Tues. July 8, 2014:
Brussels to Bruges, Belgium
Ten and a half hours of sleep left me feeling nice and refreshed, I was confident I had beaten the jet lag and time switch. The Starbucks iced coffee that had sat around overnight unrefrigerated was not that good, but at least it did not kill me. The weather report said rain, rain and more rain. Walking in the rain in sandals on smooth cobblestones and carrying a giant heavy backpack= a dangerous disaster. Needless to say I did not enjoy the walk at all.
Despite walking really slowly and getting lost we still got to Comme Chez Soi too early for our reservation. We had walked right past it and not noticed it. We hid under a hotel awning across the street watching the rain come down. As we started heading over we watched a guy get out of his car and then be escorted under an umbrella to the restaurant: damn this place was fancy, no wonder they had Michelin stars. It felt really odd to show up at this fancy place with all of our bags in tow. I felt bad for passing my backpack to the guy and watching him strain with it, he later joked that I was carrying gold bricks, you know, as opposed to regular bricks.
Things only got weirder from there. We were the only people in the restaurant. We were seated at a fancy table set with an array of cutlery. Thankfully I had retained the key piece of information when faced with a billion forks and knives of varying sizes: start from the outside and work your way in. I could not tell you for the life of me what each utensil was for though. After staring at the menu and debating what to get (it was difficult because if we each wanted to try a different thing and trade halfway the menu dwindled in size, at least half the plates being for 2) we finally settled on the lunch course menu. It was the best choice given we were at a fancy Michelin-starred place and this way we would get to try what they deem is the best, and as well get to try three different dishes (appetizer, main and dessert).
Even the bread for snacking on was super-fancy. One was made with Duvel beer and the other with Heffe beer. I was wary of the appetizer, as it involved none other than my culinary nemesis: salad. It balanced out however because it was served with ham-wrapped chicken which was otherworldly delicious. I wish it had been the main; I could eat it all day. Even the scary salad was tasty, possibly because of the proximity to the chicken-ham and the grease involved therein. The main course was “meager” which was a fish apparently. It was good; however I did not care for the second piece that was promptly placed on my plate as soon as I had finished the first piece. The tomato salad on the side was atrocious due to the fact that there were tomatoes in it, not because it was not well prepared. There is very little to be done with tomatoes in order to render them edible. I was also not looking forward to the dessert (I know, right? How can that be?!). It was going to fruit soup, and that just conjured up images from my childhood of a popular Polish dish that was literally a soup of boiled fruits, it was awful. Turns out one of us was wrong, either me for being biased or them for calling it soup. It was an artfully presented bowl of chopped up fruits in syrup with a scoop of sorbet. Not exactly soup.
The whole two hours at Comme Chez Sois was interspersed with awkward moments. The moments lessened once more people were seated in the room. For one thing Brent was trapped in his seat. The table had been moved for him to get into the booth and then put back. If he wanted to get up, the table would have to be moved. Our waiter brought us the wine list on an iPad in a customized app. After almost 20 minutes of looking at it, I decided I pretty much had to have a glass of wine. It took us a while to even find the list of individual glasses. In such a fancy place it is hard to tell if $60 is the price of a bottle or a glass. I settled on a 2003 French red wine, mostly because it seemed reasonable and I know nothing about wine. French? Good. Red? Good. Why not.
After lunch it was raining even harder. Despite the rain, there was still a giant crowd around Mannekin Pis, I never did end up understanding it. I caved and bought an umbrella with the hopes that in true Murphy’s Law style it would stop raining and there’d be nothing but sunshine the rest to the trip- I was ok with that, so long as I got to the train station in a relatively dry state. It was 50 cents to use the bathroom at the train station, but thankfully e only had an hour train ride to the next town on our trip: Bruges. The train ride made me slightly sleepily, turns out I did not miss much, just some kids bugging Brent.
As the train pulled into Bruges we were not 100% sure if that was our stop. A British guy on the train asked us if it was Bruges, Brent answered that if not then we are all lost. Walking to the hotel from the train station was nice at first, not very crowded. As we got closer to the historical centre of Bruges it became really congested, a lot of people milling about. Bruges was gorgeous; the canals were lined with rows of connected houses. We were staying at really nice hotel, so nice they touted the stars in the name: Die Swaenne****. The lady at the front desk told us all about the town and everything to see. It did not take all that long, seeing as Bruges is really a town for day-trippers; it is so small you can walk from end to the other in under an hour. She became a routine character in our day-to-day in Bruges; whenever we left she would ask if we had our key, when we returned she always wanted to know how our outing was. I was afraid I would have to go down and ask her to flush the toilet, because some idiot had designed it. The toilet flushes via a panel in the wall that looks more like a Kleenex box set than a button. I will admit it was hilarious watching Brent try to figure it out while I remained mum on how to. The hotel had a super fancy lounge alas we had no time to stay and check it out; we had a town to explore. We still had time before the last canal cruise and all the shops closing.
First we went on the canal cruise, that way we would start off with a guided tour and know where everything was. The captain narrated the cruise in German, French and English. Although hard to understand at times, it was well worth it. We had great views that you could not get from the street. We also saw some baby ducks, always a plus. The cruise was only 30 minutes, leaving us with 45 minutes before the shops closed- i.e.: more than enough time. Before going to Mary’s Chocolates we stopped at a beer store so that Brent could restock his beer supply. There weren’t any new fruit beers for me too try it seemed- until I found one by the register. While getting the Hoeegaarden Rose out of the fridge I somehow managed to knock down another beer, the shop keeper did not seem to care at all. I suspect he just enjoyed a cold beer after we left. Beer and chocolate acquired, we headed off to Love Lake. It was more of a canal than a lake and the only reason there were so many swans (and ducks and pigeons) there was because there was a giant bird feeder. We laughed as a mother duck passed with her eight ducklings. One straggler was falling behind and she kept quacking at him as he struggled to keep up.
We walked back through a park we had seen on our way from the train station. What had once seemed so far away was much closer, given I was no longer weighed down with my heavy backpack. We walked down one of the two main shopping streets and ended up in the Markt Square (not a typo). I demanded a waffle break. At Chez Albert they stuck a little Belgian flag in my waffle with warm cherries on top. It was the most cautious walk back to the hotel ever. Alas, the waffle was not as good as the previous one. It was much less buttery and not as light. The warm cherries at least paired nicely with my Chapeau Kriek cherry beer. My disappointment quickly faded as we tore into the chocolates. They were little pieces of heaven. The caramel tasted like actual real caramel, made with real sugar. The marzipan was not ungodly sweet and actually tasted like almonds. It was so good Brent ended up now being a fan of marzipan. It was worth the trek to go to Mary’s rather than settling for Leonidas or Godiva because that we can get back home and it is not nearly as good. We had an Arriba 40% milk chocolate bar for later as well.
In the evening around 7pm we went back out again. This time we walked down the other main shopping street (the two run parallel). It was a lot less crowded now that the day-trippers were gone. We wondered aloud where all the people who live in Bruges were, we walked by so many houses and they were all empty. There was no one in the streets either. We walked along the canal to the other side of town to gawk at some windmills marked on our town map. On the way we saw a guy swimming in the canal- he scared a duck.
The windmills each sat atop a hill facing town i.e.: facing away from anyone who has come to look at them. What I could see, past the windmills, was the gathering storm clouds. The canal was also less scenic there, as it widened and became more of a popular throughway for giant boats, with drawbridges everywhere. We passed by the main city gates to Bruges, apparently Bruges sits on its own little island, surrounded by canals with city gates at all the entrances. This was the fanciest city gate, having been granted Unesco World Heritage Site status. Brent was less impressed, saying the status is passed out to anything, a dime a dozen he said.
We had settled on McDonald’s for dinner, the idea of a sit-down dinner being way too much after our lunch at Comme Chez Soi. Walking there we got to see the regular non-tourist infested Bruges. Yet still there were no people anywhere. At McDonalds I finally had a “royale with cheese” but it is not the same as a quarter pounder. A few bites into it I made a face, I tasted onion. Lo and behold there was a giant piece of onion. The onion in a “royale with cheese” is sliced as opposed to in a quarter pounder when it is diced into oblivion, hence not being able to taste it. I had to pick out the rest. I stole bites of Brent’s belgo-chicken (meh, nothing spectacular) and crispy jr. bacon (a bacon cheeseburger with a weird goopy, mildly spicy, “cheese” sauce).
For dessert I opted for the speculoos McFlurry. The poor girl had no idea what I said when I tried to pronounce it “speckoolooz”. She stared blankly. I said, the cookie McFlurry. She said, Oreo? I laughed and said, no, the other one and pointed. Ah, speculoos she said. Except she said it so smoothly “speghuls” is about the closest I can get to transcribing it. There was some awkward apologizing from both of us after. I’m sorry, no I’m sorry. Hahaha. We both laughed. It was weird in the McDonalds for two reasons. One: they would bring your food to your table after ordering. Two: MTV was playing and periodically they had a commercial for a contest called porn or football.
It had mostly rained itself while we ate. While walking back to town we periodically stopped at bars to see updates on the World Cup game (Germany vs. Brazil). People kept yelling and screaming, but I was not sure if thus was because they were cheering for a team or just because they liked soccer. It turned out they were cheering because Germany was dominating Brazil with 5 goals in less than half an hour.
We went back to Markt Square to see everything lit up, it was all very pretty. There were swans swimming in a row in the canal. The birds all seemed to have spread out through the canal now that tour boats were not whizzing by. We even saw a bat swooping about. My legs hurt so badly by the time we got back. Somehow our fancy Belgian hotel did not include little chocolates on our pillows with turn-down service?!