29 September 2010

Things Belgian People Like

We're already in Luxembourg (see Merlin's first post about Vianden below), but I wanted to back track to Belgium for a second.

Mussels. Almost every restaurant in every town had a huge banner outside proclaiming that the moules had arrived. Apparently, the mussel season spans from September - April, so we came at the perfect time.
I couldn't tell if all the banners were the same because they all got their moules from the same company or if it was something the Belgian government sponsored. You'd see mussels being eaten most often "natural" (meaning simply in the celery/onion broth their were cooked in as opposed to in cream or white wine or tomato). It also seemed to be more of a lunch thing than a dinner thing.

Branded Glassware. Every beer comes in its own glass, allowing the company to choose exactly how it should best be served. Some choose narrower tops, some wider tops, some really go for the gusto, like Kwak, which created this nifty device in the late 1700s.
When you pour your beer in, it creates some major foam. I guess it's an attempt to make it seem like it came from the tap. Branded glassware extends beyond beer.
Sprite, Lipton Iced tea, Vittel water all have their own glasses. You'll always know kids are drinking chocomel by the huge yellow orange up to their face. Every instant soup I ordered came in a yellow bowl that said Knorr.

Freshly Squeeze Orange Juice. This is something I first noticed in the Netherlands, so it may very well be a thing Dutch people like, too.
Sure, we have OJ all over the place in America, but here it's almost all fresh-squeezed. Don't bother buying it any other way, even the FEBO served freshly squeezed juice alongside their vending machine hamburgers.

Complimentary Snacks. This was probably my favorite thing about drinking in Belgium. Every thing you ordered came with some sort of snack. The coffees came with a cookie or a miniature nougat bar. The beers came with nuts...

or olives...
or headcheese?
(I'm pretty sure Merlin ordered this accompaniment himself. I never can tell what he's saying in French).
My personal favorites were the offerings at Cafe Saint-Arnould in Bouillon. Plump, juicy macaroons came with hot beverages and freshly popped popcorn came with cold ones.

Sliced Bread. Everyone loves bread and Belgians are no different. However, when I saw this bread vending machine I knew I was really in some bread-loving territory.
It wasn't unusual to see a a construction worker eating a plain loaf of bread, slice by slice, for lunch or fellow hostel stayers pile five or six slices on their plate for breakfast.

Cats. For some reason, half the postcards I saw in Belgium featured cats. When we walked past print shops, there were cats again. It seems to be a country that really likes their felines. I think these dogs could tell.
Street Food. Merlin covered this subject, but I had to mention it again here and offer this picture, showing the diversified offerings one may find at a single street vendor.
Beer. It seems like it should go without saying, but Belgians like their beer more than you can ever imagine. They don't just like drinking it, they like making it and telling you about it. Everywhere we went, we asked for the "local" beer and - lo and behold - there would be one. We're not just talking about regions, either. Most of the time, there was a beer right from that town (sometimes containing the local bacteria). No matter what you ask the bartender, they'll always tell you the local beer is the best. Be warned, Belgian beer is much more alcoholic. Some are up to 12% alcohol content (compared to your average 4% American beer).


We are in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which is tiny. Yesterday afternoon, we went to the national military museum, in Diekirch, which we expected to be a joke. It was not a joke. It was a large building chock-full of artifacts, photographs, dioramas and dressed-up mannequins. It was really one of the more interesting museums I've ever been to.
It focused on World War II, specifically the Battle of the Bulge, which had a huge effect on this little country. It turns out that Vianden, where we're staying, was an important base for the Luxembourgish militia. They fought a battle here, where 30 lightly armed townspeople repelled an attack by 250 Waffen-SS soldiers in late November, 1944. It's interesting to look at the geography around here in that light.
The museum took up a lot of our afternoon, which was nice on a slightly rainy, chilly day. There was only one other person there - an older man who, we think, was German.
t's a quaint little town, dominated by a castle (exciting!) and situated in a little cut in the mountains that bisects the River Our. These are sausages in the shape of pigs. We thought they were funny. They even have little ears.
This is the view from our auberge, down into the valley. It's quite the walk up from the river - the street just keeps going and going. It's interesting how the houses are packed so tightly together along the road, with nothing behind them except the forested slopes (which are very steep).
We hiked up to this little rocky promontory with an old "beffroi" and really amazing views out over town. It was very misty, which adds to the gothic charm of the place.

26 September 2010

Geuze Cruise

Rebecca: This is Geuze "Boon Mariage Parfait." Merlin sent me to the bar to get us a small one and I ordered a large by mistake. (I also hadn't intended on getting one with the word 'marriage' in it - promise). Geuze is one of the stranger drinks that we've ever come across.

Merlin: It's made by spontaneous fermentation - instead of brewer's yeast, they use the wild bacteria native to the Senne Valley (where Brussels is). It is usually double fermented and aged for at least a year. The taste was described to us as "like throwing up beer, instead of drinking it." That's a good description.
Merlin: Here I am drinking it and playing cards at a great bar in Brussels called "Au Image Notre Dame." I finished the bottle (Rebecca switched to La Chouffe) with the help of another beer, used as a chaser. It would have been easier to swallow if Rebecca hadn't kept reminding me that it tasted like beer-vomit.

Rebecca: I like to say, Merlin stayed committed to the Marriage. Good for him. I won that game of cribbage he's shuffling.
Merlin: Despite mostly hating our first Geuze experience, we ordered another one in Bouillon. This one was called "St. Louis," and was much more pleasant. Rebecca said that it tasted more like throwing-up orange juice. We agreed that we kind of liked it.

Rebecca: Personally, I think my affinity for the OJ puke tasting beer goes back to my childhood roots. Any time I was sick, I was fed orange juice. So, well, St. Louis Geuze.

25 September 2010

Bar of Bouillon

We stopped at this amazing bar/cafe in Bouillon after wandering around the castle and watching a falconry show. It was raining, and we didn't want to walk down to the main part of town, so we ducked in for a bit.
It was a cool old place, with a nice woman running it. We got some beer and some pumpkin soup and sat at one of the big tables. In the background of this picture, you can see firewood stacked against one of the back walls. There were two woodstoves in the place, one of which was going.
The really interesting thing about this place, to me, was the mural-work on the walls. Someone, sometime, painted these scenes of debauchery on the panels between the windows and above the rough wood.
They were quite well done, for what they were, but they were really great because they were so faded and smoke-stained.
Some of them were covered up by other things - wood was stacked against one of them, this one was partially covered by a refrigerator. We wondered why the sign, here, was in English when the clientele were all decidedly local. Probably, we decided, because the regulars know not to go into the fridge.
How incongruous: MTV playing on the television. The old guy in the bottom left of the picture didn't move much - or say anything - the whole time we were there. The beer advertised - Godefroy - is the local brew. Godefroy was a local hero, and lived in the castle before he sold it to finance a crusade.

Cubist Masters: Bouillon

We made a long train-and-bus journey from Brussels the other day, ending up in Bouillon (like the cube!), a small town in the south-western corner of Belgium. The region is the Ardennes, the temperature is pre-autumn chill, the smell in the air is woodsmoke. This is the view from the top of the castle tower, looking down on the town (to the right) and the Liege road (to the left). The castle commands this amazing bend in the river Semoise. You can see water on either side.
After a hard rain (and an amazing dinner) last night, we woke up to a beautiful morning. We saw our breath in the air for the first time this trip. The town was quiet and the air was very still.
I think it's amazing how this "tabac" seems to specialize in bulk containers. Those are all tobacco tins.
The town has only about 2,500 people, but it seems to be set up to accommodate a lot of tourists. There aren't many here at this time of year and we have actually spent an entire day without hearing English once.
Rebecca ordered some "vin chaude," at lunch, and said it was delicious. It started to rain while we were eating, and the warm food (mushroom crepes) and drink was very comforting.
This is the castle, which we spent the afternoon exploring. It was pretty amazing - one of the most fortified places I've ever seen, and we spent an interesting couple hours poking around.
This is part of the "Spectacle de Fauconnerie" which wasn't exactly entertaining, but was really essential to our castle experience. Two falconers made a number of birds do "tricks." Mostly, they just implored the birds to fly to their hands. Sometimes the birds listened, sometimes they didn't. The falconers also threw chunks of meat on the ground and the birds would hop over and eat them.

Street Food

Street carts are universal. Americans love them - Belgians love them. This is a frite shop in Mechelen. It was easily the busiest place we saw in the city.
This cart sold escargot. They came in a kind of broth, out of their shells, and were delicious.
Meat carts, of course, are ubiquitous and popular.
On a market-day stretch in Ghent, we spotted this fresh orange juice lady, with her juicing machine. Rebecca is working the crank to crush the oranges.
Fresh nougat at a cart in Leuven. The man selling it sliced them with a big bread knife and charged by the kilo.

Solo Day in Bruxelles

Merlin and I spent a day in Brussels apart. It was about 4 hours total, but was still the longest amount of alone time either of us have had in about a month. We were pretty excited about it, simply because our dinner conversation had started to sound like this:

One of us: Did you know (insert some information about something)...?
The other one of us: Yep, I was there when that guy told us that, too.

I decided to spend my "apart" time doing some walks outlined by our nifty "feel like a local" city map, given to us by the hostel in Mechelan. We had used a map by the same company in Ghent and then in Mechelan and they both seemed to work out well.
Naturally, the first thing I did was have some ice cream. (Banana). The cones are thinner and longer here which I prefer for two reasons 1) the scoop set atop can't be as enormous, which helps a girl out if she's planning on having two or three a day 2) it takes much longer for the ice cream drippings to reach your hand. After that business was taken care of, I started on the prescribed journey.
First up was this park or garden, as it was called.
My favorite park in New York had always been Bryant Park, because I felt like it was this bit of peace right there squished between 5th Avenue and the madness of Times Square. Well, Bryant Park has nothing on this place. It is literally in the middle of the busiest highway in the city. As you walk around you can hear the traffic whizzing by, but somehow it only made it seem more like an oasis.
I really wanted to sit and read the book I had bought at an English bookstore earlier in the day (when on a search for the Mad Men issue of Rolling Stone), but knew that it would be best to keep on trucking.
The next stop on my tour was "the last remaining original frite stand in Brussels." Here it is with geraniums in the window and no customers. It was strange to see this sad little stand, holding on strong to its little spot, with the city built up all around it.
A lot of my walk was pretty seedy - bringing me through the red light district and the street prostitute district. In both neighborhoods, I was the only female with no goods to sell on the street and the men I passed by were less than charming. Nothing like a good stroll like that to make you miss your boyfriend.

I was pretty hungry and wanted to feel safe enough to take out my camera again when I stumbled upon this square, which I like to call "The Lobster District."
If you look closely, almost every single one of those restaurants lining the streets have a fluorescent lobster sign - the sort of red light I appreciate.
Last time I was in Brussels, this square was filled with a Christmas market. I wouldn't have recognized it at all if not for the crustacean signage.Around the corner was St- Catherine Square, which instantly became my very favorite place in Brussels.
There was a market just closing up, which I was sad to have missed, but a cheese van lingered.
As well as the moules man.
This spot on the corner sure was hopping.
On closer inspection, I could see that it was a combination fish shop/tapas restaurant.
While a big part of me wanted to cozy up next to the In Crowd, a bigger part of me wanted to sit down for the first time that day. It was basically an enormous new herring wrapped around a fistful of pickled onions.I grabbed a quick bite at the fish store, a rollmop which was even bigger and better than the one I had in the Netherlands.
After I threw that down the hatchet, I went to sit down at a cafe table under some trees, have a drink and consult my map for the route home.
I decided to make one more map-stop on my way to the hotel. This bridge separates the Moroccan part of Brussels from the rest of the city. There were bright pinwheels lining the entire border and you could smell the Moroccan spices wafting in the air.
The next day, I took Merlin out for some rollmops, then drinks at that same outdoor cafe. Naturally, we started the whole day out, though, by sharing an ice cream cone. (Rum raisin).