Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Tuesday, 3 August

Celine and I went up to Bruges for the day.  While I had done lots of planning for my time in France, I had done very little planning for Belgium since I knew I would be staying with Celine and her family, who would have plenty of recommendations.  It was about 2 hours by train to Bruges, and well worth the trip - it is a beautiful town - "the Venice of the North," with all its canals.  However, its beauty has also made it something of a tourist trap, and the streets are crowded with chocolate shops, gaufre stands, and lace stores.  (Not that all of this is a bad thing!)

Bruges is in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.  I had always thought of Belgium as a French speaking country, with Dutch as an afterthought.  Not the case here!  All the signs are in Dutch, though it seems everyone speaks French, too, and usually English as well.  Why oh why are the States so monolinguistic?

View over a canal into Bruges
The streets are very picturesque, and the whole town looks a little as though it were taken out of a storybook, except for all the tourists going through.  When we arrived, we spent a few hours wandering around and exploring.  My favorite street was the one we called "chocolate street," because it was lined with so many chocolate shops, each displaying its delectable delights in beautiful window displays:

Chocolate, anyone?
Given what a huge industry tourism clearly is, there were all sorts of different guided tours, whether by horse-drawn carriage...

Chocolate street
...or by boat, along the canals.  Celine and I opted to take a boat tour to get to see more of the city from a unique vantage point.  The tour was about a half an hour long, and our guide ably managed telling the 30 or so passengers about the city in Dutch, French, and Spanish.  I know he could have done English as well, and who knows about any other languages.  It is amazing how many languages everyone speaks!

Homes jut right up to the waterside!
View down a canal
An example of the original wooden houses in Bruges

After our tour, we were getting hungry, so we stopped at a small boulangerie called La Baguette for lunch.  Celine and I split a sandwich "di Roma" (whole grain baguette with tomato, mozzerella, and basil - dried, unfortunately) and a Worstebroode (a sausage wrapped in a flaky pastry crust).

Sandwich di Roma

After lunch, we visited the Grand Place, the center of the town:

Grand Place
And then we walked through some more residential, less touristy parts of town.  I had been hoping to find a gaufre (waffle) stand here, away from the crowds under the assumption that a waffle in an area unfrequented by tourists would be the choice of local residents and therefore better, but apparently local residents all either make their own waffles or head into a more touristy location to buy them because there were no waffles to be found here!  After getting sufficiently lost, we pulled out our map and made our way back to tourist central for a well deserved gaufre:

Gaufre Liègeoise
There are two main varieties of gaufres: Bruxelloise, which is light and fluffy with a crisp crust, and Liègeoise, which is denser with a sugar-coated crust.  Each stand seemed to specialize in one or the other.  We opted for Liègeoises, but unfortunately the stand we chose already had some made, and they heated those up again rather than making them fresh for us.  Though it was warm, it wasn't as wonderful as I had hoped, I think mostly due to it not being freshly made off the griddle.  (The next day, we had a fresh one in Brussels, and it was delicious).  I also was not a huge fan of the sugared exterior sticking to my teeth as I bit into it - I think a Bruxelloise would be a better choice for me.

Finally, before we left, we needed to get two more things.  I wanted to pick up some chocolates, so we went back to chocolate street and stopped in a Leonidas, a well-respected chain.  The Belgian specialty for chocolates are pralinés: chocolates filled with a hazelnut praline interior.  I got four chocolates: dark chocolate praliné, milk chocolate praliné, toute praliné (dit "gianduja"), and white chocolate hazelnut.

Leonidas chocolates!
Bravo, Leonidas.  Well done. 

Our last stop in Bruges was at the oldest brewery in the city, called De Halve Maan.

They give tours of the brewery, but we opted instead just to have a glass of their Brugse Zot, a blond beer that apparently has won awards.

The first sip was nice, offering an interesting and complex flavor; but after that, it just tasted like beer to me.  But when in Bruges...

After our beer, we took the train back to chez Bonne Maman for a dinner of tomates-crevettes, raw tomatoes stuffed with tiny "grey" shrimp in a mayonnaise-based sauce.  For dessert, we finished the tarte au sucre that we had started the day before.  A nice end to a lovely day.

Thank you for bearing with me as I slowly work my way through writing about this trip... Without having a regular internet connection, or more than that, a computer with me, it is slow progress.  But I will get through it all!

Coming soon: Avignon, and the pont où l'on a dansé !

A bientôt,

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bruxelles, part II: tourism

I stayed just outside of Brussels for 5 nights with the grandmother of my good friend from high school, Celine.  On Monday, 2 August and Wednesday, 4 August we went into the Brussels to explore the city a little.  Here is a brief overview of what we did.

Monday, 2 August

In the morning, we made our way down to the Atomiom.  This huge structure, representing an iron crystal but many millions of times bigger, was built for the 1958 world exhibition in Brussels.  Today, it is a museum about the exhibition and about immigration into Belgium - kind of an unusual combination.

View from under the atomium, looking up
All around the Atomium are some of the remains of the world fair: grand avenues, and some of the pavillions of other countries.  Even today, this remains an area primarily frequented by tourists, as it is somewhat outside of Brussels.

When you go into the atomiom, you go up into the different spheres to see different exhibits.  The top sphere offers a great view over the surrounding area and Brussels.

After a couple of hours of looking around, we decided to head into Brussels proper.  We took the metro into Bruxelles Centre, and headed for the Grand' Place:

One side of the Grand' Place

The Grand' Place is the center of Brussels.  The incredibly ornate buildings that line the huge open square were once (or perhaps in some cases, still are?) home to the major guilds of the city.  You can tell the guilds with their headquarters on the Grand' Place must have been fairly well-off, given how rich all the façades are!  The combined effect of all the magnificent buildings is definitely impressive.

Around the edge of the Grand' Place are plenty of little shops and restaurants geared toward tourists.  We spent a few hours wandering around and looking for a public phone (digression: there are plenty of public phones in France and Switzerland.  Why, then, do they not exist in Belgium???).  Finally we stopped in a restaurant for a very late lunch, where I had a crème d'asperges soup and waterzooï (see the previous entry for my discussion of this dish.)

After lunch, we set out to find the Mannekin Pis, the jaunty fountain of a peeing boy that is a must-see on anyone's visit to Brussels.  According to a sign by the Mannekin Pis, he has over 800 outfits; but when we saw him, he was nekkid:

Mannekin Pis

It would have been much more fun if he had been in his kilt, or lederhosen, African warlord garb, or any of the outfits that go with him, but oh well! 

Just like you can buy tiny models of the Eiffel tower all over Paris, you could get mini Mannekin Pis models in all the tourist shops in Brussels.

The well-known pâtisserie Dandoy has a shop right near the Mannekin Pis, and I stopped in to buy a packet of Speculoos, the crisp spicy cookies that are their specialty.  Afterwards, Celine and I returned home to chez Bonne Maman for a delicious dinner of cailles (quails) served in a rich, smooth tomatoey sauce with small potatoes, which was délicieux.  For dessert, Bonne Maman had bought a tarte au sucre, or sugar pie - one of her favorites and a local specialty.  The pie had a crust on the bottom only, and it was a little sweet and more bready than a standard French flaky pastry crust.  The filling was a pale creamy color, had a soft, light texture, and was very sweet, a little like the caramelized filling around pecans in a pecan pie.

Wednesday, 4 August

On Wednesday, after craquelin (sweet, brioche-like bread with small pieces of sugar baked inside) and pâtisseries, Celine and I headed into Brussels with her aunt Véronique, her cousins Antoine and Elise, and Antoine's girlfriend, Marine.  This time, we headed to the Palais Royal and museum district.  The Palais Royal has not been the residence of the royal family for at least the last century, if not longer, though some official business is conducted there at times.  It is open to the public daily for a short tour of some of the sumptuous rooms.
Palais Royal, Brussels
For the most part, the tour was fairly standard for a Palace: magnificent chandeliers, statues in marble and porphyry, portraits of family members, parquet floors... Very richly decorated.  They wouldn't let you bring in a camera, so I have no photos.  At the end of the tour, however, there were some unusual exhibits about the human conception of nature, with various artifacts from different peoples around the world, and contemporary works, and taxidermied animals.  Finally, the last room highlighted displays from a local children's science museum with different interactive activities about heatbeats and centripetal force and rocket construction.  It was a strange juxtapostion with the rich austerity of the rooms in the Palais.  I think I heard someone say these exhibits were due to Belgium holding the current seat of the EU Presidency.

After the Palais Royal, we headed over the the Magritte museum.  Magritte was a Belgian surrealist, active from about 1920 until around 1965 when he died.  It is a relatively new museum, and the collection is displayed in very dark rooms with lots of little quotes and items to help reconstruct what inspired Magritte.  Surrealism isn't my favorite genre, but they did have a large and nice collection of his works which presented an interesting exhibit.

Outside the museum, they have mirrors set up that reflect the sky, whatever else happens to pass by, and a typically Magritte form - a clever display to reflect his oeuvre:

Mirrors outside Musée Magritte
After the Magritte museum, we all headed towards the Grand' Place, a few minutes' walk away, to grab some lunch.  There is a street just off of the Grand' Place filled with Greek food, and we went there for pittas.  I had a pitta falafel, but they had a wide variety to choose from.  After lunch, Celine's family decided to go back home, but Celine and I went back up to visit the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.  Since it was the afternoon of the first Wednesday of the month, admission was free!  The same building holds both their "ancien" (middle ages to 19th century) and "modèrne" (19th and 20th centuries) collections.  After a morning of surrealism, we opted to start with the ancien.  They had a nice collection of primarily Flemish works (not surprising): Bruegels (Elder and Younger), Hans Memling, Roger van der Weyden, Hieronymous Bosch... many beautiful works, though a little repetitive.  A highlight for me was David's Death of Marat.  After an hour or two, we decided to try out the modern section too, but hélas!  The museum closed at 5 pm.  All we saw was a few Marcel Broodthaers works, including a casserole of mussel shells and a mussel shell covered canvas.  But as we were in Belgium, did we really need to see any other modern works?

Coming soon: Bruges, city of canals and tourists.

A bientôt,

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bruxelles, part I: theft and food

Celine and I took the train from Amsterdam to Brussels in the afternoon of July 31.  We hurried through the city to get to our train on time, but reallt there was no rush - our train was delayed 15 minutes.  This was a minor problem when we arrived in Bruxelles Central - we missed the first train to Genval, but they run every hour so we just waited a little while for the next one.  During the extra time, Celine looked for a phone to call her grandmother (note - there are also no public phones in Brussels, even in the train stations) and I reserved my ticket from Brussels to Avignon for the 5th. 
Ten minutes before our train to Genval, we went down to the platform.  The trains coming in before ours were delayed, and Celine went back up to the main level to make sure our train wouldn't switch to another platform.  I stayed down on the platform with our luggage: my two bags, my duffel, Celine's duffel, and Celine's backpack.  We were parked next to a huge column, with our stuff just to my right.  In the two minutes she was gone, someone up to me and asked me if he had the right platform to catch a certain train.  I told him I didn't know.  He continued on and told me someone had told him this was the platform and he wasn't sure; I told him I couldn't help him.  He thanked me and left.  A minute later, Celine came back down.

Five minutes later, just before our train arrived, we realized Celine's backpack was missing.

It had been set between the column and her big duffel.  When the man asked me the question, he must have had an accomplice who came around the pillar and snatched it.  I was so focused on trying to understand him as ha spoke in French that I never thought of the backpack; I didn't even know it had been down there to begin with.  There was nothing of great material value in the backpack, but lots of items with great personal significance: most of all, a USB key with photos from Celine's time in Ghana. 

I could go on and on.  But I won't.  I'll just say that it goes to show, you only have to turn your back for 15 seconds and someone can take your things.  Always, always pay attention and be careful!!

On to happier things... Celine and I went to Brussels because her family is from there.  Her immediate family has lived in Michigan for the last 10 years or so, but her grandmothers and many of her aunts and uncles and cousins all still live in Belgium.  We stayed with Celine's maternal grandmother, dit Bonne-maman, who lives in Genval.  She is wonderful.  She was so kind and thoughtful, but she can also be hilarious.  The five nights I spent with her were great. Genval is on a little lake, on the other side is the Château du Lac:

It's a beautiful, peaceful location.  Just beyond the Château is the railroad, where they are doing construction work to add extra lines - hence the crane in the background.

When I was eating home cooked meals much of the time in Brussels, I did not take pictures of my food, but I did get to try a number of local specialties:

Maatche - (I hope I spelled that correctly) raw marinated herring filet (still with bones and scales), served with raw onions - something I would never have ordered on my own, but it was actually not bad: very smooth and pleasant on the tongue with a nice crunch from the onion, and strong but not overpowering fish and onion flavors.  Though I did feel like I was tasting it for the rest of the night...

Cailles - quail, served with potatoes in a tomato-onion sauce, which was super-bon, as they say) 

Tomates-crevettes - raw tomatoes stuffed with the tiny crevettes grises (grey shrimp) from the Northern coast of Belgium in a mayonnaise sauce

Filet Américain - raw ground beef mixed with mayonnaise, an egg yolk, and lots of spices.  The version I had from a local traiteur tasted something like a spicy ketchup, with a pleasant soft texture.  It was eaten on bread like a spread

In restaurants, I was better able to take pictures. 

Moules-Frites - the Belgian classic.  Mussels cooked in a casserole (pot) with celery, onion, salt, and pepper in a little water - the traditional preparation.  The freshness of the mussels really gets to shine through, though the broth was a little too salty for my taste.  The frites were, in this case, a fairly standard fry, though they were just fresh from the fryer.  And what better to accompany this than a Belgian beer?

Moules, frites, et bière

Waterzooï - a warm, homey dish of chicken and vegetables in a creamy broth.  This was comfort food at its most basic.  Simple and perfect for a chilly day.


Speculoos - a very common cookie throughout the area; I bought mine from Dandoy, a well known and well respected patisserie in Brussels.  The cookies are shaped like men in profile, wearing a bib and a dress and a a funny little hat.  They have a very buttery aroma, and taste like a gingersnap without too much bite.  The texture is a perfect buttery crunch.  I can see why they are so popular.

Gaufres - or, as we would say in the US, waffels.  They come in two major varieties: Bruxellois, which are light and fluffy with a crisp exterior, and Liègeois, which are denser and covered in sugar that sticks to your teeth when you bite in.  There are waffel stands and trucks everywhere in cities, especially where there are lots of tourists.  Most sell them with all kinds of toppings - chocolate, fruit, whipped cream, ice cream.  Be sure to get it freshly made.

Celine, with gaufre
Of course there's the chocolats, too... but for that, we'll have to wait till Bruges.

Coming soon: what we actually saw and did in Brussels, besides eat (and visit the Bruxelles-Central lost and found).

A bientôt,

Sunday, August 1, 2010

flights & Amsterdam


30 July 2010

After a three-hour layover in the City of Brotherly love, I got on my flight to Amsterdam. I flew US Airways to take advantage of a some credit left over from a previously unused flight.  I wouldn't recommend it.  It was one of the most uncomfortable flights I have ever had.  There were no individual tvs, and I was seated next to a rather corpulent man (which I suppose is not strictly the fault of the airline, but which I will blame them for in any case.)  Consequently, I got maybe one hour of shoddy sleep.  The good news, I suppose, is that since I could not sleep I was able to see the sunrise over the clouds:

I arrived in Amsterdam around 7:30 am local time.  I got my baggage with no trouble, brushed my teeth, got through customs, bought my ticket to get to Amsterdam Centraal Station on the train, and then promptly got on the train to Utrecht Centraal Station.  We passed through a couple of other Amsterdam stations (not including centraal...) and then we started passing cows... And somehow I doubted there were cows in the middle of the city.

Luckily the ticket collector was very understanding, and helped me figure out how to get back to Amsterdam from Utrecht.  I didn't have to buy another ticket, either.  I forgot to take any pictures of Utrecht, and to be honest all I saw of it was the inside of the train station. Oh well.

I got into Amsterdam Centraal around 10 am.  My hostel was only a 5 minute walk from the station, but hélas ! When I arrived, I discovered my reservation was for the previous night. Oops.  Luckily they did have a bed available for the night I needed it..... But I had to pay for both.  Tant pis...

After dropping off my luggage, I headed out to explore the city.  I started off somewhat at random, and managed to walk directly through the red light district right off the bat.  It was mostly deserted, but even at 11 am it managed to feel super seedy and uncomfortable.  There were only a few women in the red neon lit windows (one of whom was sitting there in a bikini doing her makeup...) but it was more than enough for me.  After my one hour of sleep and mistakes with the train and hostel, I was in no mood for prostitutes.

Luckily, soon enough I wandered into some open air markets.  Everything is so vibrant and colorful!

My favorite was the bloemenmarket: the flower market.  It's the only floating market that still remains in the city.  The ceiling of the first stand/shop was completely draped in dried flowers, and their heady perfume as both overwhelming and lovely.

I always thought of the Dutch craze for tulips as a product of the 17th century; I had no idea tulips were still as huge and important as they clearly are today.  The market was filled with blubs of every shape and size:

The closer bulbs are bigger than my fist - I had no idea there were bulbs so large !  But more than anything, there were thousands and thousands of tulip bulbs.  I would love to come back in April to see the blooms !

I had planned out each meal: where I would eat, what kind of food I would have, before I left the US.  However, I didn't eat at any of those restaurants: the Indonesian place I picked out for the first lunch was closed until August 1; the traditional Dutch restaurant for dinner ran out of their 10E prix fixe by 7 pm, and we never found the pancake house I had noted for brunch the next day.  Somehow I survived... I found a pancake place for lunch, where I had a pfannkuchen ananas (pineapple pancake) with Stroop (traditional Dutch syrup).  Note to self: stick to local fruits; the pineapple came from a can and added nothing to the dish.

The pancake was maybe 30 cm in diameter and .5 cm thick - like a large thick crepe.  In taste and texture it was also similar to a crepe, though a little thicker and chewier and eggier.  The stroop smelled of molasses and brown sugar, had a viscosity between that of molasses and maple syrup (slow to pour and very sticky), and tasted like molasses, only not quite as dark or heavy.  Not surprisingly, it was a good compliment to the pancake.

After lunch, I went to the Rijksmuseum, the most famous art museum displaying many well-known Dutch masterpieces.  I found it rather a disappointment; the collection was too limited.  They had an excellent collection of 17th century Dutch work - Rembrandts, Vermeers, pottery, silver platters in bas relief... but nothing else.  Not even, say, 15th century Dutch Renaissance (Jan van Eyck, anyone???)  The museum was under renovation, and I think maybe they had a limited collection for this reason.

After the museum, I visited one more market: the Albert Cuypmarket, which is the largest open air market in Amsterdam.  It certainly was large:

It filled several blocks of a street.  There were vendors for all kinds of products: cheeses, poultry and meat, fruits; clothing and shoes; small trinkets.  But overall it has nothing on my beloved Marché de la Bastille - j'y reste fidèle :)

After walking for several hours, I was getting rather tired... So I headed back to the hostel to wait for my friend Celine to arrive.  Celine is one of my closest friends from high school.  She spent the last three months in Ghana doing an internship for her Masters in Public Health, which she is pursuing at the University of Michigan.  She and I had made plans to meet up in Amsterdam, then head to Brussels for a few days together and see her family.  She arrived around 6:30, and we unpacked a little and chatted.  Our next adventure was to find an ATM... which was harder than it might sound.  It seems that whenever you need something in Amsterdam (an ATM, a public phone...) it is impossible to find.  After maybe 20 minutes of searching, we finally found one, and then, having worked up an appetite, we went to an Indonesian restaurant for dinner.  Indonesia was a Dutch colony, and there are Indonesian restaurants all over the city.  They all serve Rijsttafel (literally, rice table).  It's a bowl of rice with many different traditional side dishes:

There was chicken and pork and beef and vegetables in varying sauces of peanuts and coconut and anise.  Each dish was unique and many of them were very good.  It was nice to have so much variety - like having your own mini buffet at your table.  Actually I don't know why this isn't taking the US by storm: it's like your own personal buffet at your own table - you don't even have to get up for second helpings.  Laziness at it's most sophisticated.

After dinner, we went back to the hostel and fell asleep in approximately 2 seconds.

31 July 2010

The next day, we woke up early and had a free, decent breakfast at the hostel.  After checking out and storing our luggage for the day, we headed out to book our train tickets to Brussels and explore the city on foot.  From the train station, we headed up along the Singel canal to Leliestraat.  At this intersection, there is an extra wide bridge over the canal.  On the bridge, there is a small open space with a statue dedicated to Multatuli, whoever he may be:

Looking around, we noticed a cheese shop on the corner advertising a cheese and wine tasting at 1 pm; we decided to come back for that, but more on that subject later.  We continued to wend our way through the neighborhood to the Anne Frank house.  We didn't go inside; the line was super long - down the block and around the corner.  We continued wandering for a while.  I liked this part of town much better than the part I explored the day before; though they were both fairly empty, Jordaan felt quiet and residential and comfortable, whereas Centrum felt alien and a little oppressing.  I'm sorry not to have had a few more days to explore the city more fully.

After stopping in a bakery for a loaf of bread and a pastry, we headed back to the cheese shop for the tasting.

The tasting was by far the coolest thing I did in Amsterdam.  Reypenaer, the cheese company, is evidently the only company in Holland that ages their cheese in the traditional method; that is to say, without heating and refrigeration, but in a 100-year-old warehouse, according to the changing of the seasons.  A few of their cheeses have won awards, and after tasting them I can see why.

There were only 8 people at the tasting.  Four were Dutch, and the other four of us were tourists: Celine and me, and two guys from Dubai.  The tasting was consequently conducted in English.  I had heard everyone in Amsterdam was fluent in English; I can attest to the veracity of this statement.  I felt rude playing the part of the dumb American who assumes everyone can speak my language, but everyone was polite and helpful.  But I digress.

We tasted seven cheeses: the six shown above, including two goat cheeses and four cows milk cheeses, and finally one cows milk cheese treated with ginger.  We also had a glass of Seurat (a French red wine) and one of Ruby port.  We moved from left to right down the line, moving from more subtle flavors to bolder ones.  I won't bore you with my notes, but they were all excellent.  The Reypenaer (third from the right) a one-year old cow milk cheese has won the most awards; the Reypenaer VSOP (second from the right) was my favorite.  It started with the same base as the Reypenaer, but was aged 2 years.  It was bold and tangy and wonderful, and it formed beautiful salt crystals for a perfect creamy-crunchy texture. YUM.

The really amazing things about the tasting though were, a) it was FREE (though we paid 10E for the wines), and b) they let you cut your own pieces.  So instead of having one thin slice to examine and savor, we could cut as much as we wanted.  In the end, we ate enough cheese that we didn't feel the need to have any other lunch.

The tool we used to cut the cheese was called Le Guillotin.  It's pretty cute.

We didn't buy any cheese, but the shop told us you can order everything (including Le Guillotin!) online, and they will ship it anywhere.  They are only beginning to import the cheese to the US (in Atlanta), but it's great to know you can get it directly online.

If you go to Amsterdam, I would highly recommend searching out Reypenaer!  Even if you can't attend a tasting, they have plenty of samples (and guillotins) to try in the shop itself - it is well worth the visit.

After the tasting, we wandered around a little more before heading to the train station to take off for Brussels... But that is a story for another day.

One final note: you know I had to try at least one pastry in Amsterdam.  Celine and I split a room croissant:

'Room' means cream, which was fitting: the pastry was filled with something akin to a sweet crème patissière.  The pastry was croissant shaped and very buttery, but in texture and flavor it was more similar to a brioche than a true Parisian croissant (that is to say, more bready and dense than flaky and sweet).  Overall, it was sweet and forgettable; but then, I've never heard of croissants as a Dutch specialty.

I'll leave you with a few images of the city:

Celine!  And bikes!

Would you care for a filet of raw herring?

The quintessential canal Siegel

Coming soon: Bruxelles and the Case of the Missing Backpack

A bientôt,