusiastically about the museum, the owner of the café asked if we would like to see it. He had the key and Leo was welcome to show us around.

Of course we jumped at the opportunity, so armed with the means, Leo led the way, not outside as we'd expected, but down through the basement of the Het Landhuis and unlocking an ordinary looking door, he led us into Aladdin's cave.

From the outside, the museum looks like a couple of plain and ordinary residential houses, but inside, it consists of more than thirty rooms, suggesting that several houses have been converted for the purpose. Every room is designated to a specific aspect of life and each has a full-size model of a villager, dressed in traditional clothing. There are all the standard household rooms fitted out with the furnishings and paraphernalia of yesteryear, as well as an old-fashioned iron stove and cooking implements in the kitchen. There is also a schoolroom, complete with tiny desks, blackboard and globe, a bar with old-style beer taps and optics, a room with a pair of wonderful sledges driven by huge penny-farthing style cycles, and another room devoted to preserved documents and texts, hundreds of years old.

We passed from room to room in some awe, astonished that so much had been rescued and kept so lovingly in so small a village. Leo was clearly delighted to show us, and Koos took a photo of him 'acting' as a smiling barman behind the beautiful wooden counter of the café. Eventually we made our way back into the twenty first century, and took our grateful leave.

What a special experience it had been.We were glowing with it as we stepped out into the biting wind. It was not just the pleasure of seeing the museum that had warmed us through, nor was it the good hot coffee; it was the kind hospitality of Leo and the café owners who had so spontaneously welcomed us in and and given us their time, not to mention a free tour of these gems from the past.

Lillo has drawn us to it before, and there is no doubt it will do so again. But next time, we will take some family or friends with us, because treasure like this needs to be shared.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The first Big Blogger Wedding

Last week, the newly married Mr and Mrs Billingshurst, alias Invader Stu and the Girlfriend set off on their honeymoon to Eurodisney to realise their dream of being together in the place that brought them together.

Stu, the brilliant author of the fantastic Invading Holland blog wooed Simone, the author of another truly creative blog, Ladybird and Butterfly, after seeing a photo of her on Facebook when she and a friend were larking about at the Parisian theme park. Being a redhead himself and seeing the lovely Simone also had a head of coppery locks, he decided they simply had to meet. The rest, as they say of all good romances, is history, and they are (of course) about to live happily ever after.

Having met them by chance in the Oude Haven a year or so ago, and become friends in real life as well as on blog, Koos and I were not only invited to the wedding, but Koos was asked to be photographer for the day. I was happy to perform the job of back up photographer, and took a few sneak snaps of my own with my old and beloved Leica. These are the ones I've posted here.

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is the communication with people all over the world, but even better is meeting those cyber friends in person. This year alone, I've been incredibly blessed to have met Maria, Hans and Ingela, and enjoyed a wonderful second visit from our dear blog friend, Anne Marie and her Austin, but this is the very first blogger wedding I've been to, and a very charming and special marriage feast it was too. Simone was radiantly lovely and ceaselessly smiling, Stu was gracious, humorous and handsome in his dark suit, and the whole day was beautifully coreographed by their two absolutely precious ladies-in-command, Marjolein and Marije.

The marvellous Marjolein and Marije

This weekend, we're off down to Zeeland again, and maybe, just maybe, we'll have a chance to see our other blog friends, Anne and Ol who have returned from a wonderful eight months in France on their narrowboat, Wandering Snail. Their account and photos on their blog make me long to go travelling again, and yes, I know I've just been to Italy and Poland, but an extended trip to France is still up there high on my wish list. Who knows, maybe next year....

Sunday, November 07, 2010


A gathering of the Warsaw Sniffy Bum club

On my way back from Poland, I spent a few hours in Warsaw. The city was empty. It was All Saints, so everyone was at the cemeteries except dog walkers, happy to have the freedom of the parks to enjoy their 'sniffy bum' clubs. Warsaw was otherwise mine to discover. Even so, I missed the people and being a bit bored, all I could do was take photos. These are some of my favourites.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Katovice's out of the bag

Poland and Katovice. These names have had associations for me for some time as being Koos's domain. It was a world I only knew from his photos, a world seen from his own unique perspective. But this weekend I entered his world and found my own perspective, and I have to say I was totally charmed.

The weather helped 'of course' (as the Poles love to say). The whole weekend was cloaked in soft golden sunlight and a warmth that had me wishing I'd taken an entirely different set of clothes. But there were other aspects too which surprised me and endeared this 'most horrible' of Polish cities to me.

For a start, it isn't horrible at all. Never having been to Poland's gems, Krakow and Wroclaw, I had no yardstick with which to beat Katovice, and while yes, it is old and in many respects crumbling, it has a faded, and indeed, shabby elegance that I like much more than places that have been restored out of their intrinsic character.

But even that wasn't it; because what makes this city is its people. My first impression was of a lively, buzzing atmosphere. A city full of open, friendly and very decent folk. A city where there is little or maybe even none of the hostile atmosphere that normally seems to come with such industrial areas.

Take this little hoodie for example. He looks like mischief waiting to become a menace. Well, maybe in some respects he is, but the reason he is squatting on the floor here is because when I got on the tram, he immediately got up to give me his seat. No questions, no hesitation, just instant courtesy. And that's what I met everywhere we went. Smiling faces, softly spoken with ready exchanges and good manners. It seems that even if they live in graffiti covered hovels (as many do), there is still a strong core of decency in their behaviour that makes for a very happy feeling in the environment.

Still, perhaps the highlight of the weekend for me, apart from some riveting tram rides, was the amazing beauty of the celebration of the All Saints feast day. I've never thought of cemeteries as being lively places. Well you wouldn't, would you? A contradiction in terms, in fact. Not so in Poland. The end of October and beginning of November is a period of three to four days when almost the entire population, including all generations, come together as families to honour their departed loved ones. The Poles flock to the numerous graveyards with flowers, candles, brooms and gardening tools. Together, they make a ritual of cleaning the grave stones, decking them with a profusion of flowers and lighting the myriad lamps made from multi coloured glass. The grave stones glow with polish. The crysanthemums glow with rich colour and the lights gleam in the gathering dusk giving comfort to the souls lying beneath them. It is extraordinarily touching to witness, and Koos and I felt very privileged to have been there.

Unfortunately, my photos cannot tell the whole story, but I hope they give some idea of the rare beauty of this occasion. If you go to Koos's Flickr site, though, you will find some of his magical images there too.

Apart from this, the weekend was made special too by the positively riotous tram ride we took on tram 27 which seems to duck in and out of secret passage ways, behind people's gardens, up banks and through semi-rural countryside on its hopelessly wiggly rails. Then there were the old mineheads, which I always love, and the walks in and out of a gloriously sunny and balmy city.

I have the feeling this was just the tonic I needed before settling in for the inevitably wet and windy winter that we have here in the north. It feels that way, anyhow, so my thanks go firstly to Koos for introducing me to his special world, and secondly to Katovice itself for being such a welcoming host on this moving and celebratory weekend.