Archive for the 'Belgium' Category

September 29th 2008

Posted under Belgium

We began our three-day stay in Bruges the way every respectable Belgian tourist should – by sampling the frites and beer. Our hostel was located close enough to the Grote Market (main square) to walk there but not nearly far enough to burn off the sauce-smothered, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen, deep-fried Heaven served up at the two competing frietkots (frite carts) on the square. Frites are big business in Belgium and the picturesque Grote Market, a magnet for locals and tourists alike, is prime frite-selling real estate. There is apparently an ongoing controversy among locals over which of the two frietkots is better. Interestingly, the eight square meters of cobblestones under the two trailers is auctioned off every three years so that often one or both frietkots are replaced by new ones and the debate starts all over again. Upon reading of this, we felt it our personal obligation to make our own determination. It’s a tough job…
With bellies full of salt, carbs, and grease and plenty of daylight left, we set out on a long walk around town. Bruges flourished as a port town around the 12th century, attracting increasing capital inflows as trading ships began to arrive from all over Europe. But around 1500, the Zwin channel that linked Bruges with the sea began silting up, gradually halting the city’s prosperity. It was not until the 1950s that Bruges reemerged as a tourist destination. The medieval city – often called the Venice of the North – is a dreamy place with colorful gabled houses, towering stone churches, cobblestone streets, lovely parks, quiet canals, and pretty old bridges. The canals are dazzling, particularly when they catch the hazy reflection of the cityscape, but Belgian architecture is Bruges’ most defining feature. We spent hours strolling in wonderment through the Grote Market (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the narrow cobbled streets lined with Belgian storybook houses.

On our second day in Bruges, we rented bicycles and cruised out of town, following a trail along a pretty tree-lined canal that led all the way to the sea. We didn’t make it that far though, stopping instead in the village of Damme. Parking the bikes in the small square, we wandered through the quaint, cozy village. The air was brisk and the sun was shining – it was a beautiful day! We sat outside at a restaurant that boasted over 100 kinds of pannekoeken (crepe-style pancakes), ordered some hot drinks and one each of the sweet and savory varieties of pancakes. Ladies and gentlemen, in addition to frites, chocolate, waffles, mussels, and beer, the Belgians do pancakes…well! Mine was so stuffed with fresh spinach that it resembled a burrito, smothered in cheese and cream sauce…the gluttony continues.

After a pleasant afternoon in Damme, we pedaled back to Bruges and rode around the refreshingly bicycle-friendly city – through grassy parks, painted with the colors of fall, and along picturesque canals – until our bike rental expired. Auto traffic in the inner city was minimal and it was nice to see people of all ages enjoying an afternoon on two wheels.

After a long bike ride, it feels great to stretch your legs with a walk. We ventured over to the Church of Our Lady, which houses the only one of Michelangelo’s masterpiece ever to leave Italy during his lifetime: the Madonna and Child. The sculpture was originally intended for a church altar in Italy but was purchased by a wealthy Belgian family and gifted to the Church of Our Lady. While we may have been “museumed out” from our adventures in Italy, we could not miss the opportunity to see a Michelangelo.

Our last day in Bruges, my 33rd birthday, was wonderfully uneventful. While our travel pace has been significantly more relaxed in Belgium than it was in Italy, we had still spent most of every day pounding the pavement. I wanted a day of rest and the cozy common room of our hostel provided a perfect place to hibernate with good books and free Wi-fi. When we finally did emerge in the afternoon, we meandered toward the canal and bought tickets for a canal boat ride. Unlike the Venice of Italy with its canals full of personal, municipal, gondola and commercial boat traffic, the canals in Bruges transport only small, motor-powered tourist boats. We had seen them everywhere – with tourists packed in like sardines – and it seemed like something we just had to do. Our boat was equally crowded and the thirty-minute ride seemed rushed but it did afford views of charming waterside homes and other historical gems that could not be seen from the street. The excursion was pleasant but I would have preferred a canoe.

With a strange celebratory energy in the air, we indulged in a round of overpriced beers in the Grote Market, which is decidedly most alluring at dusk when the dim streetlamps and fading daylight cast the stunning building facades in a soft, romantic glow. Walking through the square at this hour is like stepping back in time. The tour groups have dissipated, horse-drawn carriages pass by with the clippety-clop of metal horseshoes on cobblestones, and you can imagine the medieval square in its maritime glory. Just off the square was a lovely Greek restaurant, The Olive Tree, which we had spied earlier. We sat down for a quiet dinner and a relaxing conclusion to a perfect birthday.

Belgium was not a part of our original Europe itinerary but rather an afterthought that, by happenstance, became a week-long stay. Belgium’s charm is refreshingly unpretentious, likely a result of its proud beer-drinking culture. Every beer in Belgium is served in its own unique glass and any local can excitedly explain the difference among the three Chimays. The air is brisk but everyone is outside, bundled up in jackets and scarves, engrossed in good-spirited conversation over heavy food and big beers. It would be difficult to choose a favorite city of the three that we’ve seen. Brussels has such a festive multicultural energy; Antwerp is laid back and livable; and Bruges is one of the prettiest cities on the map. We love Belgium – the architecture, the people, the beer, and the food – but are somewhat relieved to be moving on from the ubiquitous and irresistible temptations of gluttony.


September 24th 2008
Mussels in Brussels (and Beer, Chocolate, Waffles & Frites)

Posted under Belgium

Today was Dimanche Sans Voitures (Car-Free Sunday) in Brussels – the capital city of Europe. Cars and motorcycles were banned from driving in the city and all public transportation was free. The fall weather has definitely arrived…or perhaps we have finally arrived at the fall weather after a year-long perpetual summer. In any case, the change of season is refreshingly welcome. It’s football weather and it feels like home.

The Young family arrived in Brussels in an unusual state of unpreparedness. Our plans to visit our German friends had recently fallen through and, in our gluttonous two week love affair with Italy, we had neglected to make any plans or bookings beyond our two nights in Brussels. So now we were in beautiful Brussels with a red hot business agenda. It was time for some quick decisions. We hopped on a free tram to the city center, found a place with free Wi-Fi, and immersed ourselves in a cyber-tangle of planes, trains and automobiles until early afternoon.

When we finally reemerged, Car Free Sunday in Brussels was in full swing. Bicycles and pedestrians owned the cobblestone streets. Families pushed baby strollers and everyone from kids to senior citizens glided through town on two wheels. The whole multicultural, multilingual population of Brussels seemed to be outside, enjoying a sunny day in their pedestrian friendly city. It was a beautiful sight.

Belgium is known for several gastronomic delights: beer, chocolate, mussels, waffles, and French fries (“frites”) drenched in mayonnaise. Aaron’s first order of business was to obtain some frites, which he did at the first corner frites shop that we stumbled upon. The fresh-from-the-fryer frites were served in a paper cone, smothered in mayo and ketchup. As an aspiring spokesperson for the Association of People Who Hate Mayonnaise, I steered clear of the lard-soaked bites but the ketchup-only bites were divine.

We walked next into the Grand Place – Brussels’ historic market square – to discover a grand celebration that filled the square with music, beer and merriment. The Grand Place is one of the most beautiful public squares that we’ve ever seen. With magnificent 14th-17th century buildings in a variety of styles and lovely outdoor restaurant tables, the square seems both old and lively. The music and beer were deliciously tempting but we wanted to walk around a bit more before joining the revelry.

Leaving the square, we walked down an aromatic little street lined with Greek restaurants toward the Place St. Catherine and Brussels’ beautiful cathedral with its grand façade resembling Paris’ Notre Dame. It was Sunday afternoon and the church bells were ringing. We bought our first hot waffle from a waffle van and joined the locals in the small park in front of the cathedral, enjoying the medley of the church bells.

Our next stop was at a small bronze statue – Brussels’ beloved city mascot named Manneken Pis, a.k.a “the Piss Boy”. His likeness is everywhere – on postcards and replicas lining every souvenir shop window. Following the signs for Manneken Pis, we came upon a small square full of commotion. As it turns out, Piss boy has a wardrobe and it was time to change his clothes. A crowd had gathered around his fountain, including a group of cheery old men, dressed in garments identical to the Piss Boy’s, drinking beer, singing songs and pushing around a replica of the statue on a cart, making it “piss” on the shrieking onlookers and laughing all the way. While this was going on, one man was gingerly changing the Piss Boy’s clothes with the utmost love and affection, ruffling his bronze hair and pinching his nose. When the little statue was decked out in his new duds, he was hooked up to a beer keg and cheered on as his stream filled cup after cup with the local grain. What a spectacle!

The chill in the air and the energy in the streets had rallied us for a return to the Grand Place and the obligatory rounds of Belgian beer. The square was even more alive in the late afternoon hour. The outdoor restaurant tables were full and band with Santana-like sounds had taken to the stage. We enjoyed a couple of beers in the middle of the action – a fantastic spot for people-watching – and then moved on to restaurant row for more frites and steaming pots of mussels. Can this day get any better? we wondered, as we washed down the savory shellfish with cold beer.

On our way back to the hotel, with happy hearts and even happier round bellies, we suddenly heard classical music – loud classical music. Rounding the corner, we looked up to discover a man with a full DJ setup, spinning lively classical tunes from the top floor balcony of a vacant building in the middle of the city. A crowd had gathered on the street below, mesmerized by the melodies that filled the cool night air and resonated through the streets. Naturally we wondered, Is this guy going to get arrested for disturbing the peace? This can’t be legal. Then we read on a flyer that this performance was part of a free concert series – Le Concert Invisible – that this guy puts on at random locations around the city. Everyone loved it.

So this was Car Free Sunday in Brussels. We still don’t know whether or not the festivities were related to the green initiative. Either way, it was a glorious day!

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