Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Guest blogger: Patricia and her special place in the world

 Para leer esta entrada en español, hacer clic aquí.

view of the lakes and mountains from the top of Mt. Campanario, Bariloche.

Since many of those reading this blog have asked me in the past to post about Patagonia, I thought that there was no one better qualified to tell you about this distant and beautiful region of my country than my friend, Patricia Sgrignuoli.
Patricia, author of  Notas y relatos de viajes - viajando por Patagonia (in Spanish with English translation tool), lived all her life in the city of Buenos Aires, but ever since she was a little girl she had a dream: to live in PATAGONIA one day.
Currently, Patricia and her husband are preparing to move to their new home in one of the most beautiful corners of Patagonia, the  place that has always been *her* place in the whole wide world.
Here is the story of how she fell in love with this region of Argentina, and how her dream of one day living there, is now coming true.

Patagonia - My place in the world... 
by Patricia Sgrignuoli

Snow-shoeing in the forest in Tierra del Fuego.

I was very pleased when my friend Aledys invited me to write a post in her blog about one of the most beautiful,  magical and far-off parts of my country - Argentinean Patagonia  -  and the story of why I believe it is "my place in the world". It is not easy to express in words the emotions that this place always inspires in me, but I think that after reading these lines and looking at the photos you will understand how I feel.

This is my story:

I was twelve years old when my parents took me for the first time to Bariloche, a city at the foot of the Andes, during the summer holidays. I can still remember the view we had from our cottage window: the intense blue colour of the Nahuel Huapi lake, the mountains in the distance ... While trying to take in that breathtaking view of the surroundings, I remember thinking to myself how nice it would be one day to live in that place.

Riding on a sled pulled by huskies in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego
A few years later we came back, but this time during the winter. I had my first experience in the cold weather of the south and it was also the first time I got in contact with snow. I liked it so much that, right there and then, I decided that I wanted to live in Patagonia when I was older! Along the years I kept going back to the south again and again; and each time I would grow fonder of its landscapes, its wildlife, its people... and that is how my long-standing romance with Patagonia started.
Lago Caviahue, province of Neuquén.
Many years went by while I was studying and working, until finally, I managed to save enough money to make a dream of mine come true: going on a ski holiday to La Hoya, a resort near Esquel, in the northwest of the province of Chubut.
To get there I had to travel for 24 hours on a bus, making a total of 2,000 kilometres, which is the distance between the city of Buenos Aires and Esquel.
I went on practising ski for a number of years, and that is how I got to see places of the Patagonia like Chapelco (near San Martín de los Andes in the province of Neuquén) with its beautiful beech forests. I also visited the Atlantic coast of Patagonia: Puerto Madryn, a place with stunning beaches and skies so clear  that you can see the stars and spot satellites as well. There, the Valdés Península, is a natural marvel with an amazingly rich wildlife like there is not anywhere else on the planet. The highlight of my trip to this beautiful place was the sighting of whales out in the sea, who just a few metres from the shore, seemed to be following our walk along the beach with curiousity.

Images of Caviahue in the province of Neuquén.
A few years later, together with a friend, I decided to do something a bit more adventurous and we set out to travel across the vast Patagonian steppelike plains. After an entire day on a bus traversing the rough and desertic landscape of  Patagonia, we finally reahed our destination - the spectacular Perito Moreno glacier, situated in the province of Santa Cruz. This was an unforgettable experience!

After I got married, my husband and I travelled to a place that we had never heard of before - Villa Pehuenia, a small village on the shores of Aluminé lake and at the foot of an extinct volcano. Mt. Batea Mahuida has been inactive for millions of years and a deep blue lake with volcanic sandy beaches was formed in the dormant crater of the volcano. Also, a very peculiar tree, the araucaria or pehuén (as the original inhabitants of the region, the mapuches, call it) grows in this remote place of the northern Patagonia.

Mascardi lake near the city of Bariloche, Rio Negro.

We both fell in love with this place and as of that moment we started seriously considering the possibility of moving there in the near future. This was a big step and we had to think carefully if we really wanted to leave behind the big city and start a new and completely different life in Patagonia. There were too many aspects to take into account, since in Patagonia life is not altogether easy: in the winter there are constant power cuts and fuel shortage; and sometimes the heavy snowstorms leave whole towns completely cut off from civilization... Despite all these problems that are logical in such a remote place, we finally made up our minds and decided that we wanted to make a home in Patagonia.

images from Bariloche, in the province of Rio Negro.
We made one more trip after we decided to change our lifestyle and move away from the big city: we travelled to the end of the world, to the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the whole hemisphere. Ushuaia is ....

beautiful and majestic; mystical and unique; mysterious and magnificent; colourful and magical ... So many words can be used to describe this place, but to me it is simply where nature, adventure and legend come together at the end of the world...

When I wrote these words I had Ushuaia (Tierra del Fuego) in mind, but the description suits the whole region of Patagonia perfectly. In this remote part of the country, there are no (or very few) shopping centres, no huge lights or big cities; but also, there is neither violence nor pollution... just endless plains, green valleys, mountains and lakes; clear skies and pure deep blue waters; above all, there is silence and peace.

After so many years travelling across the Patagonia, the little girl who fell in love with those beautiful landscapes so long ago, will be hopefully celebrating her 50th birthday next year in her new home in Patagonia, just as she dreamed so long ago. Very soon, my husband and I will be starting our new life in a small town in the northwest of the province of Chubut: Lago Puelo - a place where Mother Nature is mistress of all and which , for my husband and me, will become our place in the world....

Monday, 13 September 2010

Visiting Zeeland:Middelburg

City Hall or Stadhuis of Middelburg, built 1452-1520.

In our tour of the southern province of Zeeland, we used the capital, Middelburg, as our base to explore the region. This relatively small city (approximately 48.000 in.) was for us a pleasant surprise and we dedicated our first day in Zeeland to explore its historic city centre.

The Water Management building in Middelburg.

While walking along the the back streets and along the still existing medieval moats, the visitor can certainly breathe in the history of this city. Middelburg probably originated in the 9th century, when a number of fortified towns were built along the coast of the (then) island of Walcheren to defend Zeeland from Viking attacks. Later in the Middle Ages, it became an important trading post thanks to its strategic location between England and the cities of Flanders.Then during the era of the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) it became an important centre for the Dutch East India Company and Middelburg flourished like never before.

Thanks to this rich past, the visitor can now admire the wonderful architecture of the stately merchant houses and storehouses built along the canal. Despite the destruction and devastation that the Second World War caused in the 1940s, a thourough restoration process was carried out, which gave the city much of its old glory back.

A good way to get a impression of the city is to take one of the boat tours, or rondvaart in Dutch. The company Rondvaart Middelburg offers trips in an open boat with a guide, every day between April and October. Check their website (click on the link above) for details and prices.

One of the most lively parts of the historic centre is undoubtedly the square around the City Hall or Stadhuis. The imposing building stands out with its beautiful late-gothic façade with little turrets, red and white shutters, and none less that twenty-five statues of nobles of Zeeland. During the summer it is possible to visit the gothic part of the building, which is totally worth doing. The Toursit Shop (the tourist information office of Middelburg) organises the visits to this monumental building. Visit their site if you want to know more about their products, such as city tours, visits to museums, etc.

Detail of the façade of the Town Hall in Middelburg.
But probably the symbol of the city is another historic monument: the Lange Jan or Long Jan, the tower of the abbey complex of Middelburg, which with its 92 meters, it is impossible to miss. The tower suffered destruction by fire during the bombardment of Zeeland in 1940 but it was almost immediately restored. The tower is open daily for a visit and if you are feeling able and willing, after a climb of 201 steps, you will surely be rewarded with a breath-taking view of the city and beyond. Here you can find information about Lange Jan, including practical information to plan your visit. (Dutch and German).

A view of the Lange Jan tower from a side street in Middelburg.
The Abbey complex to which the tower of the Lange Jan belongs, houses now government offices and the Zeeuwsmuseum, the largest museum in the province with, among other works, the impressive Zeeland tapestries and the historical collection of the Royal Zeeland Scientific Society. On the website of the Zeeuwsmuseum you will find practical and background information about the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions at the museum.

The Abbey complex in Middelburg where the Zeeuwsmuseum is located.

Zeeland claims to have the most hours of sun per year in the Netherlands, and during the spring and summer, when the sun shines through the clouds, the city bustles with activity. Restaurants and cafés put out their tables and locals as well as tourists fill their terraces. Most of the catering establishments can be found in the area around the market square or Markt, the Vlasmarkt, the Dam and Plein 1940.

Market Square near the Town Hall, in Middelburg.
Middelburg also offers a variety of events all throughout the year, especially during the summer season. Some of these include the International Jazz Festival held during Whitsun weekend (website in Dutch), the Taste of Zeeland in June, the Mussels and Seafood Fair in July, and the Kermesse in August. A number of markets and fleemarkets are held across the city all the year round.

The Kloveniersdoelen built in Flemish Renaissance style in 1607, now housing a music centre.
Whether you enjoy exploring the cultural heritage or you want to  indulge yourself with a bit of shopping or entertainment, Middelburg will certainly not disappoint you. It is the ideal place to begin your exploration of this beautiful province by the Northern Sea.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Spotted in the Netherlands:

It's a small world,  isn't it?

Just about a month ago I spent a day in Almere with Blogger pal Sandra, author of Presépio com Vista para o Canal. We had a fantastic time visiting a special photo exhibition and enjoying lunch together in the city centre which served to prove once more that Sandra is a fantastic host. I will soon post about this particular day in Almere more in detail, but today I wanted to share something that happened to me on my way back home.

After parting with Sandra I had just about enough time to catch my train to Amersfoort where I would take my second train back to my city - Zwolle. I took a bus in one of the new neighbourhoods just outside the Almere centrum hoping that I would make it in time to Almere Centrum, the train station.

Unfortunately, my haste made me get off one stop too soon and I had to run the remainder of the way to the train station. Totally out of breath, I climbed down the stairs to the platforms, looked for the right one, saw the train, double-checked that it was going in the right direction and happy but exhausted from the run, I jumped onto it - and just barely seconds before the conductor whistled and the train started to move.

The car I chose was almost empty so I began to relish the moment I would be able to sit down, cool down a bit and finally take out my book to read and enjoy the rest of the ride to my next destination. I chose a seat on the right-hand side but then I decided that the sun would be bothering me and I changed to the other side. Finally! I was sitting, I was opening my bag, I was taking out my book .... when something that was written on the window caught my eye. My hand froze halfway into my bag, still holding the book and my heart almost skipped a beat when I read the word: ARGENTINA!

All I could think right then was: "what are the odds?!" I took out the book, yes, but not so much to read it anymore as to create the perfect scenario for a photo - I had to share this moment! I took my camera too,  and started clicking away while the train was leaving Almere behind and traversing the polder. I took a few shots of the highway we were just passing, the fields.... until I finally saw the right kind of landscape approaching fast: Argentina (the grafitti) and the Netherlands (the mill in the distance) in one single shot.

After the photo session was over, I kept thinking about this other Argentinean person: what had brought him/her here to the Netherlands: love, a holiday, a business trip? I somehow could not picture a serious businessman writing a grafitti on a train window ... so he or she had probably been a student at one of the Dutch universities...? How long ago had this person sat on this very same spot, on this same train?

Anyway, even if I don't condone this kind of creative writing on public transport, finding this grafitti served to keep me musing about being far from home, about being an expat in the Netherlands. When you are living the life of an expat you adapt, you change, you become one of them in many ways, without noticing it.You go through the motions of your new life day in, day out, until things like this silly grafitti makes you stop for a moment and ask yourself, "How did I end up here?", and also realise all of a sudden, "boy, am I far from home!"

If you are an expat too, have you ever had such moments? Or if you have moved from your original city to a new one in your country: do you ever stop to think how you never imagined you would be living in a totally different place at some point in your life? How does it feel for you?