Friday, November 22, 2013

Keep Your Gentse Neus Out of My Business

We attempted Varosi Limousine service again, and they were waiting at 3:45 am outside our door. After having our passports checked and our luggage tagged as large carry-ons for Wizz, we had 20 minutes to spend in the Diners Club lounge. We actually had to wait for it to open since we were in the airport lobby by 4:30 and they don’t open until 5 am.

The problem with taking budget airlines in most cities is the secondary airports you fly into. Going to Brussels, you land in Brussels South Charleroi airport. The man at the information desk in the lobby directed us to the bus area where we would get combination tickets for the bus and also for the train tickets we needed to get to Ghent. One stop shopping, perfect! What he omitted was that there was no live person there to sell the tickets, so we had to navigate a machine in order to purchase them. Though it could be set to English, the directions were still not quite comprehensive to assure us we were doing it correctly. All those waiting behind us pleaded the innocent “I am a tourist too” mantra leaving the blind to lead the blind. Our ticket from the airport all the way to Ghent was €20.20 each. I

It was very foggy and cold out. We had to wait close to a half hour for the bus. A twenty-five minute bus ride brought us to the Brussels Midi train station. We boarded our train, but had to get off at Brussels Zud where we caught another train for Ghent. The timing was near perfect with little waiting time, but just enough time to make connections. I kept waiting for some conductor to have hysterics over our having the incorrect ticket, but all went smoothly and without a glitch.

Once in Ghent, the trams are near the station, so the number 1 tram took us within 4 blocks of our hotel. There was still a layer of fog when we arrived; the sun had given up on peeking through. We were there before noon, but bless them; they allowed us to access our room. This is the Ghent River Hotel, which is excellently located.

Amsterdam has always been one of my favorite cities in the world. The architecture is a majorly contributing factor. Ghent immediately captured my heart for the same reason. We walked around looking for tourism office as it had moved, so we had the incorrect directions. We happened upon the Belfry; it is a 95 meter high tower built in 1380, and asked directions from the ticket sales person. While there we purchased the Ghent 48 Hour Tourism Card for €25 each. It includes free admission to most museums, all public transit, and a canal boat ride. Still, it didn’t seem we could follow the new directions given to the tourism office at least until we realized that the statue of Neptune we were hunting for was not a land statue, but one perched up high on a building. With that mystery solved, we were successful. 

They had an interesting interactive table with Internet capability, so while Ron was getting his questions answered, I played on the table reading about the culture, foods, and sights to see. Waterzooi is a classic stew of Flanders. Traditionally, it is made from fish, but chicken waterzooi is now just as popular. This was something we wanted to taste as well as cuberdon, also known as neuzeke, tsoepke or Gentse neus because of its resemblance to a nose. They are sweets that are sold everywhere with prices ranging from €3 for a bag of 7 to €29 for specialty shapes. The story is that a chemist realized people would not take a certain liquid medication due to the horrid flavor. He created this candy with strawberry, cherry and raspberry flavor to
mask the medicines. Shaping the concoction into cone-like candies made it more appealing. Today, the medicine has been removed, but a harder outer lends itself to a soft inside with gooey flavored jelly. 

Ron asked for recommendations for both the waterzooi and for waffles. Belgium waffles are world famous. We were provided with the names Etablissement Max for the waffles and Chez Leontine for the stew.

Ghent is the perfect location to have a Belgium waffle, so why not a place within Ghent, which is famous for their waffles? The oversized sign over the doors only shows MAX. Inside it reminded me of the quaint tea parlors that one sees in movies, but often nostalgically replicated in various cities. 

If your experience has always been eating waffles that are crispy and crunchy, avoid this establishment. Our waffles were lighter than air, lightly browned and melted in our mouths delicious. I had mine with only butter, but Ron had his with strawberries and whipped cream. The strawberries were out of season, so they needed the whipped cream as a sweetener. The service was excellent and the atmosphere was delightful. Yes, it was on the expensive side, but it was worth the treat. For the 2 of us the waffles we chose with an espresso drink came to over €21

As we were finishing up, a woman and two small girls around 10 years old were seated next to us. From the looks on the girls’ faces, this was a major treat for them to be here. They each had a waffle with two scoops of ice cream and other frills. They were so exuberant; I couldn’t help but think that this memory would stay with them forever as a highlight of their young lives. I also couldn’t help thinking what a fortune this was going to cost the lady who was treating them and wondered what career she had. The cost will be a memory she will never forget either. 

We initiated our Ghent Card at St. Bavo’s Cathedral, not that there is a charge for entering this church, but this is where the famous The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is housed. This requires an admission of €4. The church itself has many wonderful art pieces, but the Mystic Lamb is the treasure of all treasures. Painted in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, this tremendously large Triptych is world famous. Once you enter the sealed room, you do have that sense of awe unlike any other piece of art you will ever see. For €1 more, they provide a headset with audio guides. Why they don’t charge €5 to get in and give you the guide is not intuitive to me.

Next stop was Castle of the Counts where seemingly endless circular stairs lead you into the sky and the next solar system. Well that is what it feels like as you climb these claustrophobic staircases. Walking around the top did have impressive views of the city, but other than to say I have done it, I would not relish the thought of doing it again. Philip of Alsace had the castle built in 1180, which is really impressive that it is so well formed still today. Admission would have been €8 each without our card.

Dinner reservations were made at Chez Leontine as recommended by the tourism office as being famous for their waterzooi. The inside was interesting and really charming in an old fashioned way. Parts of the walls were exposed brick with plaster in other areas, but the walls were covered with old fashioned cooking utensils. The service was good, but the serving sizes left something to hunger for.

Basically, waterzooi may be called a ‘stew’, but in reality it is simply a bowl of soup. Ron’s version was chicken priced at €21.95. Accompanying it was a sole roll. Yes, a single roll. We had to ask for a second for my entree.

I had thought I ordered smarter with the pork 'stew'. It turned out to be 6 small chunks of pork in brown gravy. The pork meat lacked any flavor, but the sauce was tasty, albeit on the salty side. My dinner was something like €22. With beers, our total bill swelled to €55. Shopping around later looking at menus, this was about average. We did not get ripped by the tourism office referral. Yet, when you pay this much for a soup or ‘stew’ you expect significant quality and quantity.

Fortunately, Belgium has over 300 beer breweries, so we were able to console ourselves.
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