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Monday, April 30, 2012

And Then There's the Food

I realized that I've been neglectful in talking about what we've eaten. This is probably a relief to some of you. But I do advertise this blog as an eating, drinking, and traveling odyssey, and I've focused pretty heavily on the drinking and traveling. And since I'm trying to make Klauser and Sue guest-blog our weekend's travels, I'll tell you what excessive and delicious things we consumed.

Phil cooked on Thursday and Friday, giving our guests some Belgian treats. He fried some cheese (kaaskroketten), without setting off the smoke alarm. Then we feasted on Carbonnade a la Flamande, a Flemish beef stew made with beer (of course). And I made pannekokken, or crepes, with apricot jam and a homemade chocolate sauce. Friday Phil fried those little shrimp croquettes (again without bringing down the sad little apartment manager who looks at the smoke billowing from our apartment and gives the typically Belgian shrug when we point out that yes, the exhaust fan is on and yes, the balcony windows are wide open. It is not our fault, we say in our flawless Dutch. It is the fault of the apartment). And he made fish with leeks in cream sauce, a dish we discovered 25 years ago in Liege at a restaurant beside the train station.

Saturday we spent in the Ardennes. We had a huge plate of Ardennes ham and cheese at the Maredsous Abbey, and we stopped on the way home at a charming little roadside restaurant that had apparently been a coach stop for many hundreds of years. We took the menu du marche and feasted on smoked trout salad, jambon d'Ardennes, what we thought was squab but apparently was guinea fowl, and homemade pasta with prawns.

Yesterday we went to Holland, ending up in Haarlem, where we nearly killed ourselves with rijstafel, the Indonesian feast that features dozens of small dishes, almost none recognizable and some exceedingly fiery. The restaurant was lovely and we ate EVERYTHING.

And this morning Phil made an omelet with Ardennes ham and Flemish cheese. Feeling full yet?

So you see we haven't been suffering for lack of nourishment, in case you were worried. Quite the opposite, in fact. Phil is making waterzooi, a chicken and cream stew, tonight. After that we will stop eating entirely for a week or two. Otherwise we will have to buy all new clothes.

By the way, I've finally figured out how to enable comments by everyone on this blog. So comment away. But be nice! There may be young children (whose parents haven't noticed them googling "beer" and "voyeur") reading what you write.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The British are Coming! or: Cars, Cars, Cars

Actually, they're already here. The British, I mean. Our dear friends Klauser and Sue hopped on the train yesterday in London and arrived in Gent in a raging downpour.

They're now sleeping in our cozy little living room on air mattresses. Air mattresses! Can you tell Sue was once a Girl Guide? We are trying to make it worth their while by dragging them all over the country and feeding them until they explode.

But the cars! you exclaim. What do you mean by the cars?

Car 1: The bills for the parking ticket and towing of the car we rented back in February have arrived. They're in Dutch. There are long forms and letters. All in Dutch. Sadly, even in a foreign country, ignorance of the law seems to be no excuse.

Car 2: The Croatian car rental company has decided to charge us many, many hundreds of dollars for the scratch we may or may not have put on their car. There are long forms and letters. All in Croatian. Ignorance of the law may be an excuse, but I can't tell because it's in Croatian.

Car 3: Part of a tree has fallen on our Honda in Wassaic. Thanks to the swift and helpful intervention of neighbors Nick and Laurie and Joe and Janet, the smashed windshield was quickly replaced. No laws were broken, as far as I can tell.

Car 4: Today we picked up our rental car for Klauser and Sue's visit, a lovely little Opel. Imagine our surprise when, after a hair-raising drive through Gent (lost a good part of the time) after sightseeing, and a restorative beer at the Dulle Griet, where Sue had to give up her shoe in return for a beer, we could not unlock the car doors. Quite a bit of time passed while we pondered why the key wouldn't even fit in the door.

We were resigned to taking a taxi back to the apartment and calling the rental car people in the morning when Sue -- intrepid Sue! -- asked why the name of the car on the key was different from the name of the car on the car.

Yes, dear reader, Phil had picked up a set of keys in the rental car office that were not his own. He had two sets in his pocket, one set to our car and one to another car entirely. Presumably, the renter of the other car was not happy. It was well after five, so we drove by the rental car office and dropped off the unnecessary keys, with a humble note of apology, and went home to a very large meal with additional beers to make up for the stress of being unable to open the car doors. (There's ignorance, and then there's...well.)

Tomorrow we're off either to Wallonia to visit the Herge Museum (think TinTin) and various historic sites or to the Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands to visit tulips. Weather will decide. Whether will also be involved -- whether we can get into the car, whether we scratch it, whether it is towed, whether a tree falls on it. Think positive thoughts.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Chair, a Ghost, and Oscar Wilde

It's been a quiet, work-filled week after our orgy of travel. We bought a chair at the kringwinkel. It fits perfectly with our interior design style, Early Flemish Doctoral Student. It even reclines.We didn't realize until we got it into the apartment, though, that it had an...odor. A mustiness, as if it had been sitting in a basement for several years.

First we put it out on the balcony for a while. Then I Febrezed it (yes, Febreze is an international phenomenon).  I used the whole bottle. I scrubbed the upholstery with cleanser. I went online and researched Musty Furniture, and I sprayed it with vinegar and water and doused it with baking soda, over and over.

Phil says it's much improved. I say it now smells like a pickle that has been sitting in a basement for several years.

the apartment in question
Nightly, while sitting in our pickle chair, we notice the goings-on of our upstairs neighbor. It's a woman, to judge by the sound of her high heels as she trip-traps around her apartment like a Billy Goat Gruff. And she has an active social life, to judge by the music and party noises wafting through the ceiling. We also deduce a boyfriend, but we leave those details to your imagination. The other evening, our curiosity and courage fueled by a couple of beers, we decided to sneak upstairs, walk casually past her apartment, and see if we could peek in.

Imagine our shock to discover the apartment completely empty. Devoid of people, decoration, books, even furniture. There is no one living upstairs at all. Is it a ghost having weekly parties, heated arguments, wild sex? Is it Flemish Borrowers?

To escape the pickle chair and ghost neighbor, we took our friend Jo to see "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a play directed by a student of Phil's at the local Tinnenpot Theater.
The director set the action in the fashion world, a perfect update.  It was in English, with dancing, a fair amount of S&M, and much world-weary Wildeness. We enjoyed it immensely.

And when we got back, we sat and listened to the party going on upstairs...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Home at Last

We made it!

But before we got home, we had some last small adventures. Phil being Phil, we had to see one more sight on the way to Zadar -- an enormous 18th century palace on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Called the Festetics Palace, it has 101 rooms and is the kind of place where you have to wear funny slippers to protect (and polish) the floors as you go through.

There was, of course, a beautiful bride cavorting on the palace grounds.

The palace interior had miles of over-the-top furnishings and beautifully preserved wallpaper, with many statues and paintings of horses and dogs. They loved their dachshunds...

But the highlight for us was the library. You want it too, don't you? Phil asked the guide if anything had been harmed in WWII, and he told us that the whole palace was taken over as a Soviet military hospital, and the commandant was a Russian university professor. The professor was so astounded by the library that he walled it up and put a big sign on the wall saying "Highly infectious patients!" So nothing inside was touched during the war. The professor, in fact, returned in the 1990s at the age of 80 to see it again.

We stopped briefly at the lake (the largest in central Europe), then realized we had an hour less than we thought to get to Zadar, 450 kilometers away. Phil drove really really fast, in the rain and through many long mountain tunnels. We made it to the airport on time, though the car rental return was a little fraught (let's just say I'm really glad I opted for the no-deductible insurance). Croatian security is much nicer than Belgian, though one young woman, peering through our dirty laundry, asked accusingly, "Do you know what I am looking for?" We didn't, and she never told us. Spent the whole flight chatting with a charming Belgian army officer just graduated from the Royal Academy who lamented the cheapness of a nation that won't send its military anywhere interesting. Got in early, to triumphal music and clapping, made an early bus, but discovered that we still had to wait for the last train in Brussels.

I noticed a strange-looking bar across the street, so we staggered over to discover it was a large nightclub having a "Swing Saturday" celebration. Scores of attractive, nicely-dressed young people swing dancing to "Sing Sing Sing" and "Stompin' at the Savoy." We joined them for a dance and a welcome-back Belgian beer.

What a trip. And now we're back in Gent, back on the waffle-chocolate-and-beer diet, and back to work. Oh well. Everyday life in Belgium is pretty much a vacation anyway.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Drinking and Bathing

Well, the excessive food and drink finally caught up with me. Are you surprised? To explain…

Yesterday we started early by walking to the Cathedral of St. Stephen, a – you guessed it – baroque church filled to overflowing with elaborately overdone statuary and paintings.

It was made even more memorable by the gorgeous model being filmed cavorting in a wedding dress in front. 

Then over to Buda and up the very steep hill to Matthias Church, a GOTHIC house of worship that is undergoing extensive renovations. There were still beautiful things to see inside.

We walked along the Fisherman’s Bastion, so called because the Fishermen’s Guild was responsible for that part of the city walls. Afterward we went to the Museum of Budapest History, which told the story of this very violently subjugated city – conquered by the Romans, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Germans, and the Russians. Then, of course, time for cake and hot chocolate.

We had the single best meal of the trip at a little restaurant I noticed on the climb up to Buda. Delicious foie gras on homemade brioche to start. (My first foie gras! And though I disapprove on principle of goose abuse, in reality, well…yum. With guilt.) A chicken dish wrapped around bacon with some kind of fabulous cheese in paprika sauce. Veal cheeks in paprika cream with spaetzle. A chocolate soufflĂ© with palinka (a flavored Hungarian brandy). Just fabulous.

…Resulting in my slight bout of indigestion. But that did not keep me from going winetasting today. We took off for the wine-and-art town of Egar, about 75 miles northeast of Budapest. It’s a beautiful town full of (you knew it) baroque churches and a nice castle perched on top with a surprising art collection that included an unexpected Andrea del Sarto. Egar also has an area called the Valley of Beautiful Women, which is a large number of winery caves, some of which are actual caves, all boasting their own vintages and offering them to tourists at ridiculous prices. There’s a little motorized train that runs through the place to carry away the drunks. We tried 3 different wines, including a Bull’s Blood and an ice wine, before heading back to the city to try the baths.

Our hotel was supposed to book us massages, but either they didn’t or the Szechenyi Baths workers just didn’t care. We’d heard the people who work at the baths are rude beyond imagining, and were pleased that many lived up to their reputations. We weren't distressed by the lack of massages though. This enormous bath complex, the biggest in Europe, had dozens of different pools, indoors and outdoors, to try as well as steam baths and saunas, so we had plenty to do.

My favorite was a circular bath with a strong current that made everyone zoom around in circles, like a Lobster Quadrille. And of course the salubrious waters cured my indisposition.

We ate on a boat tonight – touristy but very tasty and also very beautiful. In the morning we’ll visit the art museum and head back to Croatia to fly out of Zadar. When we land we have to try to catch a bus to make the last train to Gent, and we’ll have about 25 minutes to do it. Extremely unlikely – especially as at present the buses in Belgium are on strike. Wish us luck!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Calories Mount

I've forgiven Slovenia for the youth hostel. Both Ljubljana and Bled were so beautiful that I can't hold it against the country.

In Ljubljana,we walked across all the great bridges -- the Dragon Bridge, the Butcher's Bridge, the triple bridge. We went to the baroque cathedral.

We took the funicular up to the castle and saw the Alps far in the distance. Dinner was all game all the time -- venison and wild boar with cherry sauce and truffle polenta for Phil, and for me a pasta dish with venison. Chased it down with beer-flavored schnapps, a very local speciality, which I would not necessarily recommend.

And yesterday we drove to Bled, which despite its violent name is a quiet and lovely resort town in the Julian Alps. It features an island in a lake on which there is a baroque church (yes, another baroque church! The place is lousy with them). We decided to row out ourselves. Though the boat owner had to go with us for the first quarter mile to keep us from drowning ourselves or others, Phil got the hang of it eventually.

Ended the day with another wonderful meal (sausages and pork with mushrooms), which we tried to counterbalance by walking around the lake (6 kilometers). I don't think it worked. Especially when you consider that we had a really big piece of cake when we were done.

In the morning we visited Bled castle, where a gentle yet persuasive Franciscan friar talked us into buying a bottle of castle-made wine. The town, lake, and Alps are as glorious in cloud as in sunshine.

We arrived in Budapest this evening and found our hotel, a real bargain right in the center. Sadly, parking costs just about as much as the room. Yet another fabulous dinner and a compensatory stroll around the city after dark. Tomorrow, the baths. Be afraid...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Halfway Through

Things we love about Croatia:
  • the signage: excellent on roads, museums
  • clean, free restrooms
  • the gorgeous national parks
  • the radio: much better than France, Belgium, and Germany
  • the fabulous food: a combination of Italian (pasta, risotto, heavy on the truffles) and Middle-European
  • charming people who are patient with our shortcomings

Our youth hostel room with Little Red Riding Phil
Things we DO NOT love about Slovenia:
  • Bait and switch that put us in a YOUTH HOSTEL at our advanced age. And a nasty one at that.
  • Madonna (and I mean the singer) radio
Things we love about Slovenia:
    View of Ljubljana from Castle
  • Ljubjlana (except for spelling it)
  • Bled (except that it is the past tense of bleed)
  • the fabulous food (German/Hungarian/Italian/Croatian)
  • charming people who are patient with our shortcomings

View from Bled lake
Slovenian walnut-rum cake

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Pearl of the Adriatic

We decided to take the slow road from Split to Dubrovnik, and it was a good choice. Breathtaking scenery, breathtaking plunge from the road to the sea below, often without guardrails.

We went to Bosnia a little bit. I know, Dad, I promised we wouldn't, but it couldn't be helped. I wasn't aware of this, but Googlemaps will not direct you through Bosnia. Instead, if you Googlemap Split to Dubrovnik, it puts you on a ferry and takes you to some island miles out of the way. The real route takes you through Bosnia. The border crossing was relatively quick, the Bosnian scenery was just as nice, and there were no land mines at all.

And then...Dubrovnik. Wow. Luckily, I'd forgotten that the hotel I'd chosen was many thousands of steps up from the Old Town. Excellent for views, not so good for legs. We walked down (really, that hurts more than up) in the rain and ate dinner; then taxied up.

And today, in glorious sunshine, we went sightseeing -- Baroque churches, two monasteries, a palace, and a walk around the city walls. A few photos below for those who like that sort of thing. The rest of you, go Googlemap Split to Dubrovnik. What's up with that?
Cathedral altarpiece

Dubrovnik street

View from our hotel

Friday, April 6, 2012

On Beyond Zadar

An amazing day in Croatia. We woke to brilliant sunshine, though rain was predicted, and it stayed that way all day. Walked from our hotel (the pink palace in the photo) to the Old Town of Zadar, where we investigated St. Donatus, a Romanesque church from the 900s, and climbed the bell tower (302 steps. Ouch).

There was a big Roman presence in Zadar, and the old forum ruins remain. And there's a gorgeous waterfront with something I've never seen (or heard) before -- a sea organ. Listen to it here: The sea organ. We didn't get to see the light show, as we left in midday to drive down the coast to Split.

The coastal road was breathtaking. And then we got to Split. My googlemaps directions had nothing to do with the streets in town at all. We were so far beyond lost that a kindly man in a bar with a motorbike took pity on us and actually led us through town on his bike to our hotel parking lot before going back to his drink.

Phil ate frog's legs and polenta for dinner. I had seafood pasta and played with the local dog.

It was Good Friday, and we were lucky enough to stumble on the Mass of the Presanctified outside the Cathedral within the old Roman walls of Diocletian's Palace. Under the moonlight, in silence except for chanting and singing,  priests carrying lighted candles brought out the presanctified Host and revealed it to the crowd. Truly remarkable.

Number of times lost: 1. But since we had to be rescued by a half-toasted guy on a motorbike, it counts as at least 2 or 3.