Tuesday, June 22, 2004

(How I ate my way through) Belgium

Bruges - Ghent - Antwerp - Brussels

I'm currently eating my way through Belgium.

Left France to enter Bruges, a beautiful town, which is pretty much an open-air museum with all the old lavishly ornate Flemish style buildings with step ladder like roofs and sculptured decorated facades to the minutest detail to the point that even park benches look cool!

By a stroke of luck and timing I ended up meeting up with Arwen, a good friend back from Melbourne, who happened to have just started working at the famous Bauhaus hostel I ended up staying at!

Was offered a job to work at the hostel there myself (free food, beer, accommodation, small pay) which I would have accepted if I didn't have to go home in October for my brothers wedding.... oh well, no reason why I can't come back next year....

Anyway we ended up walking and catching up around the cobbled town seeing the sights, somehow avoiding being run over by bicycles and horse drawn carriages, and eating. In one afternoon we had strawberries, a tub of ice cream and Belgium chocolates in the park, then went back to the hostel and had fries, pizza and beer (stopping on the way home for some yummy sausages in a kiosk in the main square).

Enjoyed some Belgium waffles covered with bananas and melted chocolate. Yum.

We did a day trip to Ghent, which is a more realistic city than Bruges, a student town with lots of Flemish architecture, castle, and the cathedral containing the famous Flemish painting "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" (which sounds like an ideal smashing pumpkins song title). And yes we ate some more.

Reluctantly I left Bruges after 3 days to go to Antwerp.

Had some moules met frites (Mussels with Fries), which was a very large serving (took me over an hour to eat it all), very delicious, and very expensive.

Looked at the diamond shops in Antwerp around the Jewish quarter where the streets are full of Jewish people dressed with their black coats, hats and hairstyles. The weather in Antwerp is strange as it would rain one minute, then be sunny the next, then both at once. Actually that sounds like Melbourne....

Went to Brussels next.

Do you know the famous Australian "Land Down Under" song by "Men at Work"?

"Buying bread from a man from Brussels,
He was 6 foot tall and full of muscles
I said 'do ya speaka my language?'
He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich, and he said
'I come from the land down under....'"

Well I tried to replicate the same thing, and the closest I got to it was this result:

"Buying waffles from a girl from Brussels,
She was quite petite with too much makeup,
I said 'Spreek U Engels?' (Flemish for "Do you speak English?")
She just stared and then gave me a confused look, and she said
'Non, Francais!'"*

It seems that only the north of Belgium speak English and Flemish, and the south of Belgium speak English and French. (Which was annoying because I finally learnt the word for "please" in Flemish (alstublieft))

Anyway, Brussels, like Antwerp, has a nice Grotte Markt (Main Square) of beautiful Flemish guild hall buildings of gold and lavish decorations. Also saw the Manniken Pis, which is the famous statue of a boy peeing and is apparently the best-dressed statue in the world with over 700 costumes made for it. Obviously the Belgiums have too much time in their hands...

Stayed with Francesca, a Canadian girl with an Irish accent (who I met travelling in Blois France), in an attic flat with a terrace that you get to by climbing through the window. Anyway on my last night in Belgium yesterday I went with her and her friends to a party that went on all night and as a result I am writing this in a sleep-deprived state (in Cologne, Germany). So apologies if this email seems a little surreal...

Belgium in a Nutshell

Belgium, like Portugal, is one of those countries that no one thinks of visiting but is an absolute gem! Most people in fact pass through it on route from Amsterdam to Paris which is a real shame because they will be missing a country with beautiful colourful Flemish architecture, cathedrals that all chime musical pieces, friendly people and 1,000+ types of beers (700+ breweries), chocolates, waffles and large servings of frites with mayonnaise! Belgium people love their frites, a slow pleasurably way towards heart disease I’m sure...

Belgium is a country where you can just sit around all day doing nothing, and if you blink you'll find yourself having spent a couple of days in one place without having actually seen anything around the town. Mainly because the towns and sights are pretty small and you think that "oh I’ll just hang around the hostel sleeping and relaxing because surely it won't take too long to see everything" and then the next time you look at your watch it says 4pm and you've seemed to have skipped lunch. Not that I’ve been having proper meals, I’ve pretty much been snacking all the time here....

Belgium people have a very laid back attitude to life. For example in customer service they will act as if you're not there, doing their own thing until you actually speak to them, and then suddenly you exist! They are also extremely complacent; for example if litter flies from their table onto the floor they'll leave it there - if a person rides a bike into a wall they'll look and then go on their merry way...

Gotta love Belgium.

Favourite place: Bruges

Worst place: Brussels (only because I have to choose a worst place)

Best meal: Moules met Frites (Antwerp)

Worst meal: Stale Falafel sandwich (Antwerp)

Best nightlife: Brussels

Best building/monument: Bruges is a open air museum of its own

Overrated tourist attractions: Manniken Pis

Underrated Gems: Ghent

Cool people met:
-Arwen (But I already know her from home)
-Staff from Bauhaus Youth Hostel (Bruges)
-Staff from Boomerang Youth Hostel (Antwerp)
-Francesca, Jess, Patrick, Chris (Brussels)

Foods tried: Frites, waffles, Frites, Monsieur Croquets, frites, sausages, frites, mussels with frites, Frites, chocolate, frites, frites, frites!

Beverages tried: Too many types of beers (Duvel, Hoegaarden, Jupiler, Westmalle, Leffe, De Koninck, Palm, to name a few)

Cultural experiences: Beer drinking, waffle eating, frite eating, being lazy...

Best thing about Belgium: The food and beer!

Worst thing about Belgium: The frequently changing weather!

Anyway, next destination is through Germany, through the Rhine to the Black Forest Road to Romantic Road to Fairy Tale Road to Dresden then into the Czech Republic!


Wednesday, June 9, 2004

North France

Paris - Blois - Chambord - Cheverny - Le Manns - Rennes - St Malo - Mount St Michel - Dol - Bayeux - Arromanches - Longues Sur Mer - Omaha Beach - Lille


I’m using a stupid Belgium/French keyboard so forgive my poor rushed writing...

Paris was my next destination from Lyon, which I’ve been to before. But I wanted to spend a couple of days there doing things I didn't get to do the first time I was there, such as see the catacombs where the bones of millions of Parisians were piled, the Pere Lachaise cemetery where the graves of Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried, the Moulin Rouge, the Louvre to see Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo... I find Paris is very much like Berlin, in that it has just as many sights and is just as big, but is missing a certain "je ne sais pas" about it, and it is way too touristy! Therefore Berlin remains my favourite city in Europe (Annecy my favourite town)...but so many cities yet to visit...

I was lucky to see the Olympic relay torch runner run right past me, as I was just wandering aimlessly around outside the Louvre looking at my map when all of a sudden people started forming a line around me and the next thing I knew this French guy with the Olympic torch comes running past a few feet away from me cheering!

Anyway, spent a day in Versailles, with its grand chateaux and the impressive gardens where I was lucky (again, I must be blessed) to arrive in time to see the fountains turned on and music playing, which only happens for two hours on the weekends!

Went to Blois next. In Blois everyone is nice and the town a little backward even though it's a tourist place, there is one bus to the youth hostel every day at 6pm but several coming from it. Go figure! Blois is a pretty small town in comparison to its neighbour - Tours. Blois also has a chateaux and a really tacky house of magic - I recall seeing a dodgy gold dragon head coming out of the top story window and looking about with sinister music playing - which was enough to convince me not to go in.

Went to see two famous Loire Valley Chateaux’s close to Blois, Chambord and Cheverny. Chambord was quite impressive outside with its many terraces, shires and gardens, but the interior was quite plain. It also has a double helix staircase apparently designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which consists of two stairways twisting around each other, which is pretty cool. Cherverny on the other hand was ordinary on the outside but lavishly decorated on the inside.

Chateaued out, I left Blois for Saint Malo, which is a nice walled port town with great beaches and peaceful atmosphere. On route to Saint Malo I stopped in the towns Dol, Le Manns and Rennes, both quite pretty in its Bretagne province style medieval houses and streets. I wish I had more time to go through the rural towns of Bretagne...

Went to Mount Saint Michel, which is a hill island connected to the mainland by a causeway, with a huge abbey on top and walled ramparts circling up the hill reminiscent of Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings! The island itself is surrounded by water only at high tide - at low tide it is surrounded by sand and in some places, quicksand! It was quite scary walking around the island trying not to step in quicksand.

Went into Normandy to Bayeux to see the D-Day Beaches that I’ve always wanted to see!

Typically not much can be seen today of the remains of WWII, just a few bunkers at Omaha beach (Sorry Tim, couldn’t find you any bullet souvenirs on the beach), the American cemetery, huge gun batteries at Longues and parts of an artificial port at Arromanches. Rode an old French push bike (that sounded like a rusty tank) there with some American friends Brendan and Anna and after riding uphill 50km the whole day against the strong wind and some rain I never want to ride a bike again, for at least a while! We were so exhausted that we ended up catching a taxi back once we got to Omaha beach, which cost 57 euros! But it was still fun and well worth it, and cheaper than any of the guided tours on offer; plus we got to see some cool Normandy countryside!

Bayeux is the only town in Normandy not to have been destroyed by bombs during WWII so it is in preserved original condition. The cathedral is quite pretty, and I also got to see the famous Bayeux tapestry which is 70m long and 1,000 years old, depicting the story of William the Conqueror and demonstrating why if people break their promises they will get bad karma. Or something like that.

Went to Lille next, which is quite pretty, with a bit of a Flemish feel to it. With it’s three main plazas next to each other it is like one big plaza full of activity, especially stunning at night when the lights go on and you get to wander the streets or sit under the upside down trees in one of the plazas (yes that’s right, upside down, suspended in mid air!).

Now I am in Bruges in Belgium, having by a great stroke of luck and timing just met up with Arwen, a dear old friend from Melbourne. But I’ll write about Belgium next email...

France in a Nutshell

France is surprisingly cosmopolitan with a large Asian and African population, mainly due to the French colonies of Indochina and some African countries. As a result, Chinese restaurants and Kebab places abound. As stated before, two facets of France exist in contradictory harmony: pleasant affluent classy areas full of snobby people, and seedy areas mainly inhabited by immigrants, all in the same clean wide streets and leafy boulevards, old city quarters and grand plazas full of outdoor cafes where people sit facing the middle of the road or plaza watching and judging people.

The stereotype of snobby French people reigns true; but then if you are stuck with having to eat frogs legs and snails instead of say, paella, sangria and tapas, I’d be bad tempered too! Also, calling French people "frogs" makes some sense when you listen to the way they speak French in a throaty croaky kind of way!

If Spain is the place to party, France is the place to chill out the day after.

Favourite place: Annecy

Worst place: Toulouse

Places with best views: Carcassone, Grenoble, Annecy

Best meal: The food at the Marseille Youth Hostel

Worst meal: Ham and Camembert Sandwiches that got warm in the hot weather in Toulouse

Best nightlife: Lyon

Best beach: Marseilles

Best building/monument: Annecy in general

Overrated tourist attractions: Paris, Toulouse

Underrated Gems: Annecy, Lyon

Cool people met:
- Bruno (French guy with gift of drawing Manga comics (he drew me one) - Bordeaux YHA)
- Flannigan (American girl I spent till 3am in the dark talking to - Bordeaux YHA)
- Karla and Ali (Mexican twins - Marseilles YHA)
- Emma (Eccentric English girl - Marseilles YHA)
- Owen (Crazy Irish guy - Marseilles YHA)
- Kay (English girl - Marseilles YHA)
- The staff at Grenoble YHA
- Marta (German girl - Annecy)
- Sheryl and Nadia (Australian girls - Lyon YHA)
- Francesca and Mina (Canadian girls - Blois YHA)
- Anna and Brendon (Americans - Bayeux YHA)

Funniest moments:
- Owen when drunk
- Scheming with Emma on how we could con an expensive restaurant into thinking we were international food critics (it sounded like a good idea at the time as we had too much to drink)
- The night in Marseilles with Owen and Kay that ended up with us hitch hiking, walking around seedy areas and sleeping on pavement outside YHA at 5am
- Karla’s reaction to a local speciality biscuit tasting in Marseilles (She spat it out and asked the chef if they liked it cause she found it awful. Oddly enough the chef agreed)
- Being unable to find the 50km sized lake in Annecy despite Annecy being such a small town and being led by Marta, getting lost in the wilderness instead.
-The "great" bike ride through Normandy D-Day sights

Foods tried: Snails, baguettes, paninis, glaces, 10 out of 366 cheeses in existence in France...

Beverages tried: Too many wines, 1664 and Kronenberg beer

Cultural experiences: Cafe sitting, wine drinking, riding dodgy bike through countryside...

Best thing about France: The buildings, streets, boulevards, chateaux’s, wine...

Worst thing about France: The people

Anyway, gotta go, Eurocup final on tonight (Portugal vs. Greece). Go Portugal!