Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

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Chocolate! A Glorious Day in Brussels

I don’t know about you, but the current news cycle has me going back and forth between fiery rage and hide-in-bed anxiety, so I decided to write about something everyone can agree is wonderful: chocolate. Belgium is known for it’s high quality chocolate, despite not being able to grow cocoa, and that’s because it was a Belgian who first perfected the blend of cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar, and milk that became the creamy, bitter-sweet confection we are all addicted to today. Naturally, as a lifelong chocoholic, I couldn’t pass up the chance to spend a full day visiting the best that Brussels has to offer. I pulled a basic itinerary from another blogger, and modified it a little to suit my own needs. I also made a couple of extra stops in the days afterward to round out my Belgian Chocolate Experience. Get a napkin, because you may drool.


I’m not going to go into the history of chocolate (it’s fascinating), nor am I going to give detailed information on the chocolate flavor profiles (just as complex as wine). I’m also not going to do a lot of explaining of basic chocolate vocabulary. I think most of you can still enjoy these descriptions without that, but if you are curious to learn more about chocolate, I suggest you check out any of the websites of the chocolateries I visited in Belgium.

After each shop and description of individual candies, I’ve given my rating out of 5 stars and my recommendations for what to try. You can decide which shops are most appealing to you to make your own Brussels chocolate tour. Nearly all of them have multiple locations within a walking radius in Sablon, but those that are a little farther out are well worth the bus ride.20180711_201616

A note about being a tourist: When I read about chocolate touring in Brussels, I was warned that shops did not give out samples, but that single pieces would be about 1-2€. I was prepared for the price of fine chocolate, but I was delighted to find it wasn’t actually true. Nearly every shop I went into was happy to let me try one or more of their flavors if I stopped and talked about it with them. I’m guessing that other tourists have found the shops to be sample stingy because they want to go in and get free chocolate without engaging anyone socially. For me, chatting with the staff was half the joy of this chocolate self-tour! They are friendly and very knowledgeable about the history of chocolate and of their own shop. I also found that most places were very reasonably priced if you were willing to have your pieces in a bag, rather than a fancy box.

Neuhaus

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160 years ago, Jean Neuhaus (depicted in chocolate to the right) discovered the magical combination of ingredients that has lead to every chocolate confection and candy bar you’ve ever enjoyed. His chocolaterie is easily the most famous in the world, and it was my first stop.

Best Truffle in the World: No really, it won the award. It was given to me as a sample. I wouldn’t say it’s the very best chocolate I’ve ever eaten but I think it might be the epitome of “truffle”. The chocolate was not too bitter, not too tart, not too sweet, just the Goldilocks zone of chocolate and cream, dusted with cocoa powder. Simple and elegant.

Irrésistibles Coffee: Everyone in Belgium has ganaches, pralines, and truffles out the wazoo, but Neuhaus is the only place you can find the “Irresistables”. These little triangular gems are made with a base of nougatine (a crispy caramelized sugar), filled with cream or ganache, and enrobed in chocolate. I has the coffee ganache flavor. The coffee is very subtle, the filing is quite smooth, and the nougatine is delightfully crunchy and caramelly.

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Hazelnut Creme Cone: The cones are “just filling”, held together with a gold foil cone instead of a chocolate shell. The hazelnut flavor was creamy and smooth with tiny bits of nut, not too sweet and good balance of chocolate, cream and hazelnut flavors. I could eat a dozen. In fact, I went back another day and got more because these were some of my favorite treats from the whole tour!

4 stars: The cones are tantalizing, and the Irrisistables are so unique. Plus, it is the oldest chocolaterie in the world.

Mary

Mary Delluc was the first female chocolatier in Belgium. She also designed the boxes of silk back in the day, and though they use paper now it’s still her design.

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Champagne Truffle: The champagne flavor is clear and the texture contrast of the brittle chocolate outside and very soft creamy inside is nice. It was a little sweet for my personal tastes.

Earl Grey Ganache: There is no bad chocolate here, but it’s harder to judge the middle players after eating the best. I can’t really taste the bergamot flavor here. It’s a pleasant chocolate, but just chocolate. It’s disappointing because the truffles are good.

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Violet Ganache: The flavor is subtle and the flower is more of an aftertaste. At first I thought it wasn’t there but as the chocolate left my tongue the violet became more obvious. I think violet tastes a bit like bubble gum. I noticed this when I tried violet liquor some time ago. The chocolate is good quality, the ganache is very smooth.

Champagne Rose Truffle: This is made with ruby chocolate, which was just introduced to the chocolate world one year ago in 2017 by Swiss chocolatiers at Barry Callebaut. The champagne flavor comes through strong. The powdered sugar exterior is a bit sweet, but the overall flavor is more mild cleanly chocolate. It was my favorite at this shop.

3 stars: Her chocolates aren’t my favorite, but it’s worth stopping by for the history and the champagne truffles.

Dandoy

Dandoy isn’t a chocolaterie, it’s a waffle shop. Waffles: the other confection Belgium is famous for. I didn’t know, but there are different types of Belgian waffle. I tried the Leige style with stracciatella ice cream. It was more chocolate chip than stracciatella, but still good.

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The waffles are magically caramel on the outside. It’s as if a thin crispy later of sugar was caramelized. On the inside the Leige waffle is dense and bread-like, though think sweet bread like a cinnamon roll. Creamy ice cream is the best topping choice since it breaks up the sugar with fat.

Be careful if you order take out. They’re really serious about it, and won’t let take out orderers sit at the tables outside. If you want a table, you must request a seat and order from your waiter, not from the counter. The cost is the same.

4 stars: You have to try the waffles in Belgium, you might as well go for the famous name.

Chocoholic

I stopped to take pics of the tool shaped chocolate. Found …other… shapes. This shop isn’t anything to write about flavor-wise. The chocolate is mid-range and the flavors are unimaginative. It is purely a novelty shapes shop.

1 star: Don’t bother.

Pierre Marcolini

20180711_144153While I was interrogating the staff about their chocolate it became apparent they were only selling boxes (8 piece minimum). When I asked about the possibility of only buying a few pieces, I was sent upstairs to a little dining area. Although their chocolates focus mainly on single origin, bean to bar flavors, they do have a signature dessert line called the “Desir” which comes in a variety of flavors from white to dark chocolate and passing through a range of fruit and nut compliments.

20180711_170134Desir Noisette: I felt I had died and gone to heaven. The desert starts with a cookie base, followed by a hazelnut mousse filling, the center of which nestled a jewel of  custard and caramel, coated in more chocolate and caramel. 

I talked with the staff about my chocolate loves, and my plans for the day. I told them that chocolate and hazelnut was my all time favorite flavor combination, and the waiter gave me three hazelnut pieces to try. ❤ I don’t know their names, so I can only describe them by shape. 

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Round: The chocolate is very intense and a little bitter. The texture is dense with crunchy bits, probably a praline. 

Square: It is sweet and very crispy. Almost like many thin layers of sugar or dough. The hazelnut flavor is strong, while the chocolate flavor is lighter.

Oval: Similar in intensity and flavor to the square, but with a gooey later of liquid salted caramel in the center. Just what it needed to balance the sweet and crunchy. It is the clear winner.

5 stars: I can’t imagine not liking anything there, but make time to sample a Desir, you will not regret it.

Laurent Gerbaud

20180711_151334This shop is a little far out of the way but it is 100% worth the detour. It is a beans to bar production which means they actually make the chocolate from scratch. Most places buy chocolate from a bulk supplier and then add their own flavors. A few more places in Belgium are moving away from the couverture and into the beans to bar. My top 3 picks in Belgium are all bean to bar makers. Laurent Gerbaud is one of them.

In addition to making their own chocolate, their fillings are incredibly creative and diverse. Most other chocolatiers here have the same flavors, each shop having maybe one or two unique twists, but Laurent Gerbaud goes all over the flavor map! I love it! 

20180711_151022Black Olive Ganache: This award winning flavor was given to me as a sample. I probably wouldn’t have bought it just to find out, but they were excited to show off. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The filling evoked raisin and anise notes as my brain tried to reconcile chocolate and olive. I did have some cognitive dissonance as my palate refused to accept the blend. The second bite was smoother. Since I’m not really a fan of anise or raisin it wasn’t a winner for me, but neither did I feel the need to brush my teeth afterward. It went a long way toward showing me the skill of the makers.

Candied lemon peel: I’m used to candied fruit having more sticky chewy and this one seemed a bit dry for my taste. The lemon flavor is solid, no acidity and not overly sweet, and the chocolate is great, but the texture is a little odd.

Ginger praline: A milk chocolate filling that was light and creamy. There were candied ginger bits for added texture. The gigner was prominent but balanced.

Sesame praline: Stunning! It’s like the best halva in amazing chocolate. I could eat it by the pound. The toasting flavor comes through, there’s a crispy texture from the sugar, and the chocolate just glides in to the mix.

Marzipan: Good crystalized texture, not too sweet, nice blend with the dark, rich chocolate.

Chai ganache: Good balance of flavors, playing well but not overpowering the chocolate. It’s a savory chai which is almost like a sweet curry. I actually thought it WAS the curry at first, but the real curry had more heat.

Curry ganache: Nice spice blend, similar to the chai but with an added bonus of heat. Like everything here it’s well balanced between chocolate and infusion and sweetness.

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5 stars: Even the flavor I would not have imagined was well done. Things that are traditionally sweet are still only lightly sweet. They don’t need to use too much sugar to cover sad flavors because their flavors are amazing! Excellent ganache infusions and a truly magical sesame praline!

Corné Port Royal:

20180711_164350Pistachio Marzipan: So sweet! Even with the dark exterior. The almond flavor was ok, but the pistachio was not noticeable. 

20180711_165054Manon Sucre Vanilla: This shop is famous for inventing this particular confection, although other shops make and sell it now, too. It is so so so sweet. Nougat creme and nuts in white chocolate. It’s like someone took divinity and added white chocolate and whipped cream. Not… bad? Just so much sugar! I think the filling would have been great as a contrast to a dark, bitter exterior but only vanilla and coffee were on offer.

Ganache Violette: I was disillusioned with this shop by the time I tasted this one, and really only did so to compare it to Mary’s violet ganache. Here the chocolate is more tart/citrusy, where Mary is balanced, the ganache is thick where Mary’s is lighter, and although the final taste in Mary’s was more of an after taste, here it feels overpowered by bitter chocolate and extra sugar.

White chocolate speculoos praline: It was better than the Manon and the marzipan, but still quite sweet. Not a unique flavor, so I’d say just try the speculoos praline elsewhere if you’re curious.

1 star: Sugar, sugar, sugar. Seriously, I don’t know how this place is on the famous list. The white and milk chocolates are overly sweet, the special flavors are not present or are overpowered. Disappointing. Skip it.

Mathilde

20180711_183057Another “historical” stop. The dark chocolate here is a little on the fruity/sour side. Some people like that in a dark chocolate, I prefer the earthy flavors. The chocolate squares came with things like pop rocks, m&ms, or artificial fruit flavored dots. The chocolate bonbon balls were uninspired and bland flavors.

 Anywhere but Brussels, I’d call this good mid-range chocolate, but it’s much to expensive for it’s quality. 4.9€ per 100g, and the shop was one of two that had a minimum  I liked the samples but those were simple chocolate squares. I ended up buying more novelty flavors and some of the bonbon balls to fill out the 100g… I was frankly disappointed.

2 stars: Perhaps their liquors, spreads and vinegars are more impressive, but as for chocolate? Skip it.

Elizabeth

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Bay leaf / Laurier groseilles: The flavor is very subtle. The chocolate is dominant, and the filling is very smooth. Overall, it is rich and earthy with a pleasant bitterness.

Black cardamom /ganache cardamone: This one had a strong fruity flavor like berry? No sign of cardamom. It tastes good… but what flavor is it? I should be able to tell.

Jasmine ganache: Why can’t I tell what flavor it is when it’s in my mouth? I know what these things are supposed to taste like. Again more tart and citrusy, maybe a little earthy, but not clearly recognizable as floral.

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Orange Fleur de Sel: It is sweeter with a milk chocolate exterior, less acidic, probably orange peel. I can find the orange but it is very very faint. The fleur de sel is more a suggestion than a flavor. It tastes good, but not especially like what it’s supposed to taste like.

Chocolate truffle (sample): Delicious and rich, it has the perfect sweetness with a light crunch from a layer of cookie.

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Caramel rose / truffon rose: I ate this last and it blew my socks off! Liquid caramel, buttery and with the edge of bitterness that I like in caramels. The rose flavor is prominent and balanced and so easy to find, but it doesn’t hide the richness of the caramel or the chocolate. The dark outside layer is a little on the acidic side but not enough to put me off that amazing filling!

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Lemon meringue (sample): Next to the Elizabeth chocolates is the Elizabeth meringue shop. I’ve had meringues before but never imagined they could be so good. The crispy outside dissolved in my tongue like a cloud and the inside was chewy but light. I don’t think they sell them individually unless you but a huge one. But great to try!

A parade came by while I was inside. The shop woman told me it was Flemish Independence day. They aren’t independent, they just want to be, so they have this event every year to rally support.

4 stars: Worth going if you stick to the truffles and caramel on the chocolate side. Skip the flavored ganaches, but DO make time for the meringues next door.

Benoit Nihant

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While I was chatting up the generous staff at Pierre Marcolini, they recommended another shop that was not on my list. When a quality chocolatier tells you to visit a rival shop, you know you have to go, but it was too far out for me to get to on the same day.

When I finally had time, I hopped on a bus that took me practically to the door and was greeted by a bubbly and kind woman behind the counter. She was blown away that Pierre Marcolini staff had recommended me to go there and happily told me about all the chocolates on offer. It’s beans to bar, and high quality, but as a smaller and younger shop they can’t afford the rent in Sablon yet, which is a tragedy because they are amazing.

She was so excited to share with me, I tried several different flavors before deciding what to do my box with. The minimum is 4 pieces at 5€, but it is so worth it.

Sesame: The balance of flavor chocolate is perfect. The toasted sesame comes through clearly without hiding the chocolate or bring hidden. Just sweet enough, and a good earthy chocolate base.

Strawberry with Sichuan Pepper: I was warned this was sweet, the strawberry is a jelly and the pepper is a ganache infusion. The jelly was very sweet and the pepper and chocolate were both a bit run over. It was a good jelly with amazing fruit flavor and smooth texture but the lady helping me was correct when she said it was sweeter than I was really looking for. She says all the jellies are like this, so I didn’t get any others, although the fig raspberry and pear cardamom both looked intriguing. 

Baracoa from Cuba, Single Origin:  Rich and creamy, it was pushing the tart side  a little but not over the line. These are made with a simple ganache filling to show off the unique flavor of the origins.

Marzipan:  I had a marzipan from the sample dish. It is the best marzipan I have ever put in my face. They use 70% almonds to keep it from being too sweet. In addition to the almond, there are light floral notes and dreamy dark chocolate robe.

I did actually buy some chocolates that day as well. I took away a box with 4 more flavors.20180713_205150Earl Grey Ganache (two lines): This has a beautiful dark chocolate flavor, not acid or sweet, but earthy with a slight astringency from the tea. The bergamot is subtle, but it’s still a delightful piece.

Orange Thyme (orange line): It has abright zest flavor, without being too citrusy. The thyme is subtle but ads depth and range to the flavor I don’t think you’d get with just the orange alone. The chocolate is still amazing.

Cuyagua Village Single Origin from Venezuela (gold line): Just so good. Intense chocolate flavor smooth and clean with a tiny hint towards the fruity but just a whisper to make it interesting. Light and bright, but strong and powerful. The ganache is smooth and dense and helps spread the flavor access the tongue. Much love. Single origin is meant to highlight the unique flavor of a region rather than other ingredients.

4 Spice Praline (silver line): I was told this was classic gingerbread spices. Definitely true. The praline had a nice crunch and crisp with a lovely gingerbread flavor. Not too sweet, beautiful classic chocolate, the spices are there but quiet. It’s a classy candy.

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I loved Benoit Nihant so much that I hunted down their shop in Leige when I was there later in my trip. The weather was so hot that my chocolates melted a bit on the boat ride, so the textures were impacted by that, but it was still a trancendant experience.

Haceinda Single Origin: This one was dark and creamy, fruity without being overly acidic, with a slight spicy finish. Bear in mind, all that complexity comes from the chocolate alone, since there are no fruits or spices added. It’s a little like wine tasting.

Marzipan Pistachio: Since the original was so good, I decided to try the 2.0. It’s still delicious, but a bit sweeter. There is clearly a diffusion or mixture that isn’t all almond, I would not have been able to say it was pistachio if no one told me. Really good marzipan. I think I’ll stick to the original if I ever get another chance.

Peanut Praline: It’s like the most sophisticated peanut butter cup you’ll ever eat. It walks straight up to the edge of burnt sugar, bringing bitter, salty, sweet, and peanut in with the chocolate together with a nice crunch.

Hazelnut Praline: Surprisingly not as good as the peanut. It still has a dark close to burnt caramel in the praline. I can’t tell if the texture was off because of the melting but it seemed a bit more granular than it should be.

Lavender Ganache: Wow! Good lavender flavor without being potpourri. I love florals but balance is hard. I had become disenchanted with the violet ganaches in other shops and interrogated the shop staff mercilessly about this, but they nailed it!

Mint Ganache: This transported me back to my mother’s garden. The mint flavor is so fresh and natural I can taste the green. I believe it must have been made with fresh leaves in the infusion and not an extract.

Lime with Basil: The lime is dominant and reminds me of a lime chiffon or even a key lime pie, more like a creamy pastry lime than a drinks lime. The basil is a bit lost. Like the orange thyme, I think it added depth without drawing attention to itself.

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The staff in both places were pleased to talk endlessly about the chocolates and the shop. In Leige there is also a cafe next to the chocolate shop that sells several chocolate deserts as well as chocolate drinks. I didn’t get a chance to try anything on that side, sadly. I also learned that you don’t actually have to get a box for 5€. If you buy the chocolates in a bag it’s 100g for 9€, which works out to about 15 chocolates, but there is no minimum.

5 stars: I wish everyone on a chocolate tour of Brussels could take a side trip out here or find one of the other 5 stores in Belgium as they are not available anywhere else and are truly a treat worth having. Try anything, but especially the marzipan.

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Finally, I didn’t find this brand in a fancy shop in Sablon, but in nearly every grocery shop in the city. Galler praline bars were definitely a great score. They’re quite affordable and far superior to the average supermarket chocolate bar. Stop in a Del-Haize and grab your favorite flavor.

4 stars: Compared with the very best in Sablon, it might be 3, but taken in the context of the supermarket aisle, it blows away the competition.

Chocolate with Compassion

20180711_185029Chocolate is one of my favorite things on Earth, however it is an industry rife with slavery and abuse. Cocoa only grows in a few places on the planet and those are almost exclusively in 3rd world, developing nations in Central & South America, as well as Africa. Cheap chocolate companies use child labor, forced labor, and under paid labor, putting vulnerable people at risk and taking advantage of the economic disparity between developed and developing nations.

In recent years, more and more fine chocolatiers have become interested in supporting these cocoa farmers by paying a fair price for this very labor intensive product. I often hear excuses about ethical consumerism around the basis of “all the companies do it”, or “how else am I supposed to afford xyz?”, but chocolate is a luxury and there are plenty of companies that source their cocoa responsibly.

Buying ethically sourced chocolate not only feels better, it often tastes better since these companies would not dream of diluting their top dollar cocoa with milk-fat, sugar, paraffin or other additives commonly used by the check-out aisle candy companies.

Please choose one of these the next time you want to indulge. Look for a label: Fair Trade, Fairly Traded, Jane Goodall, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ. You can see a list of many slavery-free chocolate companies at this website. Small chocolatiers are not listed, so if you have a neighborhood chocolatier, you can always ask them. People who use ethically sourced cocoa are proud to tell you.

Happy eating!


Writing about chocolate has helped take the edge off of the sheer horror that is the US News Cycle this week. I can’t say chocolate makes it all better, but there is a certain amount of truth in J.K. Rowling’s assessment that chocolate helps in the battle against the Dark Arts.  I will treasure this memory for as long as I have taste-buds, and I hope that you didn’t drool too much reading it 😉

Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

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The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

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Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

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I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

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The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

Aufguss-jpeg-bd20441e6780d0aba624404db27c711dYou know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂