20 minutes east is about all it takes to get into a small town with a lot of college students (and their trademarks signs, such as beer cans, blaring techno, and regurgitated dinners caused from way too much alcohol...rookies...). But it is a quiet reprieve from the hustling and bustling of Brussels. Plus, the food is great, and I pretty much crossed off two extremely good regional dishes in the matter of 8 hours. Gluttony is Leuven should of been the title for this blog post.
The first is a Koninghapje. Imagine roasted chicken in gravy over a biscuit, only with a white sauce that makes American gravy look like sewer water. And let me remark that I have had many a mashed potato. I've had them out of a box, made out of red potato, sweet potato, just about anyway to mash a potato that is legal, I have eaten it. Leuven's Nachttuil has simply the best. Yea I was the only one eating there, but it was really a date between me and the mashed potatoes that oozed of some spices that I still have no idea what they were. Anyone who knows me what happen when I have a "food moment." Well, that whole bowl was one big "moment."
No. 2 are my beloved kaaskroketten met Brabantse witlof in hesp and kaassaus. So you take something that looks like a slender cabbage, wrap it is thick cut English bacon, dump it in molten and slightly charred cheese, and serve it with deep fried little pieces of ragout and cheese. Heart stopper? Yes indeed. Totally decadent and worth the 6.40Euro to go into the east of Belgium to get it? Double Yes indeed. Yes, I may have gained third degree tongue burn and may no longer taste anything, (there is no way that the practically melting cheese is that hot!---Dead Wrong), but I think that I Belgium-ed it out big time. Who would ever wrap a vegetable in savory meat and put it in cheese but the Belgians of course! (Americans would deep fry the whole thing and add copious amount of salt and butter...plus with Belgium, how can we be surprised, I mean their national icons are beer, chocolate, and frieten).
Now besides the very tasty food scene, Leuven as quite the main square. The town hall literally has as many statues of people that could completely inhabit the "Mini Europe" exhibit in Laeken. In fact, I doubt that the upper statues are even different people, they could easily the be the same people in different clothing. Granted it would be a cop out, but just staring at the building kind of boggles the mind. But seeing that this is a college town, and I am sure every freshman must take "Leuven 0101" and during week 4 there is the dreaded, name "every single human being on this building, extra weight given to those who can do it in order."
I must say it was very appealing to be back in "Nederlands country." All Dutch here people. No "Bonjour" but the guttural 'Goedemiddag" no more "Boissons" but "Dranken" and I can freely talk without feeling completely apprehensive of being "that guy" in line who finally just the forsaken Brussels language. I actually pulled a lot of my Dutch out of my rear-end over the course of lunch, and the waiter actually held conversation with me, until he just stopped and said I was either a native English speaker or had lived in the Netherlands. Everyone knows my affinity for the Netherlands, and indeed, told him I had lived in Amsterdam for some time, he too had lived there, and we had a small reminiscing moment. Looks like that place seems to suck everyone in. After shaking off some dust, my speaking skills are still there, and unlike the untrained ear of the Brusseleir, Leuvenaars are good....very good.
Oh and everyone in America who thinks Stella Artois is made in some fancy, posh, elite, high-crested Spanish city along the Atlantic, you are completely wrong. It is in the landlocked, East-Belgian and medieval town of Leuven. I hate that beer, in America it is usually too bitter and icky. However, having it fresh from the factory in a bar called De Oude Tijd (a pint of beer for 1.50Euro?!?!?!?!) while waiting for my train, made me a believer (but only in Leuven). It tasted like a very good Czech lager, and just knowing it was made not 3 miles away kind of makes it all the better. Leuven, surprisingly, is quite the beer haven. Not only did I have 3 uniquely Leuvense Bieren, a Leuvense Tripel, Com Domus Feeste Bier, and the freshly prepared Stella, but the entire middle of the city is truly the largest bar in Europe. Of course I could not go to all of them, though given one other day, or at least it not being Sunday in Belgium, meaning things close, I would have sampled a beer in all of them. So, given limited opening times and limited daylight, I chose a homage to Trappist brews, a bar that plays only 50s-70s French music, and a bar with a pulpit in it, plus 1Euro jenever. I believe it is a college student's dream. Not too far from the school, and a nice area to read about the finer points of mass media organisation while sipping on a nice Belgian brew. Can't say I disagree with anything about that. Not too mention in a school that has been around since the 1400s. I don't always venture to small towns in Belgium, but when I do, I go to Leuven.
Plain and simple, my random wanderings and last minute decisions to do stuff brought me to some of the most unique ends and corners of Brussels. Japanese pagodas, giant atoms, the Thinker, a gorgeous cemetery, not too mention a small town named Binche (pronounced Banch, with the anch ending somewhere in your upper nasal cavity) where the town dressed up in somewhat politically incorrect costumes and marched to the same song over and over and over and over again. (Unfortunately that morning's adventures had completely exhausted my camera's life, so I took memory shots, all up in my brain, not of much use here, but I want to remember those few hours in Binche, well good for me, I suppose you should go there yourself...or just wikipedia it).
AWESOME THING 1) An atom, on climbable.
Yes yes, the big shiny ball thing that you can see from behind the Paleis van Justistie. It was made for a Worlds Fair way back, but I after the man hours, they most likely protested its demolishing. Pretty much you take an elevator way up to the tippy top with a bunch of over-intrigued German tourists, get a wonderful view of Brussels, and can easily plan the rest of your route for the day. This is in Laeken, a giant royal park northwest of Brussels. Could I have run there? Yes, but a 2Euro tram ticket just seemed all the better at 9 in the morning after a night of stagiairing.
Atom in Brussels? Check.
AWESOME THING 2) The world's 4th largest chapel----in Koekelberg
It's big. Really big. It takes up quite a large gray space on any map, and you can see it from almost anywhere of any elevation, and it simply dwarfs everything around it. So, on a wonderful half-Friday I decided to do it. Ran up, ran back (with a stop in the little town of Ganshoren, which had the brick streets, windy back allies, and little houses like Ouderkerk...). Airy, very airy, and being built my a maniacal builder king, one would think he'd go for the gusty and make it gaudy. But it was very...plain...nothing to spectacular on the inside, save that you could have a circus, rib cook-off, and car show in the main hall all at the same time. Also, the houses are all Art Nouveau, and downright stately and shapely and curvy and beautiful, but I was running, and stopping at every house would just defeat the purpose. So I only stopped at a few...
AWESOME THING 3) The Laeken Cemetery
I am not one to walk around cemeteries. Yes I did read Edgar Allan Poe's entire anthology in October and yes, I do love a good statue. But this cemetery made me want to stay, but Binche was calling and my battery level on my camera was flashing angrily at me. Everything is a very somber, yet uniquely gray tinged with the occassional green-bronze (or nickel?) statues of soldiers, sailors, lions, and guys with prominent facial hair. But the prized possession, the one the I was on my list almost a year ago and it's been nagging me ever since then was to see The Thinker. Just that nude guy, pondering about what? Whether he wants cous-cous or bulgar wheat, or maybe he's thinking about which pancake was better, the Guiness one or the sweet potato one, or maybe he's thinking of whether he really needs to work out any more. Regardless, the cemetery is offset by the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Laeken Kerk. It was definitely the best sight all day. Binche is nice and all (especially their hot chocolate), but the quietness and sheer amount of grey memorials had something about it.
AWESOME THING 4) Who knew the King loved Asia
On top of a guy thinking, a giant atom, and a second royal palace, there is the Japanese and Chinese pagoda. Just standing there. There are museums, but really, why the hell not just plop down to traditional Asian architecture pieces in the middle of North Central Europe? Maybe King Leopold like judo or was fond of fried rice. Well whatever the case, he put them there, all within walking distance of his royal residence. At 11am in the morning, it kind of hit me that, yes I am in Belgium. Yes Belgium is in Europe. Yes these are two pieces of fine Asian architecture here. No I am not crazy because the sign in confirming it. I think your empire has reached quite the peak when it can accurately recreate buildings from the other side of the globe with no difficulty. Besides producing awesome chocolate and awesome beer, what mysteries of the universe are left? Seriously just open up a wormhole King Leopold, then you'll have anything you could ever have wanted. Anyways, Laeken=Good Time. And a park that I will definitely run in the near future, and this time charge my camera the entire way so that I am not running through a cemetery trying to find that one thing I really want to document...
ONLY IN BELGIUM WOULD THIS BE CONSIDERED "SCHONE KUNST"
(crepe, waffles, bread, chocolate...oh Belgium)
A weekend in Warsaw. To say the least I had my fair share of various things wrapped in dumpling. Plums, potatoes, rabbit, cheese, I had it all. I must say any country that has old ladies preparing food for the masses at mere Euro cents is doing something very, very right. Subsidized public kitchens--a wonderful holdover of Communism--serving up deliciously, old-lady homeade food since before any of us were born! Of course another reason this city was a win was the sheer fact that I could eat like a king, and not worry about the check. 130 zlotte? I'll pay for yours and mine. I have never been to a city where I spent a grocery budget in a weekend and did so much. Poland...you rock.
I should have known this was going to be an interesting trip when me and my wonderful fellow colleagues had the opportunity to stay in a room that was the bedazzled with glorious red drapes and paint, overseen by old pictures of Polish communist leaders, and of course, had a giant face of Lenin to wake you up in the morning. Nothing says Good Morning like that hat wearing, mustachio'd guy. Of course the smell of wet socks and shoes always does the trick too.....
Getting off of the train from the airport and Warsaw welcomed us as any city should, with pouring rain. Of course, during all my travels I have never gone on "holiday" and had inclement weather. Of course this trip I said, "You know Aaron, it won't be that chilly or rainy, just your coat will do." Well I took a huge chance because while it did indeed rain/snow/sleet/hail/get really windy while in Warsaw, the previous week was -17degree C...yea talk about a buzz kill there. So once I was told that, the rain really didn't seem all that bad, I mean you just get wet and pneumonia, at least you don't get frostbite and lose digits.
Usually before departing, I ferociously study the place I'm going. I dissect, plan, and pick out the most interesting restaurants. If my time is limited, I am going to target everything. This one was very nice, just came along, went with the flow, had an incredible Polish tour guide, and ate pierogi. It was amazing to see how this city, completely leveled after WWII has come back. The main thoroughfare, or Old Town, is a great replication of big white houses with small boulevards and lots of vodka laying about. Much like Brussels, there is a great mix of beautiful buildings and buildings that literally look like they were built with nothing but rectangular blocks. Ahhh the glory of Communist architecture, cement slabs with uniform windows and rectangular...so rectangular.
I knew Poland loves their man, John Paul II. I knew he was their "Captain America." However, I believe there are more statues and icons of him than the guy he is supposed to be supporting. Make a left, see a statue, walk down some steps, a picture of him on the street, want to look out your window? Too bad, he's taped to the window too. I mean I suppose this is like Brussels and its love affair with painting any part of a building that juts out onto the street. Instead of seeing a Holy Guy, you seeing Tin Tin. Comic book god or guy who talks to God....I guess being separated for 60 years and an annoying RyanAir flight will do that! Now for my American followers, RyanAir is, well, ask any European. It has cheap flights (I'm talking $40 one way to go across the continent), cheery service people who try to sell you everything every 5 minutes, making it impossible to do anything productive, such as sleep, or at times breath. No I don't want you cardboard sandwich, no I'd rather you not sell me coffee that is complimentary on every flight, and no, what is the point of a smokeless cigarette? (especially to someone who doesn't smoke anyways, this is a thing that I cannot grasp). Not only that, but everything is YELLOW and a version of the color blue that generally makes me sick. Yellow may be fine on a taxi, yellow may be fine on a pencil, but not emblazoned everywhere in such a tight place. I suppose if you are claustrophobic, do not fly RyanAir, but if you want to get somewhere cheap and fast, I suppose you have to buck up, sit through the gauntlet of stuff, and crank up the MP3 player.
Now I ate too much in Poland to have ONE favorite dish. Tubed meats, pickles, old lady soup, dumplings, duck, so I'll simply put three beautiful dishes that I found to be extraordinary. In no other locale have I eaten so well for so little money (mhmmm old lady zurek in the socialist canteen....) in such a short amount of time. My ratio of how much I ate to my time in Warsaw is probably at disgusting levels. And of course, any country that promotes beer is good. Just pilsners and lagers in Poland, pretty run-of-the-mill, but they come in generous portions, and just go great with the atmosphere and the fact that your breath smells of a Polish Pickle. Warsaw? Check. First trip across the Iron Curtain? Double Check. Didn't spend too much and had a fabulous time with some fabulous people? Triple Check. And with that, and a bumpy, blustery ride to Brussels, back to the land of chocolate and rain/sleet/snow how could this all happen in 1 block---I swear they said no precipitation today!