summertime in the low countries

Sketchbook first page
Well it’s time to tell you about my summer. Now that it’s cold and probably wet, and we’ve all aged a bit more than six months in the past six months, let’s take a look back at my summer holiday in the Low Countries. They are called that after one of David Bowie’s albums (though I took so many trains that it should be called Station to Station). Following the tradition of the last three summers, I took a Stillman and Birn Alpha with me and filled in the front page with a hand-drawn map and drawings of various things I ate and drank along the way. This was a longer trip – three weeks, two on the continent and another staying with the family in London, taken in the midst of a whopping heatwave. It’s not the longest or anywhere close to the most journeyed trip around Europe I have ever taken – look back to 1998 for that, the pre-sketching days – but now I’m older it takes longer to recover; I’m not sure I have, even looking at the map makes me tired. It was a fun trip though, full of memories, meeting up with good friends, seeing old places from the past, and finally showing my son that mad country of Belgium I keep talking about. He was just as impressed, it was his favourite place. In the image above you can see some of the food and drink I liked – poffertjes (little Dutch pancakes) in Amsterdam, from a jolly guy called Tony; classic simple waffle from a waffle truck in Brussels, the most delicious waffle I’ve ever eaten; Charles Quint, perhaps my favourite beer, from my favourite bar in Charleroi, still open despite much faded glory; proper Waterzooi from Gent, which I had never tasted before; a bright pink juice called ‘Stress Down’ from Joe the Juice in Amsterdam, which honestly revived my brain after it melted in the heatwave, and got my sketching working again; Belgian frites covered in Sauce Andalouse from Robert La Frite in Charleroi, naturally eaten after midnight, the very best frites in the world; and of course, a 99 from an ice-cream van in England, that’s a soft-serve in a cornet with a chocolate flake, everything seems like it will be ok when you have a 99. Lovely foodly memories. Not to mention the delicious Belgian chocolate.

Suitcase

I got a new small suitcase for the trip, smaller even than my other small case, and I had to pack light. I knew I’d be wheeling it around cities, cramming it into luggage lockers, not unpacking much on my one night here, two nights there hotel stays. Fortunately football shirts don’t take up much room and I wear a lot of those. So, this trip took me to France – Paris and Disneyland; to Belgium – Brussels, Ghent, Liege, Charleroi and Bruges; to the Netherlands – Amsterdam, for the Urban Sketching Symposium; and to England – London, plus a day in Watford and St.Albans. Oh, but I did get to start in an exciting way – I flew first class from LA to Paris. I had never flown first class before, and wow this was an experience. Completely lie-flat seats, amazing food with real metal cutlery, a huge TV screen (I watched Bumblebee, of all movies), and flight attendants calling me by my name ‘Mr Scully’. Oh and a door, and actual door, so I could be in my own little cubicle, instead of my usual squashed-against-elbows flights over the Atlantic. And it didn’t cost us anything, as we got it on points. Very much a one-off experience for me! I was unashamedly excited about the whole thing. People from Burnt Oak don’t often get to do this sort of thing. The only thing I was disappointed in was that the toilet was just like any other airplane loo, I was expecting some huge fancy bathroom or something, golden seat maybe. Also, the old man who went in there before me kind of left it a bit messy. I was a bit worried they might think it was me so I actually tidied it up. Still the champagne was nice, and by the time I landed in Paris I had that unusual sensation of having actually slept well on a plane, so I had plenty of energy to get sketching around Montmartre before speeding off to Brussels – more on that later. But you’ll notice IO flew from LA – I first had to fly from Sacramento down to LAX, which if you’ve ever been there is quite a headache of an airport. Looking forward to the first-class flight made up for that. So, here is what I sketched on the flights, drawn in the small in-transit-sketches Miquelrius ‘Lapin’ book, on the very last pages in fact, a book I had started on a trip to Paris back in 2012.
SMF-LAX
LAX-CDG

I really love travelling, and I really love sketching. I’m not a super fan of hot weather, and there was a fair bit of that, and it made the travelling and sketching much harder at points, but I am always so excited about being on the move in a new place that really, I didn’t care. It wasn’t yet so hot when I landed in Paris though. Join me next time for a description of my day in Montmartre, where I had not been in about twenty years.

 

mean lean cuisine

Lean Cuisine
Well, I’m on a diet, which means cutting down on the snacks, drinking more water, walking loads, even going to that thing called a ‘gym’. The first time I walked in I’m like, oh yes, I totally know how to use all this stuff, yeah I’m a regular, and I put the exercise bike on a treadmill and pumped weights like a boss. And instead of the big food truck lunches, I’m eating more of these. I like the little Lean Cuisines. I take the instructions very seriously. When microwaving food, you can’t mess with the instructions. I take it out of the box, like it says. Then it tells me to ‘pierce film to vent’. So I get a fork, and I’m stabbing at the film venting, “oh everything is stupid! Brexit is the stupidest thing ever! Why can’t climate change deniers listen to scientists? How are there people arguing the earth is flat? What the hell is wrong with everyone!” When my venting is over, I proceed with the instructions. “Cook on high for three minutes.” So, I unplug the microwave, and put it on the highest shelf I can find, on  the second floor of my house, which is a little inconvenient but good exercise going up the stairs, I guess. Lean Cuisines eh! When the three minutes of cooking are up, I remove the film and stir it up, just like it says, I tell the little bits of chicken that the broccoli said their mum was having it off with a goose. Then once I’m done stirring, it tells me to “re-cover”, so I lie down for fifteen minute to get my breath back. Then you cook it on high again for another two minutes, back up the stairs, back to the top shelf, which is dusty and full of Lego but I’m on a diet, I have to do this right. When the mictrowave bell rings, I have to ‘stand for a minute’, so there I am standing on the spot, looking like a twat, and that’s a long minute, I’m very hungry. And then it’s done! And twenty seconds later I have finished eating. This is a good diet.

natas, churros, super bock and francesinha

Spain and Portugal Sketchbook front page sm

For the Spain and Portugal part of my trip I started a new sketchbook, one of the hardback landscape Stillman and Birn Alpha books I like so much. I did the England sketches at the end of the previous sketchbook, so it was a good place to start a new book. As with my Italy trip last year I decided to decorate the front page with a title like this and draw in some of the things I would eat or drink on the trip. So, a few words then I guess on some of the culinary items on this page. First of all the stuffed olives. These were from the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid, a wonderful place less like a market and more like a self-contained food hall, with lots of really tasty tapas and snacks on sale. I can’t resist a stuffed olive, and these ones were stuffed with peppers and fish and even mussels. Underneath it is a bocadilla – like a little piece of hard toast, I suppose – with sliced and spiced octopus on it. That was nice. I’m definitely one for seafood and like a bit of the tentacled variety. Below that, the little purple drink is a Ginjinha, from Lisbon – more on that later (I drew the Ginjinha shop), but that was a delicious appetizer of a drink, a kind of sweet cherry liqueur, a local specialty. Speaking of Portuguese specialties, next to that is the Nata. The pastéis de nata, a small pastry filled with custard and occasionally other things, costing about a euro a piece, was pretty much my main food in Porto. I could not get enough of them. I just really like custard and pastry. It’s a good job those hills are so steep in Porto, to help me work them off. Speaking of Porto, the orange-coloured item just above the ‘T’ is a vastly not-to-scale version of something called a ‘Francesinha’. Ok, I will come back to the Francesinha. Next to that, a dry Madeira wine that I tried in Lisbon at the Cafe ‘A Brasileira’, that was nice, a dessert wine. Above that to the left, a ‘Tawny’ Port wine, typical of Porto, this one was from the Sandeman winery and sampled during a nice lunch. Next to that, the typical Portuguese beer, Super Bock. Along with Sagres, this is what you will see everywhere, especially littering the sidewalks of Rua da Bica after a heavy Friday night. Just right of the Spain title, the red drink is Sangria, the very tasty Spanish drink made from wine and fruit. I had this at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid while sketching. And finally, the churros dipped in hot chocolate, this was from the Chocolateria San Gines in Madrid, the famous chocolate cafe located right across from our apartment. Extremely tasty, and the chocolate is rich (you can drink it, but you’ll spend the rest of the day knowing about it).

IMG_8299

And so, the Francesinha, above. It means “Little French Girl” according to my Portuguese friends. I didn’t know what it was, other than you can get them everywhere in Porto. I went into one cafe on the Alfandega to order one for a mid-afternoon snack, but this was no mere snack. Now typically they come with meats like pork and steak, but I don’t eat those so I had to find one with chicken. A Francesinha works like this – two huge slabs of bread, filled with cheese, sausage, meat such as steak, maybe another meat, fried egg, then more thick cheese on top, finally covered in a thick tomato sauce in a bowl. This meal is DENSE. It’s also served with fries, to dip into the melted cheese. I could not finish my chicken one. And I don’t think I met another visiting sketcher who had one they could finish. People of Porto, I salute you for your fortitude. But there’s more. Another restaurant I went into had an ‘XXL Francesinha’, a huge one costing 35 Euros, that was only for one person, no sharing. The deal is, if you finish it all you get a prize. Now I was talking to a waitress in another restaurant who said that she had actually taken on this challenge and won, and her prize was…she didn’t have to pay. I hope she at least got a certificate or something. If I’d eaten an XXL Francesinha, I’d need a doctor’s note…

duke’s

Duke's Waikiki sm

Staying at the Outrigger in Waikiki, we just had to go to Duke’s. Duke’s is a restaurant on the beach, named after the fabled local hero, Duke Kahanamoku. Duke, or to give him his full name Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, was a native Hawaiian Olympic swimmer from the early 20th century, and is famous for helping popularize surfing. He grew up in Waikiki, and his presence is everywhere. There is a big statue of him right by the beach. He won several Olympic gold medals for swimming, competing in the games in Stockholm, Antwerp and Paris. He also carved out a career as an actor, and even worked as a military policeman during World War II. Duke’s is named for him, originally called “Duke’s Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar” but now one of a chain that includes other restaurants in California, Florida and Hawaii, and is itself a popular local hangout. One evening, with the music from Duke’s wafting up to my room, I decided to wander downstairs and sketch the bar while enjoying one of their famous Hula Pies and a delicious Lava Flow (my new favourite drink). Of course I had not actually seen a Hula Pie before ordering one. Those things are enormous! I could barely finish it. It was delicious, for sure, but if I had rolled down the beach afterwards I would be floating halfway to Bora Bora by now. I did sketch it, with my Lava Flow next to it. The evening atmosphere was nice, with the beachy music complementing the rolling sound of the ocean. Nicest was that when I was done, it was just a short elevator ride to my bed. Glad, because I was stuffed.

Hula Pie at Duke's sm

sweating at il santo bevitore

Il Santo Bevitore Venice sm
A short two-minute walk from our apartment was a small local bar called Il Santo Bevitore, quietly perched on the canalside, and when everyone fell asleep after a long day’s Italian travel I went for a stroll in the sultry lagoon evening, thick gloops of summer rain plopping down unexpectedly, while the dark water crept up from the canals and over the pathways and into doorways. Venice is no stranger to humidity. My previous visit had been on a baking hot August weekend in 2003, when no end of Fanta Citron could quench my thirst and three or four showers per day were the norm. After a stroll through the dark narrow Venetian streets (I have always felt Venice after-hours to be a bit spooky, I prefer it in daylight, preferably early morning) I stopped into Il Santo Bevitore to have a beer and some of the little Venetian snacks, pieces of bread topped with various foods, fish, cheeses, all sorts of things. This was definitely a bar I wanted to sketch, and I had enough time to do a full sketch with colour, but the fans were not on and they didn’t exactly have air-conditioning, so sweaty-in-Venice I was once again. I probably lost loads of weight in sweat sat sketching in that place. I put some of it back on with those little snacks though, they were so good. I had just the one pint and gave up the sketch, going back to the apartment to cool off by the fan (with a couple more of those little snack things, I wish I remembered their proper name; one that I really liked was called “Baccala’ Mantecato”).

Baccalo Mantecato sm

Strasbourg!

Petite France, StrasbourgThe first time I came to Strasbourg was twenty years ago, and I arrived on a coach some time after midnight. It was part of an exchange program between sixth-form colleges in England and the Lycee Jean Monnet in Strasbourg, and from that trip in 1995 I fell in love with the city. I was learning both French and German at the time, so naturally Strasbourg was perfect. I went back a few times since, but the most recent was over ten years ago, and so when the opportunity (let’s call it the excuse) came up to visit Strasbourg again, to meet up with the French Urban Sketchers at the 3rd National ‘Rencontre’, I couldn’t resist. It was the twentieth anniversary of that pretty formative trip and Strasbourg was fading from my memory, so I simply had to come back and draw it, and draw it A LOT. Just as twenty years ago, I arrived after midnight, on a TGV from the south of France. I arrived to discover that the whole train station was now covered in a massive futuristic glass bubble. I walked to my hotel right by the cathedral, using the massive, towering steeple as a compass.

I met a group of French urban sketchers the next morning down at Petite France, where I stood on a bridge near the Ponts Couverts and sketched the scene above, the river Ill winding sleepily past timber-framed houses. You can see the sketchers gathered on the banks. I recognized a few from their sketches online; I’m a big fan of the French Urban Sketchers group, having met several of them in Barcelona, and I eagerly follow them on all the usual online places (the main site is france.urbansketchers.org). It was a cloudy morning, and the occasional raindrop splashed down, but there were no more storms, and eventually the sun came out. The weather here in Alsace was perfect for being out sketching.

Petite France, Strasbourg
Petite France is an area of Strasbourg famous for its narrow cobbled streets and old timber-framed buildings, where the river splits off into canals criss-crossed by footbridges and the occasional lock. It is very peaceful, or would be if it weren’t for the groups of Segway tourists whirring along the cobbles. There was a lot to sketch down here, and I would come back every day. Petite France is not, as the name suggests, a model-village based on the whole of France, nor is it made of Lego, nor are the people really small like Lilliputians. It gets its name from a disease, specifically Syphilis, which was known as the ‘French Disease’. Actually (according to a tour guide on a Segway) it was also known as the ‘Italian Disease’, because French troops brought it back from Naples at the end of the fifteenth century. Actually it was probably first brought into Europe from the Americas, but nobody knows for sure. Anyway, those affected soldiers were often brought here to this part of Strasbourg to be treated (or at least kept out of the way), giving the area the name “Little France” after those afflicted with the French Disease. The city was part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, not France – Strasbourg, or Strassburg, was for much of its history decidedly German, and its native language Alsacian is a form of Low Alemannic German.

Here I am in a France shirt (size Large, not Petite) sketching by the river Ill. Ironically people used to come here because they were ill. Anyway, all potential jokes and puns now exhausted, I decided to move along.
Sketching in Petite FranceSketching in Petite France
I stopped for lunch at a little place on Rue des Moulins, around the corner from the spot above, called ‘Le Baeckoffe d’Alsace’. I sketched the scene below while waiting for my food, and sipped a nice cold glass of ‘Fischer’ blonde beer (or Pecheur, depending on the glass), which was a real treat of a beer. Alsace knows its biere blonde. It also knows its food – I had the Cuisse de Poulet au Riesling (chicken leg in a Riesling-based sauce) with Spaetzle “Maison” (Spaetzle is a German side dish which my wife’s grandma used to make). This was superb, especially the Spaetzle, which was seasoned deliciously, and I could have eaten it all day long.

Rue des Moulins, Strasbourg

Strasbourg lunch

Best. Lunch. Ever.

To be continued…

it’s a trappe!

La Trappe sm
More from San Francisco, last March. Yes amazingly I still have not shown all. This was my dinner, eaten at a small Belgian restaurant in North Beach, La Trappe. I have been there with my wife once before, and enjoyed the size of the massive beer book (which, large though it is, doesn’t have my two favourite bieres belges but has a lot of bloody nice ones). They aint cheap either. The food though is lovely. I am a fan of moules frites (a pot of mussels with Belgian fries, which ironically I didn’t actually eat when I lived in Belgium). On this evening, I chose the Moules Normandes, a tasty dish of mussels heavy with apples. I had the frites of course, which were nice (but not as nice as the ones I used to eat in Charleroi at 3am, drowned in mayonnaise), with two dipping sauces, mayo andalouse and roasted garlic mayo. For drink, I had a Maredsous 8, the brown one. Nice, but not my favourite Maredsous, and I didn’t finish it. Mostly I drank water. Anyway if you are in San Francisco, I can recommend it, and you’ll find it on the corner of Greenwich and Mason, right on Columbus. Oh yes, here is the map…
SF La Trappe map sm