Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brussels & Bruges

Its the last night in Brussels. The illuminated Hotel de Ville is a nice sight from the hotel window. The streets and bars are a bit more active tonight. Let's get caught up on the last two days.

I finally found a decent coffee place that made real cappuccino - and it was in the corner of the Grand Markt with outside seating as well. A pleasant break. Next, time for a Belgian waffle. There are a number of places to choose from - I picked one that seemed to be attracting the local students earlier in the day figuring they had probably tried them all. All kinds of toppings to choose from - most involving a generous portion of chocolate sauce. I went for plain, heated of course. Wonderful aroma and carmelization. A nice treat. And, I found myself seated next to the begging dog I talked about earlier. I tried to strike up a conversation but his woof's were in French and he didn't understand my English woofs.

As the trip is nearing its end, I'm starting to collect things to bring home. In Brussels that means chocolate and biscuits. The orange/chocolate cookies I had from one of the recommended stores (Dandoy) were terrific. I went to a local supermarket to get some Jules Destrooper cookies. I had brought some of these home from Spain and they were quite good. I love wandering the aisles of the local markets - almost all markets in Europe seem superior to those in the US. There seems to be more fresh foods to choose from and a wider variety of products to choose from. In the beer aisle, I find beers that cost up to $10/bottle at home for less than $1.50. I feel obliged to pick up a few for later in the night.

Speaking of beer, I was thinking more about the bar I stopped in with over 2000 beers available. If you were to drink 20 beers each week (a little more than 3 each night), it would take 2 years to sample them all. That's mind boggling. I should also mention that each beer is served in its own style of glass, complete with the beers brand stamped on it. The brewers design the glasses to enhance the drinking experience with the different shapes allowing the beer to breath or enhance the aroma or accentuate the color and head on the beer.

Dinner was at Aux Armes de Bruxelles. I had eaten here once before with Sean and some others. Although in the heart of the tourist area, its generally well regarded. I had the Moules et Frites (mussels and fries) which is a traditional Belgian dish. It was extremely good - the mussels are served in a variety of different sauces, so once you take the mussels from the shell, its a bit like a soup or stew. And the fries remain superior to any in the US. Not sure why the cooking technique used here has not caught on in the states. The service is also quite impressive. Its a large restuarant, but its divided into multiple rooms - each with a central service area and about 5 or 6 waitstaff in full white jacket. It reminds me of the service on a cruise ship. I finish dinner with an Irish coffee - something that I don't think I ever had before Dublin, but quite enjoyed. Tonights was possibly the best yet.

Off to Bruges in the morning. This starts with a bit of a puzzle - how to get a ticket and get on the right train to end up in the correct city. Getting the ticket was easy. I step to the ticket window, say "Bruges" and am handed a ticket. Now, for the train. I finally decipher the departure board (it's actually quite easy once you know what the numbers mean) and find the train and track. Trains are literly leaving every minute on the 10 or so different tracks - its quite a busy station. The train arrives exactly on schedule and heads north to Ghent and then Bruges. Lots of announcements during the journey that I don't understand, so I hope they aren't important. No one looks concerned so I assume they are talking about next stops and such.

Arrive in Bruges with cloudy weather and the threat of thunderstorms. But - I have my umbrella this time. It's about a 10 minute walk from the station to the center of the city with the shops and cafes. Its a wonderful city to walk around - you are always catching a glimpse of one of the many church spires or the Belfort in the Markt. I finally get my bearings and end up at the Belfort. I paid 5 euro and climbed to the top (366 stairs). I was admiring the view when the bells starting ringing. I just about jumped out of the tower! It was actually kind of interesting how the bells work - the clappers all have wires that lead down to the level below where there is essentially a giant player piano mechanism. Each bump on the drum corresponds to the ringing of a different bell (or silence).

As a reward for the climb, frites. There are two identical stands on either side of the Belfort. The memory of the fries from this stand had a lot to do with my desire to return to Bruges for the day. Funny how strong cravings can be even after 4+ years. I had them with a pepper sauce and they lived up to the expectations. On Wednesday, there is a huge market in the center of the Markt with all kinds of fruit, vegatable, meat, cheese and pastry stands with amazing prices. I got 5 fairly large maccaroons for 1.60 euro. I wanted to have one of everything. As I wandered through the streets, I stopped in one of the many, many (many) chocolate shops. The one I entered claimed it was the only one in Bruges with hand made truffles. I wanted to get 2 or 3 for eating as I stroll, so I got the "small box". Seems like she put 10 or 15 in it and then wrapped it up quite nice. So nice that I decided to keep it as a gift and find another store for truffles later in the day.

The canals are quite nice and I took one of the canal rides that motors you through the central canals and gives you a bit of history of the buildings and bridges you see on the way. The captain of the boat looked exactly like one of those wooden statues that you find in all the New England souvenir shops. Definitely should have worn another layer as it was chilly for parts of the ride.

After the cruise, time for the brewery tour. Quite a crowd had gathered as they only do the tour twice a day in the off season. I had hoped that the large crowd meant the tour would be well worth it. It wasn't. Pretty much the same as any other brewery tour - though there were some interesting old artifacts from the earlier days. As unremarkable as it was, it was much, much better than the so called "beer museum" in the Grand Markt in Brussels. Here, you see enter one room with some shiny silver beermaking equipment and watch a video. Both included a beer at the end - possibly to make you forget how much you paid to gain entry.

A bit more wandering after the tour, including picking up a few truffles to have along the way. I made it back on the train without any trouble (well, the first train didn't arrive, but there was one every half hour so it wasn't a big problem). And, feeling terrible about all the food I've been eating and beer I've been drinking in the last few days, I strapped on the running shoes and went for a run in Parc du Bruxelles. Swedish TV was here as well getting more "man on the street" opinion. The Swedes must live vicariously through other people.

Running along one side of the park are a number of embassies, including the American embassy. Its a bit sad to see that only the American embassy is highly fortified - it has bars on all the lower windows, jersey barriers that actually cut off the sidewalk forcing you to walk in the street, additional anti-ram barriers outside the jersey barriers, serveillance cameras and armed guards.

Another oddity is what is done to the trees. Throughout the countryside, the upper branches of the tree are removed leaving what looks like a fist at the top of trunk that's about 8-10 feet high. It's clear this has been going on for years as some of the trees have large branches growing out of the fist while others are newly cut. Other prunings leave the tree with a trunk and several main branches that are then pruned a bit further down leaving many fists and no branches for foliage. A very odd sight. Still other pruning removes all but 3 or 4 branches for either side of the trunk that are trained to grow parallel to the ground and join up with the next tree that is pruned in identical fashion. This creates a kind of fence about 10 feet above the ground. As there are branches, I expect that the foliage fills in during the summer months.
Dinner tonight was a "menu" (fixed price for a selection of appetizer, entree and desert) at Le Grand Cafe on a corner across from the Bourse. Good food at a good price - 18 euro for the menu.

Off to Amsterdam tomorrow. I think 3 days was a good amount for Brussels - with more time, there are some additional things outside the city center that I would have visited (mini Europe and Atomium), but I probably would have gained about 5 pounds each day I stayed here.
It seems like the flight from Boston was many months ago. Even so, its hard to believe there are only a few days left.

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