Why Is Antwerp A Center For Diamonds?

We took a quick jaunt around Antwerp when we were in Belgium.  We knew that Antwerp was a center for the diamond trade, we just had no idea why.  I did some research and here’s what I learned.

Until the 18th century, all diamonds came from India. Until Europeans arrived in India at the beginning of the 16th century, they made their way to Europe via trade routes.  One of the major trade routes cut through Venice.  It became the center of the diamond trade.  Bruges was at the end of one of the trade routes. Over time, it developed into a diamond cutting center.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films

When the Zwin silted up in the 14th century, Bruges no longer had access to the North Sea.  A lack of sea access was not good for trading and the diamond business shifted to nearby Antwerp with its burgeoning trade.  At one point 40% of the world’s trade passed through its port.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Ska Films, taken from Rotten Tomatos.

Antwerp began pioneering new diamond cutting techniques.  Cutting is extremely important because it influences the brilliance (the sparkle) as well as the size of the stone and therefore its value.  The waste should be as minimal as possible.

Image from Snatch courtesy of Columbia Pictures and SKA Films, taken from Austin Chronicle Website

Over time other towns gained in power and prestige.  By the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had in power to such an extent that it had a virtual monopoly on the diamond trade.  While Antwerp still cut diamonds, Amsterdam kept the best stones to be cut by local cutters.  Antwerp’s cutters got creative and brought their “A” game, transforming small and mediocre stones into higher quality gems.

When diamonds were discovered in South Africa, there was a massive influx of rough stones into Antwerp.   The industry took a hit during the depression of the 1930’s.  Many Jews were involved in the diamond trade and fled Belgium at the outbreak of the Second World War.  To keep as much of the diamonds as possible out of the hands of the Germans, many diamonds were transferred to Great Britain for safekeeping.  The diamonds were returned to their owners after Antwerp’s liberation from the Nazis.  As a result, they industry was able to get back on its feet quickly after the war.

Flawless is a book about the Antwerp Diamond Center heist in 2003. Thanks for the image Union Square Press.

In 2003, there was a successful robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center.  I’ve included a link to a great article about it.

My Visit To Louisana And Why The Dane’s Might Be The World’s Nicest People

 

When we were in Denmark, I decided to go see Louisiana (not the state), a modern art museum about 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen.  I found the train station, purchased tickets and was off.   At the third stop, a creepy guy got on and sat across from me.  It wasn’t long before he was mumbling under his breath.  He tried out various inappropriate words in different languages to see which got a reaction from me.

He also stared and moaned disturbingly at the paper with pictures of Denmark’s new female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She’s an attractive lady, but c’mon it’s the prime minister. Show some respect.

When he realized I knew English, he continued in English.  There weren’t empty seats so, I ignored him and kept my nose in my book.  Eventually it was too much and I asked him to “please stop doing that and be quiet”.  He said “no English, no Danish”.  The liar.  He knew a plethora of choice English words; I’d just heard them.  I was so focused on looking at my book and ignoring him that I missed my stop!  Uh-oh.

I got off (so did he by the way – yuck) and tried to figure out what to do.  Luckily, there was a 7-11.  A 7-11?  Yes a 7-11, here they also serve as train stations/ticket agents in smaller towns.  A young woman was behind the counter.  I explained to her what had happened and was sure to note the words he had said about her newly elected prime minister while leafing through the paper.  She got someone to cover for her, took me to the conductor, explained what had happened and got me a free ride to the museum!  I couldn’t have been more grateful. Take my word for it, the Danes are nice. Unbelievably nice. When I saw the museum, I was blown away.  It was amazing.* *Everyone has his or her “things”. Modern art and Danish design are two of mine. I still think that anyone would be impressed by and enjoy this place.  It’s got a beautiful seaside setting, nice cafeteria and thought-provoking art.  If you take a guided tour (or can subtly follow one as I did), the guides do a great job of explaining what you are seeing and putting it in context.

 

A Thirty Minute Tour Of Tirano

 

We stopped in Tirano because it is the end point for the Berninia Express.  Most visitors to Tirano stop on their way somewhere else whether on a train journey, to ski areas like to St. Moritz or Pontresina, or on the way to Milan. On someone’s advice, we decided not to stay in Tirano, Italy, but stayed in Lugano instead.  They told us Tirano was small and Lugano offered more to see and do in Lugano.  They were right.  It has only about 9,000 inhabitants (it is still considered a city because it has walls that were built to protect it).  We took a 30-minute train tour of the town.  Although it was in a wonderful setting, our tour was enough. Here are the highlights: The Catholic shrine of Madonna di Tirano is dedicated to the supposed appearance of the Blessed Mother to Mario Degli Omodei on September 29, 1504.  Pilgrims credit the appearance to an end to a pestilence.  They have a nice plaza around the church.

The town has some pretty old buildings but their beauty is trumped by the natural beauty of the Alps that surround it.

Tirano has a river, a gorgeous setting, some tranquil sun-drenched piazzas and some ancient, winding streets.  I’m pretty sure that the food there is pretty good.  We saw lots of people out in cafes enjoying the sun.  If we head there again, I will put it to the test.

 

Bellinzona’s Churches

 

Bellinzona is probably Switzerland’s most Italianate town.  Therefore, it is not surprising that it has tons of churches.  Being the idiot that I am, I was still surprised that such a small town had so many.  Being a trading center, Bellinzona drew people from all over, including religious folk.   There are many churches and convents in the area.  The local tourist office has even developed a walking tour that covers some of the highlights.

Piazza Collegiata (also known as Piazza Grande) is one of Bellinzona’s center squares, When you step into Piazza Collegiata, your eyes are drawn to its elegant, imposing Renaissance church.  Its rich baroque interior is incredibly ornate.  Perhaps because it isn’t very large, the Collegiata dei Ss. Pietro e Stefano somehow manages to be intimate, even cheerful.

Dating from 1424, was largely rebuilt by Tommaso Rodari from Maroggia.  He was the master builder of Italy’s Como Cathedral.   Just around the corner, toward the path to Montebello, you pass ancient church buildings.

The 14th century oratory of San Rocco is known for its frescos of St. Christopher and the Virgin Mary with Christ.  These frescos are 20th century restorations, but the Chiesa di San Biagio has some originals.  The Church of San Biagio in Ravecchia, known as the red church, also has frescos.

The walk from Castello di Montebello to Castello di Sasso Corbaro provides a stunning view of the Chapel of San Sebastian (Chiesa San Sebastiano).  On a hilltop with the alps derriere and the vineyards in front, it is sunning.

 

Lugano At Night

 

Lugano was beautiful at night and the weather was warm enough to enjoy a stroll.  We walked down to the city past the San Lorenzo Cathedral and enjoyed the view. The steep, narrow streets head up from the Old Town to the San Lorenzo Cathedral.  We walked past it on the way to the hotel and paused to enjoy the view.

 

Our Aixperience

We visited Aix-en-Provence and saw a knife fight.   That wasn’t the only thing we saw.

After leaving the restaurant at dusk, we strolled the streets.  Some towns roll up the sidewalks after dark; Aix does not.  It is practically mandatory to walk the streets in the evening and have a drink on cafe terraces.  Yep.  Streetwalking is mandatory.  It’s especially nice because the old town (vielle ville) is car free, easy to navigate and a manageable size.

Boulevard Mirabeau (Cours Mirabeau), is a grand avenue built on the site of the former ramparts in the 17th century.   Our favorite trees in Geneva, the plane tree, line and shade  the stately boulevard.  The overhanging trees provide much-needed shade on hot summer days.  Moss covered fountains are in the center of the avenue with stately old town houses behind the wide sidewalks.

We strolled it that evening, but went back the next morning to have coffee (and a croissant)  in the legendary café, Les Deux Garcons.  Dating from 1792, many famous people have dined here including: Picasso, Churchill, Edith Piaf, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raimu, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean CocteauSophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Hugh Grant and George Clooney.  It was a regular haunt of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.  I can see why.  The cappuccino was tasty and the croissant was wonderfully light.  It was a treat to sit and watch the world pass.

Being American, we like a fast pace and giant to do lists.  It is impossible to live like that in Aix.  It is a place to stop, enjoy the view and make the mundane wonderful.

Aix is known for its many and varied markets.  They have normal markets, local producers markets, flower markets, antiques markets and old book markets.  We visited the morning market at Place Richelme (there are also markets at Place de Verdun, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and Place des Prêcheurs).  We picked up some fresh fruit and perused the many artisanal varieties of cheese, meats and breads.

 Aix-en-Provence is a university town (University of Provence Aix-Marseille) and filled with academics and students.  It also gets its fair share of aristocrats, people who are wealthy enough not to have to work and professionals.   It has a reputation for being a bit elitist.  If you are interested in Aix, it was immortalized by Peter Maille’s book “One Year in Provence.”

Like many other towns in the south of France (Arles, Orange, Vence), Aix was inhabited by the Romans.  They built thermal baths at Aix, Aquae Sextiae, around 2000 years ago.  Today you can visit the newer (18th-century hot-water baths) and modern spa built atop the old baths (you can see them from the lobby).

Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence

 

After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.

Olive-trees

Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.

 

Why Hiking In Switzerland Is Wunderbar

 

We have been traveling a lot lately, but we spent most of the summer in Switzerland.  Switzerland is wonderful in the summer.  We love it, in part, because it is a hiking mecca.  Here are some reasons why hiking in Switzerland is wunderbar.

  • cable cars
  • there is plenty of opportunity to hike above the tree line, affording breathtaking views

  • the trails are incredibly well-marked and well-maintained
  • the trails are everywhere, they criss-cross the country, including the cities
  • its cities are compact so you are out of the city into the mountains quickly
  • the views are varied
  • at the end of almost every hike, there is a crystal clear blue lake to dip your feet in

  • I have yet  to find a mountain in Switzerland where my cell phone doesn’t work
  • even at altitude, you pass many cafes where you grab a bite

  • the fountains for cows mean that you can refill your water bottle all over the place

 

Why We Miss Driving In The US

We are lucky to have a car and be able to drive here.  Nevertheless, it is a lot more stressful than driving in the US. The rules, the road signs, the cars, the roads and the other customs are all different.  Because they aren’t yet second nature and we learned in a different environment, driving takes a lot more effort.  We don’t think of Sunday drives here as relaxing.  Here’s why we miss driving in the US.

The signs are different.

  • Speed limit signs are round with a number indicating the speed limit (in k.p.h.).  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen many of them.  More often, we see circular signs with a slash through them.  They indicate that the listed speed limit has just ended.  We would find it much more helpful if the new speed were posted.  These signs mean that the limit reverts to the standard speed limit posted at the borders.

Speed Limit

  • We find this especially difficult because we live mere miles from the French border.  The limits differ in France.  I get the default speeds confused.
  • Due to Europe’s multi-linguality, many road signs have symbols instead of words.  Modifiers (such as, only farm vehicle are permitted) are always given in the local language, which we probably won’t understand.
  • Traffic lights are rarely above the road.  Instead, they are mounted on posts on either side of the road.  I have found myself in the left lane watching the stoplight on the right side (I missed the light for my left turn).  The lights change from red to yellow (before becoming green), giving everyone a change to get a great start off the line.
  • Street names frequently change, at irregular intervals and without warning.  It is even more problematic because there aren’t signposts at intersections.  Street signs are posted on the corner of buildings, just above the ground floor.  This makes them harder to see from the car.  Sometimes they are missing.  Other times, they are in a different language than what is listed in the guidebook.

The rules of the road differ from the US.

  • There is no right turn on red.  Given the may complex intersections, it is understandable (but still slightly frustrating when you are sitting in traffic).
  • The speed limit drops when the road is wet.  What qualifies as wet?  A drop? A rainstorm?
  • Here, yellow diamonds indicate priority.  In the US, priority is generally standard given your location.  Roads here tend to intersect at bizarre angles and turn randomly.  As such, they need a different way to show priority.  They use yellow diamonds (intersecting roads have yield markings).  In the absence of signs, it isn’t the first vehicle on the spot, but the vehicle coming from the right that has the right of way.  Approaching intersections, I constantly worry about whether I have missed a sign…

Customs are different here.

 

  • Standard transmissions are standard.  Although it doesn’t bother us (unless we are stuck in traffic) a lot of our friends miss having an automatic transmission, particularly on hills.

 

  • Radar detectors are epidemic. Rather than seeing a police car roadside or lurking in a median, inconspicuous radar/camera/strobe lights cameras are everywhere.   We live in constant fear of receiving a giant ticket in the mail.  Why a giant one?  Look below at the section on speed limit signs.

 

  • We were astounded the other week when on our trip through the south of France, people didn’t immediately pull over for an ambulance.  Apparently this is common here.   Even so, it was foreign to us.  In the US, drivers are required by law to pull to the right and stop for all emergency vehicles with siren and lights.  By the way, emergency vehicles here sound just like they do in the Bourne Identity movies.

The roads aren’t the broad, straight avenues that we grew up on in the US.

  • Shoulders?  What are those?
  • Good luck finding a straight road.  The roads are narrow, winding and often steep.
  • The German Autobahn doesn’t always have speed limits.  Fun, but not exactly relaxing.  We didn’t get to take full advantage of it because we spent most of our time on the world’s narrowest lanes in construction.
  • Parking spaces are Texas tight.
  • Car-free pedestrian zones all over.  Usually, there is usually a barrier preventing you from driving  in these areas, not that you would want to.  They usually have crazy streets.  You can’t get into them, but getting around them can take a while.

Oh well, at least the scenery is good.  No Entry

  • More problematic is when there is merely no entry sign with words underneath.  These are easy to miss.  Often, they have words underneath describing which cars are permitted to enter…in another language.  They may allow certain vehicles, like taxis or local residents and business owners, to enter.
  • One way streets.  It isn’t just that you have to make sure that you are going the correct way.  The problem is also that if you miss your turn, you can’t change your route easily.  It can take an extra 20 minutes to get back.
  • Roundabouts (aka traffic circles).  Worse with driving in the UK and you have to go them the other way around.

Italian Unification

 

Although Italy has a long and storied history, think the Etruscans, the Romans, etc., it is easy to forget that it has been an independent nation for less time than the United States.  We learned some about Italian unification at the Risorgimento Museum in Milan. Since it was all in Italian, we could do some research after returning home.  Being history buffs, we found it interesting and liked the museum anyway.

Napoleon Bonaparte kicked out the Austrians and the Spanish out of Italy in 1796.  Until then, Italy had not existed a under a central power since the Romans.  It was a collection of city states that had been, for the most part, ruled by foreign powers (Austria, Spain, France).

Initially, Milan welcomed Napolean and built the triumphal arch, the Arco della Pace, for him.  They hoped that he would bring the ideals of the French Revolution (liberty, equality and brotherhood) to them.  In their eyes, he turned out to be just another narcissistic megalomaniac.  To express their dissatisfaction and disappointment, they turned the horses around.  Nevertheless, under Napoleon, Italy experienced it’s first taste of unification and it proved impossible to unring that bell.  It awakened hopes for Italy to become an independent nation.

The movement toward unification grew in the 50 years following Napoleon.  It started out as a revolutionionary movement on the fringes of society.  Since membership in this group (the Carbonari) was punishable by death, it was a secret society.  Understandable.

Giuseppe Mazzini led this professional revolutionary group.  Mazzini traveled extensively, spreading revolutionary propaganda, influencing Italian radicals and revolutionaries throughout Europe.  He was involved in the failed revolution 1848–49.

Giuseppe Garibaldi had a long military career before Victor Emmanuel convinced him to conquer Sicily.  In 1860 with 1,000 volunteers known as the Red Shirts, Garibaldi landed in Sicily, (which had rebelled against Francis II the king of the Two Sicilies), and conquered the island in a spectacular, daring campaign.  He then took Naples, and won a decisive battle on the Volturno River.  This led Victor Emmanuel’s proclamation as king of a united Italy.

Vittorio Emanuele II, king of Sardinia and the first king of united Italy.  He was the rallying point around which the movement coalesced.  These men were so fundamental to the formation of Italy that in virtually every Italian town, you find streets, squares, piazzas and buildings named after Victor Emanuel, Mazzini, Garibaldi and Cavour.

Camillo Cavour (statesman, premier of the Kingdom of Sardinia), pulled a fast one on France.  In a brilliant sleight of hand, he convinced them to drive Austria out of Italy (Franco-Austrian War).  One occupier down, one to go.   He convinced France to take part of Savoy and Nice in exchange for getting out of the rest of Italy.   Clever.

After Garibaldi’s victories and Victor Emmanuel’s coronation, when Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the Romagna voted for annexation to Sardinia, Cavour sent Sardinian troops into the Papal States, which, with the exception of Latium and Rome, were soon annexed.  And presto, you have Italy.