Beautiful Bruges

By Jane Isaac
Crime Fiction Writer

The historic city of Bruges is located on the western side of Belgium in the Flemish Region and, in my mind, can only be described as achingly beautiful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient buildings are surrounded by cobbled streets, alongside the tall slim houses which line the canals that snake through the city centre.

With a climate very similar to England, we were treated to beautiful sunshine during our stay last weekend which undoubtedly added to our enjoyment, however I think there is little not to enjoy about Bruges. It’s not only pretty, but also one of the friendliest cities I have visited. The small Hotel Alegria where we stayed was perfectly located in the centre and the owner, Veronique, couldn’t do enough to cater for our every need, without being intrusive.

There’s a number of different options to travel to Bruges from the UK; I guess it rather depends on where you are travelling from. This time we opted for the Eurotunnel which we picked up at Folkstone and found to be not only inexpensive, but also enormously efficient. It seems that if you arrive early, you can board an earlier train within a two hour slot of your booking for no extra charge, and the boarding and disembarking are effortless, as are the drive through France and into Belgium. From our home in Northamptonshire, the whole journey took us a little over five hours door to door.

There are a plethora of different trips to take and places to visit when you arrive in the city. Cars are rarer than in other cities, making it softer and more tranquil, as most people appear to travel around by bike. A canal trip is beautiful and relatively inexpensive, especially when it includes an overview of the city’s rich history. Climbing the 366 steps to the top of the medieval Belfry that dominates Bruges skyline can be tough on the knees and a little scary in places (especially if you have a husband with a heart condition!), but the view at the top is breathtaking and well worth the hike. A trip around the back streets by horse and carriage is another wonderful way to move around, and particularly romantic on a balmy evening. There is also the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is worth visiting for the stained glass windows alone, and if you are religious, amongst its relics, it claims to have a phial of the blood of Christ that you can view.

As one would expect, Bruges is packed with restaurants, cafes and outdoor eateries; lovely boutiques, and delicious chocolatiers. Of course we tried the chocolate (I can recommend Julie’s if anyone is looking for somewhere particularly nice), sampled the fresh waffles, and bought frites from the stall in the square. But those of you that know me well, will know that I’m a bit of a foodie (my daughter’s influence) and I really wanted to try some of their high end restaurants too. We enjoyed an amazing meal at Brasserie Raymond where we tried delicacies such as snails, marrowbone and bouillabaisse. We also ate lobster and moules (mussels) at the wonderful Breydel-De Coninc, somewhere I’m told the locals frequent. Main courses at these two restaurants average 20-30 Euros each, but are definitely worth it if you want to try something different, however the choice of eateries, and cheap ones at that, is vast and there is practically something available for every taste and pocket. My only regret was that due to being on medication I wasn’t able to sample the many beers that Belguim has to offer, although my husband made sure he didn’t let the side down on that count!

Surprisingly small (my husband joked that everything was within fifteen minutes walking distance from the city centre), Bruges is easily accessible on foot and a wander up the back streets, passing street markets, soaking up the ambience and sitting outside cafes is what it’s all about. On one particular evening, we sat near a market stall and, after chatting with the stallholder, she asked me to mind her stall while she popped to the ladies. At the same café, a bunch of musicians stopped by for a beer and pulled out their guitars. When they discovered my husband was also a keen guitarist, they leant him an instrument and they all played some tunes together. That evening summed up Bruges for me: good food and good company amongst beautiful surroundings. I should add that many of the locals speak up to five languages fluently, so communication is rarely a problem!

I’ll definitely go back to Bruges. Next time I’d like to take a boat trip to visit the nearby village of Damme and perhaps visit the Flanders Battlefields of Ypres too. There is just so much to do in and around this wonderful city.

*All images courtesy of Jane Isaac

** This article was originally published on Jane Isaac’s Blog

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Made in México

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By Nora Vasconcelos

In the second half of the 19th century, José María Velasco enchanted the world with his paintings in which he depicted with precise detail the landscapes of the Valley of México and the outskirts of the Mexican capital.

His studies at the San Carlos Academy, under the guidance of the Italian artist Eugenio Landesio, his deep interest in science, and his encounter with the French Impressionist, combined in a way that he was able to bring alive colourful scenes of the Mexican Landscape.

Velasco did that with such detail that many of his paintings have been the base for the study of the geography and botanic that existed in central México before buildings and houses cover this territory.

His profound love and observation of his country are something that it’s admired up to these days.

His art is just one of the many wonderful things Made in México.

As it is its history and culture, which have been recognized by Unesco. Nowadays, México has the largest number of World Heritage Sites in the Americas, and it’s placed seventh in the world. Part of this list includes the archaeological zones of  Chichen Itza, Palenque, El Tajin and Teotihuacan, as well as the city centres of Mexico city, Guanajuato and Morelia.

Modern architects such as Luis Barragán, Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Ricardo Legorreta and Teodoro González de León contributed to design the new capital city, bringing strong firm colours to structures that are easily identifiable around the world as Mexican design. Along them, painters such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and writers like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlos Fuentes y Octavio Paz, have gotten high recognition around the world.

Unesco has also designated Mexican cuisine as ‘intangible cultural heritage’. And if course it impossible not to mention the production of Tequila and Mezcal, coveted all around the world. Guacamole and great coffee, are also Made in México.

So, as José María Velasco did in his time, nowadays we can admire México for all its greatness, having in mind that the same as bad things happen in this country, they happen in any other country, and México is a place full of beauty and hardworking people proud of their heritage.

 

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Where the oceans meet

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By Nora Vasconcelos

Puerto Rico lays where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea intersect. This archipelago contains some of the most amazing landscapes any traveller can see, as well as rich architecture; centuries of history; Spanish, French and Caribbean culinary influences, and beautiful beaches.

All of this makes of Puerto Rico a really good destination for turists who want to relax and wander around historical sites.

Curious about it? This week, my good friend and mystery author, Jane Isaac, kindly published a guest post I wrote about lovely Puerto Rico.

You can read it here: (Puerto Rico: Where the oceans meet)

Jane is also launching soon her fourth book: Beneath the Ashes, which is ready for pre-order now. Don’t miss the chance to discover what new mysteryes DI Will Jackman will be called to investigate!

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Cruising the Mediterranean

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By Sunny Lockwood and Al Lockwood

Guest Post

For those of us who love to travel, there’s rarely a question of why?

We know why: we want to see new places, learn about new cultures, try new foods, and simply have fun in a city or countryside where we’ve never been before.

The questions we ask are: Where do we want to go next? How can we get there? When can we leave?

My husband and I have had the travel bug since we were young. Now, well into retirement, our wanderlust is strong as ever. And the rewards are equally great.

Studies show that travel is good for the body, the brain and the spirit. And even though our older bodies lack the endurance they once had, we find that travel enlarges our concept of “home” and enriches our experience of wonder.

Imagine being awakened by the deep, resonant melody of church bells, bells that have rung each morning for centuries. That was our experience in Florence.

Or being enveloped in the fragrance of incense from a fortuneteller’s shop. We experienced that each afternoon in Barcelona. Our Airbnb apartment was right above her shop.

Imagine the flavor of dark chocolate gelato setting your taste buds dancing. That was our daily experience in Venice. That and the scene of shiny black gondolas sliding calmly through narrow canals.

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Our stunning world is immense. But our individual lives are brief. So if there’s something you dream of doing, our advice is do it now. While you can.

Sweetheart Al and I choose ocean cruising as our preferred method of long-range travel. There are many reasons for this, including our modest travel budget and our declining mobility. We can no longer hike like there’s no tomorrow, jump into sleeping bags, or pedal bicycles for miles.

But on a cruise we can see the world at our own pace and in our own way while sleeping in the same comfortable bed each night.

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And we’ve chosen to share our adventures through travel memoirs.

Our newest book, Cruising the Mediterranean, brings readers along on our 12-day cruise to Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus and three Greek islands.

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Even before we left California, we started our trip by adjusting our internal clock so that we’d be on European time when we arrived in Amsterdam. We added four days in Amsterdam just because Al wanted me to see that historic city, before boarding our cruise ship.

In Amsterdam, we used Airbnb. A first for us, and we loved the experience. We stayed in the heart of historic Amsterdam. Actually, our room was in the Red Light District, so our “window shopping” introduced us to the latest in sex toys, edible underwear and items we couldn’t even identify.

We cruised on Holland America. We’ve cruised on other lines, but this 12-day trip fit our pocketbook and visited places we really wanted to see.

At every stop, we experienced something wonderful, from standing on the Acropolis as the morning sun gilded its marble monuments, to watching a rug weaving demonstration in Istanbul.

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We discovered delectable Turkish Delight during a dinner cruise along the Bosphorous Strait. And enjoyed the largest piece of Baklava we’d ever seen in a family-owned restaurant on the island of Santorini.

We’ve done our best to capture in words (and a few photographs) the wonder of our trip. Our goal in writing travel memoirs? To share our fun and fabulous experience. And to encourage others to make their own travel dreams come true.

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*Sunny Lockwood is a retired newspaper reporter, columnist and editor. Her freelance stories and articles have been published in MS magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national and regional publications. Al Lockwood is a retired Silicon Valley engineer. He’s a fine art photographer whose work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

*All the images courtesy of Sunny Lockwood and Al Lockwood

 

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Dinnertime in Mexico

By Nora Vasconcelos

Dinnertime in Mexico can be easily compared with a delicious fun time in the sense that all sort of dishes, formal, typical, informal, elaborate or simple, may appear at the table when the time to call it a day comes. Either if it’s at 6pm or very late at night.

Although the most important meal in this country takes place usually around lunch time, when it comes to the the last meal of every journey all is welcome: tortas, tacos, quesadillas, mole, pozole, sweet bread, ice cream, tamales, tostadas, meat, pasta, pizza…

However, dinnertime might as well consist of cereal, fruit, yogourth or milk.

Pretty much, everyday is different, but, the options are always there, to choose whatever fits to any hungry, or not so hungry, diner.

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Dinnertime

Food transforms this Mexican town, year after year

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Calpan is a very small town, located in the west part of Puebla, one of the most diverse and industrious states in Mexico. It’s also guarded by two of the main volcanos in the country, the Iztaccihuatl (which residents affectionately called Doña Rosita) and the Popocatepetl (also known there as Don Goyo). So that, life in Calpan goes by in a quiet pace most of the year.

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The oldest buildings have been well preserved, as they were some of the first built in Mexico by the Spaniards, around the 16th century. All around, stone dominates the sights. Churches, houses, streets, all of them witness how people go through their everyday routine with not many disturbances from the urban fast-paced rhythm. Something really amazing, considering that this place is only two hours away from Mexico city, the country’s capital.

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But once a year, everything changes here. Local residents welcome hundreds of tourists from other parts of the country who, year after year, can’t wait to enjoy the most delicious “Chiles en nogada” ever!

This Mexican dish, composed with green peppers stuffed with meat and fruits, and covered with walnut sauce, is not only one of the most typical of the national cuisine, but also one with historical roots, as it has its origins during the aftermath of the war of the independence that Mexico fought with Spain in the 19th century.

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The elaborated recipe for this dish was created in the state of Puebla, and it has been preserved through the years with just a few modifications. Eating “Chiles en Nogada” is a broad tradition that extends around many places in Mexico, and its anxiously awaited every year, as the ingredients for its preparation can be bought only during July and August and, to remain the closest to the original recipe, the ingredients most be from Calpan, Puebla.

It’s so that this charming town changes completely for two weekends, at the beginning of August. Families open their garages and get some tables to served visitors their special recipes; restaurants send their waiters and waitresses -dressed in typical Mexican customs- to greet visitors with plates containing the coveted dish as soon as they arrive to the town, and in the center of Calpan, a big marquee is displayed with tables and chairs, allowing people to taste dozens of different combinations which are prepared at the moment in stands specially designed to allow local restaurants to prepare these chillies while guests observe the preparations.

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Of course, the smell is amazing. And having the opportunity of sitting down at the table with people you’ve just met, is surprising. Life goes easy there. No rush, no worries. It’s simply time to sit back and relax. Calpan residents are there to take good care of you.

When the delicious meal is over, it’s time to go for a nice walk, and the farmers’ market is right there to surprise all people  -particularly those, like me, coming from the big cities- with their incredibly fresh produce, hand-made tortillas and all sort of Mexican snacks.

Then you see smiles all around. People in Calpan feel happy and proud to show visitors their hard work, from a complete year in which they have taken care of their fields.

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And then, when the afternoon turns into sunset, the culinary adventure ends. However, the pleasant experience has come here to stay for a long time!

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Want to read more about culinary trips? Check this post written by Jane Isaac, about The Markets Of The Dordogne, in France. And once you’re there, why not read her other posts about books!

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12 Books of Christmas

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By Nora Vasconcelos

Now that the Holiday season is around the corner I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite Christmas stories, and here they are:

1) Fallen Angel, by Don J. Snyder. Christmas time in a cottage called Serenity is the best place to help Terry McQuinn heal old emotional wounds. At the same time, he finds himself in this places that he had almost forgot as time passed by, the same as the relationship with his father. The cold weather and the snow accompany him, unaware that some new visitors to Serenity will change his life forever.

2) Silver Bells, by Luanne Rice. This book tells the story of Christopher Byrne and his son, who find the path back to happiness and family love thanks to a rough time spent in New York city, and the help of Catherine Tierney, who unexpectedly becomes a key element for all of them to finally be able to have a happy Christmas.

3) The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl. Not exactly a Christmas story, but, as part of the story occurs in winter and it places the reader in the time when Charles Dickens toured around the East Cost of the U.S, I always relate this book to the Holidays season.

4) Sherlock Holmes: A Case at Christmas and Other New Adventures, by N.M. Scott. For me good mysteries are always welcome, and who else that Sherlock Holmes himself to flavour a little bit the season. In this collection of stories, Scott retakes the characters created by Conan Doyle to bring many more enjoyable adventures, placing some of them during the holidays.

5) Murder never takes a holiday, by Donald Bain. As part of the series of books based on the TV series Murder She Wrote, this book features two stories. In the first one, A little Yuletide Murder, Bain takes the main character, Jessica Fletcher, to her hometown, Cabot Cove, where the mystery writers hopes to spend a joyful Christmas. However, as always it happens to Mrs. Fletcher, a murder comes on her way to prevent her to sit down and relax. The second story, Manhattans and Murder, places Mrs. Fletcher in New York city, where she’s determined to solve another mystery that’s has happened right in the middle of her book tour.

6) ‘Tis the Season, by Ann M. Martin. This children’s story touches the heart of everyone who reads it as it tells the story of little Flora and Ruby, who had recently lost their parents and are trying hard to fit themselves in a town where Christmas is all around.

7) and 8) Mrs. Miracle and Call me Mrs. Miracle, by Debbie Macomber, are two books in which Mrs. Merkle, often called Mrs. Miracle, goes around different places finding ingenious ways to solve those little problems that people around her face, exactly those little problems that seem impossible to be solved and that once they are solve, bring love, happiness and a very merry happy Christmas to everyone.

9) Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham. Imagine all what can go wrong during this time. Add then the idea of skipping the holiday. The result: A complete disaster. One that Luther and Nora Krank won’t be able to solve unless they accept some help from whom they less expect it.

10) Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penlzer, owner of the Mysterious bookshop in New York City. This book compiles mystery short stories placed during Christmas time, written specially for the Bookshop by famous authors such as Anne Perry, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake.

11) A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Of course this good old classic can be never missed during the celebrations. I’ve read and re read this story over and over, and I never get enough of it. I never get tired of going through its pages while I allow myself to get lost in the story as if I were a silent witness of what’s happening to Mr. Scrooge during that ghostly night destined to save his soul.

12) A Rumpole Christmas, by John Mortimer. If Christmas time is not really your thing, you can always take revenge of it by reading the adventures and misfortunes of Horace Rumpole, a moody character, who experiences all kind of situations during the Holiday Season while trying to make the least of this joyful time.

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