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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Hamburg Dungeon

Hamburg was an experience of extreme heat. It’s not supposed to be like that, but by the end of July 2018, the heat wave in Europe was so pervasive there was no place to get respite. I had to eliminate more than half of my planned activities in Hamburg, and I even left the city a day early in hopes of finding even slight relief in Denmark. However, the morning before my train out of Germany, I stopped off for the English language version of one of the most ridiculous and joyful experiences of my whole summer trip: the interactive haunted history house of Hamburg — the Dungeon!


Friday in the Dungeon

I read about this event while toodling around the internet looking for things to do and was immediately enchanted. Haunted house meets interactive theater meets history lesson? Yes please! Most of the tours are of course in German, but they do offer English language tours a couple times a week. For me, this was Friday morning at 10am. As soon as we entered, the creepy atmosphere began. It was very well decorated, but clearly also on the campy side of life. Even the waiting room and hall to the toilets were dimly lit and creepy. Thankfully the actual toilets were clean and well lit.

The photos for this day’s adventure are provided by the Hamburg Dungeon Press Office The Dungeon strictly prohibits any and all photography once the tour starts, so I was unable to take my own. These are not exactly the same scenes and actors I experienced but it should still give a good impression of the overall mood. I will do my best to bring it to life in your imagination with words.

Emergency exists were clearly labeled and we were assured the actors would not touch anyone (and we should not touch them), yet the actors and stories were such that I found the experience fun and immersive. The sets were beautiful, the passages between scenes were interesting and creative. The events we experienced were based in real historical events in Hamburg, but The Dungeon is more about creating an atmosphere of history than informing, so I’m still a little fuzzy on the real historical details. It’s not an amusement park so the “rides” serve to enhance the over all experience. I enjoyed every minute of this very Addams Family fun. Join me on this haunted history trip down memory lane.

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Once the tour began we were taken into an elevator that was reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion elevator at Disney. The floor shook under us as the lights went on and off, and our guide cackled menacingly and it was impossible to tell if it went up down or sideways. The tour itself was a series of theatrical vignettes where the Dungeon actors played historically exaggerated roles and involved the audience in the torture… I mean fun.

Spy vs Spy
Our first stop was with Napoleon era torture implements used on French spies. The room looked like a prison scene from Les Mis with cages and racks of ominous implements lining the walls. An actress dressed in period clothes picked out two audience members to “lock up” and described using various implements of torment on them with humorous leers and gestures, but without actually touching anyone. She released one victim, but claimed the other and we exited to the next room without being quite sure what would happen to him. (spoilers, he was led around the staff backstage route and rejoined us in a few minutes)

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No One Expects the German Inquisition
The next staging was set during the Inquisition. As we stood in a gloomy replica of a medieval church, an inquisitor from on high picked out one woman as a witch, one man as pervert, and one child as glutton (for the terrible sin of eating breakfast!). The adults sins were read from a big book of sins and exaggerated for humor. Apparently being selected for torment or embarrassment is a highlight of the tour. Finally she sprinkled us all with holy water as a blessing… before admitting it was “really” the urine of the pope!

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Your Warehouse is on Fire
We were ushered damply to the next setting: the waterfront warehouse district of Hamburg that I’d boated around just days before. A dirty street urchin/theif came to tell us of her thievery and arson, warning us to run before the whole place was ablaze! We watched a film about the fire and how the rich didn’t want to do anything about it until it was too late. The fire began affecting mainly poorer areas of town, but spread quickly. Merchants put barrels with oil in the river which made things worse when firefighters tried to draw water from there. In the end, they made a fire barrier by blowing up several houses between the main fire and the rich neighborhoods, but it was too late. The actress who implied she started the fire led us to flee the explosions, and we walked through a simulation of a burning building done with lights, smoke and a spinning tunnel. It was a very realistic simulation of the disorientation!

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Bring Out Your Dead
Out of the faux flames, we were led to a black plague medical school for a bit of history and medicine. The setting looked like a surgical theater more normally associated with the era of Frankenstein with a large slab on the main stage bearing a body under a sheet and rows of seats where the “students” could watch the doctor at work. The “professor” asked us to recite the symptoms of the black plague, and when no one gave the first symptom, he asked “what does the lady say when she doesn’t want to….?” in order to lead the audience to guess “headache”. Having avoided the attention of the dungeonmasters up to this point, I was called out to assist in the autopsy of the latest plague victim, handling and identifying plastic organs while the audience was sprayed with “puss and urine” (water and water).

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I handled the organs he tossed my way with relative aplomb until he told me to reach into the body and remove the bladder myself. Based on the previous antics, I was fully expecting it to spray me and so was very cautious in removing it. However the squirt was for the audience, not for me. He wrung out the bladder into a shallow dish and flung the liquid front row (just a light splash). In the end he said I was looking a little pale, so I did a little improv throwback and said I did feel a headache coming on. Alas, I caught the plague and was lead off stage to simulated vomiting sounds.

Next we passed into a room that simulated an enormous underground catacombs system. It reminded me of the mines of Moria in LOTR. Even though we were in a small space, they used pillars, arches and mirrors to make it seem like the cavern went on for miles.

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Pirates of the Germanicum?
Emerging from the catacombs, we found ourselves conscripts of the pirates fighting the Hanseatic League. The first mate of the ship was chosen by having some men try to lift a barrel to test their strength. They couldn’t budge it, but a young boy was asked to come forward and try. Of course he lifted it easily and became Sea Bear, the first mate. We boarded a pirate ship below decks, and we went through a storm created by light and sound effects while the decks swayed beneath our feet. The whole thing is much more silly than scary, and our captain (actor) cringed in fear during the storm and told us all since we had no battle cry or weapons we should pretend not to be pirates, and be totally surprised to find the Hanseatic League when we arrived.

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After making landfall, we were told to hide in the tent and wait for the League to return to their camp so we could attack, but inside the tent was a head on a spike that spoke. It was Klaus Störtebeker (a real historical figure in the war between the Hanseatic League and the Pirates, who really was beheaded in Hamburg). He made a deal that his men should be spared if his headless body could walk around and it, until the executioner tripped the body killed his men anyway.

He Had It Coming
This was one of my favorite in terms of story and execution. We were picked up by a new actress and conducted to a haunted apartment. The room was a quaint little apartment and we all sat on the furniture around the living room. Most people sat on crates or on the edges of tables. I grabbed the comfy chair. The actress told us of a woman named Maria who murdered her abusive husband and chopped him up into little pieces and dropped them out the coach window all wrapped up as neat little parcels. Despite her caution, the parcels were discovered, and she was imprisoned for 2 years before being executed on the wheel.

It is revealed that the woman telling the story is her now grown daughter and quite possibly the best effects of the whole tour begin. We were plunged into total darkness for a few seconds at a time, yet whenever the lights returned, things had moved or changed. The murder weapon came off it’s shelf and moved closer to us. In the dark, sounds and puffs of air moved around us to make it seem as though the ghost were in the room. Finally, the ghost did appear, but she didn’t move when we could see her. Instead, she would move swiftly around in the dark, suddenly appearing closer to one or another of the audience who were justifiably startled when the lights returned. It was really wonderfully done.

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The dungeon has a lot of haunted house elements, which are often more campy than scary.  There were a couple of jump scares in hallways from one set to another but it’s not really that kind of experience. The sets and lighting are a big part of the experience. Even between sets it’s decorated and creepy. It’s a quality series of sets on a par with a Disney experience. It’s more about art and performance, and the ghost of Maria was really creepy.

Get On a Boat
We got into a tiny boat, and unlike the Pirate set which was only a set, this was much more like a flume ride. There was really water. We sat 6 to a boat and it floated us through scenes of the Hamburg canals (a la Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but… in Germany). The ride ended with a cannon pointing straight at us and blowing us and our boat backward down the ride’s drop when it fired. I was expecting a traditional flume ride style drop, but I was not expecting it to be backwards, so that was a nice touch.

Santa FU, It Makes More Sense in German?
At last, or too soon, the final scene was upon us. We entered the famous prison “Santa Fu”. The room was dark, the walls lined with stiff wooden chairs and a large cage loomed in the center. We sat in the chairs and watched a lone prisoner within the cage. There was more theater about the prison and the dangerous nature of the prisoners, particularly the insane ones.

SantaFu1_Hamburg Dungeon_Bjoern GantertThe prisoner spoke to us, reaching through the bars but unable to touch anyone. The lights went out and the cage was empty when they came back on. Speakers within the chairs made it seem as though she was whispering in my ear, and I could tell from the others’ faces they experienced the same. Mechanical prods in the chairs gave us a poke in the back when she said “I’m taking to you” and pressurized air passing our ankles simulated rats running by as they described the horrible conditions of the prison.

In the end, we had to “escape” the prison with a short free fall ride (a door was available for the timid to skip it). I sat next to the skeleton because if you’re going to do a ride in a silly haunted dungeon you might as well go all the way. To keep us from seeing the real height of the ride, it was kept mostly dark. At the top we could see the wall, barbed wire and guard tower before we dropped once more into darkness. 


The Dungeon is a brand of amusement in Europe with versions in Berlin and London as well, each tailored to the grisly history of it’s host city. I was not compensated for my review, and my opinions are my own. Thanks for reading!

Cantillon Brewery: Lambic

My travel style is about 10% famous tourist sites and about 90% “what’s that?”. I’m not going to claim that I broke new ground here, because obviously, it’s a tourist site that exists to serve tourists, but it’s definitely less well trodden and a bit unique. At some point in life, every beer lover goes on a brewery tour, just like every wine lover goes on a winery tour (mine was in Reims, France and involved Roman ruins). I like beer, but I didn’t want yet another hops/grains/cook/ferment story. When I learned about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, a small local brewery specializing in lambics, I knew that was the one.


As usual, the English language tours are far less frequent and often at odd times of the day. In this case, I was going to a beer tour in the morning. But not just any beer, LAMBIC! If you aren’t familiar with this wonderful, tart, Belgian brew, I recommend heading down to your local purveyor of imported beers and finding some. The main difference between lambic and other beer is in the yeast that is used to ferment it. Most brewers cultivate or buy yeast and add it to the wort in order to get that lovely fermentation and alcohol content. Lambic is made by exposing the wort to the open air of the very limited geographical region in and around Brussels in order to get wild yeast to do the job.

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In the past, I drank a Framboise (raspberry) lambic produced by Lindemans, or other fruit flavors, when I was living in America and was quite excited to dig more into the traditional brewing methods. Cantillon is the last lambic brewery in Brussels, and the website describes it as “a family brewery where Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek are made and where nothing has changed since 1900 when it was founded”. As a 5 generations family owned “brewery museum”, they are allowed to use old brewing techniques which are not allowed in the modern breweries.

Once our group was assembled, we went into room that looked like a pub complete with tables and a bar, where the guide gave an introduction to lambic and the process. He talked about spontaneous fermentation (that’s letting the wild yeast come and play) and the micro climate that exists in the river valley which creates the perfect environment for the unique combination of microbes that give lambic it’s distinctive flavor.

We talked a little about pollution and climate change as well. I was not the only person curious about how weather events like the heat wave we were experiencing could impact the micro-climate of the yeast. Not to mention the pollution of modern cities impacting the life cycle of microbes and impacting the wort during the open air exposure. Our guide said that yes, it was a concern for them, but because the brewery only brews when the weather is between 5 and 13 C they can be reasonably assured of a good quality of the wild yeast/bacteria balance. Although the number of viable days is shrinking.

He also told us about hops. In regular beer, fresh hops are often used to give a large amount of foam (head) and to give a strong bitter flavor (often but incorrectly described as ‘hoppy’). At Cantillon, they used dried aged hops to reduce the foam and bitterness and highlight the more subtle floral flavors of the hops.

Finally, he previewed the aging process which uses wooden barrels and can last up to three years! This particularly surprised me, as I’ve always thought of beer as a more “fresh served” kind of fermented beverage. I’ve even been warned in the past that letting beer sit too long can ruin the flavor. Apparently that’s only true for lagers, pilsner, and other lighter styles. Stouts, dark ale, and sour beers can all benefit from aging. The more you know.

Inside the Machinery

Once the introductory talk was concluded, we headed off into the guts of the brewery itself to see how the magic was made. Sadly, it was WELL outside the safe temperature range to actually see the brewery in action, but in many ways that worked out as an advantage because we could see the machinery up-close quite safely.


We toured three floors and learned about the process of making first mash and then wort from malted barley (sprouted barley) and wheat. On the first floor, the brewery has it’s own mill to grind the grains which poured directly into huge tanks to soak in hot water. Here the grain is ‘mashed’ around to extract the sugar cooked to reduce the complex carbohydrate chains to simple sugars. The solid remains of the process are sold to farmers as high protein livestock feed. Why do the farmers pay top dollar for brewery dregs? In Belgium, dairy farmers get paid by the protein content of their milk, not the mere volume of liquid produced, so it’s important to feed the cows well.

On the second floor, the liquid remains of this process are then mixed with aged dried hops and heated again to infuse the hops, kill unwanted bacteria and evaporate excess water. These two processes take only a few hours each.


Once it’s hops infused and bacteria free, the liquid is filtered again and poured into the giant shallow copper pan to expose it for 15 hours to the open air and local yeast. The open air pans are on the third floor where the roof has special panels that open to let the air circulate when it’s desired, or seal shut when not in use.


While we took turns looking in the small room with the copper pans, our guide passed around a bag of dried aged hops for us to smell and taste. I was really amazed by the top floral notes. I know it’s a flower, but hops is a flavor I think of as only bitter so it surprised me. Once I got past the petals and into the body, the bitter ‘hoppy’ taste was strong. It was a little like eating beer concentrate. I had to have some water to swallow it. He told us it’s very antibiotic so I hope it didn’t damage my gut flora. (the dried aged hop flower from Cantillon, and a living hop flower on a vine I spotted in Sweden)


From the tippy top to the bottom, we headed all the way into the basement to see the aging barrels. Usually they get barrels from other industries to reuse. They use wood instead of metal to allow oxygenation as part of the long fermentation.

The longest age is three years which produces a flat or still lambic (no bubbles). If they’re making a fruit blend, they mix the fruits in at 2 years and then often remix those with a combination of 1, 2 and 3 year ages, and then bottle it. This creates an environment where some fermentation continues inside the bottle, similar to the process of champagne. The end result is bubbles, but much more like a sparkling wine than a frothy beer.

The tour concluded with a tasting, of course. We tasted an 18 month old plain still lambic as a sample of the basic process. It’s not something I would drink often, but it was good to taste it almost like tasting an ingredient before the finished product. It’s still quite drinkable, with good flavor, a nice amount of sour (sour is the hallmark of lambic flavor) and very little bitter, proving the real success of those aged hops.

I tried a raspberry next, and I was surprised at how not sweet it was. The raspberry lambic I drank commonly in America was sweet and thick. The raspberry lambic from Cantillon was light and tart.
Because the corked bottles don’t keep after opening, only a few flavors were available as single glasses (2 included on the tour ticket). There were so many fascinating options on the menu, but I didn’t think I could really drink a whole bottle alone. I couldn’t even buy a bottle to take away since most of the brews on offer had to be opened and consumed on site, which was challenging for any one or even two people given the size. 37.5cl.


Thankfully, a couple who were also in my tour group invited myself and another solo traveler to go in on two bottles so we could all taste more. We got an elderflower and a rhubarb (nath). They were both quite tasty. Light, barely hoppy, and well flavored without being sweet, plus that nice lambic sourness. I don’t usually like sour beer but I am a steadfast lambic fan. I couldn’t drink it every day, but I’m so glad I had this chance.

I ended up chatting with the others a long time over our two bottles and discovered the other solo traveler is also an English teacher, working with EL Learners in the US in immigrant populations and working to standardize the early education to prepare them better for integration into schools and University. My we had lots of language/teacher geek out moments and decided to get lunch together afterwards. Turning strangers into friends is my favorite part of traveling. Even if we never meet again, I treasure the lives that come into mine.

Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

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In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

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I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

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The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.

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The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

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Now the tunnels are full of art.

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The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.

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Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

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After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

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Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

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Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section! If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

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Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

Winter Vacation 2019

Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start my new year off with a lovely holiday adventure. Thanks once more to my fancy Korean University Job™, I get a nice long break from the students lasting from about Christmas until March 1st. While I did have some fiddly bits of professorial paperwork that keep me at my desk for part of that time, there’s no unending deskwarming like I was subjected to at that EPIK job.  I’ve scrimped and saved on rent, food and local expat parties in order to treat myself to another 6 weeks on the road!


Jan 10- 19: Taiwan – I won’t get to see the Chinese New Year here, but I’m hoping to see some beautiful temples, museums, mountains, street food, and above all, the winter migration home of the Purple Crow Butterflies!!!! (pictured below) I’ll be in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. I’m brushing up on my Mandarin in DuoLingo!

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Jan 20-28: Jordan – I’m meeting up with a friend who teaches in Japan to tour my old Middle East stomping grounds again. Last time I went, I didn’t get to see everything in Petra, and almost nothing else at all. This time, we’re spending a full three days in Petra to see everything, plus a day and night at a Dead Sea resort to take in the mud, and a couple days of wandering around Amman (below) to see the ruins and the markets.

Jan 29 – Feb 11: Egypt – In a complete turn around from my normal travel patterns, my friend and I booked a 13 day almost all-inclusive tour (a few meals are not covered). I actually found one that is in line with my desired budget and it will be a relief not to have to think about transport or scheduling while I’m there. I’m brushing up on my Arabic, too, but Egyptian Arabic is nothing like what I learned, so having a guide around will come in handy. We’re supposed to get to see Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, and Sharm el-Sheik. We’ll even be taking a 5-star Nile River cruise for a few of those days. Considering how limited my time was last time I was in Egypt, I’m really excited!!!

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Feb 12-22: Malaysia – specifically, Penang. I’ve booked an Airbnb in one place for the whole time. I was only there one day last time I passed through but it seemed like the kind of town I’d enjoy for longer. I’m staying in Georgetown where I can wander around to see the street art, shopping streets, and amazing food, but I may rent a scooter and head off on a mini road trip around the small island. Plus, my host says that the Lunar New year celebrations last 2 weeks or more, so even though the official day is Feb 5, there should still be lots of decorations and events while I’m there.

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While I won’t be on the blog during my vacation time, I’ve written a lot more posts about last summer and set them up to auto-publish during January, February and March by which time I hope to have some new stories from the winter adventure for you. If you want to get a real-time experience of my travels, you’ll need to hop over to the Instagram or the Facebook page where I will do my best to post something cool every day. Thanks for following ❤

Utrecht: History & Music

July 26th, about halfway through the vacation. I was suffering through an unbelievable heat wave in The Hague (Den Haag), Netherlands. I was not enjoying myself. The heat was oppressive and causing me physical illness, and the transit in the Netherlands was without question the most obnoxious of the transit systems I have experienced in my life. However, Utrecht was a happy place that I truly enjoyed and may even brave the Netherlands again to visit. Not only was the city itself cute and bohemian in a “university town” kind of way, the exhibits I went to that day made me take several steps back and re-examine some of my perceptions of human history and development.


The Underground Tour

As an American, I didn’t grow up around places like this. I am sure that there are places in the US that have 2000 years of human occupation, but sadly the original colonizers did a very good job of erasing any traces of it. Perhaps as a result, I am eagerly curious about places on earth where the stories of humans can be traced back and retold over such vast stretches of time. I also love all things underground. The DomUnder was practically begging me to come and visit.

Dom Square in Utrecht boasts 2000 years of human occupation and I decided to go on a little tour of the archaeological dig site. The first stop on the tour was below the main office (where it was blissfully cool) to get some history lessons and watch a film.

They divided us into “English” and “Dutch” language groups. The English group was less than half native speakers, and was comprised mainly of people from other EU countries with a few Asians as well, all of whom were able to follow along in English, but not in Dutch. One more example of why ELF is so important!

The English guide gave us a good timeline overview of the square, walking us through the various stages of construction from Roman frontier fortress to modern day with a series of maps, drawings and photos to help us see the evolution. Then we all huddled together and watched a very dramatic short film about the square with actors in period dress and CG reconstructions of the architecture and the dramatic and destructive storm that reshaped the town.

2000 Years of History

Starting around 50 CE (that’s AD if you’re old), the site began it’s civilized life as a Roman fortress on the outskirts of the Empire. The Rhine river was, at the time, flowing through the area and just here it became shallow enough to cross. To defend the crossing point, a fortress, or castrum, was built.

Traiectum - Wttecht - Utrecht (Atlas van Loon)

Traiectum, the name of this castellum, was built mainly of wood with a stone wall surrounding it. It was burned down during the Revolt of the Batavi in 69-70 CE. The film we watched speculated that there may have been a romance and betrayal involved in the sacking of the fort, and that it was the wife of an officer who buried the gold later found by archaeologists below the lowest layer of burned wood.

Begrenzingskaart castellum Traiectum Utrecht Domplein Within 20 years, the Romans reclaimed it, and maintained power until about 270 CE when the Franks invaded. There isn’t any substantial change to the site for another 400 years, although evidence suggests that it was not abandoned, simply that the castellum was never rebuilt and any structures were temporary. You can still see the outline of where the old walls were built in the modern streets of Utrecht by looking down for some distinctive metal plates.

20180726_185026Around 630, the last of the Merovingians established a small abbey using the stone walls left by the Romans to enclose the grounds.

In 720, a chap named Willibrod who is intensely famous in the Netherlands and unknown everywhere else, established the church of St. Martin which more or less still stands today. He really loved preaching out in the frontier and was not always warmly received, having been driven out violently on at least one well known occasion by pagans who were not at all interested in this new-fangled religion he was peddling. He was canonized after his death.

The Vikings came through Europe between 857-920 in a rash of Church raiding. A lot of wealth was concentrated in churches and they were often poorly defended. St. Martin did not escape. Interestingly, there’s a viking rock on display in the square today, although I’m not sure if it’s from the time of these invasions or from a later time after the Nordic countries had converted to Christianity.

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Around the turn of the millennium, the church was once more destroyed, but this time by a fire. The rebuild was inspired by the Roman round arch style. Shortly after the Emperor built a palace within the walls of the old Roman castellum (yes, where the cathedral is) and there was a bit of state vs church argy-bargy over who had ultimate authority. It seems the Emperor and the Bishop wouldn’t share an entrance from their residences into the cathedral and so two separate entrance halls were built.

In 1253 there was, shock and surprise, another huge fire that destroyed nearly everything (that’s at least 3 by now). During the subsequent reconstruction, the church transformed into a proper French Gothic cathedral completed in 1267 and the famous church tower (see below for more on that) was built in the mid 1300’s.

Dom voor storm (retoucheerd)
Things go along fairly peacefully until 1647 when an enormous and devastating storm swept through the town. My subsequent research says a tornado, but the reconstructions and explanations I experienced that day in Utrecht made it seem much more like a thunder and lightning with extremely high winds kind of storm. Either way, it was so bad that the townsfolk seriously questioned what they had done to incur the wrath of God, because nothing outside the Bible even compared.

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The wind (tornado or otherwise) completely destroyed the nave of the cathedral that connected the tower to the rest of the structure. The nave was not small. You can see from drawings how much of the space it took up, and in heavy stone with Gothic arches, gargoyles and other bits of stone crenelation all over the place. It was flattened. Rubble. The people of Utrecht were devastated and although the city continued to function, no one cleaned up after the storm for 150 years.

NIMH - 2011 - 0518 - Aerial photograph of Utrecht, The Netherlands - 1920 - 1940

Even when cleanup began, it was little more than clearing the rubble and a few halfhearted attempts at restoration. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that there were serious efforts to return the cathedral and tower to their former glory. The nave was never rebuilt and it is that space that is now the main square of Utrecht between the church and tower.

The Dig Site

Armed with this historical perspective, we trooped back upstairs and headed into the main square where a hole opened up to lead us down into the dig site.

20180726_125940Here we were given “interactive flashlights” that we could use not only to see, but also to trigger the audio tour in our headsets. I like headset audio tours much better than trying to listen to a single guide, so I admire the choice, however, this was maybe a little too interactive. We had to find these tiny little RF chips tucked in amid the displays and aim the light at them to trigger the audio file to play. The chips weren’t labeled and there was no way to know if I got them all or missed any since a single display could have 1-3 chips in it. It was a little like playing hidden picture in real life. Here you can see one nestled among some old Roman artillery.

Despite the hunt and peck games, the displays were absolutely fun. There were two more mini movies underground, including one meant to replicate the storm itself, and the rest were pieces of the actual dig sites that had been left for display. There were walls from the original fortress. There were tools and pottery and jewelry from the Romans. There were pieces of clay tiles with cat prints in them, proving cats have been walking on wet paint, wet cement, and wet clay forever.

There were the support pillars of the cathedral, and remnants of the rubble of the catastrophe of the storm. There were even earlier dig crew’s archaeological tools that got left for a few decades. Plus the immortal remains of at least one Bishop (probably).

I could have stayed much longer mulling over the details, but as always, I was the last person trailing behind the tour group and the guides politely reminded me that the tour was over as I was taking photos of the last few displays. Returning to the surface, I had a whole new perspective of the square in which I stood, seeing now in my minds eye the layers and layers of construction and destruction that shaped it for over 2000 years. Will someone stand in Washington DC or New York city in 2000 years and marvel at the capacity for human growth, change and tenacity? I hope so.

Church, Gardens, Tower

20180726_111320Although I had accidentally meandered through the gardens at St. Martin’s between the bus stop and my tour start, once I finished the tour I was eager to have a closer look at both the cathedral and the tower. The tower is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and I think the tallest building in Utrecht. It stands 112m tall and if you want to see the view from the top it’s 465 stairs (no lift). I admired it greatly… from the ground.

The cathedral is undeniably French Gothic. It could have been picked up and moved over from France. Beautiful stained glass windows, impossibly high arches, and a great deal of overly grotesque carving including gargoyles, skeletons and dead dudes.

It’s not that I’m tired of looking at cathedrals, but I did reach a point in Europe where one French Gothic cathedral began to look rather like all the rest. It’s interesting because in modern architectural design, international companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks want their stores to all look the same on the inside because they want to establish a brand and also that their customers would feel comfortable with the familiar, even in an unfamiliar city. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Catholic Church is the McDonald’s of the middle ages… no, wait, I am… And since the average human didn’t travel more than 20 miles from home their whole lives back then, the only people this was meant to appeal to would be the ruling and priestly classes, so they can go to church anywhere and it’s always the same. 20180726_110921

The Speelklok Museum

This is a museum dedicated to self playing instruments and music machines that pre-date the gramophone and other recording devices invention and rise to musical dominance. The museum roughly covers the time from 1750-1950, but focuses mainly on the Victorian and Edwardian periods (1840-1910). It opened my eyes to the history of music and music technology in a whole new way and made me completely re-evaluate my ideas of change and progress in the modern world. I couldn’t fit it all into a single post with the rest of Utrecht. If you haven’t already read the whole story, you can follow this link.

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Is That a Theremin or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

My final moments in Utrecht, I stopped into a cafe for a sandwich and a nice iced latte. The Netherlands is not so snooty as France when it comes to putting ice in coffee, and I was grateful for their lack of coffee-purity during the unrelenting heat wave. I was sitting upstairs, trying to imagine a breeze through the open window and taking notes on my phone about the thoughts swirling in my head after my visits to the Underground and the Speelkloks when suddenly I realized that the music I was hearing in the background was a Theremin.

Not everyone would know this strange instrument either by sight or by sound, but due to an odd quirk of my proclivity for learning peculiar information and my ability to involuntarily remember completely useless trivia, I recognized the sound before I even realized I was hearing it. It was as though some part of my brain whispered “theremin”, and my conscious train of thought stopped and said “what?” before registering what my ears were hearing.

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I had only ever heard recordings of the theremin, but I was sure that was what I was hearing and as soon as I realized the sound came from the street, I peered out the window. Lo and behold, on the street below was a middle aged man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt busking for change with a theremin.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another gentleman who sat down on the ground and pulled a sitar from it’s case and began to tune it. Another instrument not readily recognizable, at least not to those who are not from South Asia. I first learned about it from the Beatles of course, since they became entranced by it’s sound after visiting India. It is also a unique and (outside India) fairly obscure instrument.

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So there I am, staring down at two middle aged hipsters with the most unlikely instrumental duet I have ever heard of, and they’re good. Not like philharmonic good, but the theremin is a HARD instrument and I don’t really think the sitar is a piece of cake, so “good” is a major accomplishment and thousands of hours of practice. And there they are, on the street, playing for coins. Of course I contributed to the growing pile of money in the sitar case (pay your artists!), and if you like what you hear, I even made sure to get the band name so you can support them yourself. They are called Guau! (pronounced “wow”) and they are from Spain. You can get the album here.


For those of you playing the home game, I’m finally finished with final exams and the complex grading math that is the end of semester excel spreadsheet. I’m stuck in Korea until January 9th, when I’ll be embarking on another long trek. I’ve been so busy with work (and art) that the blog has been very slow, so I’m going to do my best to churn out a double handful of posts to leave you with before the next big adventure begins. Hope you enjoyed Utrecht, and as always, thanks for reading. Happy Holidays and Merry New Year!

The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

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I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

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In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

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The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

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I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

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Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 
Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

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From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

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Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

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I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

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At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

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The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

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There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

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About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

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When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

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Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

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Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

Fairground Museum Paris

My travel tastes tend to range from the classic bucket list items to the hipster “you went where?” items. On my first trip to Paris, I visited the major must-dos like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, the Sacre-Coeur, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery. At that time my “off the beaten track” experience was going to see my friend perform Burlesque at La Féline Bar. Sadly, I never had the chance to write this trip as my life in 2015 became rather hectic shortly afterward. I did upload my photo albums, however, so you can still see those on the Facebook Page by following the links on each location above.

For my second trip to the city of lights, I made it to the Catecombs, a couple art museums, and a bike tour of the hot spots, which I’ll be writing about later. My more obscure find was a tiny museum of Fairground Arts, the Musée de Arts Forains. It’s actually not a public museum, but the private collection of Jean Paul Favand. It includes object d’art from fairgrounds around Europe in the 19th century. The museum has done extensive restoration on the artworks, and patrons are free to ride and play many of the “exhibits” on display. It was enchanting beyond all expectations and lasted just under 2 hours.

No Bag Storage? Starbucks!

Since the collection is private, the museum doesn’t keep regular opening hours, and tours are by appointment only. I was slightly desperate to go, but the only time a tour was available during my 6 days in Paris was the afternoon of my very last day, the day I was planning to catch a bus onward to Brussels. I had no choice but to choose that day, and move my bus to a later time. I’m so glad I did.

I had to check out of my Airbnb by 10am, and my host did not offer any variety of luggage storage. Neither does the museum offer any sort of cloak room or bag-check room. I checked a few websites for storage options, but it turns out that there are only a few places around town where it’s even possible and they are mightily expensive. I was travelling light (backpack only, yes, that is my actual luggage for the whole 7 week trip), but it was still at least 10-12 kilos, which can become tiresome to carry for many hours.

My tour was at 2pm, and I didn’t want to walk around Paris with all my luggage, so I headed straight to Bercy where both the museum and the bus would be found. I zeroed in on Starbucks for a clean bathroom, an iced latte, and a place to sit while waiting. This long haul travel is giving me some new appreciation for the use of American stand-bys. I’ve become addicted to iced lattes in hot weather, and the French seem to think that ice in coffee is anethema. Even McDonald’s McCafe failed at providing iced coffee options, but Starbucks is the same world wide with a few exceptions for seasonal specials.

I love French coffee, and I could have sat at a cafe the whole time I was waiting. No one kicks you out of a restaurant in Paris. Oddly Starbucks was a cheaper option since a coffee here is a tiny shot of espresso for 2€ or maybe a small cafe creme for 3.5-4€. At Starbucks, I got a Venti iced latte for 4.65€. I don’t want to be the tourist who goes abroad and only visits American chain stores, but sometimes, especially on a long trip, it’s nice to have the choice. Free clean bathrooms, cheaper large (iced) coffee, air-con, and free wifi do make it an ideal place to kill time if you have to.

Getting There

The museum was easy to find, although it looked a little foreboding from the outside. The grounds are covered in fences and the buildings all have shuttered windows. The tour guides only speak French, but they were kind enough to make an English language pamphlet that contained the pertinent information about each area of the museum we would visit. I read through it while waiting for the group to assemble, hoping that it might help me follow along.

When we finally assembled and began the tour, my feelings were primarily childlike glee. My joy wasn’t the only childlike feeling I had. Standing in the courtyard listening to the guide talk in French I had a sudden flash of understanding of how every kid must feel when tour guides talk and there’s nothing to look at or do. I tried to listen, but he talked so fast I couldn’t catch much. Fortunately, as he pointed out to us, it’s really a visual tour. The courtyard was pretty and I enjoyed the gargoyles and decorations amid the trees and flowers, but I was impatient to get inside.

The Giant of Bercy

This is the story he was telling while we were standing outside. I found the English version later. According to legend, Kind Louis XIV came to Bercy to attend mass at a nearby cathedral. Of course, all of his subjects were expected to kneel before their king during his royal visit, but when the time came for this obeisance, one man remained standing. When the guard were sent to investigate, it turned out the man was kneeling after all, but he was a giant who loomed above the crowd even in genuflection. The giant was a vintner named Martin, who used this unique chance to meet the king to talk about the taxes on wine merchants in Paris.

Charmed by the giant and amused by his complaints, the capricious king decided to grant the Pavilions of Bercy a tax exemption. The 106 acre region became closed off behind walls and ware houses with railroad tracks leading to the Seine where wine shipments could be transferred by boat. The buildings that now house the Musée d’Arts Forains were at one point warehouses and market buildings.

It wasn’t all wholesale business, however, and Bercy was also known for it’s wine bars and guiguettes where patrons could sip by the glass or by the bottle in convivial company.  Such an atmosphere prompted festivals, fireworks and other fun, giving Bercy it’s reputation as a joyful place.

The Venetian Rooms

As soon as we stepped inside I realized the photos I found online do not come close to representing the atmosphere of this place. Beautiful pieces of art displayed around a centerpiece of a merry go round from a classic Venetian style carnival. There was no roof, as a modern carousel might have, and most of the seats were elaborate gondolas and carriages with a few ornate animals with saddles. Our guide invited us to hop in for a ride and we whirled around to a recording of the original music.

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After the ride, we stayed seated but turned to face a wall which was decorated as the Grand Canal. The lights dimmed and we were treated to a beautiful light show that had clearly been made just to fit the size and shape of the room. We went from outer space, to under water, to a cityscape, a gondola ride on the river, a ballroom and a theater as the lights and sounds created this beautiful illusion.Image may contain: night, bridge, outdoor and water

The adjacent room was an animatronic opera with singers mounted around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. The lights and speakers moved as different characters (including Columbine, Harlequin, and Cassanova) sang and the robots moved. It was like Disneyland’s tiki room or hall of presidents.

It was easy for me to wander away from the group or start behind as they moved on and get photos of the rooms with no people. Since I couldn’t really understand, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Sadly, the rooms were so dark that most of my photos are only any good for jogging my memory of the experience.

The Carousel-Salon

In the 19th century, the Fairground was quite popular, and the Carousel-Salon was a style of fairground that included the pipe organ, the carousel, a ballroom for dancing, and of course, a bar.

Our guide cranked up the pipe organ, which was stunningly loud, and I took the time to get a closer look at some of the statues and carvings around the room. The detail of craftsmanship in these pieces was impressive. It was clear that the fair or carnival was much more than it is today. When I think of the clunky state-fairs of my childhood covered in bare bulb blinking lights and cheaply airbrushed panels on easily disassembled rides and booths, I can see how much we’ve lost in the last century of fairgrounds.

Once the pipe organ ended it’s song, we were invited to ride again. This time, a more familiar carousel with the faux tent roof and a few horses that trotted up and down as the ride goes around. My only complaint is the the tours allow more people than there are seats. The guide ran the ride twice but I didn’t get to ride a moving horse either time. Despite this small disappointment, I had tremendous fun riding the antique carousel inside a room filled with similarly antique carnival rides, games, and decorations.

Vue d'ensemble du manège de chevaux de bois du Musée des Arts Forains

We rode a pedal powered carousel as well. It was made up of a circle of large brass bicycles. This carousel was all about the thrill of speed. When the device was in use, warnings had to be issued that if a patron should lose their footing, they should not try to catch the pedals. Apparently the speed and force of the pedals resulted in more than one lost foot. The cycle carousel was capable of reaching 40mph (65kph) which in 1861 was dizzyingly fast! Once upon a time it also ran on electricity or steam, but the museum’s ride was purely pedal-powered. Don’t think that makes it less impressive. With every seat filled, the cycles seem more like a roller coaster ride than a carousel.

Vue d'ensemble du Manège de Vélocipèdes du Musée des Arts Forains

There were many other oddities, pieces from other rides, and classic fairground games to look at as well. German swing boats, card tables, shooting galleries, and exotic animals lined the walls around us. Electric lights and moving pictures will still a novelty often found only at such public shows. One of the most famous shooting games is the French Waiters. I’ve seen similar racing games in most modern carnivals and fairgrounds. Shooting at your target advances your waiter and the first one to the finish is the winner.

The Theater of MarvelsMusée des Arts Forains (2015-07-30 02.59.30 by Laika ac)

Next we entered a room full of oddities and treasures. It was Jean Favand’s own Cabinet of Curiosities including oddities such as a tree that could grow a leg and a dwarf in a boot. The center piece was made to look like the balloon of Baron Munchausen made by the collector himself. Esmerelda, the patroness of the funfair is depicted dancing. There was a huge papier-mâché elephant with a glamorously dressed rider, and Unicorn Cave is made from petrified wood, preserved plants, and mythical creatures.

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Our guide showed us a game called Palio di Sienna that was played by spinning a top through arches to hit a bell,and we all got to participate in a racing game that seemed like a combination of skee-ball and the shooting racer. Instead of hitting a target, you roll a ball into numbered holes for points, and your racehorse advances a little or a lot depending on how many points you got. The group played four times and I sat only one. It was very popular!

We ended the tour with a waltz in a music room. A self playing orchestra like the ones I would later see in Utrecht played a waltz comprised of 12 different musical instruments. Members of the tour group paired off and danced joyously around the dance floor while waxwork oddities looked on. Great historical figures like Victor Hugo and Thomas Edison stared down, dressed in disguise, and an unimaginably queer unicornitaur (like a minotaur, but the head of a unicorn?) stood by a grand piano ready to deliver a song that would never play.

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The fall in Korea has been keeping me busy. I volunteered to teach a debate club this semester and I’ve been trying to get out to a few more local social groups, maybe join a book club or two. We’ve also had a lot of school holidays. Last year, the three main fall holidays came together for one glorious 10 day vacation, but this year they’re spread out across three weeks. Counter-intuitively, this has actually made more work for me, and given me less time at my desk to work on this blog.  I would also like to shout out to the beautiful photogs who donate to Creative Commons because they saved my bacon from my tragically dark-derpy camera, and provided beautiful royalty free images for me to share. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this hidden gem of Paris.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

While 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.

Translation: “Every day, our pastry chefs prepare these deserts with passion, to offer you a rare and unexpected emotion.”

Desir 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. 

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

This 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! 

Black 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.

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!

Corne Port Royal:

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

Manon 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

Another “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

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.

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.

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!

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

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.Earl 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.

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.

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.

Galler

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

Chocolate 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 😉

How to Plan a Holiday

My last week got overrun by more vacation planning and I didn’t really have time to do much writing. However, since I’ve turned my gaze once more to the fun fun prospect of organizing my next international adventure, it seemed like a great time to share my process with you.


Related imagePlan? That sounds like WORK! Isn’t a holiday supposed to be FUN? Yes, but if you want to maximize your vacation time and money, taking the time and effort to plan ahead makes a world of difference. Unless you’re rich enough to just hire someone to plan the trip for you (and even then, finding the right tour company is important too!) you need to commit to planning. The time-money-quality triangle applies to everything, even holidays. The more time you put into the plan, the less money you need for high quality results. 

Step 1: Find Your Holiday Mission Statement

Planning a trip doesn’t start with booking a hotel and flight. There are some pre-trip questions you should really think about before any web searches or bookings take place.

How do you want to feel?

One of my friends loves laying on the beach with a book for days on end, but that sounds boring as heck to me after about 3 hours. Neither of us is right or wrong, but we want different things from our holiday. It’s important to know what your goals are, it’s kind of your vacation mission statement. From then on, any time you’re faced with an option or choice you can check to see if it matches your mission statement. Much like for a business, a vacation mission statement works best when it’s as specific as possible, while still being brief.

What you want from your holiday? Leisure? Adventure? Food? Shopping? Change of scenery? Nightlife? Art? History? Be pampered? Get dirty? 

What do you want to see?

Decide if you’re having a destination holiday or an experience holiday.

Destination holidays are those where you want to see a specific place like Rome or the Pyramids. There are awesome things everywhere in the world, but there’s only one Rome. Destination driven holidays should be more focused on off-season travel to maximize savings and also to avoid the high-season crowds. 

Destination driven holidays also need to think about weather as well as expenses. My favorite Thai island is closed 6 months of the year. Last fall, I had to find a different magical island getaway. My friend wants to go to Egypt and for a minute she thought she’d go in the summer break until I showed her the weather reports that include regular temps in the 40s (C). Now we’re going in February.

Experience holidays are ones in which you first consider your time off, and then see what’s having an off season sale that you might be interested in at that time. Sometimes, you can’t help but go to the popular place at the popular time. Work and school schedules are not always cooperative, but it is worth considering what else is available.

How long do you want to go?

Long weekend? 10 days? A month? There are vacations for nearly every length of time. Bear in mind shorter times should focus on one or two main activities in a single place with minimal travel. 

The less time you have in one place, the more detailed the planning needs to be. You might be fine spending an afternoon getting lost in town or just sitting at a cafe people watching if you have several days to spare, but if you get lost on your only day to do/see THE THING you’ll be really sad.

How much do you want to spend?

There are places in the developing world where you can book a luxury resort for 300$ a week (I did that in Egypt), places where you can eat amazing gourmet food for 25$ a meal or less (China and the Philippines for sure), there are places where a beer is 0.50 cents (Prague!) and places where a beer is 8-12$, places you can get a private room for 5$ a night with breakfast included, and others where a room in a dorm (sheets not included) costs 40$.

Don’t worry about the cost of individual things at this point, just think about how much you are willing to spend per day on average (take your total trip budget, subtract airfare, divide by the number of days you want to travel)Once you know your budget, you can check it against other travelers’ experiences to see if it’s enough for the place you’re dreaming of. I find that a lot of the blogs for backpackers are decently accurate for minimal daily expenses, and that the cost of living websites are more accurate for “family vacation” style spending. Most of SE Asia is 30-40$ a day for good times and EU is 80-100$ a day if you’re frugal.

Who are you going with?

Discuss the practical things – I almost forgot this one because I’m so used to travelling alone, but it is important. Not only do you have to ask all the previous questions of your travel buddies, you also have to think about room sharing (my mother snores so loud I’m not sure how that’s going to work when we travel together), as well as age or ability limitations (meeting my friend with a 3 yr old last summer, I had to think about 3yr old human needs). Travel buddies can be great company and help save money on things like renting a car or a room when you can share, but it’s a compromise on location and activities.

Be upfront about your goals and expectations – If possible, try to pick travel buddies who share your travel goals and habits. If you can’t do that, discuss them in advance so you have a way to handle when you want different things. It is so easy for a holiday to turn into resentment when people are tired, sunburnt, hungry and didn’t get to see/do the thing they wanted. If you are travelling with people who don’t share your goals, make sure you’re both ok splitting up sometimes so that no one’s feelings are hurt when you want to do something different.

Make time for each other – I don’t just mean plan with them, I mean that they need to have a place on your itinerary. What will you share together other than the hotel room? It’s almost impossible to make another person your top priority when you’re going on a (probably expensive and unique) travel experience, but it will help if part of every day is focused on each other more than the sites, even if it’s just one of your meals or a drink before bed. This applies to anyone, not just a romantic interest or spouse, but family, friends, and acquaintances. 

Step 2: Accommodation and Transit

Wait! All that was Step 1??? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Step one is mostly thinking, and a little bit of research to help you get the answers to those questions. Don’t skip it, though, because you’ll use those answers to shape everything that comes next.

The Flight

The flight is the biggest purchase you’re going to make and it defines the rest of your holiday. I think of it as the spine of the vacation.

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For a destination trip (or once you’ve decided your experience locations):
The flight search matrix used by Google is a great way to be able to see all available flights between to airports. Websites like Travelocity, Priceline, Expedia, and Kayak ALL use the matrix to search. It’s faster to go directly to the matrix instead of comparing 20 websites.

For experience vacations (or to narrow a list of potentials in a specific area):
You can look at a website like Kiwi.com to search “Anywhere” and see the cheapest flights during your holiday time, or you can search by country, or you can use the map function to just scroll around the globe and see where cheap prices are. I love this for wanderlusties who find themselves with time and money restraints because there’s always something awesome at the other end and discovering can be fun.

My trip to the EU was I’d say 40% destination 60% experience. I wanted to go to north Europe, I was less picky about the specifics.  I looked around at prices and noticed that CDG is cheap and convenient to fly into. I could have opted for round trip, but it would have meant making my route a circle or doing a long backtrack and I wanted to get at least one Nordic country in on this trip. I did a quick check on some sample bus prices (like Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Oslo) and decided I could do it. Thus my return flight airport was decided, and I went over to the Matrix to find the cheapest flight. I got a ticket with Russian airline Aeroflot through Moscow for under 1000$. The cheapest options on flight booking websites were 500-700 more.

Conversely, my winter holiday is far more destination driven. It’s going to be much harder to find such a great deal. I originally wanted to do Morocco, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (my friend is joining me for Jordan and Egypt). I haven’t found the perfect ticket yet. Kiwi thinks it will be around $2000 to fly Korea to Morocco to Jordan to Egypt and back to Korea. It IS a lot of flights, but I hold out hope that several hours of testing options on the flight matrix will save me a few hundred dollars.

Search nearby airports – Flying one airport and then taking a bus or train out to a cheaper destination could save you hundreds of dollars. It’s worth comparing airports, and checking the price and timing of the ground transit before you buy, just to be sure. I don’t recommend this for short holidays (less than 3 days), but the longer your holiday is, the more worthwhile this becomes. In New Zealand, I flew in and out of Auckland even though I didn’t want to do anything in that city. In the Philippines, I had to fly into Manila, sleep in a little airport hostel, then fly to Bohol the next morning.

Choosing Your City/Cities

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Destination vacation people will have done this step before buying plane tickets.

Experience vacation –  “I’ll just see what’s there when I land” is not a reliable recipe for a great holiday. It’s a little like the lottery. Stack the odds in your favor and read up. Even if you think you know where you’re going, it doesn’t hurt to read about your destination on something other than Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

In the winter of 2016/17 my destination was “the Malay peninsula”. It looks small on a map, but it is big on the ground. I almost ended up missing out on Koh Lipe because Langkawi has been famous longer. Reading more sources gave me more options, and better information to make my decision with.

Read the blogs – Find some bloggers who share your holiday mission statement. It doesn’t do me any good to read bloggers who love to bike across Europe because I will not be doing that. Ever. I found a blog that talked about running tours of cities and nearly fainted from thinking about it.  Find unique bloggers who share real details. Mainstream bloggers like Nomadic Matt are fine for finding out the basic details and some run off the mill travelling advice, but for my taste, when I’m trying to decide where to go, I need the atmosphere, the mood, and the experiences of someone like me.

Check the local transport options – In addition to attractions, hotels and ground transit can shape your city choices. If you’re going to places with good public transit, it’s easy to land in one place for a bit and then move to another hub. If rental cars are cheap, you might consider driving around some of the rural parts of your chosen holiday spot. 

Move at least once a week – Happiness experts say that the shiny new vacation smell wears off after about 7 days in the same place. I like to change cities at least once a week, but if you want to spend your whole summer in the Maldives laying on the beach, it’s still a good idea to break it up by moving to a hotel on the other side of the island or taking a weekend to explore the mainland. After 7 days, things become a “routine” and the mental mood boosting benefits of vacationing begin to taper off sharply. Relaxing holidays will tend to move less, while exploring holidays will need to move more. How much more often than every 7-8 days you move will depend on your goal.

Finding Accomodation

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Don’t stay anywhere you don’t feel safe or can’t get good sleep. It’s not worth saving money if you’re stressed or too tired to enjoy the next day’s activities.

Do try to minimize your accommodation costs unless the resort itself is the center of your holiday (which is fine, private beaches are dreamy).

Shop around – It’s good to have a range of search options to keep your prices down. I like Airbnb and Booking.com the best, but I’ve been known to poke around Hostelworld. Sometimes I’ve just made email arrangements because I’m traveling to the back end of nowhere. Most of these places give discounts to non-cancellable reservations, but if you want to maintain flexibility, its a good idea to book places you can change later in case you find something better or change your plan altogether.

Beware hidden costs – Things to think about besides the room price: are any meals included? Do you need parking? Do you need a shuttle service? Will you need laundry service? Is it close to public transit? A great room price can be ruined if you have to pay 20$ a night for parking, if you have to walk a mile to the bus stop, or if there’s no place to eat nearby (this happened to me once in Korea and my hostess, bless her heart, fed us, but it was embarrassing!)

Location, location, location – When booking my rooms, I’m typically going back and forth between the booking site, a map of the region, and some travel blogs. Sometimes the map will show me something interesting because Google does that now. Sometimes the hotel will mention famous nearby sights to check out, and always travel bloggers will tell you about their own experiences there.  I spend ages staring at maps, reading blogs, and looking at the map function of Airbnb. It can show you the prices of a large geographical region. Sometimes I find great prices and realize I don’t really want to GO to that place so it’s useless.

Quality is subjective – Reading reviews of accommodation is tricky. If the person leaving the review has a different set of values and expectations than you, their review may not be helpful. Don’t just look at stars. Look at how many people reviewed something. A 4 star rating from 200 reviews is better than a 5 star rating from only 10 reviews. Read the things people liked, but also read what they didn’t like. Are those things important to you? Can you sleep in a room where you might see a rat to save $$? Do you HAVE to have A/C? Do you want to meet other guests or have more privacy? What is the standard in that country? I found that a 2-3 star (of 5) rating in developed countries is equivalent to a 4 or 5 star place in developing nations.

Prioritize – For me, feeling safe is #1. I don’t like to stay in co-ed dorms if I can avoid it but female only dorms are often more expensive. I also won’t stay in an Airbnb with all men (one or many, I don’t do it unless there’s a female in the house).  I’ve learned I can sleep just about anywhere for one night, but I prefer a single room, or a women only dorm in a clean place in a non-party part of town (I do not like hearing people throwing up from being drunk while I’m trying to sleep). I also look for transportation options (parking if I have a car, bus stop if I don’t).

Things like lux decorations, pools, spas, and services are less important to me, but you need to know your own priorities. If you want to party all night, stay in the party zone. If you can’t enjoy yourself unless you’re staying in the Marriott, then increase your budget or pick cheaper parts of the world where those resorts are affordable. Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt is great for that. You can stay in fancy beach resorts for a fraction of the cost of other countries.

Local Transportation

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Minimize travel time – I’ve seen tourists travel for hours to reach someplace and look for 15 minutes, take a few pics, and then get back on the bus. I don’t understand this method of travel. I think transit should be minimized. I don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day in transit (except the flights in and out). It’s not always possible, but it is important. The comfort level of your transit is also important, as I learned in Thailand. A 3 hr bus ride in a plush comfy air conditioned seat is much more tolerable than a 3 hr ride in a cramped, hot, minivan.

Travel in your down time – In EU this summer, I traveled on Saturday so I wouldn’t have to fight weekend crowds at popular venues, and I used them as rest days where I could just relax and travel from one place to another. On shorter trips, I like to do intercity transit early in the morning or last thing at night. If you have to go a long way, it might be worth looking into sleeper cars. When we were in China (a huge landscape) we did that a couple times and skipped out on hotels for the 8-10 hour train rides overnight.

Research the details – If you’re going in the off season, you can probably buy tickets the day of your travel, but in the high season it’s best to make reservations. Look at the time tables and make sure you can get to the bus/train station on time. Compare the bus and train costs. I found that taking the bus around France and Holland was great, but that in Germany the train was cheaper.  I took a bus from Singapore to KL, but a train from KL to Ipoh.

Look at alternative travel options – Sometimes local flights can be more efficient and cheaper than bus or train. Sometimes there are even boats. Which I love. I took a ferry from Jordan to Egypt last time I was there. It was not any cheaper than flying, but it was a much cooler experience. I also had to take a boat to get to Koh Lipe and back since there are no airports on the tiny little island. Now that I’ve been, I know I probably could have bought my ticket when I got to the port, but at the time I had no idea how full it would be so I made sure to book online.

Check the reviews – In some cases you won’t have choices, but when you do it’s best to check and see if you can find a picture of the fleet that is NOT on the company website. I thought the boat to Koh Lipe would be like the ferries I’m used to where we could go up on deck and with that in mind, I was looking into a 3 hr boat ride. When I read more and realized that the Thai ferries in the region are all very restrictive and make passengers stay seated below decks, I opted for the shortest possible ride instead.

When in Rome – Not literally, but when it comes to getting around, it’s a good idea to see what locals do. I did so much research on inter-city transit to get from one place to another, I neglected to pre-research city buses to learn how to get around once I was there! It turns out, every one is different and it was a huge source of stress for me last summer.  How do you use the bus/tram/metro system? Do you need a bus pass? Where do you buy tickets? Does it cost more to buy one at a time or get a pass? Is the tourist pass worth it? Don’t assume it will be easy to figure out when you get there… it won’t be.

Step 3: The Details

Now you have your cities chosen, your hotels booked, and a solid idea of how you’ll get around. Time to narrow your focus and figure out what you’ll do in each location. Show up and see what happens is not a strategy that works for most people. It seems very romantic, but most people find they end up sitting around on Google trying to do the research they should have done before they arrived.

Brainstorm

Brainstorm by DBed

Write a list – Just make a list of names of all the places you can find where you’re going. Websites like Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet come in handy at this stage. They are great resources for building a basic list of things to see. They are a bit limited to the most popular tourist attractions, however, so try adding something like Atlas Obscura to your search.

Dig deeper For more unique travel opportunities, check travel blogs and Facebook pages and other types of social media from smaller voices to see what isn’t being seen by the big famous travel sites. I found a magical heated waterfall in NZ this way. I’ve learned about unique food in tiny restaurants, and the less famous but just as beautiful temple or church next to the one full of tourists. You get beautiful memories and you often get the place mostly or even all the way to yourself. I can’t provide links because each blogger focuses on different places and experiences, but if you type the name of the place + “blog” or “travel blog” you should get some decent results.

Check the map– Once you get a list written down, you can start searching for what’s near them geographically. Pull up the Google Map and see what pops up next to your famous site or on the route from your hotel to that site. Read more blogs about people who went to a famous site and see if they did any side trips. I had a side trip for buffalo ice cream on my way back from a famous site in Bohol. Local water-buffalo being milked for ice cream… that’s a unique holiday experience.

Expand your search – If your’e staying in one hotel more than 3 days (it hardly ever takes longer to see the highlights of one city, although of course you could explore a single city for years and not see everything, many people on holiday like to maximize experiences), you can look at day trips from the city you’re in. Can you do a tour to a nearby natural reserve for hiking, kayaking, fishing, etc? Can you get a bus to a neighboring city and see their sights? I found an amazing spa in Aachen Germany about 2 hours away from my hotel in Lanaken Belgium.

Read until your eyes blur – Keep adding things to your list.  Make your list as long as you like, don’t worry about all the details of each place yet, this is the brainstorm phase. Anything that sounds interesting, put it on the list.

Edit the List

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Location, Location, Location – things that are close together can be done on the same day, while things that are far away, not on the public transit line, or not near anything else cool might be cut from the list. I had the Tower of Eben-Ezer on my list, but when I realized how far out it was and that it would take me hours each way without a car, I reluctantly took it off the list. Other times I’ve gone to a place I was only semi-interested in because it was 5 minutes walk from my primary stop and had a great experience.

Timing is everything –  Check the days and hours of operation, and the price. If it’s not open when you’re there, if it conflicts with something you want more, if it costs too much, cross it off the list. Do you need to book in advance or can you buy tickets at the door? How long is the line? Many attractions have “skip the line” tickets that let you save time. When we went to the Catecombs in Paris, the line was 3 hours long. We had skip the line tickets and got in with only about 5 minutes wait. I completely failed to buy my Kremlin tickets ahead of time, and had to choose between standing in line and seeing the Kremlin or doing literally anything else in Moscow that day.

Read the reviews – Read reviews, look at pictures, visit the website. Look beyond rating and see what people are saying. Are the things they talk about important to you? Does this seem like something you’ll like? More than once I’ve declined to visit a city’s most popular tourist destination because it just didn’t seem that interesting to me.

PrioritizeYour list should be divided into “must see” and “see if there’s time”, with a side of “bad weather options”. Make sure you have no more than 50% of your list as “must see”. Even after editing out all the places you can’t get to, can’t afford, aren’t open, or aren’t interesting, the list should still be huge, and contain more things that you can actually do in the time you have because you might need to change something based on weather, unexpected closures, illness, or random acts of gods.

Step 4: The Schedule

It’s a good idea to have a schedule, as long as you know that it will change. I don’t want to spend my precious vacation time thinking about what to do each day. Sometimes I write detailed schedules down to the half hour, other times I make “day itineraries” grouping nearby activities together so I can wake up and say, ok today I’ll do itinerary 3.eu trip plan

Booking in Advance

Use your priority list and start with things on your “must see” list that require (or strongly suggest) advance reservations. Once those are filled in, you can start adding things that have variable times and things from your “see if there’s time” list.

Visit the website – Almost all of them have an English page and will tell you how important it is to buy tickets in advance. Some places don’t even sell tickets at the door. 

Don’t Over-schedule

The temptation to squeeze sightseeing into every moment of the day is strong. Avoid it. A single event or a bike/walking tour that lasts 2-3 hours is a “half day” event (2 per day). Anything more than 5 hours is an “all day” event (1 per day). I can’t make you slow down, but thousands of travelers over several decades agree that seeing fewer things, but experiencing them more fully is a more satisfying experience.

Make time for meals! Oh man, the number of times I’ve ended up not getting food because I’ve been so busy looking around. It’s a tragedy especially if you’re travelling anywhere with good food… soooo basically everywhere. Street food is awesome and should be tried, but you need to sit down and rest too.

Organize by geography – When I was in the Philippines, I had itineraries that could be done on any day, as long as the items were done as a group because they were all close together. You can sneak tiny things into a day this way. If there’s something that will take less than an hour quite close to one of your half or all-day events you can work that in without killing yourself.

Time is a Gift – You look at an itinerary like this and you think, OH we’re wasting so much time, but you are not. You are giving yourself a precious gift. Now you have time to get lost, to explore, to check out that cool thing on the way you didn’t know about, to stop for an ice cream or coffee, to meet people along the way.

Be Prepared to chuck the plan – If you travel with an open eye and open mind, you’ll also find new and interesting things along the way. Sometimes it’s meeting people who invite you along, sometimes the concierge or Airbnb host tells you about a local secret, sometimes you just walk into a wine festival in the park (true story, happened to me in Prague). You want to be able to make time for these things, and in order to do that you need things you can move around in your itinerary.

Step 5: Organize Your Documents

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Gone are the days of having to print our whole holiday itinerary and carry them around in waterproof document cases! Yes, people did that. Sometimes I still see older couples doing it. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, and if you’re not going to be around computers or the internet, it’s VITAL, but now that we can store everything in the cloud, we can access schedules, booking details, and vouchers with our phones!

At a Glance – There are countless apps you can use to organize your itinerary, but be sure you get one that is easy to read at a glance. You’ve seen my color coded spreadsheet that shows a calendar where I put the things I’ve scheduled and bought tickets for, but I also use something like a Word.doc for the list of things I can do more or less whenever that includes addresses, websites and phone numbers I may need, and any itinerary groupings.

On the Cloud – I make a dedicated folder in my cloud storage for all vouchers and receipts for everything I bought online from hotel reservations to museum tickets for each trip. I filter all my emails related to the holiday into a dedicated email folder for easy reference. I also keep photos of my critical documents. I know not everyone is comfortable with this, but if you lose your passport or ID, it will be easier to show your Embassy a picture of your missing credentials so they can help you faster.

Offline – If you won’t have data or internet when you arrive you can also download the documents you need to the phone’s storage. Some strange places in the world are still requiring printed vouchers/ tickets, so double check when you make reservations if you can use the pdf or email as proof or not.


What is all this for?

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Planning a holiday can certainly be fun and help you build anticipation for your upcoming adventure. However, it can also be a lot of work and there are days when you’ll want to throw the towel in and just wing it when you get there. Trust me. Don’t. 

All of this painstaking work helps make sure you get to see the best your holiday destination has to offer you.

  • make sure you don’t show up to a venue that is closed or sold out.
  • minimize transit time by grouping your events together.
  • maximize your bucket list by prioritizing only one or two things a day. 
  • have enough time to do everything and a way to stop and rest as needed. 
  • alleviate the stress of where to go and how to get there while you’re jet-lagged and culture-shocked.
  • explore organically by leaving a little extra time every day that could be filled or changed as needed.

I hope your next adventure is everything you dream.

Happy Travels!

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