Thursday, August 6, 2009

So Chic en Belgique (Part II)

A Brusselian street:
visions of cobblestones still dance in my head.

London bridge is falling down. And it's raining cats and dogs.

Well, no, it's not - London bridge is in Arizona and all the cats and dogs are safe and sou
nd. But it might as well be with all the other absurd things happening around here.
Among them:
- London is STILL freakin' hot
- London has also become ridiculously HUMID (I thought I left Texas for a reason?).
- And yet, it's raining like hell the night before I embark on my first camping trip since Girl Scout days

Oh, the irony. But, I am not here to talk about our upcoming camping trip in the English countryside (that's for a later post!) -
I'm here to finish reporting on the beautiful madness that was our super-cool (said with a Belgian-French accent) trip to Belgium. It's good to have an extra week or so to digest one's travel experiences before fully spewing them onto the virtual word-canvas that is the blogosphere. So without further ado, part II of So Chic en Belgique. :) Brace yourselves - this is a long one.

* * *

The Chicness That is Belgiqueness
(in anecdote form):
Parts IV-VII
or, when in Bruges, leave your kids at the hotel

IV. The Much-Hyped Bruges: No Dogs, err, Kids Allowed.
We had heard so much good about Bruges. So much good and so little bad, in fact, that I have to admit I started to wonder how a place could be so absolutely wonderous. Bruges this, Bruges that, did you see the movie? oh the beauty! oh the sights! Yadda yadda. I was predictably skeptical.

Architecture in Bruges;
for some reason they make me think of mustard and horseradish.

Getting there from Brussels sounded easier than it was - probably because the people who told us about it traveled without an infant in tow. An hour long train ride with everyone and their mother-in-law-with-a-bad-leg on which there are no reserved or assigned seats: not exactly ideal. On the local trains it's first come first sit, so it was a miracle we nabbed seats at all; the aisles were entirely full of the standing and perturbed. And despite having a baby in his arms, Matt still got glares for not giving up his seat. (Gee, I wonder why the two 15 year old boys in front of us listening to their iPods didn't give up theirs? Bitter? Me? Never!) Mean glares for papa bear. Strike one.

Our arrival into Bruges;
getting a seat on a crowded train makes me want to click my heels.

Anyway, we made it to Bruges eventually and managed to somehow still be in high spirits.

First stop (at my request) was a little tea room I'd looked up rumored to have the best hot (Belgian) chocolate in town: Tea-Room De Proeverie. It took a little walking, but we finally came to it and found it to be a beautifully quaint little place nestled just outside the medieval center of Bruges. It was empty but for two or three people sitting inside, and at the entrance were two seemingly cheerful people making delicious looking chocolate creations of some sort.

I all but cart-wheeled inside, almost maniacally chomping at the proverbial bit. It was warm outside and as a rule I don't drink
hot chocolate anyway, but this hot chocolate was too good to pass up because it was the kind where they give you an actual piece of chocolate which you then dip and swirl in the hot milk to create your own drink. (Kind of childish to still love doing that, but hey, life is too short to be a snoot.) Weather and general dislike of hot chocolate be damned*, we waltzed inside. I'd just requested a table when the chocolate-making-waitress spotted Matt and Roman, and therefore, the stroller. Her smile disappeared and she warned me that if we couldn't fold the stroller and put it behind their door, we wouldn't be served. There was nobody in the place, and plenty of room for the stroller (which is not very big to begin with). When I told her the baby was sleeping and we couldn't fold it up, she shrugged and said they couldn't serve us. We were literally turned out. Wth? No hot chocolate for mama bear. Strike two.

Next stop: De Vlaamsche Pot. Because of all the hype surrounding Bruges and its picturesqueness, I made it a point to try to find the absolute perfect restaurant at which to have a late lunch / early dinner before we headed back to Brussels. I wanted something quaint, traditional but with a real Flemish flair, something with that certain ne sais quoi. :) After much internet research and pouring over what seemed like every restaurant review out there, I fell in love with De Vlaamsche Pot.

Spotless, tastefully decorated, and boasting what was hailed by many a visitor as the best, most authentic Flemish Beef Stew in Bruges, I decided it was the place for us. Armed with their address
and phone number, we made our way over at around 5pm for a very early dinner (perfect timing for catching an 8pm train back to Brussels). To get there we had to fight our way through a swarm of European tourists so thick the sidewalks were almost completely invisible. Silly people stopping every two feet to buy another chocolate or postcard masked any antique charm the architecture might have had. Oh, that and the fact that every chain store and restaurant on earth seems to have hit Bruges. (There was a Pizza Hut prominently set up in one of the bigger squares we stopped at. Shame, really.) We eventually came to Helmstraat and our restaurant.

De Vlaamsche Pot is as quaint in person as on the web (if not more). The restaurant looks like a tiny Flemish home, decorated with beautifully rustic and yet somehow modern wooden tables and chairs. The atmosphere is relatively casual, yet adult. Too adult, apparently because prominently displayed on their front entrance was a large sticker with a picture of a stroller and a giant strike through it: no strollers, no children allowed. What is this place? I can understand not allowing children into a Michelin-starred restaurant, or a formal place in the middle of a busy dinnertime, but Bruges seemed to have a complete ban on children and strollers altogether! How did we end up turning into Snoopy in Snoopy Come Home!

I asked the waiter if he was serving dinner and he said yes, happily, excitedly - until he saw the stroller. We were asked to sit outside and given terrible service. He was friendly enough, but we felt so uncomfortable Matt had to get up and walk around the block every time Roman made a noise - and the place was empty except for two other couples, one of which was seated inside! No love for baby bear. Strike three! Bruges officially strikes out in my book.

But enough complaining - the food was awesome. We ordered the Flemish beef stew, which comes out in a not-so-mini mini cauldron with an even mini-er cauldron full of homemade apple sauce. You are given a giant bowl, which the waiter fills with freshly made Belgian Fries, which he brings out in an aluminum frying dish and servers directly onto your plate. You then presumably serve the stew over them. The stew is very sweet, even without the apple sauce. And it goes perfectly with a trappiste. :)

Meaty, morsely deliciousness of the Flemish persuasion. And fries, with which everything in life is better.

Our starter was a homemade pate, which was decent - probably chicken liver. It was served with a confit of onions and some salad and berries. The berries did not necessarily enhance the experience, and neither did the ranch-like dressing. Very odd combo, IMHO.

Dessert was a forgettable berry parfait of some sort. I don't go for that kind of thing. I'm in Belgium. Give me chocolate dammit.

Roman really wants my fries.

So, no, we probably wouldn't go back to Bruges. Yes, it was pretty and quaint - just like they said.
But no place is worth going to that doesn't like the Master of the Forum. Period.

*It is a little known fact about me that one of my greatest fears and worst nightmares is to be caught in a sauna wearing a thick unrefined wool turtle neck sweater while being force-fed really hot hot-chocolate. Because I always think of this ridiculos scenario when offered hot chocolate, I generally don't drink it. Somehow I got past this image as I stood before De Proeverie.

* * *

V. French Baguettes, Fries & Waffles on Steroids (if steroids were a good thing).

Back safe and sound in good old Brussels, Matt and I indulged in the other noteworthy foods ubiquitous in Belgium: baguettes, fries and waffles.

We ate at the same little sandwich shop near the Galerie de la Reine every single day for lunch: De Pistolei. We spotted it because there was always a line out the door and because it had the most gigantic and delicious looking baguettes we'd ever seen. They were easily 4 feet high and prominently displayed in the window. At 3 Euros a pop, it was a cheap and delicious lunch. I don't know what it is about French and Belgian bread, but it has powerfully addictive qualities. The soft, chewy crunchiness (contradictory, I know) it one of the textures I can never get enough of.

The fries in Belgium are unique because they are served with ketchup and mayonnaise. They are also much thicker - more akin to steak fries in the States, yet somehow lighter. They come wrapped in a paper cone and are eaten using a diminutive little pitchfork.
Being that annoying person who loves to eat her ice cream with an espresso spoon or the little flat mini-shovel pre-packaged ice cream often comes with, I am a huge advocate of the midgi-fry-fork. :)

And lastly, the Belgian waffles, or "Gaufres de Liege" as they call them. According to our cab driver (infinitely informative, I warned you), the original Belgian waffles are made with sugar in the batter and therefore not eaten with all of what we perceive to be the "traditional" accoutrement. No chocolate sauce or whipped cream or dribbly strawberry topping.

If you want to be authentic, you eat them plain.

We didn't want to be authentic. :)

* * *

VI. Manneken Pis: The Biggest Waste of Time Ever.

I will waste as little time on this as possible: if you go to Brussels you will be virtually bombarded with random awful souvenirs of a little cherub-like boy, naked, peeing. It's a fountain - much hyped. You'd think it was a masterpiece of art, or a gigantically triumphant celebration of the cherub-form. it is neither. What it is is a ridiculously small fountain on a random corner with a bunch of tourists stupidly taking pictures of it (without knowing why) and then going to buy the even more ridiculous Manneken Pis cork screws (yes, with a cleverly placed screw). Sad, sad, and sad.

Sadder still is tha
t we wasted the time and energy to walk there at all. Well, at least we got was this semi-artsy picture.

* * *

VII. Magritte & Marat: Art in Belgium

I was an art history major and somehow I did not remember that Magritte, Brueghel and Rubens were Flemish and/or Belgian. I also had no idea the much acclaimed "Death of Marat" by David was housed in Brussels. Armed with these facts alone (the last one would have been enough), I chose to devote an entire afternoon on our visit to Brussels to trawling the Musee des Beaux Arts and the Magritte Museum.
It was well worth the 13Euros per person, which gave us access to three museums: The Musee des Beaux Arts, the Ancient Art Museum and the Musee Magritte.

For the record, Death of Marat was worth the trip. That painting is amazing.

Death of Marat
a picture of a picture

a picture of a picture of a picture

I thought the museum excursion might be risky with an infant, but amazingly enough Roman was enthralled by all the colors (notably in the Magritte paintings). He was quiet and cooperative the entire time and he was especially taken by a giant globe made entirely of beetles (I won't start a rant on post-modern art here). There were lots of highlights in the museums, but I have to admit, I probably had more fun taking ridiculous pictures of Matt and Roman. Here are some choice shots:

Roman is clueless that Prometheus is being ripped to shreds behind him. Apparently so is Matt.
Ah, to be a child again. >:)

Deep thought #27.39: does life mimic art or art mimic life?

Good thing, cause I've always wondered what a giant
made entirely of dead beetles would look like.

* * *

Go to Belgium. The end. :)

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  1. Thank you for sharing your trip! Excellent sites! You guys look so comfortable travelling with Roman - that's so great!

  2. Ah, what a fun read! Sorry to hear about Bruges, sucks that they were not more accommodating to Master Roman. Sometimes, I still get surprised at the last of conveniences in place for handicapped folks, parents, etc in some of the places I travel. Guess visiting Bruges would be a heck of a wake up call. On the other hand, the food did look delicious and I bet it was still a lot of fun to wander around and explore. Hopefully the return trip on the train was a little less stressful.

  3. First, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful (for the most part, i.e. Brussels) visit to Belgium.

    Second - I am absolutely OUTRAGED on your behalf regarding the treatment your received in Bruges!!!!!!!

    Seriously?! I have never heard of any place more hostile to babies. I realize that we're talking about 2 establishments but it's enough to indicate a track record. We all know that adult diners are more boorish and obnoxious than a small child can ever be.

    I'm so happy for you that your trip ended on a much more pleasant note in Brussels. Matt looks a lot more enthused about the bug globe than Roman! 8-D