Sunday, June 23, 2013

Belgian Yummyness

Belgium's probably not on your list of places to go if you're into food. It wasn't on mine, for sure. But in the days leading up to our trip there, I started thinking about what it'd be like and, true to my nature, what the food'd be like. All I kept thinking about, though, was waffles. I figured that I'd eat some big, ole', fat, Belgian waffles (like the ones we used to make at Nifty Fifties). But, more importantly, guess what I discovered also comes from Belgium!!!

FRENCH FRIES!!! Along with the namesake waffles, fries are everywhere!!! Here's a fry shop (Friterie) right next door to a waffle shop in historical area of Brussels:

In fact, the first thing we did (after Diana's appointment) on our first full day in town was try some fries at a little Friterie stand near the tram stop.

The guy working there was a character and we had fun ordering in a combination of Spanish, English, and German.

Fries in Belgium (and in Amsterdam, I'd later find out) are usually served in a paper cone and topped with mayonnaise or flavored-mayonnaise sauce. We opted for the Andaluse sauce this time, which was a slightly spicy one that we really liked. I know that for Americans the idea of mayo on your fries is a bit strange but I'm digging it. Even in Spain, a common topping for fries (or patatas bravas as they're called) is similar to this sauce.

As has been the case like when I didn't find pretzels at the Pretzelfest, or when I didn't see Perrier while in France, I didn't really know if they eat waffles in Belgium. Well, let me put that to rest...they do!

They're everywhere and seemed that people eat them like people in the United States would eat a doughnut, either as a breakfast food or a snack during the day. I came across this place (with a really strange character-based theme) near Manequin Pis that was selling them for 1 euro (about $1.30 U.S.). The kids were literally lined up to buy them.

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is going to supermarkets to check out what they're selling. I went to three or four different ones on this trip but forgot to take photos until our last day when I ran into a Carrefour to take a picture of their waffle display area. Carrefour, which is a French supermarket chain kinda' like a Target and a supermarket fused into one, is not really the best representation of a Belgian supermarket but it'll have to do. As you can see, there are six different types of ready-made waffles in just this one photo in just this one store. Belgians seem to like their waffles!

I ended up trying a couple of different ready-made ones and these were my favorite. They come in a bag of five individually-wrapped waffles and they have this difficult-to-describe crunchy sugar (they call them sugar pearls) inside that are addictive.

I think I managed to polish off like ten of them (waffles, not bags!) in the few days that we were in Belgium. Breakfast each day looked something along the lines of this:

...and lunch looked a bit like this (fries with a "samurai" sauce in Ghent):

Belgium's also, obviously, known for its chocolate. Godiva is from there and I saw Godiva stores on quite a few corners around Brussels. Diana and I sampled chocolates, truffles, and hot chocolate from a few independent chocolate shops. My review in just two words: outrageously delicious. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos but you probably already know what chocolate looks like.

The last Belgium-is-known-for food we ate were mussels, which we had at a restaurant in the center of Brussels. Yep, Brussels mussels, with a side of fries, of course:

In case you're wondering, the mussels on the left had a Tuscan sauce on them and the ones on the right had an amazing garlic-butter sauce. Mussels aren't on my favorite-foods list but (Diana and) I enjoyed them and the rest of our Belgian delicacies:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ghent Belgium

Diana and I spent a rainy and fun-filled full day in Brussels but wanted to check out another town before we left Belgium. We talked about going to Bruges, which is a popular town with tourists northwest of Brussels up near the North Sea. The only thing that I knew about Bruges was that there was an art movie a bunch of years ago called "In Bruges". I never saw it but it was just enough for me to be interested in going there. Diana had been there (of course) but she was up for going back so I could check it out.

It just so happens that there was a young student from Spain living in one of the other bedrooms of the house we stayed in (via airbnb) who we made quick friends with. He had been living in Brussels for about ten months and suggested that we go to the town of Ghent as it was possibly even cooler and not nearly so touristy compared to Bruges. It was that easy. The next morning we took the train about one hour northwest of Brussels to the exceptionally well-preserved medieval town of Ghent:

Ghent has about 600,000 people and for years was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe. Walking around the historic core is an architecture fan's dream. I can't find the dates but I think these two awesome houses are from like the 1500s:

Ghent is fairly quiet but quite nice. We went on a Friday so I'm guessing that it might get a bit more crowded on the weekends or during summer (if summer ever comes to northern Europe!?!?). We lucked out on the day we were there as it was rain-free, which I'm under the impression is a fairly rare event. Random Ghent street scene:

And what's a real medieval European town without a castle? Well, Ghent's got one of those too! I love this photo with the super-modern tram running in front of the Gravensteen Castle, which was built in 1180:

Diana and I wanted to take advantage of the relatively nice day by eating outside somewhere but we couldn't really find anything we wanted. Instead, we went to a local supermarket and bought some snacks, drinks, and the ingredients to make sandwiches. A few minutes later and very few steps away, we found our lunch spot. We chose these stairs overlooking one of Ghent's canals. Can you ask for a better picnic spot???

In Diana's quest to visit every church in Europe, we stopped by as bunch while we were in town. In one of them, we came across this religion-inspired fashion show, which definitely wins the award for unusual things you might find in a church. I'm guessing that it was put together by the daughter of someone who's well-connected and that the church's senior person is somewhat flexible.

Oh, and the best? ANOTHER head of John the Baptist! No self-respecting European church should be without their own sculpture of good-ole' John's head.

The amount of beautiful buildings and canals in Ghent is impressive but it almost seems too perfect - like it was designed by Disney or something. But I can say that it's definitely worth a day trip. On our way out of town, we stopped to take photos on a bridge that had great views of the city but we thought that we'd shoot a video instead. And for those folks who like to find mistakes, I say in the video that we're in Ghent, Brussels but it should have been Ghent, Belgium. :-)  Enjoy!

Monday, June 10, 2013


This was another trip made possible by a meeting that Diana had. A quick two days back in Barcelona after our whirlwind Italy trip, we flew up to Brussels to spend time checking out Belgium before going on to Amsterdam for a couple of more days, something that I was really looking forward to.

Brussels (and Belgium as well) is one of those places that I never figured that I'd visit but I was excited to "add" another country to the growing list (I'm a simple guy, I guess). There had never been a reason before but, there we were, in the city that's sort of the Washington, DC of Europe. Like its United States' counterpart, there seems to be a lot of folks with money there. You know, people in suits, big SUVs everywhere, and really expensive places to get a drink. In the case of Brussels, it's caused by the fact that the European Parliament, which serves as the centralized government body for Europe, and NATO (among others) are based there. The it-probably-won't-be-winning-any-architectural-awards-anytime-soon European Parliament building:

What I can tell you about the city is that it rains. A lot. They say around 200 days per year (not just cloudy - but RAIN) and I can attest that it's wet there. We were walking through the Grote Markt (the Grand Place), the city's main square, on our only full day in town and it was coming down like we were taking a shower. In a lot of good ways, the city reminded my of Munich, especially in the main square and surrounding area. The Brussels Town Hall and Grote Markt:

We arrived on Wednesday evening and Diana's meeting was early on Thursday. After her meeting, we headed into the city center to walk around and achieve my goal of eating some of the food items that Belgium is known for (I'll write about that in another story). When it wasn't raining unbelievably, the city was quite lovely and seemingly a nice place to live but probably not as interesting as Munich or some of the other places that I've been.

This little street was full of buildings that housed restaurants serving tourist-style bowls of cooked mussels. Diana and I had dinner in one and the mussels were delish and quite a deal at 10 euros per serving. It's not often that you can get a decent meal for two in a super touristy, and quite-expensive area for under $30 (U.S.) but we managed it! Score one for Bussels!

Other than the food and the area around the Grote Markt, the other tourist hot spot is a small, peeing statue named Manaequin Pis. This little dude has been letting it all hang out in this spot for almost 400 years, which I guess is pretty surprisingly although the statue isn't "original" as it gets stolen from time to time - but still. Also, the day we were there he didn't have any clothes on but people apparently put outfits on him for different reasons. Oh, it's also worth mentioning that Mr. Pis looks a hell of a lot like my nephew.

I ended up enjoying our quick Brussels flyby even though what I'll probably most remember about it besides the peeing statue (and maybe the food) was that my feet were wet the entire time...and, no, these two things were not related...

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Florence Italy

I really didn't know what to expect from our visit to Florence. Diana was super excited about going back (I think she's been everywhere in Europe) and that the city was pretty amazing. In spite of my lack of expectations, the visit was kick-ass and way better than I could have imagined.

We arrived to our airbnb-rented room (more about that below) just north of the city about 8pm after having visited Pisa and Siena earlier in the day. Our host gave us the name of a local Tuscan restaurant to try. It ended up being a family-style place with no menus and a 100% local clientele. They weren't really equipped to handle non-Italian speakers but our kind waitress was exceptionally patient. Let me just say that the food was awesome and that I'd eat there all the time if we lived nearby. Olive Garden this was not!

Our only full day in Florence started with visit to the Uffizi art museum in the city's historic core. On the way there from the train, we passed by the starting line of a marathon that was just about to begin. We immediately thought of our friend Victor who has run in marathons all over the world.

Our visit to the Ufffizi, where we got to see work by relative-unknowns by the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci, took about three hours or so. I didn't take any pictures of artwork inside the museum (it's mostly prohibited) but I did sneak a shot of the nearby famous medieval bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, from one of the museum's windows. It's the only bridge in Florence to not be destroyed by the retreating Nazi forces at the end of World War II.

From the museum, we headed over to and just made the twelve o'clock mass at the city's cathedral. Mom, are you watching???

After mass, we climbed up the tower to see the city from above. The weather cooperated for our entire time in Florence and it made the city even that much more appealing.

The downside being such a great city is that it's full, Full, FULL of tourists like us! Barcelona is similar in that it's always packed with tourists but, for some reason, I don't notice it as much. I was thinking that the tourists might be different types of folks but I really have no idea.

Random architectural scene in the streets of Florence. How many different designs, materials, and perhaps, eras are present in just this one photo?

We wandered all over town that day and eventually ended up at the Basilica of Santa Croce. This mostly-nondescript church is the home of the funerary monuments for many famous Italians such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo.

Here's Diana in front of the Galileo monument along with one of my pet peeves - people taking photos with their iPads...

We hung out in the city until about 6pm when we took the bus back to where we were staying. It's worth mentioning some details as we were super lucky on this trip. See, Diana and I generally use airbnb when we travel to a place where we don't know someone that we can stay with. It tends to be way less expensive (than a hotel, for example) and, many times, it's a great way to get to know some locals who are interested in sharing their place with people from far-away lands. We've been using it for about two years, including for family to stay in during our wedding, and have never had a bad experience. It's definitely not for everyone but we recommend it. Oh yeah, it's also how we ended up meeting our awesome German roommate when we moved to Stuttgart last year!

While in Florence, we stayed in the lovely spare bedroom of Chiara and Francesco who are big travel fans like us. Francesco's brother was moving to the Canary Islands (not to Lanzarote - but one of the other islands) the next day so they were having a dinner for him. The invited us to join them and proceeded to win our favor (in reality, not too tough to do!) with a local organic Tuscan wine, an amazing homemade risotto, and incredible hospitality and friendship. It reminded me a lot of when we met Lena and Toni through couchsurfing a couple of years ago.

Anyway, dinner was SUPER WOW!!! Thanks to Francesco (standing) and Chiara (between me and Francesco) for your hospitality and beyond-airbnb friendship.

If you haven't picked up on it, our visit to Florence was really great for a bunch of reasons. I can definitely understand why so many tourists stop by the city while in Italy. Oh, and in case you're wondering if there are American restaurants in Italy like we have Italian restaurants in the United States, yes they do! The "American 1950s Diner" was about a mile from where we stayed. We didn't get to check it out but our hosts, who are big Americana and Canadana (just made that one up) fans, said that it was great. Next time you're at Olive Garden eating bread sticks with your family, think about your Italian counterparts slurping down milkshakes half a world away!

Thanks again to Chiara and Francesco for having us at your place. Diana and I can't wait to hang out again!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pisa And Siena Italy

If you didn't fill in the blanks from my story about going to Como and Lugano, Diana and I rented a car for our trip to Italy. Pau did the hook-up for us and got us this sweet Fiat 500 for a fairly low price:

Yeah, look again at that photo. There are two 500s. Those things are like the Toyota Corolla/Honda Civic of Italy. They're everywhere. It was a fun car to drive around but I can't imagine ever owning one. I'll leave it at that.

We stayed in Bergamo for three nights before taking off on a little bit of a road trip. Our plan was to head south for a few hours to see the tower in Pisa, head even farther south and check out the medieval town of Siena, and end up at our next digs in Florence. All in all, it would be like eight or more hours of driving but we figured that it'd be worth it as we wanted to be able to stay in Florence for the remainder of the trip. I'd love to say that the drive was uneventful but it rained hard. Actually, really hard for most of the trip. The car handled it well even if I got a bit tired. Oh, and it ended up more like ten hours of driving...

Some Germans doing a road trip and a coffee break the right way (as if they don't do everything the "right" way). These two vehicles are some serious hardware (especially that RV-camper thingy) but what I love most are the coffee cups on saucers sitting on the Land Rover's hood.

We got into Pisa about 1pm on a cold and blustery day. There's really nothing there, except the tower obviously, and it's a place I probably wouldn't have ever gone to if I wasn't already "in the area". If you know Old Town in San Diego, the whole thing is about that big. There's a church (of course) and a baptismal building (domed building to the left of the church) just across from the famous tower and all around the area are the required knick-knack stands selling everything you can imagine.

Interior shot of the surprisingly nice church at the leaning tower complex:

But, of course, the highlight is the leaning tower itself, which is smaller than you might expect but a lot cleaner. It really reminded me, though, of some crazy wedding cake or something.

Diana said that the last time she was there many years ago that the tower was supported by cables to help keep it upright. It seems that they've managed to stabilize the lean as the cables are no more. Think about that. How does one stabilize a building that's leaning so that it keeps leaning (and generating tourist dollars) but doesn't lean more thus threatening said source of money???

Whatever. Just like seeing the pyramids in Egypt, it was cool to see the tower in person. I still wouldn't recommend making a trip to Italy to see it but, if you're in the hood...

Diana and I walked around the not-too-exciting town for about 45 minutes or so stopping to check out a small church located on the side of the river that runs through town.

You may or may not know, but I take lots of photos of street art, aka graffiti. I particularly like stencil art of which I probably have about 500 different photo samples. What grabbed my attention on this trip was all the political graffiti I saw. In case you didn't know, places like Spain, Greece, and Italy aren't doing too well financially right now and I guess that young people are expressing their frustrations through their art. These two samples are a good taste of what I found:

After 1 hour and 59 minutes, according to our parking pass, we jumped in the car and drove another couple of hours farther south to the town of Siena, which is located just about one hour south of Florence. Like Bergamo, Mont Sant-Michel, and Carcassone, the town of Siena's built on top of rock outcropping and is surrounded by a fortified wall. What I didn't expect was that you could take escalators up from the lower parking lots.

If you've been on the Palm Springs tram in California, you know that when you arrive at the top of the mountain you find completely different scenery. This was the same. We left a normal parking area, took the escalators up, and exited on the curvy streets of a medieval village:

Siena's lovely but, again, not something to plan a whole trip to Italy for. I think it most reminded me of Toledo in Spain but with a church decorated with white and greenish-black marble at its center:

There is a main plaza too but what's cool about this one is that twice a year they do a crazy horse race event where the horses run around the outside edge of the plaza. We didn't get to see it but the photos of the event make it seem very surreal and something that I wished we could have gotten to check out. Oh well, you'll just have to imagine the whole plaza stuffed with people and horses with riders running full out around the gray cobblestones that surround the plaza:

Okay, but the best is saved for last. Just as in Barcelona you can find lots of Sant Jordi (Saint George) imagery, for some reason, the whole town of Siena was full of sculptures of wolves with children nursing from them. I immediately recognized this image from back when my mom asked me during my entire childhood and beyond if I had been raised by wolves. It wasn't until seeing these statues and writing this story that I ever connected it with the Romulus and Remus story. Turns out that Romulus supposedly founded Rome and his brother, Remus, founded Siena. What a small world.

Oh, and one final note, or, actually, a bit of *a rant*. If I read again on facebook from someone in the United States complaining about gas costing like 25 cents more, take a trip over to the other side of the pond where it costs just under $90 U.S. to fill Fiat 500 and you'll feel better right away! *Rant over.* Carry on...