Friday, November 29, 2013

Waffles, beer and chocolate - that's what Belgium does

Sara and I couldn't have been more excited to leave Frankfurt and head to Belgium. We were first stopping in Brussels for a night and then heading to Brugge for a couple days. We caught the train and made our way to our budget hotel that was just a few kilometers outside the city. Sara and I, being experienced runners, figured it was more than 3 miles, but less than 6 miles from the city center, so we shouldn't have any trouble walking. While we were walking to the hotel, we figured out it was not in the greatest area. If I made a comparison to the city, I'd say this hotel was near candlestick park and we just had to walk to pier 39. Not that far, right? Totally walkable, right? Would you ever make that walk even if there were no cabs, ubers, lyfts, sidecars or some other new cab that is out there? No way. We told the front desk manager that we wanted to walk into town and he looked at us like we were crazy and gave us the tram schedule. After an unsolicited request to get into someone's car, we decided the tram might be the best bet. By the time we made it to the station, we missed the train and had to wait an hour till the next one got there. We kept busy by challenging each other to best time in Solitaire. I'm currently up with a winning time of 2:18. Colin would be so proud! Here is a pic of me waiting for the tram completely unamused. 

We arrived in downtown Brussels and immediately fell in love. The city is covered in lights and the smell of chocolate and waffles is in the air. We stopped right away and had the best Belgian waffle we would have the entire trip and we didn't even know it yet. We went classic and only got powdered sugar. Perfection. 

The streets are like mazes each filled with more chocolate shops, restaurants, and tons of advertisements for moules frittes (muscles and fries). Our friend, Tom, had told us about a place called Delirium that had over 2000 beers to try. Sara and I had researched the beers and found the top 20. Unfortunately, the person who selected the top 20 had a much different taste for beers than us so we quickly went off on our own to find our favorite beers. We started with the Delirium Tremers and Delirium Red. So good. 

The menu from Delirium was a 262 page manual. More like a phone book than a menu. 

As we sat down, there was a girl next to us that said something in American accent so we decided to sit with her. She was an extremely chatty woman who was originally from Philadelphia and had been living in Europe for the last 3 years because her husband was studying over here. This woman talked and talked and talked and then she talked more. I don't think Sara and I got two words in. We tried to ditch her by going downstairs, but she followed us. I can't say all negative things about her because she did give us some suggestions for decent beer. The first two pics below were from the top 20 list and the bottom two were suggestioms from the girl.

We tried to say goodbye to her to go grab dinner, but, again, she tagged along. I want to stop for a second to say I'm sure this sounds like a mean girl thing to do - ditch someone that you don't want to hang out with - but seriously, this girl didn't even let us get any words in. We wondered around the streets and found a Thai Vietnamese restaurant that had the Trip Advisor seal of approval. Sara and I were starving so we got lumpia, spring rolls and then a Tom Yum Kai / pho soup combination that was delicious. It was so cold outside and this meal immediately warmed us up. Naturally, we had a local beer alongside the meal.

We finished dinner and said fair well to the girl whose name we never got and sought out for another Belgian waffle to end our night before we caught the tram to our hotel. The first place we went wasn't open so went around the corner to the next nearest spot and ordered the sweetest, most indulgent waffle with chocolate and whipped cream. As you can see from our faces, we were quite excited after our earlier experience. We were very disappointed when we bit into these waffles. They were way too much, even for me. The waffle tasted like it had been in the window all day and the whipped cream was like butter, not in the good way. We got through a couple bites before we determined it wasn't worth the calories and we threw them away. We decided when we returned to Brussels from Brugge that we would pick up the original waffle we tasted in order to redeem the memory.  

We got on the train still wiping off chocolate sauce from around our mouths and were nervous for the walk from the train station to the hotel. We got off at the deserted station and began walking home. A car pulled over behind us and we picked up our pace a bit. I was checking the surroundings behind us and Sara had the front. We turned down the street and had about a quarter mile to go. We decided to walk in the middle of the street, figuring it was the safer route. A car came down the street the wrong way and something seemed wrong so we just took off running. There wasn't an actual reason for our fear, but it was one of those situations that just didn't feel right. We got to the hotel and were out of breath and I was coughing. We were safe. Phew. Note to future travelers: the cheapest hotel isn't always the best choice. Sometimes, it's better to pay a little more and be in the thick of things than save money and be so far away and so afraid to walk to your hotel.

The next day, we were off to Brugge. As we were waiting for the train, we got a traditional Belgian breakfast - sausage, French fries, and a beer. So delicious. 

We arrived early afternoon and our hotel was located right next to the train station, so things were already looking up. We dropped our stuff off and quickly set out to see the town. It was a walking town and all the streets intertwined into each other. Every other store was a chocolate store and we got some treats at each one. There were some that looked like cat poop, but they tasted pretty delicious.

This town quickly rose to my favorite city in all of Europe. Every where you look is picturesque and the people were all friendly. We wondered around for a bit and here are some of the sites. We walked in almost every cookie and chocolate shop and found some amazing treats. I learned about speculoos, a hard cookie that is in cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger. So good. I highly recommend a stop at Juliette's for their cookies. We bought a bunch thinking we'd share with my dad, but the only cookie that remained was the coconut macaroon I got him. Sorry dad.

We were walking towards the famous Markt square when we found a sign that pointed towards a beer wall. We walked through double doors and were greeted with walls full of beer. It was magical. Sara and I decided to settle in and get a sampler plate.

Our favorite one was the Brugge Zot. It was a darker beer that was very yummy. We finished up our beers and walked over to the market. This was the most magical sight ever. There was an ice skating rink and markets serving sausages, waffles, hot chocolate with baileys, and other warm treats surrounding it. All the buildings were dressed with lights adding to the Disneyland like qualities. 

We were pretty hungry by now so we found a nearby brewery and restaurant called Cambrinus. We ordered some cheese croquettes to start and then a beer bread with ham dish. We also did their sampler of beers and a beer that was served in a cornucopia glass. They brought out our food and we were a bit confused. Mine was some egg dish with ham and cheese. I asked the guy if it was what I ordered and he said no, it was an omelette and then brought me over a basket of bread. Finally, we got someone who understood English a bit better and they brought out my actual dish that was not what I was expecting at all. Bread with ham and butter. So strange.

We finished up dinner and continued to walk around. We sampled some more waffles - a Brussels waffle that was very crispy and a Belgian waffle that is very sweet but thick and doughy. Neither were as good as the ones from Brussels. I mentioned there were thousands of chocolate shops in Belgium, one of them is a very recognized name - Godiva. Sara and I first saw it and said, no way are we going to go there, you can get that stuff back at home. For whatever reason, probably the cold, we decided to go in to their store and I am so happy we did because it changed my life for the better. The girl at the counter let us sample one of the top 5 things I've ever tasted - a truffle rolled in speculoos cookie. Oh. My. God. Heaven. After that treat we called it a night to go talk to the family and rest up for a big walking day. 

We woke up and decided we'd walk to the nearby windmills that are a staple for this area. It was a beautiful walk and the air was nice and crisp and the sun even peeked out for a little bit. Here is some scenery from the walk.

We walked through the city and back to the market to get out lunch for the day - garlic cheese, duck salami, and fresh baked bread all from local markets. The cheese was one of the best things I've ever eaten; it was strong in flavor, but creamy and milky and paired perfectly with the salami. It was pretty cold out so we headed back to the beer wall to have some Brugge Zot with our lunch. 

We went back to the hotel to drop off our purchases and I booked the rest of our lodging for the trip. I'd like to highlight that I got 19 nights of hotel / hostel / airbnb for $744. That is crazy! We headed back out and found a little hole in the wall bar that let you taste beers. We started with recommendations from the bartender and Sara and I found some favorites - St. Bernardus and Troubadour. After we finished those, we did another sampler and found some more we liked. We even got a big bottle of the Bourgogne one, it was so tasty.

We finished there with a good little buzz and wanted to go back to the market to get some more presents and some more cheese. It was a Monday and we figured that the stores would be open later, but we were wrong. Everything was shut down. We barely made it into the Godiva to buy a handful of those truffles. All the little sausage vendors were closed and Sara and I were getting a little hangry. Every place was pricey and, when you're craving a 3 euro sausage, a 20+ euro steak doesn't sound the same. We finally settled in a place that had a three course meal for 22 euro. We ordered shrimp scampi and cheese croquettes for starters, both of us got steak and fries, and then we finished with a chocolate mousse and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. This was a really good meal, and provably was a good deal, but Sara and I were bitter. Another time I've learned it's not a good thing to be that hungry when looking for food. It was our last night in Brugge and there was nothing left to do so we went back and packed up so we could leave early and head to Amsterdam mid morning the following day.

Brugge rose to the top if my list for amazing cities. I think there are two important factors that can affect my impression of a city; food and weather. We had a sunny day and some of my favorite foods at this trip. Plus I could have taken a million pictures here because it was that freaking cute. Everyone should travel to Brugge once in their life.

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