Monday, June 10, 2013

Europe 2013: First Stop, Belgium...

I have been dying (and I do mean dying) to go back to Europe for years.  Alex and I had originally planned to go to the Netherlands and France back in fall 2010, but once I started work that was clearly not going to happen.  And we kept saying that we would go, but a few years went by and it didn't happen.  It's not that we didn't travel from 2010 until now, it's just that we had so many weddings and family vacations to go on which used up all of our vacation time.  Sometime last fall I had finally had enough and I bought us plane tickets to Brussels.  After some negotiation Alex and I decided that we would go to Belgium (his choice) and France (mine).  I am firmly of the belief that Paris is one of the best cities on Earth.  When I studied abroad in college I was in the south of France, but I couldn't get over how much I loved Paris.  I love the food, I love the museums, I love the parks, I love the city...  I just love every single thing about it.  If it were up to me we would have spent the entire 10 days in France, but Alex wanted to go somewhere new.  After some discussion we decided on Belgium.  And then we started researching three things - chocolate, beer and mussels.  Let's be honest, I focused on the chocolate and to a lesser degree, the mussels.  Alex focused on the beer. 

More after the jump!

My favorite things about Belgium were as follows:
  1. The chocolate - We visited 3 different chocolate shops while we were in Belgium - Leonidas, Wittamer and Pierre Marcolini.  It was unbelievable.  The flavors and the overall quality of the chocolates in Europe cannot be matched in the United States.  I know that you can buy Leonidas here (at least you can in NYC, where they have at least one boutique), but it just isn't the same.  Wittamer was probably my favorite of the three chocolate chops, but Leonidas had a few pralines that were swoon-inducing.
  2. The cities themselves - Brussels, Ghent and Bruges were all beautiful.  My favorite of the three was Ghent.  Our hotel was on the Korenlei, which is a street along a canal that runs through the city (pictured above).  The pictures we took don't do it justice so I borrowed one from a friend.  Bruges was cuter, Ghent was a little more... stately?  Elegant?  Plus it was a lot less touristy.  Being in Bruges almost felt like visiting a combination of Williamsburg, Virginia (it almost felt staged, like an amusement park or a movie set) and Las Vegas (while we were there we ran into a ton of British stag parties and a ton of British motorcycle groups).  Those descriptions are a little harsh, but I can't really think of another way to describe it.  Don't get me wrong, I thought Bruges was absolutely lovely, but it didn't feel like anyone actually lived there.  In addition, I thought that the restaurant scene in Ghent was better than the scene in Brussels and/or Bruges.  We actually had one of the best meals of our trip at a restaurant called Volta in Ghent (more on that later). 
  3. The beer (pictured below) - I know this is girly of me, but while we were there I drank more than my fair share of fruity beer.  I haven't had a lambic in a long time, but they were delicious.  Alex stuck to nice alcohol heavy, yeasty Belgian beers and I was all over the place.  I tried a bunch of different lambics (my favorite was Kriek Mystic), including a strange variety called "gueuze" that almost reminded me of champagne crossed with beer.  I also had a number of wheat beers and other randomness.  Yum.
  4. Adoration of the Mystic Lamb -  I'm not typically into the old Flemish painters like van Eyck, but even I was impressed by this giant altarpiece.  The altarpiece is no longer on the altar and is now tucked away in a small chapel/room in St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent.  Secreted away in another corner of St. Bavo's was a Rubens painting.  Several of the cathedrals/churches we in Belgium seem to have works of art tucked away inside.  In addition to the masterpieces at St. Bavo's, one church in Bruges had an early Michaelangelo sculpture of Madonna.
  5. The pastries - During his research Alex found a bakery called Himschoot in Ghent that we wanted to visit for a local bread called "mastel."  The bakery ended up being near our hotel and we stumbled across it on our first day in Ghent.  We tried several different pastries and a local candy called neuzen or cuberdons (which the helpful man at the bakery described as the "famous noses of Ghent").  My absolute favorite pastry at Himschoot was a buttery, almond-y,s lightly crumbly pastry that I believe was called "matte" (or something along those lines).  We also stumbled across a pastry shop in Brussels that sold "oriental pastries" (what I would call Middle Eastern pastries).  We had fantastic baklava, Turkish delight (aka "Lokum") with chocolate and pistachios and a few other interesting pastries there.  I couldn't tell you what most of them were, but there was a lot of orange, rose water, pistachio, walnut, sesame and honey going on.  Yum.  I'm also going to include Belgian waffles in the pastry category.  My advice?  Get a liege waffle with speculoos.  Enough said.
  6. The moules frites (aka mussels and french fries, pictured above) - I wanted to eat moules frites our first night in Brussels and our guidebook recommended a place called Le Pre-Sale.  We had originally planned to go to a place called La Mer du Nord for a casual seafood lunch, but by the time our flight arrived and we checked into the hotel it was a little late for lunch.  I would have suggested eating there for dinner but by the time we got up to La Mer du Nord (which was coincidentally located about a block or two away from Le Pre-Sale) it was closed.  We ordered a few different types of mussels (both in Belgium and in France), but the mussels in Belgium were by far the sweetest and most flavorful.  Oh and as for the fries, the Europeans really know their way around a french fry.  I don't know if they use better or more flavorful potatoes or if they cook the fries in duck fat, but they are so much better than most fries here in the US. 
Beers at Stamnee De Garre in Bruges, including Geuze Boon (the weirdly champagne-like beer mentioned above) and Gulden Draak, named after the dragon pictured below.  Apparently the dragon used to perch at the top of the Belfry in Ghent.  De Garre also has a very nice house beer (Triple van De Garre) on tap and some nice snacks.  

The view from the top of the Belfry in Ghent.  The cathedral is St. Nicholas.

The dragon.
Bruges - ain't it cute?

A mural right off the Grand Place in Brussels.  Unfortunately the Grand Place itself set up for Brussels Jazz Fest so my pictures there were crap (a huge stage covered in black plastic in the middle of the Grand Place and the smaller tents spread throughout weren't exactly great photo material). 

See?  Stupid stage.  On the other hand, what a lovely place to attend a concert.

Turns out the famous Mannequin Pis is teensy.

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