September 27, 2010

Abbey of St Bavo.

51 03 13 N 3 44 10 E

The ruins of the former Sint-Baafsabdij (Abbey of St Bavo) are an oasis. They rest practically in the middle of Gent, mere minutes away from the current Sint-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo Cathedral), and literally next door to the confluence of the river Schelde (Escaut) and its tributary, the Leie (Lys). The fork of these two rivers is believed by many to be not only the first site settled in the area, but also the origin of the city’s older name, Ganda, derived from the Celtic word for confluence. The site certainly is among the first where Christianity found a foothold in Flanders.

Sometime around 629, the Frankish missionary Amand (c. 584 – 675) arrived here on his first attempt to baptize the local "pagans", who did what most people accused by a total stranger of not "living right" would do, (allegedly) tossing the proselytizing bishop back into the river that had brought him hither. Undaunted, Amand performed the "miracle" of resuscitating a hanged criminal, which so impressed the locals to abandon their previous beliefs they not only demanded to be baptized, but immediately set about destroying their former places of worship.

Amand went on to found not only the Sint-Baafsabdij, but also the Sint-Pietersabdij (Abbey of St Peter), together with his disciple Bavo (622 – 659) — formerly a nobleman known as Allowin of Hesbaye (Haspengouw). A tearaway slacker in his youth, Bavo "atoned" for his loutish years by becoming a monk and disseminating his wealth. Venerated as a saint upon his death, the abbey where he died was renamed after him in the ninth century. Not long after that, Sint-Baafs was sacked by Norsemen on one of their first murderous vikings in the area.

Setting up camp in Sint-Baafs during the winter of 879-880, the Norsemen went on to pillage Sint-Pieters as well. Further fortification of the sites, and fervent shipbuilding in a nearby wharf, didn't discourage additional raids, and by 883 the Norsemen had effectively razed both abbeys to the ground: practically wiping the emerging settlement of Gent off the map. However, Sint-Baafs was re-erected in the tenth century under the watchful eye of Arnulf the Great (c. 890 – 965), third Count of Flanders, and continued to flourish throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Sint-Baafs last period of prosperity began at the turn of the fifteenth century, having been renovated and redecorated under abbot Raphaël de Mercatel (1437 – 1508). By that time, the population of Gent had reached some 65,000 inhabitants, supposedly making it the second largest city in Europe after Paris. However, some 900 years after it was founded the abbey's end was nigh: in 1539, Emperor Charles V decided to personally strike down the revolt brewing in the city — which his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, had failed to quell — over the tax increases being squeezed out of its inhabitants to fund the Emperor's various wars.

Taking the revolt as a personal affront, Gent being Charles' city of birth, the Emperor had large parts of the original abbey buildings and its impressive Romanesque church — the very place Charles had himself been baptized — demolished, in order to make way for what would become infamously known as the Spanjaardkasteel (Spanish Castle). Constructed for the sole purpose of besieging and maintaining control of the rebellious city, Charles' Italian-style citadel was large enough for a garrison of 2,500 men. Completed in 1545, the citadel was itself demolished between 1827 and 1834, while what remained of the once prominent abbey was retained as ruins. In 1887, when the Belgian state handed the site over to the city of Gent, the city's lapidarium was installed there.

In 2007, a neighbourhood organisation — Buren van de abdij (Neighbours of the Abbey) — were granted permission by the city to open the closed off ruins to the public once a week, with volunteers guiding tours, exhibitions, and hosting concerts each Sunday between April and November. Today, five metre high hornbeams evoke the pillars of the demolished church, while a concrete podium marks the place where its altar once stood, effectively a multipurpose outdoor stage in a lush park setting. The ruins and remains of the abbey are also home to some 150 different species of wild plants, making the site quite unique among Europe's urban parks.

(More images of the ruined Abbey of St Bavo.)

September 14, 2010

Plane, trains, & automobiles.

53 18 22 N 113 34 59 W

Edmonton International Airport isn't merely "Canada's largest major airport by area", and one of the country's fastest growing airports, it's also a lot closer to the city of Leduc than Edmonton itself. Even its areal claim is somewhat dubious, given that over half of the 7,600 acres (≈30.7 km²) originally purchased for the airport's development in 1955, have been leased back to the original owners who still cultivate it. Making the EIA the country's largest farm with attached airstrips. Though opened for passenger service in 1960, the original terminal building wasn't completed until three years later, and despite expansion in the late 1990s, further enlargement is underway to accommodate the 9 million passengers predicted to utilise the airport by 2012. Despite being a major port of entry into Canada, the EIA houses barely a dozen works of art — an indication perhaps of how much import the area's Canadians place on art. Among these, a mural by Jack ShadboltBush Pilot in Northern Sky stands out as the only surviving of four such works commissioned for the original terminal building.

51 29 41 N 0 08 42 W

London's Victoria station, the city's second busiest railway terminus, is in fact four stations in one — two above ground and two underground. More so by chance than design, as it was cobbled together over time in a piecemeal fashion, it's two main overground railway stations remained physically separated until 1924. It began with — what to most passengers would appear as — two distinct stations, the London Brighton & South Coast Railway and the London Chatham & Dover Railway stations, opened in 1860 by a consortium of railway companies (The Victoria Station & Pimlico Railway Co.). The Metropolitan District Railway rapid transit station opened in 1868, and has now become the busiest station in the London Underground system, serving close to 80 million passengers per year. Despite several expansions over the past century, its often overcrowded platforms frequently operate as an exit-only station — a problem which a major upgrade is meant to solve by 2018. Like many of the other eighteen central London railway termini, Victoria station has frequently appeared works of popular culture, for instance in David Lloyd's and Alan Moore's 1980s comic-book series V for Vendetta, and as the place in which the titular protagonist of Oscar Wilde's 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is discovered.

51 29 45 N 0 08 40 W

London's black Hackney cabs are perhaps the most famous taxis in the world, particularly because of the specially designed vehicles and the extensive training course — The Knowledge — required of fully licensed drivers. However, many of the roughly 21,000 cabs in Greater London now are of practically every colour imaginable (especially when wrapped in advertising livery), as there is in fact no requirement for them to be black. Even the Austin FX4 model and its derivative successors that's dominated the city streets since the late 1950s have begun to be complemented by other models and makes, gradually incorporated into the fleet since 2008. Frequently voted the best taxi service in the world, the classic Hackney cabs (purportedly named for what once was the village of Hackney) have attained iconic status — undoubtedly aided by numerous incorporations into popular culture, lately as a venue for recording music.

51 31 51 N 0 07 31 W

At the time of its opening in 1868 as the Midland Railway's Main Line's southern terminus, the St Pancras station was regarded as a pinnacle of Gothic Revival architecture. Its train shed — now named for its designer, William Barlow — with its characteristic Dent clock ranked as the world's largest single span roof, while its frontage — once the Midland Grand Hotel — earned it the moniker "Cathedral of Railway Stations". None of which saved the station from redundancy by the 1960s and the threat of demolition, the latter successfully opposed by in particular poet John Betjeman. After massive redevelopment — to the tune of some £800 million (≈C$1.3 billion) — it was re-opened as the London St Pancras International Railway Station in 2007. The lower levels of the original hotel (opened in 1873) are currently being refurbished to be operated by 2011 as a five-star hotel (including a brand new wing), while the upper levels are being converted into apartment lofts. The station's surroundings formed the backdrop of Alexander Mackendrick's 1955 black comedy The Ladykillers (far superior to the Coen brother's unnecessary 2004 remake), while the hotel (closed in 1935) was an integral part of Douglas Adams' 1988 novel about gods behaving badly in London, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (rather blatantly ripped off by Marie Phillips in 2007).

50 57 10 N 3 53 06 E

At over 8000 km (≈4971 miles), the European Route 40 (E40) is the longest in the International E-road Network, running from Calais in France to Ridder in Kazakhstan. Though only a small section — some 49 km (≈30.4 miles) — connects Bruxelles with Gent, the amount of time it takes to travel can vary widely. Depending on the amount of traffic, weather conditions, and whether any of its six lanes is undergoing the seemingly perpetual maintenance, a trip by car between the two cities can take anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours. The assigned maximum speed limit on this stretch is set at 120 km/h (≈65 miles/h), but local drivers frequently indulge much higher speeds, not only compromising safety but directly contributing to congestion as well. Although given the importance this short stretch of road plays in the network as a whole, it's not difficult to believe the local claim that the reason for frequent congestion is the fact that in order to arrive anywhere in Europe one has to drive through Belgium.

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