Part I: Brugge
August 31, 2012 – September 4, 2012
Our journey began on Friday afternoon, as we excitedly drove to Logan airport. We parked at the top of the swanky new(er) economy garage, from which Kevin wished he had extra time to gawk at the planes. After participating in the standard security theater, we waited briefly for boarding. The extra money we spent on the “economy plus” tickets helped, between getting to board early and Kevin getting extra leg-room. The flight to JFK was uneventful and we landed a few minutes early. We began looking for decent dinner options, and found Balducci’s but it was ridiculously expensive, so we decided on the Legend’s Sports Bar in Terminal 2, which took forever to get takeout from. We ate here and there as we boarded the shuttle from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4, and walked to our gate just as boarding for the 7.5 hour flight started. Once we got settled, the captain announced that our flying time would be only 6.5 hours because of the tail-winds! Apart from the rowdy juveniles sitting behind us who got told to settle down by the man sitting next to them, this flight was also uneventful. We ended up having two dinners in the space of four hours though, since (sadly) the chicken with vegetables and grilled chicken salad the airline provided us was better than the restaurant food we had purchased earlier. We landed in Brussels, were some of the first people off the plane, and got into the customs line before most of the other passengers. Once we got to the front the customs official added the first stamp to our new passports. After an incredibly long wait at the baggage carousel, Kevin grabbed our bags and we walked to the platform to catch our train to Brussels Norde and then onto Brugge.
At Brussels Norde it wasn’t completely clear which train went to Brugge, but we ended up figuring it out, and it was 14 minutes late. While Kevin ran to get bottles of water, Jen watched the bags and ended up communicating with two women in rudimentary Spanish who asked her whether this train went to Brugge. Once the train arrived, Kevin ended up feeling like “that American”, which is something we always try not to be when traveling outside the U.S.: while hauling our three bags onto the train he bumped into the guy in front of him, then crowded him on the next level to the point where he kicked our suitcases trying to get up the stairs. Kevin got a “c’mon mate, the train isn’t leaving without you” response, which was deserved but humbling, given the politeness of this fellow.
A scant hour later we arrived in Brugge and made it off the train without pissing off any other natives. Outside of the station, we contemplated walking to Hotel Navara, but the reservation printout only had our home address on it, and no address for the hotel (seriously). Based on the cobblestone streets and uncertain destination we decided to catch a cab. It was a steep fare for a short ride, but the driver was awesome and gave us several restaurant recommendations and tips on what to see.
Since our room wasn’t ready yet, we dropped off the bags and set out to find lunch with our newly acquired tourist map from the front desk. After a short walk, we found the suggested De Vlaamsche Pot (The Flemish Pot).
It had a very nice atmosphere as well as a small open air courtyard with cozy bench seating. We ordered the shrimp croquettes appetizer, which was local north sea shrimp peeled, pureed and deep fried in batter…bad but so delicious. We both ordered the authentic dishes recommended by our cab driver: Jen got Eel in the Green (river eel with vegetables) and Kevin got Flemish beef stew. The waiter delivered the eel in a cast iron skillet, the beef stew in a cast iron pot, and left us with two giant serving dishes.
We briefly wondered why we had such huge plates, but in the next minute the waiter returned with a giant metal bowl of Belgian frites and began scooping them into our bowls. Jen tried the fries with the mayo, and actually liked it. After stuffing ourselves and still leaving some food behind, we continued exploring.
On the way back to the hotel, we couldn’t help but notice a gelateria called Da Vinci, which had quite the line. So OK, even with that big meal, we needed dessert right? Jen got a dark and regular chocolate cone, while Kevin got a mango and coconut one. It was excellent, and we quickly tasted why this place had such a line (which it did almost every time we passed).
After that, we checked into our room, got settled, and then went downstairs to the jazz cafe so Jen could get the last of the supplies she needed for her Ayurvedic jet lag remedy. We also checked out the Fitness Center/Pool, before heading back out to explore. We walked around checking out the sights, taking pictures and scoping out places to possibly eat dinner. Around Grote Markt (Market Square), there were 15 or so outdoor cafes with similar menus. Eventually we settled on one that looked promising, mostly because it had cooled off and had the heat lamps on. The De Carre restaurant had a traditional menu selection, but we squeezed in just under the 7pm deadline to order off of the small menu. Jen got an omelet with mushrooms and Kevin opted for the Belgian waffle with strawberries, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. We then made our way back to the hotel and collapsed into bed, having managed to stay up past 8:00 p.m.
Jen woke up before dawn as usual, and decided to check out the exercise room. The TV only showed snow, and some Iron Maiden-esque, European heavy metal music was playing in the background. Good enough, since there was nowhere to put her iPod on the elliptical machine. As she was having a pretty good workout, she looked at the clock and it showed 1:30. “Weird,” she thought to herself. “The clock must be broken.” After a half hour and a respectable pile of sweat, she headed back upstairs, only to find her watch showed 2. Yes folks, it was 2:00. As in two in the morning! Shocked and somewhat embarrassed, she cleaned herself up in the bathroom, crawled back into bed, and slept like a baby the rest of the night!
The breakfast buffet our first morning was a nice spread with the usual American fare: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, etc., as well as the more European stuff like sliced deli meats, cheeses, fruit and fruit drinks, etc. We ate and then set out to find the vegan restaurant called “Zen”, which Jen wanted to check out as a possible option for a later meal. Unfortunately, the place had gone out of business. We started exploring and came across a restaurant called Chang Thong Thai that looked really cool, so we marked it on the “chocolate tour” map we had with us, then picked our starting point.
Today’s goal was to visit each of the chocolate shops listed on our map. Before we even got to our first destination, we were mesmerized by the Chocolate Kiss and went inside to ogle all the incredible chocolates. After this one, we started working through the “real” list, finding that some of the chocolate shops weren’t open, and that there were many more in between that weren’t listed. There was approximately one chocolate shop for every tourist in Brugges!
Sometimes there wasn’t much to distinguish them from one another, but occasionally we’d find one where they had a working kitchen on-site and made chocolates right there on the premises, or a nice older woman would give you a sample. And you could find chocolate in the shape of pretty much anything: tools like wrenches and screwdrivers; boobs, bikini bottoms and penises; cartoon cats and dogs; etc. Jen was excited when we stopped at the Chocolate Line, because they had a dark chocolate ganache Buddha, which are two of her favorite things! We had two coupons that would allow us to try one chocolate from a place on this tour, and Jen decided that the Buddha would be her choice.
After a few hours of walking around without eating too much chocolate, we decided it was time for lunch and headed back to the Market Square to scope out a lunch place. Because of all the signage, Jen wanted local mussels, so we stopped at Meridien 3 and grabbed the best people-watching table outside. We ordered the roasted duck breast salad and a giant pot of steamed mussels to split. After tasting things though, we decided that Jen would keep the mussels and Kevin the duck breast salad. After lunch we resumed our chocolate shop tour, doing our best to avoid the souvenir shops, street side waffle stands, and chocolate shops that were clearly tourist traps. However, we ended up back at Meridien 3 for a mid-day dessert of chocolate mousse, which Jen had happened to see in a dessert case on the way to the ladies room at lunch. Given that they served lots of Haagen Dazs, we felt we at least got something more authentic.
One of the strange things we noticed as we walked around was the smell. Every now and then, you’d get this waft of sewage. What a contrast to all the lovely chocolate smells! Anyway, continuing our exploration, we passed the Chocolate Museum and made a note to return the next day when we had our free passes on us. We also passed this shop with really unique, Terminator meets C3PO metal figures in the windows, and took a few photos of them.
The final two chocolate shops on the list were off the beaten trail and unfortunately were closed, so we considered our tour complete and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. We headed out to Chang Thong Thai and had a delicious dinner. The owner informed us that they didn’t have a menu in English yet, and told us a little bit about how they recently opened and have been very successful. After finding a few familiar words on the menu, Jen ordered the ginger tea and a seafood and vegetable dish. Kevin got coconut curry. When we asked for chopsticks the waiter joked that the restaurant closed at ten o’clock, because apparently not many folks in Brugge use them. After dinner we headed back to the hotel to bed.
Jen woke up at 1:30 am with a burst of energy, and figuring that since she slept like a baby after her crazy night workout the day before, she’d intentionally go down to the exercise room. As she headed down, a more observant front desk attendant told her the workout room was closed, but apparently she looked desperate enough that the young man agreed to let her go, with the stipulation that because he was responsible, he’d come down to check on her. Unsure why they didn’t just lock the door and grateful for being allowed down, Jen ran a little and then decided to give the kid a break and went back upstairs. Unfortunately the workout had the opposite effect this night, and Jen sat up reading books about the Paleo diet on her iPad the rest of the night, because she was too wound up to sleep.
Monday morning after breakfast, we decided to climb to the top of the Belfry Tower (Belfort). Jen’s legs were somewhat tired from using the gym, and she was exhausted from being up all night, but she was still able to climb the 366 stairs to the top! There were several sets of spiral staircases inside, and the closer you got to the top, the narrower the stairs became. It was interesting as people were both going up and coming down at the same time. You basically had to make yourself VERY NARROW to squeeze by, or wait for a group to go by while squishing yourself up against a wall while standing on a narrow landing. The view from the top, however, was spectacular. Jen’s was glad that the bell didn’t go off while we were in there though!
Post-tower climb we rewarded ourselves with a trip through the Chocolate Museum. It was really interesting to see how chocolate was first used, and how over time it morphed (e.g. with sugar, milk, etc.), how it first was packaged and marketed, and how people’s opinions of it (good or bad) changed. Jen’s favorite story was of Madame de Sevigne.
At the conclusion of our tour, we got to see a demo of how they made pralines. The ones they were making were filled with dark chocolate ganache (Jen’s favorite). We stood by as the woman demoed the process in English, French and Dutch–quite impressive. Of course afterwards, we got to eat them too, which was a total delicacy! Walking out we got to see many interesting sculptures made out of chocolate. We have no idea who made these, but they were terribly impressive and delicious looking at the same time.
Having scoped out potential lunch places the day before, we now had a choice to make: the Argentinean Steakhouse called El Churrasco, or the Egyptian place called Toetanchamon? Both sounded great, but we decided on the former since it was a sunny day and they had tables outside. We both ordered the mixed grill special, which was essentially four different meats: lamb, chicken, beef, and sausage with salad and fries or a “potato in a jacket” (a baked potato in foil).
After lunch we contemplated going on a boat ride on the canal, but the recurring sewage smells we kept encountering made it seem silly to pay good money to go on a “sewage cruise”. Plus with all the eating we were doing, we were keen on continuing to walk. Of course we walked right into dessert at the De Proeverie tea-room. Jen once again broke her no caffeine no dairy rules and got a cappuccino with whipped cream. Such an amazing thing, eating in other countries–things just taste different–more authentic. We then walked through the Beguinage (Begijnhof), which was a nice quiet space where we could pause in nature for a moment, thinking about the history and the religious orders that lived in the homes organized all around us.
We walked around a little more and out of curiosity, over-indulged in a chocolate coated rice crispy treat, sitting on a bench that overlooked a canal. We explored some more and slowly made our way back to the hotel to regroup before heading out to Cambrinus for dinner. With a menu the size of a phone book and over 400 beers to choose from, it was a bit overwhelming. We waited at the bar for a table and finally decided to try some Belgian fruit beer–that narrowed the list to about 40! Finally Kevin settled on a raspberry beer. After tasting it and not being totally put off, Jen ordered the peach version and we shared both. Compared to the beer menu, the food menu was much easier to handle, but neither of us were really hungry given all we had eaten in the afternoon. Jen had a salad and mint pea soup, and Kevin had the spaghetti bolognese. Neither of us finished. After dinner, we decided to walk around the other side of the Markt and explore some more before finally heading back to the hotel for the night.
Given that today we would be traveling back to Brussels to explore the city, we ate breakfast and then headed out to get souvenirs for friends and family.
Along the way, we checked out the Kempinski Hotel Dukes Palace, a 5-star hotel within walking distance from our place. Jen thought we should walk in and check it out, but we weren’t sure whether we’d be stopped or not.
After returning to the hotel, checking out and stowing our luggage, we decided to go looking for the Basilica of the Holy Blood (a “must see” from our cab driver the first day). It was interesting to see how it had been built up over the years–for example, there were paintings of stations of the cross that were actually doors. Some of these were slightly open so that behind them, you could see sculptural versions that looked much older. In some places scaffolding was up, and you could see how they were uncovering paintings on the wall underneath layers of time.
Post-Basilica we had lunch at Toetanchamon, because we just couldn’t pass up eating at an Egyptian place in Belgium. The place was empty but the food was good, and the waiters were very nice. We had two very similar dishes, with beef and chicken, rice, and a salad. These came with six different sauces, and we tried most of them. Feeling our time in Brugge coming quickly to an end, we stopped at a Victorian cafe where Jen got her desired dessert of a chocolate torte and mint tea.
Kevin ended up getting an overpriced Belgian waffle from a street vendor. It was covered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and was quite the challenge to eat, given that it was placed on a flimsy napkin. We opted for the overpriced taxi back to the train station, and hopped the train to Brussels, which took a mere hour.
Part II: Brussels
September 4, 2012 – September 6, 2012
We transferred trains at Brussels North station for a quick ride over to Schumann stop, tried to get our bearings with the GPS, and then hiked down a hill and through lots of construction (and past a pretty park) to the Sofitel. We were quite tired and while Jen sat and waited, Kevin learned that someone decided to extend their stay, and they didn’t have a room for us (i.e. our reservation wasn’t actually HELD for us). However, they did put us up at a nicer Sofitel across town–we just had to wait for a taxi (paid for by them) and schlep over that way. Plus, after complaining a bit, Kevin got them to comp us breakfast during our stay. Turns out the new location was more central and we got free wi-fi, which made the hotel inconvenience quite bearable.
Given that we were tired and hadn’t eaten in, what, a whole few hours, we decided to sit outside on the beautiful space, bask in the sun, and order drinks and tapas. Jen had a champagne with raspberries in it (twice), while Kevin dabbled with a pina colada and then a mango margarita. When we arrived back at our room, we found a plum dessert tray courtesy of the hotel–but it was addressed to someone else. Of course as soon as we mentioned it, we got to keep it, and so we sampled two plum sauces, a plum torte, and saved the real plum for later. During some of our earlier walks, we had seen two streets (Avenue Louise and Rue Jourdan) filled with restaurants with lots of outdoor dining space–Vietnamese, Japanese, multiple Italian restaurants, and an Irish pub. After gawking at others’ plates, we decided to have dinner at the Il Vecchio Mulino. We split a salami pizza (again, these things taste NOTHING like pizza here–it reminded Jen of being in Italy!) and then a tiramisu. We also watched in amazement as three men who were clearly friends of the owner got incredible plates filled with ridiculously fresh seafood and all the wine they could drink.
Waking up Wednesday morning, we decided to head down for our “comped” breakfast. We went for the breakfast buffet, which was pretty crazy. Individual shot glasses filled with chopped up servings of fruit, vegetables, salmon with capers, etc. They also had the standard cold cuts along with an amazing selection of bread and pastries. After eating waaay too much (again), we decided to head out and explore Brussels. Rather than catch the subway, we opted for walking off some of the breakfast and headed down to Grand Place, and then went looking for the Statue Pis. We almost walked past it because the waffle stand next door was distracting to Kevin (and bigger). The only thing that clued us in was really that tourists were standing in front of it. It was tiny, based on all of the hype, we figured the statue was at least four feet tall, but nope, it was the size of a big doll.
After the anti-climatic statue, we decided to look for Mannequin Pis’ sister, Jeanneke. Unfortunately we were not successful, but we saw lots of narrow alleys filled with empty tables from the restaurants along the alleys. We imagined how busy the place would be once it was filled up with tourists having lunch. After walking around a little more and looking for the “fashion district,” we got turned around due to the large number of five, six, and even seven-way intersections. Once we got our bearings again, we decided to head back to the hotel to regroup for the afternoon.
Since we couldn’t agree on what to do together, we decided to explore the city on our own for a bit. Jen went shopping at Desigual and ended up getting a sweater and a wallet, but nothing that really showed the coolness of the place — maybe she’s getting old! After dropping off the goodies, she went to find a vegetarian restaurant located with Vegman called Ozfair, but by the time she got there, they were already closing. Sigh. She walked back toward the hotel and decided to stop in a church that was two doors down from the hotel to see what it looked like inside. A minute after sitting down, she found herself in a Catholic mass–in French! Given that it felt rude to leave, and that it was a curious thing to sort of know what was going on, she stayed until the end. Oddly enough, mass goes much faster when it’s in a different language. After another quick stop at the hotel, she decided to go to the place she’d really been wanting to eat (where Kevin would have no interest): Slurps.
A weird name indeed, but not only vegetarian but also Ayurvedic! She found it on her own pretty easily (both places actually, even given her terrible sense of direction and just an iPhone map). It was a bit sad eating alone, as the inside of this place was actually beautiful and romantic. She didn’t understand a lick of French, and neither the menu nor the owner / waiter were familiar with English, so she did her best. She ordered her familiar kombucha, but had to be shown the two flavors to make a choice, and then moong soup (which came with egg white perfectly laid on top as if it were cheese, with a yolk buried underneath) — way too big.
Between the three pieces of bread, the soup, and the red-cabbage puree for the bread, that should have been her meal. But she had no way of knowing, right? She had ordered a dish with “yogi” in the name, figuring she’d be adventurous. It was a lovely mountain of rice with carrots and celery chunks embedded inside, topped with what appeared to be four chunks (on a skewer) of deep fried cheese. She originally thought they were tofu and was a bit disappointed when she discovered they were cheese, but what was she to do but eat it? The plate was beautiful, with lots of sauces and seasonings placed around it. Walking back to the hotel at 10pm was only a tad scary at one point where it got dark and there was a man standing on the corner, but Brussels is supposed to be very safe, and she found it to be so.
Kevin set out to explore the subway system and was able to quickly figure things out, but after a short ride, there wasn’t really much to see underground. It could have been pretty much any major city. So with that in mind, he headed back topside and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon walking around and finding a street side pita stand, where he got a good sized pita gyros for four euros. He explored some more until the sun went down, and then headed back towards the hotel, noticing a sign for the best steak in Brussels (ironically at the Boston Cafe Restaurant) and not half a block later, another restaurant advertising the best steak in Brussels…neither option looked very tasty, so they were both skipped.
The next day we woke up, and couldn’t believe it was time to go to Amsterdam already. We felt like we just got to Brussels and there was so much left to explore. Jen was thinking about going back to explore Rue Stéphanie, one of the streets she’d seen briefly on her way to Slurps, but we decided instead to check out the Japanese tower and gardens.
After thinking about walking the whole way, we hopped on the train and were very grateful that we did. It seemed like miles to the Atomium, which had big shiny metal balls (!) that made Jen think “this is what is must be like when the aliens come”. The eerie sky didn’t help that thought much. We walked what felt like several more miles until we got to the gardens. After going into the wrong entrance, we crossed the street to the Japanese tower where we bought our tickets. The tower itself was cool, but you could only go up so far. (And after having climbed the stairs at the Markt in Brugge, Jen wasn’t so disappointed!) Everything that looked cool in the gardens was blocked off, and we felt a bit ripped off. After trekking all the way back, we ate at Li Yuan–a Vietnamese place on Rue Jourdan that we’d scoped out our first day–and then caught the train to Amsterdam.
Part III: Amsterdam
September 6, 2012 – September 8, 2012
As soon as we arrived at the main train station and started walking towards the hotel, the unmistakable odor of Amsterdam was omnipresent. Crossing the street was like taking your life into your hands; bikes, trains, cars, vespas…it was crazy traffic! We were memorized, yet at the same time just wanted to figure out which direction the hotel was in and drop off our heavy bags. After a few wrong turns we found the Citadel hotel and checked into a tiny room on the 7th floor with an incredible view. We asked at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation and got three, just a few short blocks from the hotel. We looked at all three and thought they were all fabulous, but opted for the Rijsttafel Matjan–a 13-dish Indonesian sampler for two at the Kantjil & de Tijger Restaurant, which was crazy.
After dinner, we walked over towards the Red Light District and saw a ton of prostitutes in their windows–so many of them were on cell phones or just looking disinterested in general. It seemed as though the younger ones were down the alleys, but ones with “seniority” had big windows on the corner. It was interesting to see that beyond their redly lit window was a bed, a sink, but then beyond that, it appeared as though several girls shared a kitchen that spanned multiple rooms. Talk about working from home! After that we saw a ton of slightly different Bull Dog Cafes, not all that far from one another. It was almost like a Starbucks or a Dunkin’s here–they could be one across the street from each other, or even on opposite ends of the same block, yet all were packed. After experiencing all this, we headed back to the hotel and then to bed.
Breakfast at the Citadel hotel was surprisingly good; it wasn’t quite the grand buffet we had in Brussels, but it had a nice selection and we didn’t leave hungry. We wanted to see as much of Amsterdam as we could in one day. We started at the Anne Frank Museum, then to Abraxus, where a nice lad explained their various products to us, and Jen got a chocochino. Then we checked out the Waterlooplein flea market where Jen got a necklace for one euro and we bought a small art print for the house. The vendors ranged from artists selling their art to outright junk. At one stand, they had very beat up vinyl records (and what record collection is complete without something from “Wham!”??).
At one edge of the flea market, we found a Coffee Company with wi-fi and restrooms, so we stopped there and sat in the sun for a while. Then we slowly made our way back towards the center and had a delicious lunch at one of two tables in a second-floor, loft-like area at Gartine. Next we walked through a book market, and just had to try Wok to Walk for a mid-afternoon snack. It really was amazing food and we wished we had this at home! We then walked through the flower market, but we didn’t really need any tulips so we circled around and headed back towards the center.
We then checked out the Begijnhof, one of the oldest inner courtyards in the city. Our next quest was to find a bar to get a drink, so we started looking for places mentioned in the guidebook. Along the way we stopped into Kokopelli and glanced through their Magic Truffles & Drinks menu because well, we were curious. We didn’t like the vibe of the place as much as Abraxus, so we left. We then stumbled upon the Condomerie and had a good chuckle at all of the tourists taking pictures in front of it–then we became “those tourists” and took photos of our own.
We also scoped out several potential places for breakfast, but dinner and that drink had to come first. We decided that the best bet was to head back to the The Tara Restaurant we had seen earlier–it had a good vibe and a few tables outside. Unfortunately we couldn’t really remember the name, or exactly where it was. Kevin’s horse sense of direction led us left, right and then left again down an alley and there it was! We sat at one of the outdoor tables to enjoy a drink–Jen tried Sambuca for the first time, and liked it so much she had another. Jen had the steak tartare, and Kevin had a cider. We then (sadly) called it a night. We really loved Amsterdam and didn’t want to leave.
Although we still had a continental breakfast available at the hotel, the next morning we decided to treat ourselves to a “goodbye Amsterdam” breakfast elsewhere. We had read about the Cafe Nielsen in our guidebook, and decided to check it out. We had a big breakfast with eggs, bacon, toast and fruit. There was also homemade apple pie, but we didn’t have room for it immediately, so we went for a walk to work off some of breakfast first. After a while, we returned for cappuccino and the apple pie with homemade whipped cream. With only a few hours left, we walked around aimlessly and imagined what it might be like to someday live in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, time flew by and we had to head back to the hotel and head out to the airport for the flight home. Luckily the trip to the airport was quick and the flight was an uneventful non-stop directly back to Boston.
Note: For my full set of photos from Belgium and Amsterdam, please visit my Picasa Web Album.