Thursday, February 12, 2009
It took the Allies several months to work their way from France to Belgium 60 years ago. It took me 82 minutes this morning to get from Paris to Brussels on Thalys, the high-speed train which blazes across Europe at 180 mph. Stepped off one train and onto the next, headed for Bruges at a more moderate pace. Stepped off at Bruges and felt as though I had stepped into a fairy tale. Pick your adjectives. Picturesque, quaint, precious—Bruge is a postcard, and not much bigger. It is a few moments from the North Sea and it is truly otherworldly. It was cloudy when I arrived at the tiny station, and after a short taxi ride to my hotel it began to snow. After checking in and heading out to lunch the sun was shining, allowing for some magic pictures, then it started to drizzle. A bartender later explained the everyone knows you get all four seasons in one day here. I had lunch at the Brasserie Mozarthuys, offering grilled Chopin, grilled Bach, grilled Schubert, and so on. I selected beef cooked in beer, the Flanders way of doing things. Belgium, of course, is not France and being another country there are differences that one notices. For instance: “May I have some bread?”, I asked. “Of course,” (after Dutch, it is English rather than French most likely to be spoken), and the waiter stepped away and returned with a little paper sack with two fresh biscuits and some butter. “Why do you put bread in a sack?” “Oh we just started doing it and everyone loves it.” And who was playing on the radio? Edith Piaf, whom I was hearing for the first time since I arrived in . . . oops, I’m not in France anymore. In Belgium, they take beer VERY seriously, to the point that each beer (and there are hundreds, though not all at any one little cafe) is served in its own glass with label emblazoned on the side. Collectibles if I ever saw any. In the course of my short visit I probably have had five or six beers and, therefore, five or six unique glasses. What a very nice touch! Bruges is entirely manageable by foot, but for orientation they offer a 50 minute tour on a tiny yellow bus with headphones in several languages. I took the tour and loved it. How pretty this little place is. Besides beer, the Belgians tout their chocolates and rather than patisseries lining the streets there are chocolate stores everywhere. Try passing by and not stopping in. There are chocolate bars, chocolates wrapped in gold and silver tinfoil, chocolates in boxes and tins, on trays and across counters, literally everywhere. Heavenly, creamy white and dark bite-sized goodies that are impossible to ignore. I did not ignore them. No one does. So after resting up from my near overdose, I went to dinner. It was one of the best I have had. The restaurant, called Spinola, was highly recommended in both guidebooks I had at hand (I will touch on the matter of guidebooks in a later post) and was something. Tiny, well everything here is, it occupies a beautiful old home sitting on one of the many canals which give Bruges so much charm. It has an open kitchen where one chef works his wonders and turns out beautiful food presented in a picture-perfect display. I had pigeaux (we call it pigeon in Hickman, and we didn’t eat a lot of it), and it could not have been more flavorful. Resting on pea-sized and pea-shaped zucchini bites surrounded by crisp proscuitto and finished in a bordelaise sauce, it was just delicious. Afterward it was off to the beer haus for a different beer; different glass. The waiter recommended a cherry flavored brew, so I went for it. Most all of the cafes surrounding the large square have fireplaces with roaring flames and a beer here is mighty nice.
My hotel, De Tuilerieen, is a part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group and one of the premiere places in town. It, too has a gorgeous fireplace in the cozy bar where still more beer is offered. Tucked off in a little alcove beyond the fireplace is a room with leather chairs and coffee table books. On the walls are pictures of folks who have stayed here. Ever wonder just how that works? Anyway, all kinds of royal personages have their likenesses framed with thoughtful notes. I had heard of only two: I. M. Pei and Colin Farrell. Time now to have a late beer, a piece of chocolate and retire. Guess tomorrow will begin with a Belgian waffle.