RSSArchive for April, 2007

Amsterdam Series: Pannekoeken Breakfast and Museums

I did not know exactly where I was this morning. I was on a tram trying to get to the city centre when I spotted a bustling flower market. I thought I just spend a few minutes here to check out this place. It’s still early spring and so one could hardly see any tulips around. However, there were quite a lot of bulbs on sale — some of which are bigger than a fist.


There were quite a few restaurants along the street where the flower market is. My only impression of a Dutch breakfast is the pannekoeken (or known as pannekoek in Canada). We had once tried these dutch pancakes in De Dutch here in BC.

So I guess this is where I could get the real dutch breakfast.


The interior is dim and cozy. It was early and I was their only customer.


I ordered coffee as usual … always coffee with milk. And there’s the piece of cookie like they always give you with coffee in Europe.


I ordered the Pannekoeken but can’t remember which one I ordered. I thought it was banana but looking at this picture now, it does not look like it. Unlike Canadian pancakes, these are quite large but thinner.


I think the Dutch likes sweet food. On the table was three types of sweeteners. It’s easy guessing what they are even though you can’t read Dutch right?


My first stop of the day was at the Anne Frank’s House. The Anne Frank House is a museum dedicated to the Jewish girl who wrote a diary during World War II. She and her family hid from the German soldiers as they rounded up all Jews. There was a long line of people.

The museum is the actual house that Anne Frank hid in for a few years. We get to see the secret doorways that her father built and a glimpse of how life was during those few hard years leading to her eventual death in a concentration camp. It was a very moving exhibition. When we got to the final display, everyone was so silent …


I next went to the van Gogh Museum which is dedicated to the most famous dutch impressionist artists. This museum has the largest collection of van Gogh’s paintings and drawings in the world. It chronicles the stages of his life until his death. I am no expert in van Gogh’s paintings but I could not see some of his most famous paintings here. I guess most of the better ones are in either private hands or in other museums in the world.


I enjoyed the Rijksmuseum immensely even though a large part of it is closed for renovations. Of all the exhibits, I enjoyed those that showcased the Dutch golden age and how for a short span of 100 years, the little Dutch country dominated the world trade and culture. I also enjoyed the paintings, especially Rembrandt’s complex Night Watch and the simple Milkmaid painting by Vermeers.


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Amsterdam Series: Herrings and Fries at the Windmill

The best way to get around Amsterdam is by using the tram. I can never really understand the tram. It is slow and hogs the traffic. Still for some reason, it really works in Amsterdam for getting from point A to point B. It is long and articulated. I think this form of transport would be great for a city like Vancouver.


Because it is long, one could actually get on and off the tram for almost any entrance. The tram drivers are some of the most helpful drivers I have come across. I enjoyed taking the tram. It’s because it’s on street level and I get to see where I am. And if I come across an interesting area, I just hop off. All stops were verbally announced and also displayed on board.


My first stop in Amsterdam is to visit a windmill. I thought there are thousands of windmills peppered all around the landscape in Holland but I soon found out that they are now quite extinct. The only operating windmill in Amsterdam opened to the public is about 25 minutes outside the city centre by tram.

It was a pleasant walk from the tram stop to the windmill. Amsterdam is such a beautiful city. Everyone takes pride in keeping their neighborhood clean.


On the walk to the windmill, I came across the smallest police station in Holland.


Just as I came up to the windmill, I saw a fries stand. It smelt so good and I could do with a snack of fries.


I have never seen so much fries being made. It was lunch time and they apparently cater for office workers around the area. Believe it or not, it was here that I learned fries are deep fried twice. I did not know that. The fries were very good.


The Sloten windmill is operated by volunteers who gives free guided tours through the mill. There are exhibits of Dutch things and also a room on Rembrandt.


Windmills here in Holland are mostly windpumps which is designed to drain the land. Much of Holland lies under the sea level. At it’s peak there are tens of thousands of windmills around Holland pumping the water out to sea.


If you are in Amsterdam, I highly recommend you spend time at this windmill. The volunteers at this windmill are genuinely friendly and chatty. I asked them food unique to Holland. They pointed me to a stall just right across the road.


Guess what I tried … herrings! The gills and parts of the gullet were removed from the fish which is then salt-cured in a barrel. Some people eat them whole. It came with pickles and onions.


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Brussels Series: Eurail from Brussels to Amsterdam

I woke up very early and tried to get the earliest train to Amsterdam. The Zuid/Midi station was pretty quiet at that time of the day. I had just spent two nights in Brussels. I like Brussels. It was not as exciting as London and Paris for sure. However, they have some of the best food around. The streets are safe and the people are helpful. Even in this station, I do feel safe even though it was so early.


Many cities in Europe are linked by rail under the InterCity train service. The InterCity train between Brussels and Amsterdam is not high-speed. Because of this, it took three hours to reach Amsterdam.


There is a run every hour. The coach are very comfortable and there were hardly anyone on board on this first run of the day. I managed to get a private room with six seats — comfy!


Arrived at the Amsterdam Centraal station at about 9:30am. Gosh! I feel at home already. Between all the European cities I have been too, the people in Amsterdam are so similar to the people in Vancouver. They are so friendly and patient. Each time I stop people asking for directions, they will actually stop and take time to tell me.

I wanted to start the tour of Amsterdam early and check into the hotel only at night. So, I left my baggage in the Left Baggage area and start plotting my day.


My first stop was the Visitor Centre where I got myself a 48 hours pass to the tourist spots. This pass, called I AMsterdam, came with a Guide Book and a plastic card which I can use for transit, free admissions, canal boat, discounts and believe it or not, free snacks and drinks.

I like this … this is a 48 hour pass not a 2-day pass. The 48 hour starts from first use.


More about Amsterdam tomorrow.

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Brussels Series: Belgian Chocolates

Believe it or not … the only chocolates that I bought was these chocolate eggs in Brussels. I did pop by some of the famous chocolatiers in Brussels but they were either too expensive and I simply had not room in my bag to carry a single box of them. Even these cheap chocolates which I bought from Hema was a class above other cheap chocolate eggs — definitely much creamier.

Belgian Chocolates

But guess what … when I got home, WB and KC came by our home and dropped off a box of Belgian chocolates! Well … what do you know?

I can only name the following famous Belgian chocolate brands … Neuhaus, Godiva and Guylian. What are the other brands you know of?

Belgian Chocolates

WB and KC brought us a box of Godiva. Although originally a Belgian brand, it is now also manufactured in the US by of all people, the Campbell Soup company.

Belgian Chocolates

Godiva’s signature package is the Gold Ballotin, that is French for ?small, elegant gift box?. All of them looked so delicious. Half the enjoyment is reading up each of the piece and then tasting it.


We believe this box costs about CAD$30. Wow … that’s so generous of WB and KC to share this box with us; we were touched. Thanks a bunch! Indeed, “Life is like box of chocolates …” don’t you think?

Belgian Chocolates

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Brussels Series: Dinner at the Plattesteen

One of the form of transportation within Brussels is thru what is known as the Premetro. It is narrow tram operating in an underground railway track. I find it so odd, the shape of the tram — it does not look like a good design for maximizing passenger load. It does actually feel like getting on a narrow bus that runs on underground tracks.


Anyway, I was looking forward to trying a Belgian food called “stoemp avec saucissen”. The guidebook recommended a family restaurant called the Platessen and that serves old-fashioned Belgian food like the way they make it at home.

This family restaurant happens to lie in the middle of the gay neighborhood (“not that there is anything wrong with that”). I was determined to try stoemp that I went anyway. Oh yeah, there are a lot of guys on the streets and I kept my eyes to the pavement most of the time. I was afraid of the accidental eye contact … “not that there is anything wrong with that”.


I don’t know if I made a mistake coming in here. Hmmm … I saw two burly man kissing each other in the lips (“not that there is anything wrong with that”). Also, right across from my table was another guy eating alone. I swear he was watching me. :-0

I looked around the restaurant for the tell-tale rainbow flag. Nope, none around.

Oh, guess what … the waiter told me that they don’t serve Stoemp that night. Shoot! Since it was quite late already and I had no Plan B for dinner, I decided to stay on.


Another excellent baguette for starters. Hey, I learned that the lifespan of a good baguette is only 4-6 hours. No wonder the baguettes that we bought from the stores for the next morning tastes so unexciting. Since this trip, the baguettes at home that is older than 6 hours are to be classified as “leftovers”. :-)


The waiter recommended the Kriek Beer. It’s a Belgian beer fermented with sour cherries and has a nice sweet flavour.


Oh … I can’t remember the name of this pate that I had. I can’t remember how it tastes too. Oh well, it had been three weeks since I had this meal.


And this is some steak I had. I always had it medium-rare and so this must have been medium-rare. I remember the flavoured butter that sits on top of the warm steak. It did not melt it entirely but just enough to melt a little flavour on the meat.


This is how I ate it. I cut a bit of the butter (which I swear tastes like blue cheese) and eat it together with each mouthful of steak. Is this how it is normally eaten?


Alrighty … this meal costs 23.60 Euros. Price is quite OK I would think. Too bad I did not get the chance to taste Stoemp. Does anyone know where I could try that in Vancouver?

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Brussels Series: Manneken Pis, Snails and Amaretto

Sometimes one can know the character of a city just by observing the people going about doing their business. I can relate to a city like Brussels. This city is well maintain, clean, graffiti free and have very little vagrants. The subway felt bright and safe.

I stumbled on the Parc du Bruxelles while trying to look for the Unknown Soldier Panorama. I must have made a wrong turn somewhere and came upon this place. I enjoyed this park. In a cold early spring weather, there are quite a lot of people running during their lunch break. It reminds me a lot of Vancouver where when the weather is good, people do don their running gears and go for a run.


In every European city, there is a cathedral at the center of the city. Brussel’s cathedral is called the St Michael and Gudula Cathedral. I had seen enough of churches already and gave this a miss.


Brussels is a compact city. I came across the Manneken Pis again. Since there are better light this time, I took out my long lens and managed to get a closer shot of the famous sculpture. Sometimes they do dress up the Manneken Pis in costumes but not this time.


For some reason, all tourist must make it a point to seek out this bronze sculpture. Many tourists are disappointed to find how small the Manneken Pis is.


I was told that for a truly adventurous food, I should go to the Stock Exchange Building, Buers. This is a major meeting place just like the Trafalgar Square in London, although much more smaller. I spent some time looking for the Jet et Fils stall and found what I was looking for … caracoles!

It’s quite a run down stall from where I bought this. The lady asked if I wanted it to go and when I said yes, she gave me the snails in an old recycled jam jar! Yucks! I was just thinking if they have cleaned it enough.

It came with a lot of soup … hot and peppery. The soup was warm and pretty good in a cold spring day. But it does look like some brackish water though. Doesn’t it look like these snails have been scooped up from the bottom of a river?


These snails does taste better than the ones I had in Paris. It is much fleshier and had been de-shelled. The meat is springy. I like this. Price? 3.50 Euros.


On the way back to the hotel, I wanted to stop and get a cup of coffee. I stopped by a department stall called Hema which is a Dutch chain.


I ordered an Amaretto coffee. I am not sure how to describe this. It sure looked very good, doesn’t it? It had a rich coffee base with a thick layer of foam and topped with some “stuff”. I think they added some syrup called Amaretto, hence the name. This did not come with a biscuit but a chocolate egg.


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Brussels Series: Lunch Snack at the Atomium and Brupark

The highlight of the day is to visit the Atomium. This monument is a national icon of Belgium and is as iconic as the Eiffel to Paris. I have seen pictures of the Atomium but had no idea what is was like up close. More about the Atomium later …


I went to Brussel Centraal railway station to catch a train to Heysel Park.


I was still hungry after that little breakfast of Waffle. I stopped at a food stall at the train station called Maciotto. I had seen Maciotto in several stations before and thought I should check this out. They sell traditional Italian snacks. Since I thought that there would be nothing much for lunch at the Atomium, I got myself a snack as brunch.


I got something called the Diavoletto Pollo (I think the word diavoletto means devil in Italian). This 3 Euros snack contains tomato, chicken and olives. Anyone can tell me more about Diavoletto? I had never come across this before.


For travelling, I used a 1-day Transit Pass which costs 4 Euros. Can’t complain about the price — London and Paris is much more expensive.


Next to the Atomium is the Mini-Europe. Mini-Europe is a park which contains replicas of famous buildings in the Europea Union. Shoot … I missed the opening by a mere two days! It was still closed for “winter”.


Before I walked over to the Atomium, I stopped by the picnic benches to eat the diavoletto. It was good with lots of meat balls in it. For just 3 Euros, this is one of the better value for money snacks I had. Simply delicious and it was still warm too.


The Atomium was built in the year 1958 as a show case monument for the Brussels World Fair. This structure was supposed to last only six months — it’s still standing today. The structure consists of nine spheres, each connect with escalators in tubes. The shape is based on a unit cell of an iron crystal.


The Atomium had just been renovated and is now sporting a new shiny reflective skin. In each sphere there are exhibits, and viewing platform which provides a panaromic view of Brussels.


The entrance fee was 9.00 Euros. I was surprised that there were not many people around. I find that the most interesting exhibit is the video about the construction of this monument. Other than that, there was nothing much to see. Many of the exhibits are catered for children mostly.


The Sphere are joined by escalators. This is one of the longest in Europe.


One gets to the top via a lift. This is where the observation deck is.


Brussels is kind of flat and you can’t see much in term of interesting landmarks. Below is the view of the Mini-Europe from the top of Atomium. The park consists of about 100 buildings of cultural importance from all over Europe. That would have been a great place to take pictures.


Well, in Brussels you got to at least go see the Atomium but really, you can cover this whole place in 30 minutes.

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Brussels Series: Breakfast at the Grand Place

Woke up extra early today. I think I have adjusted to the time zone and all the walking the past one week. I must have walked at least 10 kilometers every day since I started from London. Also, I have stopped noticing how heavy my backpack had been. Oh … I am beginning to feel homesick!

I thought I start off the day in the Grand Place and have a look at it under dry weather. I was pretty sure there are some places that I can have breakfast around the area.


I found this place just off the Grand Place for breakfast. What do Belgians normally have for breakfast? My impression is that Belgian breakfasts consists of waffle. Oh well … waffles sounds OK for me.


This is a warm and bright place. I can see lots of tourists having their breakfast here — it’s because almost every table have either a map, a travel guide or a camera on the table.


I ordered a glass of orange juice and a coffee. I normally just order either or but this time I had both. I realize I had not been drinking as much as I should the past few days. I do feel parched by the time I got back to my room everyday. One thing about drinking water … don’t get your drinking water from the convenience store or stations as they are more expensive in those places. Often, if you find a local store or supermarket, that is the best place to get them. I also have a stash of snacks — something sweet and something salty.

One thing I noticed about coffee in Europe — they always come together with a small piece of biscuit.


So, I guess this is the traditional type of waffle that Belgians take. Plain waffle with just icing sugar. This one is very light and hardly what I call a breakfast. The two drinks and the waffle costs about 9 Euros. Expensive, right?


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