Monday, May 16, 2011

Brussels Redux

I’m on my own for the next few days while Todd’s off giving talks in Norway and Sweden (with a side trip to the little town in Norway where he’s family’s from). Hopefully he’ll return with some souvenirs! We spent the weekend on the (extremely windy, somewhat rainy) Friesian island of Ameland in the north of the country, which I’ll post about soon, but now it’s time to (finally) wrap up my parent’s visit last week.

Since my parents were flying back to JFK from Brussels, we decided to head back there a day early (Todd stayed home to get some work done) and visit Brugges, which is only about an hour by train from Brussels.

 I’d been to Brugges twice before, both times for just a few hours on the way back to London from Amsterdam. That in itself should tell you something about Brugges: it’s really mostly a touristy way station, where a few hours is enough to get a feel for the place and be ready to leave. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very attractive little city, with scenic canals and well-preserved medieval buildings:

But you get the feeling it’s kind of fake, that nobody really lives there, you know what I mean? It's a little Disney-ish, like the Epcot version of Belgium, with its canal tour boats and horse-drawn buggies:

And of course its dozens of nearly identical shops selling the two main Belgian specialties, lace:

And my preference, chocolate!

(Damn glare...)

I think this place won some sort of award for their chocolate (which you can see being made in the back). The shop certainly smelled much more chocolatey than all the others, and chocolate-dipped orange slices my dad bought were wonderful, if very sticky.

This was not a chocolate shop, but a candy shop (the only one we saw that didn't deal in chocolate) where you could watch them make their products. Those things that look like mounds of plastic are actually sticky piles of sugar about to be stretched and rolled into lollipop! This is where I bought my mom half of her Mother's Day present (which was actually the day before, but in case you forgot, I was busy running 26.2 miles that day, ahem. And this was actually the first Mother's Day we spent together in years, ever since I went away to college. My bad, Mom!), a package of gumdrops. The other half was a packet of raspberry jam butter cookies, which she enjoyed on the plane ride.

We wandered around Brugges for a few hours, basking in the sunshine and in the rampant commercialism, trying not to get run over by buggies (those things can move!) and seeing some odd things along the way, like this Frite Museum:

I was actually kind of intrigued, but I had already done my frite post along with the necessary research, so felt there couldn't be much more for me to discover along that line (not to mention it probably charges an arm and a leg to enter. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is free!)

Before long we decided we just couldn't take any more and headed back to the train station, passing through a lovely park along the way (as well as a puppy in a window!)

Doesn't it look like part of the window display? I thought it was fake and almost walked right by it when my mom pointed out that it was alive.

We made it back to Brussels just in time for dinner. When you’re in Belgium the thing to get is seafood, and I was eager to have moules frites (mussels and fries) again, so we headed toward the Grand Place, which was right between the Central Station and our hotel. First we made a stop at the famous shopping arcades:

And where I was able to obtain yet more chocolate! (It seems shops in Brussels, unlike those in Maastricht, are open past 5 in the afternoon, or at least the chocolate ones are.)

We left the arcade and headed down a bustling side street in search of some food. We didn't have to search long, as the street we chose was lined with restaurants.

I’m usually put off by restaurant proprietors standing outside their doors and trying to get you to eat there; to me there’s something desperate and unattractive about it that makes me not want to patronize a place. After all, the food should be good enough that you shouldn’t have to beg people walking by to eat there, right? But in Brussels, at least in the little streets off the Grand Place, that seems to be the accepted practice, and I can kind of see how that would be necessary; mostly designed to cater to tourists, the restaurants on these streets are nearly identical, right down to pricing and menu items, so the proprietors probably have to be aggressive to try and steal customers from each other (indeed there was a half-serious, half-friendly turf war of sorts between two such “customer-grabbers” while we were eating dinner).

We were hungry, so we ended up just settling on the first place we encountered at the top of the street, which turned out to be a fine choice as the food was excellent (though I’m sure no different from the food at any of the other places, as the man who drew us in readily admitted himself). My parents each got moules frites and I settled on bouillabaisse, since I had never had it before and it would offer me the chance to try several different kinds of seafood, including mussels (the waiter tried to upsell me with half a lobster tail, which was a bit annoying, but we didn’t fall for it!). Here's what we wound up with:

 The food wasn’t cheap, but it was indeed excellent: the frites were to die for, some of the best I've ever had (my mom kindly shared hers with me). The seafood in my soup was all expertly cooked, nothing overdone, which can be hard to do with a bunch of different kinds of fish like that, and it came with croutons, rouille*, and Parmesan on the side which really enhanced the dish (and the rouille made a good dip for the fries, too).

*Rouille, for those who don't know, is a Provencal sauce made of olive oil, bread crumbs, garlic and hot chilies pounded into a mayonaise-like paste, and is a traditional accompaniment to bouillabaise, or Provencal fish stew. In typical Belgian style, I think the rouille I had was literally mayonnaise with some garlic and red pepper mixed in, but it was quite tasty nonetheless!

We were all stuffed after that meal, but managed to make room for one final waffle*:

And thus ended my parents' vacation in Belgium/the Netherlands (and my week of copping free meals; thanks, Mom and Dad!) In the morning we walked back to the station and then went on our separate ways, they to the airport and me back to Maastricht. But wait, the posts about their trip aren't done! Stay tuned for a few more side notes from the week in the coming days.

*That, by the way, is a type of Belgian waffles specifically called a Brussels waffle: note the even edges and rectangular shape. If you'll recall, in my waffle and pancake post from a while ago, I mentioned the waffles sold at Pinky candy stores and other places around Maastricht: these are specifically luikse wafels, or Liege waffles: 

If you'll notice, these are a bit rounder with irregular edges. While the Brussels waffle is light and fluffy and more of what we Americans think of when we think "waffle," the Liege waffle is denser and more substantial. Also - and this is the best part in my humble opinion - the outside is often coated in pearl sugar, making the edges lightly caramelized with just a hint of crunch. These are the more popular type in Maastricht (Maastricht is only about half an hour from Liege by train) and are my preference, though of course I wouldn't say no to a Brussels waffle with fresh Belgian strawberries and cream!

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