Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Waffles Really are Better in Belgium

I had a plan when my dad and I got off the train in Brussels; there was a tram that would take us to within a block of our hotel.  So, we meandered through the winding route of the Brussels Midi train station, exited the station, and walked over to where the tram pickup was to figure out how to buy a ticket.  We were just about to head back inside the train station to find a cash machine (because we couldn't use a credit card for tram tickets), when we heard the sound of screeching tires coming around the corner.  It was a car-- careening quite fast up the tram line. Hubcaps came flying off the tires, metal scraped against the tram tracks-- and still the car continued to speed up as it tried to round the corner.  And then, got stuck.

The driver tried to keep going-- tires spun, there was a little more metal scraping, and the smell of burnt rubber, but as a crowd began to form and the police began arrive on the scene, the driver gave up and emerged from the car. 

My French isn't good enough to understand the explanation the driver gave each successive police officer, who all seemed to be asking, "what the hell were you doing?", but it is good enough to understand that just about everyone in the crowd was calling him crazy.  And then, a few volunteers stepped forward to attempt to carry the car off the tracks.

This went on for a while-- they pushed and lifted and, as you can see, did manage to move the car a bit. And then, a tram pulled up (which going to pose a whole new set of problems-- because where was it going to go?) and the police started to try to break up the growing crowd, so my dad and I went to find the cash machine.  When we came back out, the car was still on the tracks and two very large tow trucks had shown up.  Somehow the tram was gone-- I'm assuming it backed out of the station, though I have no idea where it went.  However, it did seem clear that catching a tram to the hotel wasn't going to be an option for a while, so we took a taxi instead.  Welcome to Brussels!  (What I never found was what happened to the driver-- I kept expecting him to be hauled off in handcuffs because how could the police simply let him walk away after causing so much trouble and disruption along with, I'm guessing, breaking several traffic laws.  But if he was arrested, we never saw it.)

The trip was comparatively uneventful from there-- largely because it's quite easy to walk Brussels and see much of it, so we didn't need transportation again until we took a taxi to return to the station. Our hotel, Hotel Siru, was across the street from the top of Rue Neuve, a long walking street full of shops that was bustling around 4 pm when we headed out.

Rue Neuve seems impressive-- until you come upon the Grand Place which is breathtaking.  And, it didn't lose the ability to stun us the whole time we were there.

It was still too early for dinner, even though it was getting dark, so we did as the Belgians do and sat outside at La Chaloupe D'Or and had a beer.

Mine is an Affligem Blond; the one my dad is holding is blanche, or white, beer which is a cloudy wheat beer, but I can't remember which brand.  We both preferred the Affligem, though I do think the white beer was probably more what I think of as traditionally Belgian.  Fortified by our beer, and getting a little chilly just sitting, we started wandering down the little streets that run off the Grand Place.  Mostly, they are filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, and chocolate shops. There is no shortage of stores that sell chocolate in Brussels.  Chocolate is literally flowing.

How all the chocolate stores manage to stay in business, I don't know.  But they are all a little different. Some even sell carved chocolate which seems to pretty and intricate to actually eat.

We actually stopped and bought chocolate in this one, Leonidas,

because my guide book recommended it.  The store gets its name from the founder, Leonidas George Kestekides who originally introduced his chocolates at the 1910 World Fair in Brussels.  He then opened his first store in Ghent three years later-- there are many Leonidas stores all over the world now.  There are multiple stores located around the Grand Place alone.  His stores themselves were remarkable for that window style-- it's called a guillotine window-- which was apparently a revolutionary store front in its time. Leonidas' goal was to provide superior chocolates at a reasonable price. My dad and I each got a small box with three chocolates-- one white, one milk, and one dark.  They still cost quite a bit more than a Hershey bar (2 euros for the three pieces)... but, it is really good chocolate (much better than a Hershey bar).  The solid piece of milk chocolate, which I ate in my hotel room later that night, was particularly good.

Eventually, we decided we were ready for dinner-- which had to be "moules et frites."  We wandered for a while trying to find a place that seemed to specialize in this traditional Belgian fare, mostly because we were trying to find Chez Leon, a recommendation for good and reasonable mussels.  Finally, we found it on the Rue des Bouchers, a very busy street packed with restaurants which largely seemed to specialize in seafood and/or Italian fare. 

Inside, Leon's is packed with tables and doesn't look at all like the "fast food" kind of place it was described in my guide book to be.  When I think fast food, I think McDonald's interior, not this.

It was more like a bustling brasserie. A bustling brasserie which served "moules et frites" in just the way you would expect, drunk, of course, with more beer.

We'd been traveling all day from Oxford to get to Brussels and now it was later in the evening, so we headed back to the hotel. 

Siru is a pretty nice hotel, but my favorite part was the motion-sensor lights which went on, as if by magic, in succession as you walked down the hall.  I don't know why, but this entertained me every time we went down the hall, so much so that I recorded it.

The next morning started with breakfast at the attached Hotel Colonies.  We needed vouchers from our hotel to have breakfast there, which we didn't know, so the Hotel Colonies' concierge went next door to get them for us. While he was gone, I started taking pictures of the fountain in the lobby, a take on the Manneken-Pis (which we went to later in the day), the statue that the whole city of Brussels seems to be enamored with, if the replicas and imitations are any indication (and, I think they are).  The one at Hotel Colonies is spitting.

When the concierge came back and saw I was taking pictures, he insisted I take one of him as well since he was so kind as to go get our breakfast vouchers. I told him that if I took his picture, he would end up on my blog which made him even happier.  So, this is the very nice concierge from Hotel Colonies.

After breakfast, we headed out to make a circular walk of Brussels that would take us past the Palais Royal and end us up back at the Grand Place.  To get there, we first walked through the Botanic Gardens.

It was quite nice even in November, but I'm sure it's gorgeous in spring.  On the side of the Botanic Gardens is the Glass House

which was built in 1826 as a green house though it became a cultural center in the 1980s.  From there, we walked down the Rue Royale, past the Parc de Bruxelles (again, probably wonderful in the spring)

which contained a display of whimsical statues like this one (which I particularly liked because the bottom has a sketch of the Manneken-Pis on the bottom--you can see it if you make the picture larger),

to the Palais Royal.

That the flag is flying means that the King is in residence, though we didn't get to see him. In fact, I had to look up who the current monarch is once I got back to England (it's Albert II).  He was never mentioned.  The Belgian monarchy doesn't seem to create the media attention or tourist draw it does in England.  The reason for this became somewhat clear while we were touring the BELvue, a museum that covers the history of the monarchy since 1830 (the time after the Belgian revolution when a new government was formed), built in a section that was once part of the palace.

(The Hapsburg's reign doesn't seem to be something the Belgians are keen on creating memorials to.  At least, there doesn't seem to be much on this history on ready, advertised display.)

In Belgium, a new government was formed in the latter part of 1830 and this government chose the new monarch.  They chose Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and it is from his lineage that the rest of the monarchs came.  Much of the BELvue Museum celebrates or critiques industrial, political, and social developments since 1830-- time is marked by the changing monarchs, but in a lot of ways, they seem rather incidental. This may be because the royalty of Belgium doesn't have the same royal trappings as other monarchs (so, they aren't as interesting for tourists). For example, there is no crown, no thrown, no scepter, and no robes. The monarch dresses in military costume as "formal" attire (that the post seems largely tied to the military makes me wonder if there can be a female monarch in Belgium. There hasn't been a woman in charge since 1830.).  Apparently, Leopold thought this lack of show was a good idea for the public image of the royal family though he secretly resented not having all the pomp and circumstance other monarchs had.

Belgium had the first national railway, something the museum makes it clear the country is very proud of, though industrialization also brought with it a lot of class warfare and strife, workers' revolutions, and the eventual adoption of Socialism in the late 19th century.

Leopold I was succeeded by his son, Leopold II, in 1865.  Leopold II also became the sovereign ruler of the Congo which was a source of great consternation to most of the Belgians who were appalled at the exploitation taking place in Congo under Leopold II's rule.  It made Leopold II a relatively unpopular monarch; he spent a lot of his later life in Paris instead of in Brussels. However, his son and successor, Albert I, became a very popular monarch as he and his wife, Elisabeth, were perceived by the Belgians to be an "everyday family."  Albert became even more popular after is visit to the Congo where he criticized his father's policies.  And, his place as a beloved monarch was even more solidified when he agreed to the introduction of a "democratic" voting system (in that it allowed a single vote system for men) in 1918.  (Women didn't gain suffrage until quite late in Belgium--in 1948, there were still limitations.)  Albert, a passionate mountain climber, fell to his death from a mountain, in 1934 and was succeeded by his son Leopold III.

Leopold III seems to have been popular for a short while, at least while his wife, Queen Astrid, was alive. She died in a traffic accident in 1935. In the museum, her death is juxtaposed with (and somewhat overshadowed by) the invention of the radio which allowed all of Belgium to follow the funeral ceremony through live broadcast.  After her death, Leopold III seems to have made what the Belgians considered questionable decisions, including remarrying and siding with the Germans during WWII.  At the very least, he drafted a letter expressing reservations about the allied forces and resistance.  After WWII, the Belgians were fairly divided about whether or not Leopold should be allowed to return to the throne-- it was almost a 50-50 split, divided along political and religious lines (Socialists and Communists wanted him out, Catholics wanted him in.  The Flemish wanted him to return, those in Brussels and Walloons wanted him to stay away.).  He eventually returned after a five year absence (during which Prince Charles, I believe his brother, served as Regent) only to abdicate in 1951 to his son Baudouin who served as King until his death in the 1990s. It was during Baudouin's rule that the Congo gained independence.This is where the museum history ends-- this is also why I had to look up who the current monarch is after I got back. There are no photos of the current king even though Albert II has been the monarch for about 15 years now.

The story the BELvue Museum presents is really more a social, political and economic one than one of the royal family, though I did learn a lot about Belgium itself that I never would have learned elsewhere.  What we didn't get to see were the promised royal rooms-- I thought that we were also going to see the ostentatious quarters from each period of rule, but that was nowhere to be found. The rooms that the displays were in were rather plain, though if you looked carefully, you could tell from the walls that this section of the palace probably used to be pretty impressive.

Before leaving the Palace area, we also toured the Coudenberg archeological site located under the palace, after stopping in the cafe for a drink of sparkling water (which I bought by mistake instead of the still because the bottles weren't clearly labeled. I'm not really a fan of sparking water, but my dad really enjoyed it and continued to order it for the rest of our trip.).  The cafe wasn't particularly remarkable, but the garden outside was

which once again makes me think Brussels would be well worth visiting in spring.

The Coudenberg is actually the ruins of the former palace which stood on the site of the current palace.  I took a couple pictures, though I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to (there was small sign with a picture of a camera with an X through it.  It wasn't particularly obvious though-- I've just been to enough places that I look for signs about taking pictures now.). There was no one around to stop me from taking pictures though, so I took a couple before I felt guilty and stopped. Most amazing to me was that part of this site, now totally covered and collapsed, was once open air streets.

There wasn't much to go on in terms of artifacts to signal what each section used to be, but we walked through the Chapel (which, interestingly, was never actually used as a chapel after it was built; it was most likely used for storage), the Rue Isabelle (which was the former open-air street), and the Aula Magna, the former banquet hall and inner courtyard.  There was a lot of imagination involved in walking through this-- as far as archeological sites go, it wasn't terribly informative even with the audio guide, and my dad and I wound up sort of rushing through it quickly after I marveled at the age of the ruins for a few minutes (that things this old still exist has yet to cease to amaze me. Everywhere I go in the UK, and the rest of Europe, has structures that are more than a thousand years old and no matter how many I see, I'm still impressed and overwhelmed by the great history of it all.).  From the Palais Royal, we started towards the Grand Place, passing by the Grand Sablon with the Palais d'Egmont.

It used to be the home of the Duke D'Egmont but now houses part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  From here, we went down a short road where we came across a loan food truck selling Belgian waffles (which I guess are just waffles in Belgium).  The smell, which I had gotten a whiff of as we walked down Rue Neuve the night before, was intoxicating.  I had to have a waffle-- and I convinced my dad, who was just going to take a bite of mine, to get one of his own (which was good because he admitted that even though he hadn't thought he wanted one, if he had only had a bite of mine, he would have been really sorry he hadn't gotten his own.)  Belgian waffles off the street really do taste better than any other waffle-- they are piping hot and caramelized by the cooking process.

They are not the healthiest lunch, but they are a pretty tasty one. One which we happily ate while continuing our walk to the Grand Place (after posing for a picture with them. I think this is the only picture from our whole trip of the two of us together-- that's how much we wanted to commemorate the waffles.).

To get to the Grand Place, you go down a set of stairs and walk through this garden

which no map or guide book will tell me the name of (and, I've looked quite a bit), and through the Place de la Justice, where lots of people were posing with this sculpture

to Rue de la Madeleine which takes you back into the area of the Grand Place.  And, the Grand Place, on the second day and in daylight, was just as stunning as the night before.

It is a pretty large square, so it's hard to get a picture of the whole thing at once.  But, the three pictures together give a sense of the scope-- though not the magnificence. It's brighter and more golden and colorful in person.

My dad was quite tired by this point.

However, I managed to convince him that a visit to the Beer Museum

 located on the opposite side of the square from this wall he had planted himself on, would be reviving, especially since we would be given a beer as part of our tour.

Actually, the sign doesn't really hype the included beer enough-- it was the best part of the museum. The museum itself is one room

 containing some of the devices and containers needed to make beer.

The booklet we were given when we entered was more informative and interesting than the museum itself, which, in a way, is ok because we could take the booklet with us. And, it has a lot of interesting history, descriptions of Belgian beers, and an explanation of the brewing process.  It's really worth reading. 

The rest of the "museum" is really a small, and very quaint, pub

where you sit and have a beer after the tour.  This is really the best part, not just because you can drink a beer, but because watching beer poured from taps in the correct way is fascinating.

And, I was right that a beer would revive my dad. Look how much happier he looks than when he was sitting on the wall!

(We shared the two beers he's holding-- one blonde and one brune.  He didn't actually drink them both himself.)

After the beer museum, we decided that we needed to indulge in yet another Belgian delicacy-- frites.  Yes, we'd had frites with the mussels the night before, but that wasn't the same thing as getting them from a stand that specialized in frites-- one that was constantly serving a long queue, no matter what time we walked by it.

The frites come in a ridiculously large portion, topped with whatever sauce you choose (that's tartar sauce which is what I got on mine. My dad got ketchup.)

Again, not the healthiest snack, but we were very happy eating them.

Fortified with (or stuffed and laden, depending on how you want to view it) frites, we set off to find the Manneken-Pis.  It was pretty late in the afternoon, but we figured that if we went all the way to Brussels and didn't see the Manneken-Pis, we would be scolded by those we told our story to.

We did pass many Mannekin-Pis reproductions along the way, like tiny chocolate ones (these are actually flavored chocolates-- we bought a bag later. They're a bit strange-- each one does taste different though.)

and larger ones enjoying waffles.

Right next to this waffle eating Manneken-Pis is the real one.

It's much smaller than I thought it would be. For all the kitchy souvenirs, reproductions of it, chocolate shaped like it, and plays on it, I thought it would more impressive.  Mostly, it's fun to take funny pictures in front of.

The Manneken-Pis is an example of the irreverent spirit of the Belgians.  He has outfits (800 of them) that he is sometimes dressed in, though obviously he was in his natural state when we visited.  He's also been stolen three times-- the last time was in 1817 when he was found broken in pieces. So, this Manneken-Pis is actually a replica of the original that no longer exists.

Having seen the Mannekin-Pis in all his glory, we walked back to the Grand Place and sat with the masses of tourists and locals again at La Chaloupe D'Or.  No matter what the weather, people sit outside.  This time, we had the brune Affligem.

(My dad made me the official photo taker-- so he's in a lot more pictures than I am.  But, you can see my beer in the foreground.)  Beer is a good way to end a day in Belgium, so from here we headed back to the hotel and, after a rest, to dinner at the nearby Boston Steak House (which really isn't much like an American steak house except that it had steak on the menu).  I had pasta and my dad had a hamburger which was really good, but different from an American hamburger, maybe because of the sauce on it.  My dad was good and got a salad instead of more frites. He was a bit on frite overload...

We had limited time on our last day in Brussels because we had to catch a train back to England, but I really wanted to see the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate. We had been on the lookout for it since day one and hadn't found it--I blame the map we were using which has a stamped spot showing its location that isn't quite right. But, the stamp on the map got us close to where it should be and then my dad spotted it on a side street right off the Grand Place.

This museum also provide a very informative booklet, this time on the history of chocolate, roasting cocoa beans, and making the beans into chocolate.  It has some interesting displays including this sculpture made from sugar

 and, really impressively, these clothes which are made of chocolate.

I really wanted to touch them, but there was a sign saying not to.  It was really hard to resist the temptation though. There is also a demonstration of how to make pralines (which are not what I was thinking of when I heard pralines-- they are any filled shell of chocolate) in the traditional way. I recorded some of it, though most of the actual explanation is in French.

The museum also provides ample samples of chocolate from white chocolate to 100% cacao-- you could feast on chocolate nibs if you were so inclined.  You also got a Belgian cinnamon cookie, called a speculoos, hand dipped in chocolate right in front of you.  It was really good-- but even more amazing was that the woman handing out the cookie-dipped-in-chocolate spoke at least 4 languages with relative fluency. And, I'm guessing she spoke more than the four I heard (French, English, Italian, and Spanish).  In fact, almost everyone in Brussels (except perhaps the man who did the praline demonstration) speaks multiple languages-- and speaks them well. This makes sense since Brussels is the EU headquarter, but still it's incredible. And humbling.

After the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, we had a little time to kill, so we wandered through the shops at the Galerie Royale, which sold products at royal prices

and finally went back to the hotel to collect our luggage and get a taxi to the train station.

The train station should have been the least remarkable part of our trip to Brussels, but as it was interesting in the beginning for the car on the tram rails, it was interesting in the end as well.  We had to fill out "landing cards" (a name which makes more sense when traveling by plane then by train) to hand to passport control on our way through security.  My dad put down his bag with his medications in it and when he went to pick it up, it was gone.  We made a feeble attempt to report this to someone working in the train station, but what was in the bag was valuable only to my dad-- and probably a great disappointment to the thief once he went through it since the most valuable thing in it was the relatively inexpensive camera that my dad never once took a picture with; there was nothing the thief could have sold or used since there was no money, credit cards or passports in the bag and my dad's medications aren't the kind that anyone on the street would want. So, it didn't seem worth missing our train to file an official police report.  The bag was probably in a trashcan somewhere before my dad even realized it was gone.  Even though my dad handled the loss of his bag with relative calm and grace (after cursing for a minute or so), it wasn't the best way to end a trip to Brussels.  So, I'd rather leave it with this image instead...

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