We arrived to cosmopolitan Brussels with 3 lost bags and 1 missing person. One suitcase went to Moscow but all caught up eventually. Janice and I are led a perfect size group of 39, not too big to get lost in or too small for comfort. Each July trip draws school teachers who have loyally followed me around the world and they do love Europe. We began with a light orientation tour in the historic heart of this capital, followed by a tour of the Chocolate Museum. I found this boring, but the tastings were great.
After a nap at the Sheraton, we enjoyed a welcome dinner at Chez Leon, a typical Belgium Brasserie located on the charming “Rue de Restaurants.” You can get mussels in Brussels, but not brussel sprouts. And the french fry as it was invented here. Our menu consisted of egg puff pastry with Ardennes mouseline sauce, Flemish beef stew in Grimbergen ale and a dark chocolate mousse cake on a bed buttercream which was a culinary masterpiece never to be forgotten. I always say that a loud group is a happy group, but I think their decibel level here may have been due to their indulgence of amber ales. 428 different types are brewed in this country including a popular new blueberry beer. Later we scattered like chickens into the Grand Place which is considered by most to be the worlds most beautiful square. It comes to life at night every July with a light show and various unlicensed entertainers. One young lady is dressed in candy tempting men to buy a bite.
If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium. After breakfast, we began our morning walking tour of the 17th century Grand Place. It was actually 8:30 Sunday morning and I marveled that in over a dozen visits here, I’ve never seen this place so empty. It echoed in silence as tourists slept and the locals were gone for holiday. Sunlight brilliantly flooded the gothic cathedrals, classical facades and art nuveau houses. We were alone and it was breathtaking.
We then visited the famed confectioner “Planet Chocolate” that opened especially for our group. Pedestrians peered in the windows with curiosity. A great demonstration was given by chocolatier Jon, grandson of the founder of this factory renowned for producing 67 different flavors. We learned about the history of cocoa. The ancient Mayans considered it an aphrodisiac and Montezuma consumed it in copious amounts. It was made famous in Belgium by J. Nuehus who added the praline hazelnut cream. Each cocoa fruit contains 25 beans. The best comes from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Indonesia. We learned all about the roasting and fermenting processes. Jon expounded on how healthy his dark chocolate is with more magnesium and antioxidants. He even asserts that it boosts energy and thus helps you loose weight convoluted thinking. It was however, once sold at chemists as antidepressant medicine and unlimited amounts were given to soldiers in wartime to combat stress. At the end of the lecture, silver trays of truffles were presented along with a cup of hot ganache, which tasted like chocolate soup. I never really cared for chocolate but it was infatuation at first bite.
Our next stop was Chocolate Manon which I was told is run by a “chocolate nazi” who will lock the doors if we’re one minute late. This small factory concentrates on quality over quantity and fancy packaging. The educational presentation was given by the owner Christian, who is both serious and hilarious. He only uses the highest quality vanilla, sugar, butter and 70% cocoa powder. This is a real factory with enormous chocolate blocks piled high and brown drippings everywhere. Sorry Hershey’s, but the cocoa here is not replaced with palm oil, chemicals, coloring, vegetable fats and lard. This is as pure as it gets and it’s better than Swiss. They sell direct to Bergoff and Neimans in NYC. There are 443 chocolate factories in Belgium all with the competitive spirit of Tour de France between them. Godiva still reigns supreme.
Christian explained that white chocolate is really an oxymoron. It contains only milk, sugar, cream and 21% white cocoa butter. As he lectured, he continually dipped his finger in to vats to taste his latest batch, while quickly running back and forth with frenetic energy from molds to freezer. He has a true passion for his product and consumes about 250 grams or a 1/2 lb a day, yet is as thin as Calista Flockhart.
I love my job, but would swap a month with him anytime.Over 1000 fillings are used inside the hollow shells. One by one, hundreds of shells are filled by hand. Each piece is a mini-sculpture. We’re invited to squeeze the ganache pastry bags, but made a terrible mess and had to eat our mistakes. Nothing is discarded here. Even table scrapings will be remelted.
Dark chocolate can be stored up to 15 years and molded into any shape. We’re shown pictures of intricate violins, a woman’s formal dress and a life size dinning room table and chairs all made of chocolate.
Monday we toured this proud and regal city that is revealed in its royal palaces, cathedrals, museums and onuments. We see the headquarters of the EU and site of the 1958 World’s Fair with the massive silver Atonium. We photograph the Mannekin Pis. [I never understood the love of this small bronze statue but it represents Brussels. Perhaps it’s found in the irreverence of the artist.] Paula was our guide for several days here. Her stellar knowledge brought the history of Belgium to life, particularly the time when King Leopold purchased the Congo as his personal playground. Paula deeply cared for her work and later invited us to visit yet another chocolate factory, but fully sated, we declined. For free time we dispersed into tiny alleyways to intentionally get lost. Some searched out beer halls or hot sugar waffles, as others shopped for tapestries at give-away prices.
Things become a bit blurry from here. I’d taken some great notes on napkins throughout and managed to loose them all enroute. But memory serves well as we head to the capital of Flanders and enchanting Bruges.
This town is a complete UNESCO World Heritage Site with a tranquil character that can’t be described. The people have done so much to protect its medieval feel, it provides the magical affect of stepping back into time. It is called “Little Venice” and we enjoyed a boat cruise through the veritable maze of old canals that led to the Lake of Love. We strolled through ancient squares lined with houses of gabled rooftops and various cathedrals of holy this and holy that. Horse drawn carriages filled the cobbled streets. We entered the neo-gothic Basilica of Holy Blood and climbed 365 steps up the Belfry Tower with its carillon bells that chimed so loud it could blow an eardrum.
We visited the cities finest lace shop for a demonstration on lace making, which I anticipated to be as exciting as watching paint dry. It was however, quite fascinating watching the delicate work of this 500 year old cottage industry. We viewed an 18th century handkerchief so intricate that it took 4 ladies nearly 10 years to complete! All for a distant royal bride to blow her nose on.
I think I walked 67 kilometers that day. (Life lesson #122- NEVER wears heels on cobbled streets.) Bruges is entirely cozy and colorful, as if stepping into a postcard. At a cafe, I splurged on a waffle topped with chocolate, fruit and ice cream, so far, so good. For our entire trip we were blessed with no rain and perfect weather.
I’m a city girl at heart and was happy to depart for Holland. William of Orange is our jovial driver who just loaded our suitcases that have now swelled to 71 pieces. This is a super double-decker with plenty of room for our 150 mile journey. I joked on the mic as we crossed the border into Holland that there will be a 3 hour time change and never to drink the water. Much to my surprise my dear novice travelers actually started changing their watches! We passed many Smart Cars manufactured by Mercedes and Swatch. These toy-like hybrid two-seaters are expensive, but so adorable. On arrival, we checked into the Novotel Amsterdam for 4 days of touring pleasure.
We boarded our private glass topped boat and cruised through a labyrinth of canals. Amsterdam has 140 miles in all. Our wonderful guide Marilyn commentated on the picturesque neighborhoods and unique architecture. I photographed the world’s skinniest house, built in 1664. It was 5 stories high and only the width of the front door! Many locals live on houseboats and the area starts to resemble a floating trailer park. Holland is about 100′ below sea level. Pumps are used to constantly pump out water and basements do not exist.
The beer drinkers in this group loved the “Heineken Experience” with plenty of tastings and virtual games all over this famous brewery. The shoppers liked the Coster Diamond Factory where we learned about cutting and polishing the precious stones. They locked us in a room with guards where a gazillion euros worth of diamonds were displayed. We each had are own agenda for free time. The art lovers explored the national museums of Rembrandt and Van Gough. Many toured Ann Franks House where one can really sense the drama as she hid from the Nazi’s in the tiny attic writing her diary. Others went to Edam for cheese and Delft for porcelain. I visited friends and indulged on Dutch pancakes of every style imaginable.
One day we visited Zaanse Schans, a typical village for total Dutch immersion. We began at the Ratterman Clog Factory where 3 million pairs are produced annually. They’re used for working in the fields and are still worn today.
Wooden shoes do not stretch so how can locals proclaim these to be comfortable? I prefer my Jimmy Choo’s stilettos and instead buy tulip bulbs for souvenirs. We then visit a cheese farm and watched as they separated curds from whey. Here we bought enough wheels of flavored Goudas to make Wisconsin jealous. [We never considered the weight it would add later to our carry-ons.] We explored the open air museum with a backdrop of working windmills. There were also small period cast farms with curious ducks, goats and sheep.
That evening I had dinner with a friend I usually only see once every 5 years. Paul says, “Suzy, you are like a good old book in the library of my life that I tucked away. You re-enter out of nowhere. I dust it off and the memories return.” As we catch up, I thought I had some stories to tell but his life is as captivating as a best selling novel. He is an undercover agent in the Special Forces, trains Dutch combat troops in Germany preparing for tours in Kabul, works narcotics infiltration and is a body guard for the royal family. Kind of like Jack Bauer on “24.” Everything is “top secret” yet he reveals that he basically gets paid by the government to work out daily. Recently he transported orangutans form the Amsterdam zoo to freedom in Borneo.
The highlight of this trip for me was our 2 hour city tour on bicycles. We looked like a motley crew as we headed out into narrow cobbled streets and over countless bridges. As I peddled, I observed my group behind me. One woman is nearing 70, two are smoking cigarettes, Janice is talking to America on her cell and one unmentionable crashes into a car! She had to pay the driver for damages on the spot. It took complete concentration to cross the busy tram tracks. That morning we rode through Vodelpark and the Red Light district. It was interesting to see the prostitutes as they just woke up to get their coffee dressed in jeans and sneakers
Holland is the land of the free. With prostitution legal, my group is most inquisitive on this matter. We laughed as Marilyn said, “Suzy, they all ask questions on sex. Are they frustrated?”
I arranged a professional guided walking tour of the Red Light district in the oldest part of Amsterdam for the world’s oldest profession. Since the 1400’s, seamen would dock here to unload. Guides Gabriel and Shuert boldly led us through alleys of half clad ladies. No photos allowed. We’re told that some fear it’ll go out on the web. Our guides explained that some women are forced here nowadays and some are simply ashamed. Ladies differ in size, shape and color as we strolled through different quarters. On one street they’re all obese. We learned to identify the transsexuals by two things surgery can’t change – an adam’s apple and a straight waist. Tastes differ; the oldest woman here is 76 and only works in summer. Only half use protection and monthly health checks are required. There are around 1000 prostitutes working 500 windows. They pay 150 to rent a window for 6-8 hours, and can make up to 450 per day. They pay taxes and can write receipts for services rendered. If the curtain is closed they are not on break. The area is flooded with tourists. Men pay 50 for 30 minutes, yet statistics reveal the average time spent is just 6 minutes.
We crossed “Pill Bridge” named for the drugs pushed there and then toured the Erotic Museum with photographs and “tools of the trade” dating back to the 17th century on display. As I pondered and stared at a metal chastity belt, Gabriel said that blacksmiths always had a spare key which came in handy when the husbands were away at sea. She also insisted the Dutch were far less promiscuous than Americans. I was concerned about my ultra-conservative teachers but nothing seemed to shock them. After awhile, our senses were over saturated and it became dull. The saddest sight was seeing a “heroin hooker”. She was emaciated with glazed eyes and so many track marks that she had to shoot it now under her tongue. Police cameras were everywhere 24/7, there is little crime and we felt totally safe.
Pot and hash are legal here in over 400 “coffee shops” that sell joints and “ganja-space milkshakes.” Locals told me they felt Americans were oppressed by too many rules and can’t understand how our drug companies can sell meds on TV.
Enough on the wild side, this is also the art capital of Europe boasting more museums per square foot than any other city. Marilyn gave us a quick art lesson in a nutshell. She explained that this is the 400 year celebration of Rembrandt (1606-2006). He came from a family rich in windmills. As a child, he was an expert sketcher. Later in medical school, he did anatomical drawings of corpses from criminals. He studied more and soon rose above the Dutch masters with the ability to capture light and shadows in paint. He always began with a black canvas. Though blessed with enormous artistic talent, he couldn’t manage his finances. He died penniless and was entombed in a pauper’s grave.
Van Gogh grew up a lonely child and was very attached to his mother. His hyper-critical father didn’t like is artwork. He went to Paris to study the impressionists. He was schizophrenic and when he had episodes, it was seen in his paintings that grew wilder and wilder with time. He cut off his ear and later committed suicide. His paintings were discovered stored away in his family home. We learned so much here.
Many think they’ve seen Europe, but miss the countries with the most charm. Here we were enveloped by history, culture and all that the Old Continent should be. Also this wasn’t a typical EU vacation with endless museums and cathedrals, but a creative itinerary which provided large fun. Total cost was $1175 plus air. Everyone’s favorite stop was Bruges, but for me Amsterdam was an urban masterpiece. I found the Dutch far friendlier than other Europeans. This visit rekindled my love for the Netherlands, that tiny country with 2 names. This time I looked through new eyeballs with my teachers who were experiencing their first trip abroad.
It was a wonderful group. One couple connected whom we later labeled “The Honeymooners” and I hope they last. In flight home on Delta, I noticed among my sleepy group that some were munching on their chocolates that were meant for gifts back home. And once in line at US Customs, some were proudly wearing their new, brightly painted, uncomfortable wooden clogs. I just have to do this trip again.