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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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”. :-)

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Brussels Series: Mussels and Frites at Chez Leon

After the Waffle snack (or should I call it a meal?), I went walking about the sidestreets back to my hotel. I am liking Brussels more and more. Oh yeah, it drizzled the afternoon I was there but this is nothing to me because Vancouver at this time of the year rains like there’s no tomorrow anymore. Talking about rain, did you know what the record for continuous days of rain in Vancouver is? 28 days! Oh yeah … 28 days. So, this is like a sunny day to me. :-)

Let’s see … ah … Belgium is famous for it laces. I don’t care much for laces but they look very nice. I bet Suanne would love to have one of the nice lacy blouses. Know how much they cost? 150 Euros! Gosh! BTW, one need to be careful these days buying these lacey products … many of them are manufactured in China … caveat emptor.

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Of course, the other famous product from Belgian is, what else, Belgian Chocolates. There are so many chocolate stores here. Some of the names I could recognize were Guylian, Godiva, and Neuhaus but they are so many others. Most of the chocs are so expensive … and some are so pretty that I will not be able to force myself to eat them.

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There are also Chocolate Truffles. That little box costs about 9 Euros … $12USD / $14CAD.

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Like the Latin Quarter in Paris, there is a street that has a huge concentration of restaurants. I just bumped into this place and oh yeah, perfect … this is where I am gonna have my dinner. Each of them have sign boards that describes their fix price menu. If you end up ordering what is on the board, you’ll be OK. Once inside, they have a “better” menu which could cost a lot more.

Competition is so tough here that they have people standing outside the door trying to get every passerby to go in. They are friendly and polite, don’t get me wrong and can take no for an answer. I like Belgians.

If I am not mistaken, this place is called the Beenhouwersstraat / Rue des Bouchers. This is the place where there is a female version of Manneken Pis. Can’t find it … shoot!

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until I came across the Chez Leon. Oh wow … that is on the list of places I wanted to go and it is here right in front of me without me looking for it. I even stopped to double check against my travel guide to make sure this is the real McCoy. Yup, it is!

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Mussels in Brussels … Brussels is also famous for their Mussels with Fries and this 110 year old restaurant is the place to have them; well, at least for tourists anyway. I was actually quite elated having found this place. The atmosphere is exactly what I find it so “relaxed” and “at home” — I can’t really explain it but I think you know what I mean.

The restaurant is bustling with customers and the waiters and all worked at such brisk pace. The walls are tiled, there are bright neon lights even indoors, and paper table cloth. It has such an informal setting with great food. I was already drooling walking past the other tables.

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I am not a fan of beer but hey, I am in Belgium and it’ll be a waste not to have Belgian Beer. In this small country, there are 150 breweries producing about 500 standard beers. With so much beer, is it normal for a Belgian to go without water in a day and drink only beer? I am just curious.

I ordered the house beer — the la Leon. It is pale, full-bodied and specially concocted to go with Chez Leon’s Mussels. This beer is not served anywhere else, only in Chez Leon. This is great, I like this beer. 3.50 Euros.

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Chez Leon is a large restaurant with many different dining rooms. In each of the dining rooms, there is a central table where they cut up FRESHLY BAKED baguettes. Oh wow, and it is just right in front of me. I asked them for extra baguettes … not exactly sure what it is but I sure love baguettes since I got to Europe.

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Yes siree, it sure was good. The thin crust splinters all over the table and myself as I break them. It was a mess but to me, it’s a sign of a great bread. I had three baskets of bread in all … and it’s all you can eat baguettes too.

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Although their signature dish is the Mussels and Fries, they do have a lot of other seafood dishes. Check out their mouth watering dishes here.

There were so many ways they serve the mussels — there is even a version with curry! I asked the waiter which is the most popular and he told me it is the Moules Meridionnales (Meridional Mussels) which costs 23.85 Euros. So, “Moo Me-ri-dio-na-lay” was what I ordered (is the pronunciation correct?). This is described on the menu as Mussels in onion, tomato, garlic, parsley, herbs from Provence and … fries “at will”.

The pot of mussels is huge (well, all Belgian servings I find are huge). They even gave me two large plates to place the shells. I looked at it and told myself … gosh … this is a lot of work!

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In Vancouver, I love the Mussels from Chambar (see my old blog entry here) where the mussels are bigger and fleshier. Hmmm … Brussel’s mussels are half the size we get in Vancouver. They are delicious though.

Like I said, there were a lot of mussels. I used my fingers to hold the shell and by the time I was done, my finger tip was all “wrinkly” … you know, just like what you get after swimming for a hour? It was that much mussels.

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The best part is the soup. Oh man … I took my own sweet time finishing every drop of it. It was great dunking the baguette into it … absolutely delicious.

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It was a great meal and I enjoyed it a lot. This is highly recommended for everyone who vacations in Brussels. The service was quick and polite which adds so much enjoyment to a great meal.

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Brussels Series: Belgian Waffle at the Grand Place

I hardly spent a few minutes in the hotel room. The sky is getting dark and I wanted to at least spend sometime getting to the centre of Brussels. So, I dropped my bags, had a quick clean-up and headed out immediately. I am so glad for this room because compared to the dump in Paris this is much comfortable. I got a good deal from Orbitz which is only USD$60 per night.

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The Brussels downtown core is so compact. You could walk to most places of interest. I read a lot about the Grand Place which is a central market square. This is the most visited tourist site in Brussels. The square is surrounded on all sides by grand buildings. The Gothic style City Hall, below, is 600 years old.

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UNESCO had declared the Grand Place as a World Heritage Site.

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The City Museum, located right across from the City Hall, is dedicate to the history of Brussels. There is a room that contains all the costume of the Manneken Pis.

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I can never figure out the Manneken Pis. For some reason, every tourist must go look for this little pissing statue. One would expect this to be bigger but it actually is very small. Every now and then, it is dressed up in costumes. There is even one costume in the Toronto Maple Leaf’s hockey gear.

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On the way from my hotel there are quite a number of places that sells Belgian Waffle. I think these waffle places caters more to the tourists.

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All of them have large mouthwatering waffles pictures and waffle samples on display. I was not hungry but could not resist stopping to get one to try for myself. It comes in so many different combinations of toppings. It was hard choosing what I wanted … I wanted all!

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There are also simple, no-frill ones … just simple icing sugar or honey. I read somewhere that the locals do NOT go for the fancy multiple topping varieties — those were for tourists. The locals just have simple ones.

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Who cares, I am a tourist and so I ordered the tourist special … the biggest that they have on the menu! This monster costs 5.50 Euros. It was so sinfully delicious. I can recall all the toppings are … I see lots of whipped cream, melted chocolate, strawberries, and banana.

Come to think of it, this is no longer a waffle! There are so much toppings that I could not even see the waffle or even remember tasting it.

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