Thursday, May 29, 2014

Eating and Drinking in Brussels, Part I

If you have read this blog at all (or let's be honest, have ever spoken to me) then you know that I love food. It's basically one of my favorite hobbies. Now that doesn't mean that I eat whatever I want when I want; I have busted my ass to lose over 90 pounds and counting calories and eating healthy is a big part of that. But when I am on vacation I allow myself a few indulgences. 

Due to some, shall we say "interesting" circumstances, I discovered I needed to purchase a new car soon after my return from Brussels. Obviously when I booked my trip to Europe I didn't think that I would be dropping a good chunk of my savings on a new car a week later. So when I was in Brussels I was very conscientious about how much I was spending on food and drinks. Thankfully, Google, Yelp, and various ex-pats websites were there to help point me in the right direction for cheap eats.

First up! A place that I wanted to visit during my last trip to Brussels in November, but unfortunately I never found the time to make it. And then when I did stop by on Monday (Armistice Day) it was closed for the holiday along with EVERY OTHER SHOP IN THE STUPID CITY. I mean, really. What kind of country actually closes the shops on federal holidays? These people would make terrible Americans. 

Anyway, the place I am talking about is a tiny Middle Eastern snack counter on the main drag about a 15 minute walk from the Grand Place (the medieval square that is the center of tourist Brussels). It's called Mr. Falafel (best name ever!) and I can't even call it a restaurant since it's a quick service place with like 3 tables. 

But oh my gosh, it is so good. And cheap! For 4.50 euro, you get four big fresh falafel balls served in a delicious toasted wheat pita AND a plastic bowl that you can fill with whatever toppings and sauces you want from the well-stocked salad bar. The salad bar isn't just raw veggies either; there are delicious mixed salads with various oils and vinegars as well as hummus, tzatziki sauce, and other stuff that I can't even remember. 

My pita, falafel, hummus, and salad. You can refill the salad container as many times as you want! And the good stuff is hidden under my lettuce, don't let the boring topper fool you into thinking I didn't try the more adventurous options.

Just step right up to the counter behind the salad bar and order your falafel. I think that is actually the only thing on the menu.

And in case you were wondering how I found this place, I first came across it on the website Spotted by Locals covering the best hidden gems of Brussels. 

Next up, pizza! I know you don't automatically think Belgium when you think great pizza, but in the local chain, Momma Roma, they do pizza right. And a bit differently then we do it here in the States. First, the pizza is built on foccacia bread, unlike other pizza crusts you might be familiar with. This is a most excellent idea in theory and execution. Second, Momma Roma offers super fresh and "fancy" toppings that are more true to Italian cuisine (think spec, amazing cheeses, and more unusual vegetables). And third, the cost is based on weight of the pizza. You order by the slice--which is huge--and the slices are then weighed to determine the cost. The huge slices are then cut into more manageable pieces. 

I actually ordered from the prix fixe menu; for 11 euro you get two slices of pizza (any type you want), a drink, and dessert. This adds up to a lot of food for about $15. And since a can of soda will typically run you about 3 euro in a restaurant, the prix fixe menu is a bargain.

 Momma Roma's order counter and the pizza display.

 Pizza for me and Jonathan; mine was cheeseless but still amazing with the fresh roasted tomatoes and herbs.

 Dessert: chocolate pie. This thing was AMAZING. It was like a warm donut stuffed with gooey chocolate. Seriously, one of the best things I ate on the entire trip.

Let's switch gears and talk about bars! One of my favorite bars that I visited last time was Moeder Lambic. It's a great modern vibe, an awesome beer selection, and as the name suggests lots of lambic beers which are my favorite. It's also one of Jonathan's favorite spots, so we headed back and sat outside to enjoy the Spring sunshine. Brussels is far enough north that the sun doesn't actually set until around 11 at night in late May.

 Cheers! The dude next to me is Martin, a friend of Jonathan's from work. And a fellow ginger!

After a few beers at Moeder Lambic, we headed to a more specialized bar. At Goupil Le Fol, you can wind your way through small red and candle-lit rooms stuffed with French-themed bric-a-brac. The juke box only plays French songs from the 1920s and 1930s, and the entire place makes you feel that you are visiting a cluttered old Parisian salon. The bar specializes in fruit wines and brandies (of course) and they are delicious but deceptively strong. It's an amazing mix of charm, kitsch, and cheesiness. But for me, it leaned more towards the charm.

 Jonathan and Martin!

 One of the rooms at Goupil Le Fol. I seriously loved this place.

Coming up next time: the best frites (fries) in Brussels, an art deco bar, and a good old fashioned Flemish beer hall. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Bruges

"A great day this has turned out to be. I'm suicidal, me mate tries to kill me, me gun gets nicked and we're still in fucking Bruges." --Ray from In Bruges

My second day in Belgium, I left Brussels behind and hit the mean streets of Bruges. And by "mean streets," I mean "ridiculously charming cobbled streets."

A few years ago, the only thing I knew about Bruges was what I saw in the movie In Bruges. In the film, two hit men who work for an Irish mob boss are banished to Bruges for a few days as penance when they screw up a job. They're told to wait in Bruges...and then basically spend the entire movie talking about what a shithole the town is. So Bruges was never really high on my must visit list.

Then last year, when I made my first trip to Belgium, I started hearing from people "oh, you have to go to Bruges!" It's apparently a wonderland of medieval adorableness. Phrases like "cute European village" and "like if Disney created an actual little city" were bandied about. These didn't fill me with a lot of confidence either, to be perfectly honest. But with so many people talking up Bruges and Rick Steve's guidebook calling it a "heavyweight sightseeing destination, as well as a joy" I figured I had to give it a shot! Getting there couldn't be easier from Brussels; trains run every 30 minutes to/from Brussels and the trip only takes about an hour total. So off to Bruges I went!

As usual, let's talk a bit of history to put everything in context. Bruges (spelled Brugges and pronounced BROO-ghah in Flemish and brooze in French and English) had its big moment in the 14th century. It was a European economic powerhouse with a population as large as London's. Bruges was the center of northern Europe's cloth market and it was ideally situated on the sea between northern and southern Europe. Things also went well in the 15th century, when England and France were slugging it out in the Hundred Years' War and commerce and the arts boomed in Bruges.

But then...the harbor got silty and Bruges became a dead city. Not much happened for the next 500 years or so and the city appears to have escaped WWII pretty much untouched. And along came the tourists. People began to discover that Bruges was a well-preserved town with amazing intact gothic features and lovely canals. And the high times are back for Bruges, what with all those tourists pumping money into the local economy.

My itinerary was going to keep me busy, but also allow me to hit almost all of Bruges main sights in one day. From the center of town I would go on a chocolate and beer scavenger hunt, go for a bit of a walk to see some windmills, and then follow Rick Steve's walking tour of the city hitting the big churches, museums, and photo opportunities.

The heart of Bruges, both for tourists and modern residents, is the Market Square (Markt). Picture your stereotypical European medieval square and that's pretty much it--in a good way. The Markt is dominated by the tall bell tower (Belfort) which dates from 1300. I climbed the 366 steps to the top and was rewarded with stunning views of the city.

The Markt

Belfort, and yep, I climbed all the way to the top!

One of the many panoramic views from the top of the Belfort. I told you it was a beautiful town!

The stairs reminded me a lot of the Statute of Liberty climb, with the twisting staircase growing steeper and more narrow the closer you goe to the top. But the climb was worth it since the panorama (and the up close look at the bells) were amazing.

Also in the Markt is a large statute of two Belgian dudes who led a revolt against French rule in 1302 and ended up winning Flanders its freedom. The Markt is further surrounded by a bunch of neo-gothic "old" buildings that were reconstructed in the 19th century in an exaggerated neo-Gothic style. Add in a ton of cafes, restaurants, and bars with plenty of outdoor seating and chocolate and lace shops, and you're in tourist heaven.

Of course, I always want to find places more off the beaten path so I eschewed these places with my nose held high in the air. I was going to find the more authentic least the ones that are listed in the guidebook. And yes, I am aware that this makes me a pretty giant hypocrite, but whatever.

After snapping some pics of the Markt, I set off to find some chocolate nirvana. Rick Steve, Google, and Yelp all agreed that the best chocolate shop in Bruges was Dumon--a family-owned shop that makes their chocolate daily and is located only a few blocks off the Markt. It was as smooth, creamy, and delicious as it sounds. Another local chocolate shop I visited was De Clerck Confiserie, a third generation-owned store with amazingly affordable homemade chocolate. The shop was a sight in and of itself; it was crammed with vintage chocolates, candy, toys, tins that looked like something out of a movie.

Inside the Dumon chocolate shop. It smelled amazing.

After packing my bag with chocolate (no tasting yet!), I visited the Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum. The displays weren't as sophisticated as the big-city museums you might be used to, but the information was really fascinating. The museum explains the ancient (over 2500 years ago) origins of chocolate from the Aztecs and Mayans, as well as its discovery by the Spanish and its journey across the pond to Europe. The museum also covered the evolution of chocolate from a drink consumed by the Aztecs/Mayans to our modern truffles and pralines. Finally, the museum de-mystified the chocolate making process which is way more time and labor-intensive than I ever imagined.

Now that I had my mental fill of chocolate (the tummy filling would come later), I wandered along the Spiegelrei canal to the tiny alley of Blekersstraat. Just a bit down the alley was the entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe, the oldest pub in Bruges. It dates from 1515 and the decor is pure medieval beer hall. Outside was a lovely sunny garden ande everything is watched over by a cute terrier who roams inside and out looking for big-hearted tourists to share their bar food. I had a glass of one of the local brews, Brugse Zot ("Fool from Bruges") which was a delicious golden ale. It much have been coming on lunchtime, because that one beer definitely made me a bit tipsy.

The tucked away entrance to Herberg Vlissinghe.

Brugsze Zot in the oldest bar in town!

A short 10-15 minute walk later down Bruges' narrow, winding, and charming back streets brought me to some large grassy hills dotted with sunshine and that typical Low Country feature--windmills! This was the perfect place to eat the lunch I packed myself (so healthy and frugal!) and stuff myself with all the chocolate I bought (so not healthy but so amazing!).

I soaked up the sun for a bit and then hit the roads again, wandering my way back to the center of town. Bruges is a great town for wandering--it's not large and as long as you head in the general direction of the Markt and occasionally consult your map to orient yourself, it's fun to "get lost" in the side streets.

Windmill! One of three located along the grassy area.

Once I found my way back to the Markt, it was time to follow Rick Steve's walking tour! At this point, there was nothing to do but go full on tourist--alternating between gaping at the medieval sights around me and keeping me nose buried in the guidebook for the descriptions of what the heck I was looking at.

From the Markt, I proceeded to Burg Square, Bruges historical birthplace. The square contains several buildings representing over six centuries of architecture. Some of the highlights...

The Basilica of the Holy Blood: a church dating from approximately 1150 and built by a Flemish knight of the Second Crusade to house the drops of Christ's blood he brought back from Jerusalem. The relic is preserved in a clear tube of rock crystal and is displayed on Fridays--which means it was out when I visited the church! 

The City Hall, dating from about 1400 (large building in the picture below). It's still in use (and is where you go for a civil marriage ceremony in Bruges). From Burg Square, I walked through a another little alley with some interesting details. On the left wall was an original iron hinge from the city's south gate. And directly across was a patch of wall left to show how dirty Bruges was at the time of a 1960 cleaning.

Burg Square and the City Hall

I walked through a smaller restaurant-lined square (Huidevettersplein) to Rozenhoedkaai street which is where Bruges almost becomes too adorable to be real. Medieval row houses rise directly from the tree-lined canals Venice-style with a view of the Belfort in the background. These postcard perfect views could easily seem too treacle. But in my opinion, Bruges avoids the Disney and Williamsburg comparisons by being completely authentic. It just really is that charming.

Only a few hundred yards down the Dijver canal is the Groeninge Museum. The museum includes paintings dating from 1400 to 1945 and the most extensive collection of Flemish Primitive art in the world.  The paintings date from when Bruges was the richest and most cultured city in Europe.

The Flemish Primitive style commonly features a "primitive" 3D perspective, realism in its subjects (who tend to be members of the merchant class as opposed to nobles and clergy), meticulous details, oil painted on wood, and symbolism, such as a dog symbolizing fidelity. The paintings were fascinating, but I was really glad my guidebook included information and highlights of some of the more famous pieces, because the museum didn't provide any information aside from the name, artist, and year it was painted There wasn't an audio tour or guidebook or anything like that. Weak sauce, Groeninge Museum. Thank goodness for Rick Steve.

By this point, my feet were starting to feel the miles I had put on them today (including a 4 mile run in Brussels that morning), so I made a quick lap around the Church of Our Lady: the church houses a Madonna and Child statue by Michelangelo, said to be the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy during the artist's lifetime. I went inside hoping to get a glimpse. While it used to be out for viewing in a chapel free of charge, apparently Church of Our Lady isn't too pious to gouge us tourists for what they can, and now you have to pay to see the statute. Well, forget that.

I continued on my merry way to De Halve Maan Brewery, where they make the Brugse Zot ale I had earlier in the day!

A few more cobbled streets, some quiet courtyards, and a lovely lake-filled park called the Minnewater ("Water of Love") later, my walking tour ended about 5 minutes from the train station. Perfect! I easily hoppd on a train back to Brussels and was home in time to meet Jonathan and his work friend Martin for a late dinner and drinks!

Church of Our Lady

Outside the brewery.

The Minnewater...complete with swans. OF COURSE.

Coming up next in my Belgian adventure: eating and drinking my way around Brussels, all on a budget. I'll show you the best places to imbibe while not breaking the bank!

More pictures from around Bruges!

 Old (and I mean old) houses abound.

The stairs to the top of the Belfort

 Markt selfie!

 The relic in the Basilica.

 Canal selfie!

 Statute in the Markt.

 View from the Courtyard of the Groeninge Museum looking towards the Belfort.

 Inside a Dumon praline.

Oh, shut up, Chocolate museum.

Jonathan and Martin, back in Brussels.

Chloƫ: There's never been a classic movie made in Bruges until now.
Ray: Of course there hasn't. It's a shithole.
Chloƫ: Bruges is my home town, Ray.
Ray: Well, it's still a shithole.

I beg to differ, Ray. I beg to differ.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Chocolate Life: Neuhaus Factory Outlet

Ahhh, Brussels. It's been six months since I was here, but it feels like I never left. Except for the improvement in the weather this time around. You might recall that last November I traveled to Belgium to visit my friend Jonathan (JR) from college. Even as I left, I knew I had to come back. Not only because it would mean another chance to hang with JR, but also because Brussels is a beautiful and fun city providing easy access to much of continental Europe. In other words, it makes an excellent home base for day trips.

I also had unfinished business in Brussels. Last time I was here, I waited until my last day in town to visit one of the sights I had most wanted to see. A rookie mistake, I know. Especially since my last day in town ended up being Armistice Day, a national holiday, and a day when pretty much everything in town is closed. Which means I went all the way out to this very special find the gate closed and locked. What is the place I am referring to?

The Neuhaus Factory Outlet.

Just in case you aren't up on your fine Belgian chocolatiers, Neuhaus is one of the oldest and most luxurious Belgian chocolate makers. We're talking on the same level as Godiva here--though I actually think it's better. And while they don't have the exotic flavors of say, Pierre Marcolini, what they do have is deliciously smooth, creamy, and classic chocolates.

Before I get into the amazeball-ness of the factory outlet store, let's talk some history. Neuhaus the company was founded in 1857 by Jean Neuhaus, a swiss immigrant, who opened the first Neuhaus store here in central Brussels.

There are traditionally two types of chocolates in Belgium: truffles (soft and round chocolates with various fillings) and pralines (a hard chocolate shell also with various fillings, what Americans normally think of as "chocolates;" think of what comes in a Whitman sampler, etc.).

In 1912, Jean Neuhaus II invented the praline. So yeah. These folks know what they are doing. Another fun fact: Jean II's wife, Louise, invented the "box of chocolates" when she realized the pralines were getting smooshed when placed in bags. "Let's put these things in boxes!" she said, and BOOM. All of a sudden, Forrest Gump had a catch phrase.

Ok, so back to my original story. Last time I was in Brussels, I spent a lot of time googling things like, "best chocolate in Brussels" and "hidden Brussels," you know as you do. And I came across this blog, Writing With Chocolate, that talked about a place so wonderful it could not be real: a Neuhaus factory outlet that was located on the outskirts of Brussels, was metro-accessible, and offered free unlimited samples of EVERYTHING IN THE SHOP.

I didn't believe it. Free and unlimited samples of Neuhaus chocolate? Could such a place even be real??

Well, today I finally found out. Yes, Virginia, there is a Neuhaus outlet and it is just as wonderful and magical as you ever imagined.

And it's all for me! Not really, but it felt that way.

It's also fairly easy to get to. You take the #5 metro line all the way to the end (Erasmus--about a 20 minute ride from central Brussels) and after a short 10 minute walk past the Erasmus University College, you come to a very corporate looking building with a Neuhaus sign out front. Right when you are thinking, "this can't be right," you spy the small red sign labelled "chocolate shop" with an arrow pointing around the corner of the building.

And then: paradise. Nirvana. Heaven. Whatever you want to call it, the Neuhaus chocolate factory outlet opens up before you like a dream and as your eyes scan over the offerings you realize it's true. There really are free and unlimited samples of everything in the shop available for tasting.

Just walk by each item and there are open versions encouraging you to take a taste.

The best part about the outlet is the opportunity to buy truffles in bulk. Truffles in Neuhaus stores typically retail for about 2 euros each (as of today that's $2.73). A 410 gram box (containing 38 pieces) retails for 26.50 euros (about $36). But at the outlet, you can get 1 kilogram boxes (approximately 100 truffles weighing 2.2 pounds) for 20 euro. And if you buy 3 boxes, they are only 40 euro total. We are talking BIG savings for the highest quality Belgian chocolate. Sure, each box contains only one type of truffle, but if you buy three of them you have three excellent types of truffles to gift to people.

The row of bulk items with open boxes for sampling displayed in front. 

There are deals on lots of other items as well: I got 750 gram bags of pralines (holding about 50 pralines each), 3 for 30 euro total. In the stores one praline is a little over 1 euro. A lot of the pre-packed box and gift assortments are heavily marked down as well. Not everything in the outlet is discounted, but as long as you pay attention to the signs you can find some fantastic deals. And all your chocolate gift shopping = done.

And let's talk about the samples. Literally everything in the store is available for sampling. The employees just pull the lids off the products/boxes and set them up so you can walk around and try them. I had to take small bites of the truffles and pralines (and throw away the rest --wasteful!) because it was just so much chocolate. It was basically my lunch today, and I can say with some authority, that yes, it is possible to get chocolated out. But, oh what a way to go.

To recap: the Neuhaus outlet might be my new favorite place in all the world.

Neuhaus Factory Outlet
Postweg 2, 1602 Vlezenbeek, Belgium
Mon. – Thur. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The outlet is open during the lunch hour and takes credit cards (though like a lot of European stores, I think you need the special "chip and pin" style of card which Americans credit card companies don't typically provide). There is also lots of available and free parking, but the store is only 1/3 of a mile from the metro stop.

Also, don't try to go during a national holiday. Trust me folks. You'll go all the way out there only to have your heart broken when you realize they are closed. But at least the story has a happy ending this time!

My haul: total cost 70 euro for about 500 pieces of chocolate. That works out to about $0.20 per piece, people. 

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Things to do in DC: Afternoon Tea in the Willard

Three things I really love:

1) Getting dressed up and feeling fancy;

2) Wearing hats; and,

3) Eating baked goods. 

I finally found the activity that combines all three. Afternoon tea! Think about it--the dress code is always fancy and the food is always delicious, adorably miniature, and sweet. And hats are not only accepted, they are frankly encouraged. 

So on a beautiful Saturday a few weeks ago, my Mother and I took to The Willard, one of DC's finest and oldest hotels, to enjoy afternoon tea at their Peacock Alley

It's basically The Plaza of Washington, DC.

The hotel actually has special meaning for my family; my Mother's Grandparents had their honeymoon there many many years ago. So it's always had these aura of romanticism and history for me. I've only been there once (to visit the Round Robin & Scotch bar), but I have been looking for a reason to return. What better reason than my Mom's birthday? Did I mention it was her birthday? Because it totally was. 

She was a little bit excited. 

Since it was still technically the Cherry Blossom festival, all the teas and food had a cherry theme. The food was amazing (especially the cherry and ginger scones OMG), but the service was strangely a bit off. You would think at a place as fancy as The Willard they would nail the details, but apparently all the serving staff seemed to find the concept of my seafood allergy completely perplexing. Maybe it was a language thing? But being served salmon sandwiches (twice!) was kind of a problem. 

But you know what makes up for it? MINI PASTRIES. 

Scones on the bottom, sandwiches in the middle (no crusts, of course) and desserts on the top. The scones were served alongside jam (apricot, cherry, and lemon) and Devonshire cream. Everything was fantastic. 

All in all, the Willard tea was fun and delicious, but for the pricey cost, I think there are much better places in the area to get your tea fix. And it pains me to say this, y'all. But unfortunately, reality doesn't always live up to the dream. 

However, this doesn't change the fact that it is my mission to stay as a guest in the hotel one day. This is an item for the bucket list and I am being very serious. I will walk around like I own the place, jump on the bed, and order room service. Just because I can!

 The birthday cupcake was a very nice touch though, I must say.

 Me and the birthday girl!

 Peacock Alley (basically a hallway off the main lobby. But still very nice, and note the harp player in the left corner!).