Smeagol

During the course of my evening walk, I pass a small lake which the Flemish conservation group Natuurpunt has spent most of the spring draining. This has been in order to remove debris from the bank and improve the connection to the Grote Nete river in order aid the spawning of fish such as the burbot.

The cleanup appears to have been completed, the lake has been refilled and the path around it has been reopened. It’s clearly not completed yet, but it is coming along very nicely and I shall look forward to seeing how it progresses from here on in.

20200708573

My purpose in mentioning this, however, was to post the above photo as an excuse to crack a series of weak jokes about hobbit holes, river folk and the fact that The Shire can be found in the vicinity of Kasterlee.

Yes, I am massively stretching things, both geographically and in terms of fictional small folk, but the Kabouterberg is well worth a visit — with or without kids — even though it’s not as close to us as I would like.

There are, of course, no hobbits in the above photo because it was raining.

While on the subject of hobbits, it’s worth mentioning that I am currently reading The Hobbit with the twins and it’s going down a lot better than I expected. Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves have just left Beorn’s hall and are heading towards Mirkwood and the boys won’t stop talking about it — which I am taking as a most excellent sign.

When we started the novel, I was assuming that they would soon get fed up with Tolkien’s incessant songs but I have been proven to be very wrong about this indeed. It probably helps that I never make any attempt to actually sing any of these songs.

Alden Biesen and the Harry Potter drive-in disaster

The castle of Alden Biesen is little more than thirty minutes drive from us, yet it wasn’t until yesterday that we finally got around to visiting it. It’s a spectacular location, comprising a castle (of course), gardens (both French and English) as well as plenty of space to wander around outside.

It’s also a conference centre, host to a variety of events and somewhere to which we would happily return.

We spent the best part of four hours on a quest for de schat van vlieg (fly’s treasure — I have no idea why a fly), which involves following a path around the grounds, finding fairy-tale related clues that reveal the location of a treasure chest in the Brothers Grimm exhibition at the end of the tour.

I’m always a bit ambivalent about these types of tours. On one hand, they can provide a set of themed activities to keep the kids engaged but there’s always a risk that the boys will end up moving from location to location without actually looking up from the provided maps.

That said, this tour was pretty well designed with plenty of additional activities and, apart from a couple of route-related disputes (“Why do we have to follow the path all the way around when the next clue is back at the castle?”) we did enjoy a rather relaxed and very pleasant walk.

I even let the twins loose with a camera at one point

After stopping for dinner, we went on to the real reason for being in Bilzen. The drive-in.

With the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, one of the cinema chains in Belgium has organised a number of drive-in locations at which they are screening iconic films on, what they claim to be, the largest mobile LCD screen in the world. Yesterday was the turn of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This screen is supposed to be glare-proof and watchable no matter what. But when you put the screen directly in front of the setting sun, you have a problem. This, combined with being stuck in a car for two hours on a warm evening made for a spectacularly disappointing evening. So much so that pulled out the DVD as soon as we got home and watched the film again — with pictures this time.

It’s a shame because I have been to outdoor screenings in the past and have enjoyed them. But not at sunset, and not in a car.

Apenheul revisited

With the EU’s internal borders having reopened and the twins’ birthday having happened just over a week ago, we were able to take the two hour drive into the Netherlands to visit Apeneheul once again. This is a zoo of free-roaming primates in which you can wander through a forest and see the animals in as close to their natural state as possible.

It’s a bit different from the last time.

For a start, we have to buy tickets online before visiting. And when buying the tickets, we also had to choose an arrival slot — this gives is a half-hour window in which we must arrive. Miss the window, and the journey is wasted. So we gave ourselves plenty of leeway and ended up with the best part of an hour to kill before we could enter the zoo.

Fortunately, the site is set among some wonderfully scenic grounds, so walking around for a bit really is no challenge at all.

Once inside, the effects of the coronavirus are still visible. The parts of the site in which the 1.5 metre social distancing can’t be enforced remained closed, as do some of the free-roam areas. Most notable of these (for us, at least) were the squirrel monkeys because these little guys are just too inquisitive to be allowed near anyone right now.

That said, there is still plenty to see and do and the boys all enjoyed a great day out.

Apenheul2020459

My only real gripe is with the ordering system they have implemented. The cafes are all self-service and, to prevent crowding at the tills and take contactless payments, you have to use an app to place and pay for your order, and I really did not like the app.

When I say app here, the reality is that I was using the partially translated mobile web version on my phone. The user interface for this relied on some wacky web ordering framework which didn’t understand that a browser has a back button, so one click can empty your basket and send you right back to the beginning of the process. This is not pleasant when you have three hungry children sitting around a table. Once I had managed to place an order, there is no feedback at all. You simply return to a screen that informs you that they’ll let you know when the order is ready which, after having waited twenty minutes for three sandwiches, felt really inadequate.

For all my whining, though, this is a relatively minor gripe and, once I knew what to expect, I was a lot more relaxed about it.

Apenheul2020511

Even with the inevitable restrictions, Apenheul still represents a great day out. The site is huge and, even with some parts closed off, we still managed to spend more than three hours working our way around the park. There is loads to see, plenty to do and the primates are still able to get close and personal.

We will certainly be going again. Hopefully the Coronacrisis will be over by the time we do.

Walking

Over the course of the lockdown I have tried to remain reasonably active and, after some trial and error, this has meant going for a walk for an hour every day. It helps that we live within walking distance of Totterpad so I can enjoy some pleasant scenery at the same time.

Normally, on a weekday, I would go immediately after I have shut down my work laptop for the day. That isn’t going to be possible today so I went at lunchtime instead.

It’s surprisingly peaceful on a Monday lunchtime, presumably because most of the kids are back at school, and some of the local fauna were out and about.

Deer

I knew there was deer in the area and have even glimpsed them on occasion (most notably the times when I have had to wait until late evening before going out), but this is the first time that they have hung around long enough for me to pull out my phone.

I should go out earlier more often.

Five Things #25

Sonya, Josephine, and the Tragic Re-Invention of the Telephone by I. S. Heynen is a powerful slice of dystopian fiction.

Chris Grey suggests that Brexit is going feral, and examines the consequences.

Denzil visits The Vlooyberg Tower near Tielt-Winge.

Ben Orlin asks What Makes a Great Teacher? With answers from four great teachers.

And another wolf has been sighted in Belgium. This time in Liège.

Of beer and beavers

Sunday saw Macsen competing in the Flemish karate championship, which left me at home with William and Alexandre. After a morning playing board games, we decided to take advantage of the bright, dry (but cold) weather and head out to the Totterpad, a nearby nature walk.

Bernard the beaver lives in his beaver castle next to the visitor center. When he wakes up one morning, he notices unknown footprints around his castle. He decides to look for the maker of those strange traces. Along the way he has to walk over a tree bridge, crawl into a bird’s nest, do a totter trail and much more.

It’s a nice walk, and one we have followed a fair few times. It’s not too long, but there is plenty of opportunity for exploration and several activities along the way.

IMG_20200119_142459

I am also rather fond of the fact that the walk ends (or starts) at the recently refurbished visitor centre and bar, De Watermolen.

The pub was a lot busier than I’d expected so, after having ordered a drink each for all of us, we had a bit of a trek to find an available seat. While looking for a seat, I kept hold of the hot chocolates in order to minimise the risk of hot drink spillage in a crowded bar. This left the twins to handle everything else.

I think the sight of a nine-year-old wandering around a bar, beer in hand, may have raised a few eyebrows.

IMG_20200119_144813

The walk home was shorter and more relaxed, the boys having finally burnt off some of their energy, until we reached the point at which we exited the path. Here there is a dry ditch surrounding a picnic table and the twins thought it would be a good idea to roll down the hill.

It’s been dry all weekend, so I thought nothing of it. Until they stood up. Covered, from head to foot, in mud.

This is why we have a washing machine.

Macsen came fourth in the championship. A good result that only just missed his being on the podium.

Five Things #20

Water: A History by KJ Kabza is a remarkable and moving story of human colonists on the planet of Quányuán which is arid to the point of being uninhabitable. Wetness is a concept left back on Earth but this doesn’t stop one elderly woman from stepping outside the safety of the colony whenever she can for the brief opportunity to fully experience the outside world.

Christine McLaren meets the citizen scientists in Australia who are reforesting the ocean.

Denzil visits The See-Through Church of Borgloon.

Steve Royston reminds us that political movements are fine, as long as they’re regular.

Chris Grey looks ahead at what happens next with Brexit and the battle between remembering and forgetting.

The Future of Fireworks

Bruges replaces New Year’s Eve fireworks with drone show

It’s official – the city of Bruges will replace its annual fireworks show on New Year’s Eve with a light display by drones, with no intention of ever going back to traditional means.

The picturesque city has been granted approval for one hundred computer-controlled drones to be used to form figures, texts and images in the sky to celebrate the new year.

We’re not planning to be in Bruges for the New Year this time around. But if they do this again, I will certainly be keen to see what can be done with 100 drones.

Five Things #11

In The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan a workaholic office worker is diagnosed with a stress-induced illness and sent to the rehabilitation center in Lijiang. The city isn’t as he remembers it, though, and then the story takes the sort of left turn that you would expect from someone like Philip K. Dick.

Dr Beth Singler discusses Blade Runner, Zhora, her snake, and the ethics of sexbots and slavery.

Simon Brew argues that obsessing over box office receipts puts us in danger here of giving movie studios even more excuses to avoid risks in favour of staying within the boundaries of mainstream fare.

Nnedi Okorafor defines Africanfuturism.

Denzil at Discovering Belgium visits the Menin Gate for the Last Post.

Blankenberge and Bruges

Today is a public holiday and, because none of the boys had any activities planned for Sunday, we decided to go out for the day. So the normal Sunday morning lie-in was cancelled and we made the two hour drive to Blankenberge.

This is a nice little seaside town and one that we may well return to when the weather is a bit less wintry. Going to the beach in November isn’t clever, which is why we went to visit the Serpentarium. Handily, we have ZOO memberships which (for an annual price) gives us free entry to Antwerp Zoo, Planckendael and the Serpentarium.

The Serpentarium isn’t large — it took us less than an hour to see everything — but there is a lot to see. They also bring a snake out every hour, which provides an opportunity to interact with the animal, although I was a bit disappointed to discover that we weren’t able to actually handle the snake.

And then we were done and, after a spot of lunch, we headed into Bruges.

Bruges_Zot

Bruges is a lovely old town and, by parking just outside the city we were able to park for free. So after a twenty minute walk, we came face to face with the fact that, for a family of five, every activity will set us bach about €50. This will only get worse when the twins are a little older and start paying higher prices. So while there were plenty of places we would have liked to see — most notably the Historium — we gave most of these a miss and, instead, too a horse-drawn carriage ride around the city.

We need to look into what sorts of deals or tourist memberships we can find, but we will certainly be going back.

Beer-Museum