Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Belgium is more than friets: Brugge, Oostende, and Brussels

Mention Belgium in the US, and most likely you will draw blank stares. If you talk to a cyclist, chances are that something like cyclocross and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will be dropped. Talk to a beer aficionado, and Jupiler, Leffe, and Hoegaarden will be mentioned. But only somebody who has actually traveled in the country will know what you mean when you talk about friets.
Mid-night snack: friets
See, the Dutch like their French fries, but the Belgians are fed the national staple from day one. Drive along a Belgian secondary road, and eventually you will come across a handmade sign that lets you know "Friets, 200 meters!" When I grew up in Schleiden, just about 10 miles from the Teuto/Belgian border, which in those days still existed, our family would go on the occasional excursion into the Ardennes, to Malmédy or Eupen, and invariably we'd end up eating frites. They'd be unbelievably greasy, soaking through the newspaper-cone into which they were shoveled, and they'd always come with mayonnaise as a sauce—nope, nothing but back in those days. Halfway through eating one of those huge portions you'd realize that your tongue was starting to stick to the roof of your mouth, thanks to the grease. An entire nation fed itself with this staple. No wonder they can persevere in cold, miserable cyclocross races: Their joints are permanently greased!
Antwerp train station
Not much has changed, even though I have not seen a single fritture packaging the fries in homemade newspaper cones. But then, we traveled to only three of the larger cities: Brugge, Oostende, and Brussels. I am sure that proper packaging still exists outside of the metro areas. Mayonnaise no longer is the only choice of sauce as there are numerous other flavors that most likely are no more harmful. As Angela asked: Why aren't there more really fat people here? Good point.
Odd goods at one of the chocolatiers
Cookies, fresh from the artisan
Brugge has some incredible beer stores
At 1.80 euro a pop, these macaroons add up
But Belgium is much more than just friets. I had never been to Brugge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has almost 2,000 years of history. The old city center, which is surrounded by a canal, is home to about 22,000 people who most likely live off the gazillion tourists who arrive at the nondescript train station just on the other side of the moat.

In Brugge, time seems to have stood still
An old Opel!
Unfortunately, we didn't get to take a boat tour. Next time.
We spent two nights here, having arrived Sunday afternoon. Monday was the Belgian Independence Day, but since 75% of the businesses are tourist related there was no dearth of chocolatiers, beer shops, and lace mongers that were plying their respective trades. What a pretty city! The architecture makes you think that you're in some Disney fantasy, while the horse-drawn coaches are reminiscent of Vienna and New Orleans.
That barge barely fit into the locks
Brugge: scenic, even in yucky weather
One of four windmills in the city center
With the weather a bit on the iffy side—yet no rain—the photo opportunities were a bit limited. But we enjoyed the stay, even if the Hotel Academie was no substitute for where we had been staying so far, even though it was more expensive than all of the other places. The first night's dinner was taken in a small restaurant just down the cobbled street—a fabulous Belgian beef stew for Angela and mussels in wine sauce for me. OK, let's not talk about how much it costs to eat out here. We had fun going to the chocolate stores (where Angela managed to piss off the dour female keeper of one of them) and just drifting around the cobbled streets. With several thousand Belgians we stood in the square for the Independence Day concert, singing along to old pop songs that the local COC had chosen for a 35-song sing-along.
Eviva España—one of 35 sing-along songs...
Beer lubricates the vocal cords
City hall in the waning light
From Brugge it is only a 15-minute ride to Oostende, from where ferry boats leave for Dover, gateway to Great Britain. So, before heading for Brussels after two nights in Brugge we decided to check out the coast for a few hours. We spent our time walking along the seaside promenade, listening to the seagulls and me reminiscing about the family trips we'd take to the North Sea. Yep, the water is still murky looking and the wide beach stretches on for miles and miles. Fish stands peddled their wares, and we even spent a few euros on the small aquarium that houses Dover sole, blue-tinted lobsters, and cat shark. After dodging the hundreds of (mostly) Belgian tourists and their kids  we settled in a small  promenade restaurant and had lunch. I have to say, this impromptu side trip was well worth it.
Fishmonger on the promenade
Fishy, crabby, ...
... and mussly
The orange art gives much-needed color to the drab promenade
Good eatin'
Panoramic view on a blustery day of the beach and harbor areas
We spent our last two nights in the Hilton Brussels, a nice place at a reasonable cost (and free drinks for Diamond members like me). Did I mention that I like Leffe and Hoegaarden beer? It had been ages that I had been to Brussels, and I had forgotten how beautiful the city center is. One afternoon we visited the chambers of the European Parliament. Wow, Europe has spent a pretty penny, I mean, cent on these fine digs.
The old city center of Brussels
Inside the Royal Palace
This is where Europe's politicians don't get work done
Angela getting henna'd up
The final opus—2 euros
Angela indulged in one of her favorite past-times, shopping, and even got a henna tattoo from a Moroccan street artist. We ate well, enjoyed the return of sunshine, and marveled at the cosmopolitan nature of Belgium's (and, in a way, Europe's) capital. Lucky for us, the royal palace happened to be open for a few days to visitors, and we seized that (free) opportunity. If you wonder about the significance of "free": Most museums and other attractions in this part of the world will set you back by 10 to 15 euros if you want to visit them.
We never did see Manneken Pis, but this one almost got Angela
What a great name for this street-cleaning device!
Details, everywhere
Hilton, I love you!
And that concludes the Low Countries portion of our trip. One more stop to come: Spain. But that will be covered in the next entry.


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