Sunday, October 10, 2010

Brussels

We went to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, which includes the Magritte Museum. The weather was fantastic, so we sat outside for lunch. I had a fancy salad and a glass of wine. We wandered around the Upper Town. When we got to the Parc de Bruxelles, we saw this funny lion.



Fleurise said, "I guess not everyone can be a rampant lion."

This gold and black color scheme could be found throughout the city. I thought it was very pretty.



We saw the Royal Palace, the Sculpture Garden, Notre-Dame du Sablon Church, the Place du Petit Sablon, a refreshing park with a beautiful fountain, and the Palace of Justice. There was an antique market near the church. We saw these cool knives.





We made our way back to the Manneken-Pis. There was an escargot stand featuring a bubbling pot of escargot.



10 for 3.50 euro. We went for it. Not only were they already shelled,



but the broth was savory and spicy.





A very nice appetizer to our next venture, which was having dinner at the Grand Place. My camera isn't powerful enough to convey the grandeur of this plaza, so I didn't even try. Suffice it to say that it is a beautiful place to get a beer and soak in the feeling of being in another time. We got a sampling of "Belgian Delicacies" - chicken, meatball, beef - with the requisite frites.





I thought we were winding down, but on our way to look for dessert at the Saint Catherine Square, we ran into an oyster stand. So we got oysters.





When we finished dinner, we still felt like we didn't have our fill of frites. It was our last night, so decided to make our dessert moules frites and to celebrate with a little champagne. We toasted to our last night in the looming presence of the Saint Catherine Cathedral. What a great week.

Bruges/Brussels

We went on a tour of the local brewery in Bruges, De Halve Maan Brewery (The Half Moon Brewery). These tools were once used in the beer brewing process.



De Halve Maan Brewery make Bruges Zot (Bruges Fool); nowadays they use modern equipment, but on the tour, we saw a lot of old equipment that was used in the past. One floor had large bath-like containers for fermenting the beer.



Another floor had these white cylinders with round holes just big enough for a person to get through.



Apparently, these white containers had to be cleaned very well and the task had to be done by at least two men. The person who climbed inside the cylinder would hum or whistle a tune while the other waited outside. If the singing started to go out of tune, the person outside would know that the cleaner inside was beginning to get affected by fumes, and would help get him out.

At the top of the brewery, we had a view far better than the one at the Bell Tower. We met Saint Arnold, patron saint of brewing, with his brewing stick.



The tour ended with a glass of Bruges Zot. I am definitely a fan. We decided to get classic Flemish food for lunch, so Fleurise and I dined at Bistro de Bekoring. We got more glasses of Bruges Zot. They had these really cute tiny sausages for us to munch on while we waited for the food.



The shrimp croquettes were crunchy, and even better, had this amazing briny of-the-sea shrimp taste. It was the best shrimp croquette I had ever had. Fleurise got a seafood stew. I got eels.



Both were delicious. We packed up our Miffy toothpaste and headed to the train station. The trip to Brussels was, thankfully, uneventful. But we had decided to be adventuresome and didn't make reservations ahead of time based on advice from Rick Steves' guidebook. Rick Steves' recommendations are generally really good, but this is one suggestion that I wouldn't repeat. The tourist office's internet and phone were down so they couldn't help us. So we wandered around the city dragging our suitcases on the cobblestone to maybe 4-5 hotels before we found one that had space and that we liked.

We walked around the city. We saw the Grand Place. Fleurise wanted to get strawberries on a stick, but turned them down once she found out they were for dipping in chocolate.



We touched a brass statue of Mayor Evrard 't Serclaes for good luck (we felt like we needed all the luck we could get). We saw some lace umbrellas with a creepy mannequin in the display window that moved.





We saw the Manneken-Pis, a fountain of a little boy urinating into a pool. We had moules frite at Restaurant La Maree. We liked the sign for the bakery next door.



The weather was beautiful and it was just warm enough to eat outside. After we finished, we called it a day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bruges - Day 2

Fleurise and I were excited for our full day in Bruges. It looked different in the daylight. The town looked so perfectly medieval that for a while it felt larger than life, like we were in a movie set or at Disneyland. I settled into the town a bit more after I read that Bruges today is a pretty accurate depiction of how it actually looked in the old days. The city makes its living on tourism, so it makes sense that money is poured into restorations. We had a view of some of the characteristic gabled rooftops from our window.



We made our way to the famous Bell Tower. On the way, we saw perfect storefronts with beautiful displays of toys and lace and delectable chocolates, candies, and cookies. We paid 8 euros to the city of Bruges so that we could punish ourselves by climbing 366 steps up the Bell Tower. The view was just okay; the best part about the visit was the sign at the entrance.



Frites are specifically forbidden. We walked to Burg Square and marveled over the opulent City Hall. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood where it is said they keep a vial of Christ's blood. We went to, of all places, the basement of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where the old ruins of a church had been converted into conference space. We contemplated "Madonna and Child" by Michelangelo in the Church of Our Lady, wandered around the Begijnhof, and sat down at Minnewater.

We had to try out Belgium chocolate, so we visited The Chocolate Line, which sold chocolates by the "mad scientist of chocolate," Dominique Person. He had some crazy stuff, like the Havana Cigar chocolate, which has rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves. We tried it; it had a spicy bitterness, but besides that, we weren't sure what to make of it.

Along our walk we happened on an old man playing a mechanical organ with a hand crank.





We enjoyed being outside so we decided to skip the museums and rent bikes. The ride was surreal. We rode by a canal to the next town over, Damme.



We went along fields, horses, sheep, windmills, and a majestic arch of trees like those at the Mall in Central Park or at Versailles. I didn't think that a bike ride could ever be this calming.





We walked through Damme and took what looked like a "wandering path" back to the canal.



We came back to town hungry. We sat down in one of those forgettable restaurants in Markt Square, and we had our moules frites, Belgian wafel, our people watching, and our view of the Bell Tower.



To Bruges

After a visit to the van Gogh museum, we headed to Centraal Station in an attempt to get to Bruges. It was torture! We missed the 1553 train by a hair, coming up on the platform just as the doors closed; we sadly watched it pull out of the station. We waited an hour and got on a red fancy train at the same platform at 1650 only to find out that it was a decoy train that was actually going to Paris. Someone told us to go to another platform, and so we ran to another track. In a moment’s hesitation in assessing whether it was the correct train, it, too, closed its doors and pulled out of the station. We waited another hour and finally caught the 1753 train out of Amsterdam, more than a little disgruntled.

But we successfully made our way to Antwerp, our connecting station. It was one of the most beautiful train stations Fleurise or I had ever seen, but we were too intent on catching our train to Bruges to take pictures. When we finally got there, 2 hours later than we intended, we felt triumphant.



We high-tailed it to the B&B and then walked to a pub, Herberg Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in town (from 1515). On the walk over, the looming gabled buildings, narrow cobbled streets, the canals, and the stillness of the town made us feel like we really were in 1515. At the pub, there was old dark wood and good beer.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Amsterdam - Day 3

Tragedy! My camera was acting up right as we were starting to have breakfast. So I couldn't take a picture of Uncle E's amazing garlic rice, the beautifully fried eggs, the tomato slices, nor the adobo. But I got it to work eventually and took a picture of this:



Smac! The Amsterdam equivalent of Spam! Breakfast included a few fried slices of Smac. There is nothing like egg over rice, and to have the rice be garlic rice and to have Spam, adobo, and that bit of tomato was like having breakfast in heaven. Predictably, Fleurise and I passed out from food coma afterwards. In the afternoon we went out with Uncle E, Tito Sonny, and his partner, Tito Jap, to Momo where we had some delicious rolls (the foie gras roll was a highlight).

We moved onto PC Hooftstraat, an area with fashionable stores. We had cappuccinos outside and enjoyed the perfect weather and the light.



The uncles went shopping. We headed home, passing by Australian, an ice cream store Fleurise is fond of. They have a funny advertisement on the window:



We sat outside again enjoying the weather some more. We read. Took Uncle E and Tito Gert to Akbar for Indian food. Briefly visited the Red Light District. And then our day was over.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Amsterdam - Day 2

This morning, we went to the Albert Cuyp Street Market - sort of like a Rue Cler/flea market hybrid. There were grocery stands, cheese booths, and a rotisserie (I love the Dutch word for chicken - kip!), but also baseball caps, underwear, sequined skirts, and perfume. I saw some gorgeous garlic.



We had the great fortune to stumble upon an eetcafe populated only with locals: the "Cafe Coffeehouse."



When we walked in, there was a group of 4 or so older Dutch men who looked liked regulars. They were friendly; one offered me the paper, but as it was only in Dutch, I regretfully declined. I got a cappuccino and a nice ham, cheese and tomato sandwich. Fleurise got a delicious hot kip sandwich on soft bread.

We spent a bit of time at the Rijksmuseum. Then, as the weather was holding up well, we walked through the city going along the lively Leidsestraat, the Flower Market, Kalverstraat, the serene Begijnhof courtyard, a secret Catholic church, Dam Square and the busy main throughway to Central Station, Damrak.

Navigating around Amsterdam was both easier and harder than I expected. On the one hand, I was surprised to find that everyone speaks English. On the other hand, being a pedestrian here feels pretty treacherous; you have to be nimble when walking through the city, as there are hordes of bicyclists, motorcyclists, and disturbingly quiet trams that threaten life and limb. It made me thankful for pedestrian-only streets like Kalverstraat.

We headed back to the market for what ended up becoming an eating spree. We found the siroopwafel man. Fleurise had been on a mission all morning to eat siroopwafels and was ecstatic to have found him. It was the wafel that she ate everytime she came to Amsterdam, and it wouldn't have been a real trip without having one.



We had two freshly made siroopwafels (thin wafels with syrup in the middle).



Since we had had some difficulty finding him, Fleurise asked the siroopwafel man what his hours were. His response: "Sometimes I come late, sometimes I leave early." We got Vietnamese leompia (eggroll) and bapao (meat bun).





Then we got frites with mayonnaise. Here is a closeup of the frites in all their mayonnaise-y glory.



We were pretty stuffed. We headed back to Uncle E's place and sat outside drinking beer and wine.



We couldn't help ourselves when we saw this particular brand.



I liked it a lot - it was a less sweet version of framboise, like a grown-up soda framboise.



We ran inside when the rain began to come down. Uncle E cooked us adobo chicken and pork and a vegetable stir-fry. We ate with Tito Gert. The meal was delicious.

I would end the post here except I have to mention my newest obsession: Miffy. Miffy is a little rabbit who was created by a Dutch author. She has many adventures. Isn't she cute?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Amsterdam!

Fleurise and I are in Amsterdam. If you can find me, I'm on a bridge over a canal, waving.



Fleurise is here for 2 weeks to help celebrate her Uncle E's 50th birthday with her family. I am tagging along for the first week. We're planning on sightseeing for a few days and then heading out to Belgium to check out Bruges. We are staying with her uncle and his partner, Gert, who own a bed and breakfast along Princengracht.

Uncle E and Gert made a welcome sign for us.



The bed and breakfast is very charming, with steep staircases that take you from floor to floor. The B&B looks right out on the canals.

Fleurise and I took a quick nap and then we headed to Vondelpark - the Central Park equivalent of Amsterdam - with Uncle E, Gert, Gert's daughter Leonie, her son Tristan, and their French bulldog, Diana. On the way back, we grabbed one of Fleurise's favorite foods to eat in Amsterdam - croquettes - from these heated vending machines.



We both got veal croquettes. Very crunchy on the outside and savory inside. I was surprised by how well they turned out. Similar machines in East Village don't produce food nearly as tasty. Fleurise was very happy.



We headed back, and as it was still sunny and warm, we all sat outside drinking champagne, playing with Tristan and Diana.





Fleurise and I were excited to be able to play with a baby, espeically one as mellow as Tristan. Diana was pretty mellow, too.



I haven't gotten a good feel yet for Amsterdam, but I have to say that being surrounded by canals and flowing water feels instantly relaxing. Sitting in the sunshine sipping champagne and watching boats and bicyclists go by is a pretty good way to start a vacation.