Belgian Vacation Log, Part 2: Ghent and genre (posted June 20, 2006)

Friends, here is Part 2 of my travelogue of Janice's and my recent trip to Belgium. By now, you've probably seen my report on last month's journey to the U.S. Southwest and Part 1 of our European vacation, in which we met part of my father's side of the family to celebrate the baptism of my niece Ava.

Late in the evening of Monday, 29 May 2006, Peter drove Janice and me and Franco & Alice F. in the rental van around Brugge (Bruges) in an attempt to photograph the city's spires as they were lit up. While we were unable to get to the center of town because of one-way streets, we did get to see the city's gates and some nice windmills.

On Tuesday, May 30, Ava's godparents Frank & Alice returned to New York. Peter and my mother stayed with Ava, who was fighting an ear infection; Peter's wife Kelly, who had a throat infection; and Kelly's mother Maureen, who had twisted her ankle on the cobblestone streets of Brugge (Bruges). My father got together with his brother, Guido (who had baptized Ava), but they didn't go very far, partly due to late spring rains.

However, Janice and I followed our original plan and took a train for a day trip to the nearby city of Ghent. After deciphering the schedules at the train station (while mass transit is generally better in Europe than in the U.S., we had some difficulty finding and reading signage), we found ourselves again crossing the scenic flat landscape of Flanders. Small towns and farms, unchanged for centuries, exist alongside modern highways and power plants.

We took a trolley from the train station into the old center of Ghent. Like Brugge, it was a center for commerce and art where guilds vied for power with local and foreign aristocrats. Unlike Brugge, which has extremely well-preserved medieval architecture, Ghent has more of a mix of modern buildings and Romanesque and Renaissance churches. It felt more like a living city than a museum piece, but each place we visited had its own charms (see the photos I've posted at Yahoo).

Janice and I walked through the marketplaces of the Graslei and Korenlei, admired the antique facades of the Patershol, and looked at an old cannon and a statue of Jan Van Eyck, whose triptych "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" is one of the premier paintings at St. Bavo's Cathedral. Beguinages, once refuges for laywomen and now convents and schools, were near still more book and chocolate shops.

St. Nicholas Church had more art, and we took an elevator to the top of the Belfort, or belfry, just as Franco & Alice had done (on foot) in Brugge. Not only did we get to see inside the impressive architecture and get a panoramic view from the center of Ghent, but we also got to descend some very narrow winding stairs. Later, we enjoyed the restored Het Gravenstein, or the Castle of the Counts, where we also visited the torture museum.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. We had dinner with my family one more time in Belgium before taking the train the next morning from Brugge to Brussels, they flying back to Boston on Wednesday, May 31. The past few weeks have been very busy at work as new copy editor Carla D. began at CW, and my latest article (I've occasionally written profiles) was published. Janice and I had to cancel plans to meet with Cliff & Eliza Y. due to continued rain.

My D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands: Seekers of Lore" heroic fantasy campaign came to a bittersweet end for now with the usual seasonal turnover and scheduling challenges. Byron V.O. and family moved to St. Louis to follow a job, and Paul J. returned from college. My D20 "Mutants & Masterminds" 2nd Ed.: "Drake's Port" superheroic scenarios got off to a slow start, partly because the Boston-area role-players have few copies of the core rulebook for character creation.

As for recent genre entertainment, thanks to in-flight movies, I've caught up a bit. Queen Latifah was amusing in the culinary-themed romantic comedy "Last Holiday," and the revisionist fairy tale "Hoodwinked" wasn't as annoying as I had feared it would be. A recent glut of child-oriented computer animation has turned me back toward hand-drawn animation and Asian anime.

Emma Thompson's "Nanny MacPhee" was a slapstick latter-day "Mary Poppins" with a dash of Tim Burton's style and was also reasonably entertaining. Muscular action flick "Transporter 2" had a weak plot and worse dialogue, but the "Bourne Supremacy" was a well-cast thriller, if different from the Robert Ludlum novels I read back in high school.

We also rewatched the spectacular but long remake of "King Kong" and adaptation of C.S. Lewis' fantasy "The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," both of which are still in the shadow of the written and film versions of "The Lord of the Rings."

I borrowed Beruk A.'s DVD of "Free Enterprise," a satire of the "Star Trek" fan subculture that was still respectful of its inspiration and audience, not unlike "Comic Book: the Movie" or "Galaxy Quest." Unfortunately, the direct-to-video "Brainiac Attacks" was not a worthy successor to the animated "Superman" series of the 1990s, let alone to the rest of the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini version of the D.C. Universe (including "Batman," "Justice League Unlimited," and to a lesser extent, "Static Shock" and "Teen Titans").

Speaking of Superman, while I'm looking forward to "Superman Returns" in movie theaters later this summer, I enjoyed Kevin Burns and Bryan Singer's documentary on the comic book superhero's history on A&E. I expect it to be an extra on the inevitable DVD. Among other recent acquisitions, I've been enjoying Buster Crabbe in the 1930s "Flash Gordon" serials.

I had a happy fanboy moment when "Batman Begins'" Christian Bale briefly shared a stage with the cast of "Superman Returns," including Christopher Reeve look-alike Brandon Routh, at the MTV Movie Awards! I didn't know most of the nominees for this year's Tony Awards, however. I hope to squeeze in "Superman Returns" and "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" amid the next few weeks' events.

On Saturday, June 10, Janice and I went to the bookstores of Harvard Square, Cambridge, although my favorite local role-playing shop, Pandemonium Books and Games, has moved to Central Square. We also ate at the Border Café, our favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, and hung out among the Asian food stands at the Dragon Boat Festival on the Charles River.

This past Saturday, June 17, Janice and I drove out to Worcester, Massachusetts. We visited the park and science center of the Ecotarium, the festival and weapons demonstrations at the Higgins Armory Museum, and comic book/game shop "That's Entertainment." I still have to set up our air conditioner, as temperatures have finally risen to the 80s F.

This coming weekend, I'll be hosting and running a D&D3.5 "Vanished Lands" one-shot for James B.'s 12-year-old nephew Joey and friends on Saturday, 24 June 2006, and on Sunday, I'll be meeting Ron J.K., who'll be up from Westchester visiting his brother and family in Brookline, Mass.

Janice will be visiting her immediate family in Upstate New York around Independence Day, but I have to work on Monday, July 3. On the other hand, I'll be taking a four-day weekend after that to visit friends in metropolitan New York and another one in August to visit family and friends in Virginia. In the meantime, stay cool! -Gene