Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Beautiful Bruges, Belgium

An hour’s train ride from Brussels transports you back to the Middle Ages. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bruges (it rhymes with “rouge”) must maintain its historic architecture in the Old Town with no modern changes. It’s known as the “Venice of the North,” with an abundance of canals that flow slowly through the heart of town, passing buildings with crenulated gables and fancy brickwork.
Bruges was once one of Europe’s wealthiest cities and its cultural capital. In the 14th century, its population rivaled that of London.  Because of waterways that led to the North Sea, ships were able to enter the city, allowing its textile trade to flourish. Unfortunately in the 16th century, river silt clogged the harbor and the town declined. But happily in the 1980s, travelers found another way into Bruges, spurring a present-day financial boon.
The imposing Gothic structures on Bruges’ Market Square (once a harbor for ships) reflect the town’s earlier prosperity. Enter the elegant Town Hall to view the lavish assembly hall. Close by is the Belfry and Cloth Hall where you may climb 366 spiral steps to its tower for a spectacular vista of the area. Or enjoy the bells from below as a carillonist performs summer concerts on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Located in a modest corner of the square is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The small church displays a relic of Christ’s blood that they claim was delivered from the Second Crusade in 1150. A nearby church holds another religious treasure.

Michelangelo’s precious Madonna and Child is displayed in the Church of Our Lady. It’s the first and only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.  But if you want to see the art of Bruges’ hometown son, Hans Membling, get yourself over to the medieval St. John’s Hospital, located across from the Church of Our Lady. Six of his paintings hang in a building that once tended the sick and dying. But when art and history become overwhelming, it’s beer to the rescue. Let the servers at Den Dyver Restaurant soothe you as they pair each dish of a multi-course meal with a specialty beer.
Live like royalty for a few days in the posh Kempinski Hotel. Located not far from the main square, the former Duke’s palace reopened in 2008 as a five-star hotel. Built in 1429 for the wedding of Phillip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, the castle has been brought up to date with luxurious modern amenities. But if your budget can’t absorb the hefty room rate, treat yourself to a gourmet meal in their elegant dining room instead.
It’s no secret that Bruges combines the best of the Old World with the realities of today.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Birthplace of Walmart

Is there anyone in the civilized world who is not familiar with Walmart? I, like many others, was curious to find out how the company got its start. In 1950, Sam Walton opened a 5&10 Store (a.k.a. Five and Dime) in the small Arkansas town of Bentonville. It wasn’t long before he expanded the business by purchasing the adjoining barber shop – and he was on his way to big success. When I first entered the store, I saw a display of aprons that were the kind my grandmother wore. Other merchandise from that same era was interspersed with souvenir and gift items.

The building now serves as the Walmart Visitors Center where fans can discover the full story of Sam Walton and Walmart. On the self-guided tour, you can take in as much or as little of the exhibits as you want, but don’t miss his old office and his wife’s wedding gown.

At the end of the exhibition, a door leads into Sparks Cafe, a mid-20th century soda shop. You won’t see the Fonz, but you can step up to an old-fashioned marble counter, or sit in a plastic-covered booth. Take in the wall telephone, posters and other vintage decorations while sipping a fountain drink or munching on a fresh-scooped ice cream cone.

When you exit, take time to walk through and around the idyllic square to get the feel of small town Americana. It gave me a sense of peace and déjà vu.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Walk-In Creativity in Appleton

It’s not often that I can create a new artistic piece without making plans, buying supplies and/or taking lessons. So I walked off the street into The Fire on the spur-of-the-moment for fun and pleasure completely carefree.
Fire Studio in Appleton, Wisconsin is a storefront studio that features glass fusing, pottery painting and mosaics, and is open to the public with no appointments or scheduled classes. Just walk in, pay your money and create.

The women I was with on a Girlfriends Getaway to the Fox Cities (of which Appleton is a part) all wanted to make glass pendants. We choose colored glass shards of all sizes, and with the help of the resident artisan, Jennifer Stephaney, we began working. First, I planned my design and the desired colors. Then I looked through the broken glass for the required hues. After picking out what I wanted, I glued them in place with Elmer’s Glue-All. (See photo.)
Realizing that the glass would melt and fuse, we could only hope for the best. When we were satisfied with our creations, we left them there to be fired in a kiln. It usually takes a week to receive the finished piece.

When I got my pendant back, I was pleasantly surprised. (See photo.)