|An Orange Excursion||
I am now totally obsessed with pouring maple syrup over waffles and fried chicken. When one's mind goes over what is then created, the neurons just don't fire, they just cannot handle it. But my mouth and stomach sure can. In fact, I may make it my duty to try, at every DC diner, their chicken and waffles to make it known who has the best in my book. Thus far, the first victim (besides my marathon in about a month) is Lincoln's Waffle Shop in the heart of DC, right next to (go figure) the Ford Theatre. I could imagine any dignitary would want a divey place that delivers delicious and decadent plates of thin American waffles and oriental fried chicken right next to where they met their demise. I certainly would, especially when it is as good as these were. The waffle was very light, very airy, which is good, because this is no normal fried chicken. The very international cast that prepares it (I heard various English accents, Spanish, and loads of Mandarin) in a Chinese style batter that leaves those big, flaky bits of fried goodness. But then you just dump the chicken onto the waffles, cover it in syrup, and well, the rest is history.
And to make me look even unhealthier, I haven't had a good donut in a loooooong time. I've been craving them for a while now, and as I perused my 25 wonderful channels on TV, I found a "Foodies DC" program on during Sunday morning. Luckily, I found GBD. The opening segment was them serving fried chicken and donuts.....but found out that you can only get either or at the actual establishment, but I mean, one could possibly order both, say one is for a friend, take it out, and well, put them together......But I was there for the donuts, because my god do them bake 'em. Ginger raspberry fritter?! The fritter alone is my favorite fried pastry on this planet, now you slather it in one of my favorite rooty things and a fantastic berry?! Or how about a "brioche" donut, which is essential brioche bread dough fried. Or how about a square coffee cake donut with a cream cheese drizzle and bits of crumb on top? Well, I decided to get them all. You only live once (even though my marathon died with that previously described meal), so what the hell?
Surprisingly, the brioche one (on the left there) had just decided to pop out of the oven with a freshly dried glaze. It was the doughiest donut ever. It tasted like a sugary, fired brioche bun, just as advertised, and seeing that it is there general donut, I found it to be the best. The coffee cake and fritter were more of a traditional donut dough, quite airy and yeasty, but went very well with a big old cup of coffee. And yes, I sat right by the street, so I could not only people watch, but also let people judge me so that I would never eat three of those again (but because I had ran almost 40 miles the 2 days prior). Seeing that they routinely change the donut roster there, and that I never had a chance to try the chicken, well, I'd say that I may be back.
But I have done more than eating clearly unhealthy things, running it off, and trying to get back into the blogging mode. I did take a day trip to Alexandria. It's like the Revolutionary War meets Civil War. Everything is old looking, with some shock killing cobble stone roads, lots of old "Revolutionary Meeting Houses", a ton of cool restaurants and one of the eeriest buildings I have seen. That would be the Masonic Temple that is entirely dedicated to George Washington. From afar it looks like a giant caterpillar standing on its end. But up close it is just freaky. About 9 or so stories tall, brownish-gray brick, and not the warmest looking entrance. I was a bit anxious going in, hoping that I wasn't going to walk in on some cabal or sacrifices. Nope, just a big old statue to GeoWash and some guy named Ted who wanted money. Unfortunately I was a bit pressed for time and will save that one for another rainy day...maybe that day there will be a secret meeting....
As one walks down King St., you get surrounded, almost mentally inundated with stuff to drink, eat, sort through, and read. Loads of historical signs and neat old houses that just exhale history. The town is quite old, and really a buffer for any Confederate invasion. In light of that, they keep it that way, and if you removed the cars from the street, had the residents dress up and get a bit dirty, I'd say it could be 1861 with no problems. But luckily we have plumbing and health regulations, because the food options are rich and diverse. Many a "American fare" type spots with the clean, exposed steel or wood innards, and burgers and seafood galore. Of course there were cupcakeries, which I may/may not have partook in, I am not going to answer that for the sake of people starting to worry about my cholesterol levels. But a very neat town, one that is a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle of modern DC. And all on the metro line or a really nice running route. Plus it has a bar called the Bilbo Baggins Global Restaurant so naturally this place means business.
Well if feels good to be back Weebly-ing again! It's been far too long, but after an interim break, filled with Pittsburgh foie gras (Meat & Potatoes), Prohibition cocktails, lifting a bunch of boxes all day, a few nice (and rewarded) runs, the biggest sandwich that I have ever saw (and fully ate and digested), my first encounter with Chicken and Waffles--not my last though! I believe we'll have a long and cholesterol heavy relationship, and a quick change of ZIP codes, all is back in order. All back in order, that is, until school starts, where I believe I will wholly subsist off of information, university muffins, and a boat load of really strong Indian coffee.
This place is the first "semi-official" meal back in Colombia's only District. After a week of showing the family my favorite gorging spots and a bit of food adventures around Virginia, it came down to get settled into my new digs. That meant going out to eat. Zaytinya. It specializes in Turkish-Lebanese-and Grecian food. Did I have my first Middle Eastern beer? Indeed, and it was surprisingly refreshing. Just a simple lager, but I feel that I may have checked off a drinking box, in that did anyone even know that beer came out of that area? It's like saying does maple syrup come out of Florida? (It does actually, yes, you may buy pancakes' best friend from FL).
But Zaytinya, W O W. Talk about a restaurant out of its mind. There isn't one part of the food culture that I didn't like about it. In fact it was on my radar last year, but never had the chance to go for it. However, it was worth the wait and did everything just about perfect. So perfect (besides the lighting, which kept going down and way to bright for a portion of the meal--Mood Killers!!!) was the menu, that me and my gastronomic colleague decided to just let them surprise us and sample a bit of everything. No plate left with sauce on it and no plate left without both of us rolling and mhmmmm-ing until they took them away. There was not one thing, not a thing during the course of the 13 course sample fest that didn't make me want to walk out into traffic because it may have spoiled my appetite for anything else. Being traditional Mediterranean food, it was heavy on the oil, light on the fat, and one can eat A LOT of it before feeling bloaty, and even then, it's not that bloat you get from when you guilt-fully down an entire two person pizza (Of course I have never even thought of such a thing.....). Dolma (stuffed grape leaves), tomato insalate, and a beet-fennel-walnut salad were the beginners. If beets could always taste like that, I'd eat them 3 times a day. The sweetness was tame, paired beautifully with the fennel, and the walnuts just gave it that oily protein crunch that felt right. Of course, you stuff anything inside grape leaves with a lemony-nutty sour cream, and its a win.
So that was the first course. Light and fresh. Just enough to get the body warmed up for more. And did it come. In fact, this pairing contained possibly the best "food juice" that I have ever encountered. And I have eaten a many a things seeped in a many of sauces. It was a buttery, creamy dill sauce that drenched some shrimp. If I go into any more particulars this website may need to become X-rated, so I'll just leave it at that. There was a fava bean and kale-ish spread that worked for the puffy Turkish bread, and the one thing I had been scouring the area for---fired soft shell crabs. Wholey's in Pittsburgh decided to temporarily discontinue them--Ba&$#rds, but I finally got them over grits. As usual, just all salty and gooey and full of that sweet Chesapeake grown meat. Yet again, I'll just leave it at that. But this wasn't even close to what surprisingly came next....
Okay, so clearly this picture looks like it would go the best from right to left. I mean who can not like a roasted lamb chop covered in a smoked dill tzatziki? Or some pine-nut salsa infused cut of "biftek"? Well, try some Brussels sprouts. I STILL CANNOT BELIEVE THESE EXIST IN THE UNIVERSE. They were crispy and slightly charred, but still juicy and meaty. Wow my heart rate already jumped. Coriander, barberries, and garlic yogurt just made the dish out of this galaxy. I formally decree that there are no better tasting Brussels sprouts in the world. NONE. You can try to run the race, crisping and buttering away, but you will fail. There is no hope, just no hope, so just go to Zaytinya and concede.
Of course there was a dainty little dessert. Raspberry-mousse-whipped cream-gelato goodness. A fitting end with nice strong pot of Turkish roast sitting next to you. Too say the least we hobbled our way back a ways, and I had the pleasure to ride my bike---entirely uphill---back to my apartment. Painful...oh so painful...but accomplished. It was an excellent welcome back to the big old District, and a worthy reason to miss the free Navy band concert on the Capitol steps (sorry boys and girls, when you began we were biting into fried crabs and adoring sauce). And when the Zaytinya waitress wanted feedback, this is about all I could write (below)
SALZBURG (there was no random or spontaneous singing...)
MUNICH (Home to beer halls, beer breweries, and beery Easters)
VENICE (like Amsterdam, only Italian and with more pistachios)
15 days--6 cities--1 backpack--1 pair of shoes--countless kilometers walked--even more trained--but one great time! This is why I have been absent of the course of the past 2 weeks. Traveling to Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, and Venice. Utterly beautiful cities that I ate, walked, museumed, and "conquered" (which is defined as me eating at least 1 traditional dish, drinking one local beer in a local establishment, walking the entire area, and seeing at least 1 museum). Indeed, I can tick off each of these cities from my "to see" list. But more importantly, I went to Budapest, Bratislava, and Salzburg not really knowing too much about any of them. Usually I do ample amounts of research beforehand to plot, outline, and make bullets of things to do. But for those 3 cities I went with the bare minimum, knowing only cursory information about the layout and land. To say the least, they impressed me greatly, and the most surprising fact about each one was this: the absolute beauty and infinite amount of thermal baths and spas in Budapest, the usage of poppyseed (Mohn) in Bratislava and Hungary, and that Alexander von Humboldt said that Salzburg is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and I wholeheartedly agree. The other three cities went as this: Vienna IS the global capital of cakes--the best in the world, Munich looks great outside of Oktoberfest time, and Venice is, well, everything you could imagine.
I ate well, traveled soundly, and met some great people along the way. Ranging from Americans, to a Brazilian, a Spaniard, two newly minted Budapestians, and man from Manhattan who confirmed my beliefs about a piece of cake I was eating. For 15 days I lived out of my waterproof, black Timbuk2 backpack. That thing is my $30 savior. I jammed, stuffed, and squeezed pants,jeans, 7 shirts, socks, underwear, magazines, my travel book, chargers, a phone, maps, and 1 water bottle in it. The way I started my trip? Having to unpack everything at 630 in the morning to satisfy an airport security guard that my 2 chocolate bars were not C4 and that my deodorant was 33ml too much for EU safety standards...PRICK. So I just took up some space and lots of time packing it back up, and made him have to work around me. Go ahead make my day buddy. Besides that, it was 0 degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit throughout 10 days of my 15 day journey. Christmas in March anybody? Everyday I would hope for a break, but wake up to a wintery wonderland outside. But, it made everything look pretty and pure, and something about snowy Munich on Easter morning still kind of gets me all tingly (plus in Vienna it gave me an excuse to stop in a famous coffeeshop, thus getting cake, because of the legitimate reason of "I was cold and tired" I really wasn't, but it's a legitimate reason right?). In Salzburg I saw spring arrive over the course of 3 days. I would have to walk through Mirabell Garden every morning to get to the city center (this is the one where the clan from "The Sound of Music" finishes singing the song Do Rey Me Fo La Ti Doe) and at first I could barely see the flowers peeking through the snow, but by day 3, when I was going to leave of course, it was warm and the gardens were epic. But Salzburg had the greatest single thing I did. I took an alpine lift to the top of Mt. Untersberg, also featured in TSoM, and got a view of Austria and Germany and the Alps from over 1500 meters up with nothing to stop a person from falling off save a piece of steel cord. That was fantastic and something that was simply "unbelievable." Of course, floating down the Grand Canal in Venice isn't too shabby either...
So, I am not going to go into details here. 15 days of travel is a lot. I remember every detail, but am not going to write it down. This is best done via pictures. So I will put on this page the highlights of each city, going in order of my journey. Enjoy! (but to be able to actually load the page, I am going to do 2 different posts, this one will have the 1st three cities, and the other will have the later half).
BUDAPEST (Pronounced Buda-pescht)
BRATISLAVA (One really nice day!)
VIENNA (the imperial city of tortes)
All those miles, all those sticks and stones, those countless cracks and crevices, dodging traffic and sidewalk-sized people, finally culminated into a 42km (26.something) trek through Rome. Yes, one would say, "Why what a wonderful chance to see one of the most famous and historically important cities on the planet." Indeed that would be the case, however, after walking the city for 2 days, staying up way to late the night before, and standing for 1 hour like a human penguin in a huddle of fellow racers, by the tenth km I was focused on keeping pace and survival. Did I see the Fontana di Trevi, yes, the night before the the morning before. However, at the 39th km, I apparently ran past it, but never even noticed it. I can say that I probably know the cobblestones and pavement better than most Romans. However, I could not of asked to run a Marathon in a better city, as carbohydrates are readily available in almost ever form. Pizza (which I indulged in a number of times and in differing varieties, bianca, margharita, stuff with eggplant and feta), pasta (a beautiful sweet potato ensconced ravioli with cream sauce and arugala..mhmmmm), and enough cannoli's to make Sylverster Stallone jealous.
Now I would love to discuss my running. The marathon is one of the purest highlights of my life until this point. 42km of pounding the ground, of the purest sports on the planet. Just pushing until the end with no balls, bats, or helmets. Just running from point A to point B with some hills, uneven pavement, misguided tourists and fellow racers in between. Was I dead after this? Yes. Indeed, just destroyed, but the complimentary massage afterwards was the most painfully delightful experience ever. But I regret nothing, and for me, finishing with the time I wanted, and in a percentile that I would expect to get on a Calculus test if I had to take one now (3%). We runners are weird, but you haven't tasted a finale until you run around the Colosseum and finish to the thump of the theme song to Gladiator. I was dead but alive.
I am not going to lie, I was really hoping Tom Hanks would pop out of an alleyway and recruit me for some fantastic sci-fi Rome thriller. Unfortunately that did not happen, but some pizza and gelato stands did practically that. Two things, the best pizza form comes with only 2 toppings: salt and olive oil, and the secondly, follow the young people. If you follow them, the pizza will be good and the prices be reasonable. However, the best pizza was not even in Rome, but in a town a bit farther north, but to that, I shall get to later. In Rome, Antica Forno had a line out the door when I got there (after already eating a ton of pizza and just so happened to pass by, and obviously could not say no) and had a ton of pistachio flavored everything. This is a true sin of mine. So, I ordered what everyone else was getting, the simple, Pizza bianca and a pistachio biscotti, which I saved (unbelievably) until after my marathon. All one needs is a sunny, cloudless day in Rome with pizza in hand to appreciate life and the beauty of Mediterranean countries.
On the tip of a wonderful Roman colleague, who has made this blog post an easy one to type out, and who has made my running sanctioned trip to Roma both fun and organized, I must say Thank You to her (I don't name names on this blog, but she knows who she is!). The beautiful thing to the left was what I did not 1 hour off of the train. You cannot go to Rome and not have gelato within the first day. It is simply a deadly thing. So, I bee-lined for the famous old-school Giolitti to have my first encounter with true Italian cuisine from Italy. Unfortunately for my in Italy you pay first, then take the ticket to the counter to pick it up. This is anti-thetical to Belgium, where you get served then pay, or the US, where you do both at the same time. So after looking stupid for a little bit I followed suit and ordered a tiramisu and caffe gelato. If Italy could be blended, heated, then frozen into a cold treat, I think that is precisely what it would taste like.
Being able to see my three favorite things: Dead famous people, totally ancient buildings, and places where Russell Crowe chopped limbs off are so easily accessible in Rome that it is almost not even a challenge. Every church houses lots and lots of gold, glass encased dead saints or popes, and as I walked around there would be a ruin here, ancient staircase there, or something that I had seen on the History Channel across the Tiberius. But unlike some other European cities, it was very manageable, and I walked a good portion of it over the course of two days, and if you happen to have 3-5 hours and 42km of running room, can easily see it.
For 2.5 days it was all Rome. But the last couple days was spent with my family from Canale Monterano, they graciously showed me around the area, and really got me out of the "city mode" that I had been in for quite some time. Canale is the town, and Monterano is the fortress city that the French decided to destroy. Hey, s*^t happens I suppose. But it was home to prehistoric homo sapian caves, then the Etruscans came along making some pots and dishes, then the pope decided it would be nice cannon fodder for any invading army, and now it is a wonderful nature reserve and in May makes for a great party spot. But also I had the opportunity to see Bracciano, which is made famous by a castle that Tom Cruise got married in. I touched it, stood on it, and for once agree with Crazy Cruise, yes, that is one hell of a nice castle. I touched the house of a direct ancestor, which I imagine has not changed much since that generation has lived in it and had pizza that they probably ate, and if their genes are in me, enjoyed it just as much. One would not think much about Canale Monterano as a bastion of culinary genius. But it is. The local bakery has had a New York Times article partially dedicated to it, with a pizza bianca that is crunchy and like the most delicious piece of yeast leavened bread that you have ever had. The fact that I had sausages from there that I thought were special, but turned out to be "normal" sausages made me love Italy all that more.
Four days, so many kms traveled, so many years of human history traversed, so many calories ingested and burned, and bonded with my fantastic family in place it all started. I think I did some good work for my short stay in Rome, and look to be back sooner rather than later. It is rare that I am infatuated with a place but it was a magical four days that won't soon be forgotten. Plus Rome's streets are very nice...trust me, I saw every bit of them. So Rome makes me really happy. I think my area of travels will have to take a turn south. I already love their cuisine, so why not dive right in? Well, off to take a two week adventure to compliment my work on Europe with practical, hands-on, tasteful and well museumed Central-Eastern European trip. But the cities I am visiting will really have to do something special to overtake Rome. Ohh that pizza.......
I come from a 'Burg. So naturally, it makes sense that I end up in a few 'Bourgs while abroad. It was also my dream to finally finish off the the "Lux" of the BeNeLux countries, with a trip to the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg. Luckily for me, it decided to snow--a lot--over the course of the entire day. It was as Luxembourg should be, snowy and picturesque. Only trying to climb up all the hills and avoid dieing on medieval steps while wearing very thin, very lite, and very un-snow worthy boots was a challenge. Note to self--when traveling to Luxembourg, prepare for what you want.
Castles on a hill, underground caverns that have had many different functions, but are now cheap tourist attractions (and a UNESCO Heritage site of course) and overly helpful people, that is what Luxembourg City is. Every time I pulled out my map, people wanted to know if I needed help. I don't know if I look Luxembourgisch...in fact I am unsure as to what one looks like...but by god, they were nice. I guess growing up on that hill surrounded by forests and brick walls can do that to you. A new face gets you all excited. Or maybe they just wanted my business...which would not be unheard of in the richest per capita country in the EU. Anyways, the City showed me a grand day. With snowed covered pines and frozen fortifications everywhere, along with a nice hearty plate of pork and beans with baked potatoes (their national dish), I was feeling really good. One of the most interesting parts was the Bock Casemates which are essentially catacombs that are were storage areas, which were then bunkers during the many sieges that fortress Luxembourg has seen. What is not okay about them is the severely uneven floors, pitch black hallways, and steps which, while internationally protected have been so worn down that they are more of a ramp than step. For someone wearing shoes with very little traction cover in ice, it was a harrowing experience (normally I would be fine with it, but c'mon I have a marathon in a couple of days!)
Luxembourg, for being essentially a micro-state, it pretty neat. I mean the place was dismantled by the Great Powers because no one could break its defenses (like Fort Thueringin above). That takes some ingenuity, and by god they have turned it around into a gold mine. Surprisingly decent beer, hearty food, a nice blanket of snow, and a tidy little mountain capital city...all in about 6 hours...can't beat that!
Luckily, one 'Bourg is one the way to another 'Bourg--Strasbourg. Technically the same thing that is in Brussels, only once a month the European Union decides to due business there because of Treaty obligations. At least it is in a very, very cool city. I agree with any city that has a plethora of canals. I also agree with any city who has a monumental cathedral (if you need any evidence of this, please reread 2011's trip to Cologne). Lastly, I agree with any city who is known for their fattened goose liver and white Alsatian vin. Yes Strasbourg, you won many points.
This behemoth to the left really gave the Kolner Dom a run for its money. Not only is it, yes, offer center, but there is not one inch that is not adorned with something. Spire, gargoyle, guy on a horse, demon thing, it is all there. Not only that, but the inside houses an ancient astrological clock. Me and a a bunch of Italian school students watched as 12.30 rolled around, and a wooden Jesus blessed some apostles, and the whole "this is time, it is ticking down, but don't worry because it'll all be fine and dandy in the end" deal was the theme. However, I thought that having it as a personal alarm clock would be fantastic.
The interesting thing about STR (the abbrev. of Strasbourg) is that is French and German. The area has French cuisine but drinks German wine, eats dainty pastries but houses down big, deep pots of stewed meats and cabbage. So, naturally, it is my type of place. The pasty block that you see on the left is foie gras. It is a specific type of European goose that is specifically fattened to specific qualifications to produce one hell of a piece of liver. It is nutty, fatty, and sweet, and when you mix a little bit of berry and chive on there, it is pure heaven. For 20Euros--as an appetizer--it is heavy on the wallet, and the waistline. But in the Alsace region of France, if you do not get it there, where they have perfected the entire process, then shame on you!
Possibly the only thing I find more picturesque than a snowy castle in Luxembourg is anything that sits on a canal. Where water and man-made stone meet, I have a love-affair. In STR there is definitely no shortage of that. Everything was different, yet uniform, all very old looking, and they took great care into making the new building blend in with the original surrounding, unlike that other European capital...yes, you Brussels...that make for a very harmonious scene. The winding, tight streets, the toll of bells, the sound of the streams, it was so peaceful. Especially the area of Petite France which is literally out of a storybook. A little village on a bunch of little islands, all medieval and such. Something that is routine here, but to us Americans, it is an entirely different world. Drinking in pubs that had people in them dieing from the bubonic plague just makes a meal historically satisfying.
Yes the 'Bourgs treated me right. Good food, nice towns, and I maxed out my camera. Can't say anything bad about that. And all on one train line. A great way to spend a quick three days-from impenetrable castles to lazy canals, separated by only a couple of hours and the occasional train blockage!
Okay, so the bad thing about traveling is that I cannot properly write my blog. I see that my last one happened on February 23. Yes, I am a bad person, or as some Spaniards say, 'I'm a bad pawhson." Sorry world, sorry, I was having too much fun, going to far (not really), getting my medieval swag on, and eating...a lot.
I suppose the easiest thing to do is start with my "Meal of the Week." Yes I have eaten much, that is a given, but I must say that PIZZA has been my theme. Thick, thin, extra thin, and a Dutch pancake, because it really is a Napolitano pizza. Especially when you put cheese, bacon, ham, cucumber, and olives on it. Plus I had it in a "Snow White & the Seven Dwarves" themed restaurant surrounded by crying children. One who especially hid behind my corner seat and kicked me repeatedly. So for what I endured, the kicking, the screaming, the scary looking troll people watching me as I indulged, IF I CALL IT PIZZA, BY GOD IT'S A PANCAKE. But a boerenpannekoek was not the No.1 digestation of the period. Yes I had a nice pizza at an Italian place, however it took 2 hours to arrive. It was nice, but it wasn't this:
Yea. You can see them. Small discs that are half the thickness of a tortilla. Covered in not mozzarella, but gruyere cheese, with some anchovies, ham, obviously an egg, and the other has not burnt, but crispy and well done eggplant, scallops, and a some creme fraiche. Beautiful, simply beautiful. Can you eat the Mona Lisa? No, but you can and we did eat these. Because of their thinness, we didn't feel weighed down from them. That was good, because it was time to go to a very trendy university bar to have something called the Pink Elephant in a shaker bottle. Good thing it wasn't a long trip back! Could I have eaten more? Yes. However, it was so awesome, so pizza-life changing that I was on a pizza high and didn't get the name or picture of the place. That is the hallmark of a good restaurant menu, you never see the insignia, just the bible-length list of pizzas.
But now to my title. Medieval. Yes, for 3 out of 4 days I existed in some of the best preserved medieval cities around. Middelburg en Gent. Middelburg was fantastic. Back in the Netherlands for me! As soon as I passed the border I knew it was back in the big old NL. Bikes, clean trains, and of course, everyone is tall and blond and the guy on the train who sat next to me feasted on cold mashed potatoes and carrots. What a guy. One of the best parts of M'burg is the fact that you can literally walk through people's backyards. Because it is a medieval town, there are little entrances and by-ways, little doors and narrow streets that go sometimes to absolutely nowhere. I spent a good hour of my day being quite intrigued by these little guys. I suppose the tenants don't usually sun bathe naked, otherwise a tourist like I may just get more than just a glimpse of old churches and cobbled stone streets. For example, who could pass up the intrigue of this:
But M'burg is really too cool. A nice college town with boats and tons of old stuff. I mean to stand in the city square and to think that people may have had bubonic plague there. It really is inspiring. Plus it was a fortress town, so there were definitely knights of there at some point. Not the Knights of St. John's, who are a horrible basketball team, but real, touchable, "I'll cut you in half with my two-handed sword" type of people. Not too mention that at one point, way after dusk, I stopped in the middle square--the hub of town--and heard------NOTHING. Nothing but the silent peddling an occasional cackle of a loose bike chain. I am always one who believes that getting out of your current place gives you much respect for the new spot. Either because of the little things like hearing very little, or the that you know on your way home you'll be stopping in your favorite Belgian city (Antwerp) to drink at your favorite non-Amsterdam tavern (Da Vagant) and will be drinking classy jenevers (Pumpkin-Oude-Appel--I did). The only problem with M'burg wasn't the delicious haring, the huge pancake, the back alleys, overt Christianity (I was evangelised while trying to send a text), but the fact that on the day I was there with no map, thus wandering aimlessly, but always with intellectual purpose, the same silver clad girl kept trying to sell my gum. Please girl, I have stuff to see and things to eat no crappy gum to chew.
A funny little thing they do in M'burg. Besides putting their name on the door, they put little witty sayings, such as "De Zwarte Paar" (the black horse) "De Gouden Boothuis (The golden boathouse). But this one took the taart. "De Drie Monsterzakken" while to untrained english ears sounds like a horror movie in the making, it actually translates to "The Three Sample Bags." The bears don't quite make sense, but sometimes one doesn't question things. I don't know if that is what they were going for, but okay, I guess I am cool with it!
So after that, it was back to good old, yet warm and cheery Brussels. As I always say, as I run around town in the cold, see about 15 people over the course of 2 hours, and wonder if I am missing a big party (I think I do, it is called the "We hate cold and are staying indoors party"). Once it got about 50degrees Fahrenheit people took clothing off, laid out on park benches, ate outside, and genuinely smiled. I guess Vitamin K deficiencies do exist!
But alas, on Thursday I had the time, and energy to go the Ghent, or Gent in Dutch, which I how I'll spell it because my right forefinger doesn't want to go left (now try typing without thinking about consciously typing that "H"--your're welcome, go home, your web browsing for the day is finished.)
To sum up, Gent is old--really old. It was once quite the powerful Flemish city, and is now home to way too many tourist trap restaurants, giant gothic cathedrals, a painting called 'The Lamb of God' which I paid 4 Euros to see, and like most of these hyped up paintings, thought the copy outside was just as fitting, and a lot, I mean a lot of small batch breweries. It was really how I planned my day. De Gruut, Het Bierhuis, De Trollekelder, Cafe de Turk--meaning I drank a bruinhuisbier, something called a "Makkelokker", a Trollebier (yes another freaky place, instead of Dwarves watching me, it was trolls), and a Gentse Strop, which was a hoppy blond beer, but drank in a cafe that had been around doing what it does since Anno 1228. I like to think a lot of people did the same as I did, for almost 800 years. Is our beer just as good? Yep (I had a medieval beer in Antwerp whose recipe has never changed since the 1200s, and guess what? No hops, but nothing different from a bruinbier).
I like old stuff. Dead saints, old graves, things that look like they are physically unsound, it is all in good fun and happy travels. Gent is the king of this. A Belfry, and 3 ancient churches all within 2 minutes walk. To this a drink to you Gent! You made my walking easy. It may have rained a bit, but that made it again an interesting scenario, that I was standing in the main square, fumbling with my cheap Polish umbrella, and someone, at sometime probably was at that spot in the 1300s, fumbling to stay alive because of bubonic plague. Now Gent has quite the history. CIA blacksites, where the government shipped people for questioning and "enhanced interrogation techniques" made popular by Kiefer Sutherland, look like nothing. Gent was the medieval torture capital of Europe. The big castle there, De Gravensteen (translate-the Grave stone....) holds a wonderful exhibit of things you were exposed to if you laughed at the king. Let me tell you, if a necklace of spikes being forced into you neck doesn't not sound like a good time,then it was definitely a "yes sir, no sir" type of society.
Did I mention the digestations? I mean the drink was great. The only "stadbrouwerij" or city brewery is De Gruut. Drinking in between them making beer? That is what I call knowing what you are drinking. But the Gent is home to the best Brussels-style waffles in, maybe, the world. To this I knew I must have sampled these beasts of the waffley world. Indeed, housed in an Art-Nouveau house overlooking a St. Baafcathedraal and some funky modern art version of a chapel, laid Establissement Max. With Frank Sinatra blaring, Dean Martin swaying, and a very many smiling old people, I ate THE BEST BRUSSELSE WAFEL EVER. It was crispy on the outside, but not burnt, as some make them, but the inside was not completely airy, but gooey and not quite cooked entirely. On top of that, I have the advocaatse wafel meaning whipped cream and advocaat, which is sugar, egg yolk, and cointreau mixed into a light syrup. Heaven on a dish? No, because I have had too many of those, but a damn good time in my mouth. Brussels, you have been duped by your Flemish counterpart and the old sweaty guy in the back.
Overall a splendid 6 days. Now it is off to pay homage to beer gods (literally, it is Trappist Monks we are talking about here). Then, I will have the most busy month of my life. I will be Hilary Clinton-lite. Luxembourg to Strasbourg to Rome. Then after that, it is still being finalised. So, look forward to a another inundation with stuff from 3 very different cities in 3 very different cities (I don't think Rome and Luxembourg City will be comparable) --this last adventure had the cities to be pretty homogenous). Cheers!
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)