Kortrijk and Ghent….Domingo y lunes in Bélgica.

On Sunday Siska and I started our day with a visit to her home town. Kortrijk is a Flemish city located in the province of West Flanders. I was able to see where she and Stephan are from, the hospital where her Dad worked his whole life, the house Stephan was raised in, and the school that she went to. We than met Stephans brother Jeff, his beautiful wife Delphine, and their 9 year old twins for lunch. We went to a stunning restaurant named ‘Het Wit Kasteel’. Not only was the food and ambiance spectacular, but the owners have a whole set-up going on to entertain the children. There was an actual on-site playground for the kids and a clown that came to entertain them for hours. And everyone employed at this restaurant looked like they belonged on a cover of a magazine. Seriously the most attractive restaurant staff that I have ever seen…and I have been in a lot of restaurants, to put it mildly. I had the greatest time ever at lunch and laughed the entire time! Stephan was still out of town on business and he was dearly missed. Siska’s best friend, also named Delphine, stopped in to see Siska with her son. It was just a fantastic day. Jeff taught me a great deal of history and we discussed everything from their hunting season to my mid life crisis. (Jeff I am laughing out loud as I write this!). 

The city of ‘Kortrijk’ is known as one of the largest producers and exporters of linen in Western Europe. Linen is made from the flax plant which is inherent to ‘Kortrijk’. And, from what I understand, this region seems to be extremely resilient and has constantly been able to reinvent itself throughout history. The formal dwellers of this region have a battle that is their rendition of ‘Braveheart’. And, this is the story of ‘The Battle of 1302’, otherwise known as ‘The Battle of the Golden Spurs’. And, it goes like this…

On the face of it all,  in 1302 the Flemish people grew tired of paying taxes to the French. At the time, Bruge had the unshared rights on sheeps wool that was imported from England. The trade was intrusted with the towns people until the King of England, Edward 1, began to deal in a beeline with the customers. The traders than lost their advantage. ‘Philip the Fair’ of France than was brought current on this situation and set up his troops in Bruges. Well, the Flemish were not having this. On the night on May 18th 1302, Pieter de Coninck, a weaver from Bruges and Jan Breydel, a butcher from Bruges, organized the townsmen. The men were instructed to go door to door knocking and when the home owner answered the door to ask them “Schild en Vriend”. This means ‘Shield and Friend’ and is called a ‘Shibboleth’. A ‘Shibboleth’ is a word whose pronunciation is used to differentiate one group of people from another. These words are too difficult for the French to pronounce on the first try. (Similar to me, trying to roll my R’s my first month in España). Some 2,000 people were taken by the Flemish militia during this nocturnal massacre. This went down in history as the ‘Matins of Bruges’. Quickly, the civil militias of several Flemish cities were fabricated in anticipation of the counter attack of the French. The Flemish dug several ditches all around the field in Kortrijk, that was already surrounded my marshy ground. The Flemish had placed themselves in a strong defensive position for when the French calvalry arrived. Soon the French were falling off their horses and into the ‘Goedendag’ of the Flemish. Jeff explained to me that the ‘Goedendag’ was a simple weapon to fabricate and is basically just a combination of a club and a spear. Simple or not, it did the trick. The Flemish won this battle and then went to all the fallen French knights taking over 700 pair of Spurs from them to hang in their church. Hence, ‘The Battle of the Golden Spurs’. Sadly, the French came back 80 years later and took their Spurs back. But, we are not going to discuss that. 

After lunch I was coerced into ordering a ‘Dame Blanche’ for dessert. This means ‘the white lady’ and is the name used to describe the Belgian dessert of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and molten chocolate. And, it was sooo delicious. 

After a nice long, relaxing lunch, Siska brought me to see ‘The Towers of Broel’. 

‘The Towers of Broel’.

These two beautiful towers are a very important symbol to the city and have definitely passed the test of time as they guard the river bridge. We than make our way home. We are picking Stephan up at the airport in the morning and going to ‘Ghent’ for lunch. 

After retrieving Stephan from the airport, we head straight to Ghent on a mission to race through the city and see as many sights as possible, buy chocolates, and have lunch. My flight was leaving at 9:00 at night and this ‘Renair’ airline insists that you arrive two hours before your departure time. 

Stephan, Siska, and I in Ghent.

Our first stop happened to be when we stumbled on ‘The Big Cannon’ or ‘Mad Meg’. This cannon was brought to Ghent in 1578 in defense against the Spanish. It proved to be completely useless and has resided in its current location ever since. Atleast this is the version of the story as I have heard it. No one seems to care too much about ‘Mad Meg’ so I haven’t pushed the issue.

Siska and I in front of ‘Mad Meg’.

As we continued to make our way toward lunch, we stopped by the ‘Gravensteen Castle’. This is a impressive castle built in 1180. It was constructed to appear reminiscent of the ‘crusaders castles’ that ‘Philip of Alsace’ encountered when he participated in the second crusade. The crusades were a series of religious wars warranted by the Catholic Church. This castle had served as a prison, a courthouse, a factory and it was nearly demolished before it was restored in 1885. Now it is used as a museum to showcase torture devices, such as the guillotine.

The Gravensteen Castle in Ghent.

We head over the St. Michaels Bridge, stopping along the way to eat these delectable little candies called ‘Cuberdon’s’.

This is a ‘Cuberdon’. It is a delicious candy that is extremely addictive and can only be found in Ghent.

These ‘Cuberdon’s’ are made out of the hardened sap of the acacia tree. They are purple, they taste like raspberries and they are really, really, really good! Some stories say that it was created by a member of clergy and other stories say it was a science experiment of a pharmacist in Ghent. Either way, I could eat them all day long!

‘Belfry and Cloth Hall’ (Belfort en La Kenhalle) Ghent
We ran by many beautiful Cathedral’s, and enjoyed so many amazing views of the ‘Graslei and Korenlei’. The ‘Graslei and Korenlei’ is a beautiful mideval port lined with historical buildings that really look like they belong on candy cane lane.

We arrived at a georgeous restaurant called ‘Elga Ueen’. I never did get the story from Siska and Stephan as to how they decided on this particular place. Notwithstanding, it was very good. The oysters were exceptionally delicious. Super briny. Tasting just like the sea, just how I like them.

It was time for me to say good bye to my friends and catch my train to the airport. One train  + one bus + one airplane + one taxi and I was back at home at Gloria and Pablo’s in Sevilla. And, now, as much as I hate to get out of Belgium, I really must get back to my studies here in España.

Bourgondiers, Bruge, and Beer Pipelines…my 1st day in Belgium

Bourgondiers: ‘An expression used by the Flemish to describe someone who appreciates the finer things in life’.

There are a few good things that came out of me owning that restaurant in Boca Raton, and one of those things is my friendship with Siska and Stephan. Siska and Stephan are a phenomal couple that have been married for like 100 years. Atleast this is what it sounds like to me from the backseat of their car. They speak in 3 languages when they communicate-Flemish, English, and their own language! They finish each other’s sentences-that only they could understand because they are literally speaking their own private language! They switch the subject about 25 times per minute, again all in their own language. They are originally from Belgium and I met them 10 years ago in Boca. I was fortunate enough to have spent the past few days with these Bourgondiers. 

After a two hour and 40 minute flight on ‘Renair’ airline, I arrived in Belgium. I need to stop here and tell you that my Renair plane was so small and uncomfortable that it makes Southwest flights from Florida to Rhode Island feel like first class! You can’t even “recline” the seat when the plane gets in the air! There isn’t even a slot to put your magazine in on the chair in front of you! It was pretty bad and apparently Stephan couldn’t agree with me more. When he found out that I flew Renair, he proclaimed “I will drive in a car for 15 hours before I EVER fly that airline again!!!”. 

I arrived at their home at about 1:00 in the morning and, needless to say, Siska and I chatted for two hours before getting to bed. I slept beautifully in a king size, plush bed and awoke at 9:00 in the morning. I was very excited to make my expresso. As I walked toward the kitchen, I was taken aback at the breath-taking view of the North Sea. Their home sits on the beach. I enjoyed my breakfast with Siska while we watched a man on a horse “shrimping” in the ocean. 

The view of The North Sea and the horse carriage for the shrimp.

These little grey shrimp, called ‘kroketten’ on every menu, are a quintessential food in Belgium. Siska explains to me that there are very few men left that actually still do the shrimping. And, of course, one of them is a friend of theirs. I learn that even though the Belgians consume more than 50% of these little shrimp, the Dutch control the market and set the prices. This is due to the fact that Belgium’s three largest fisheries are owned by the Dutch, all while they fly the Belgium flag, of course.

This is my lunch on Monday. Notice the little grey shrimp.

Siska tells me our game plan for the weekend, and we get ready and head towards Brugge. 

Belgium is about the size of Maryland and borders The Netherlands, Germany, and France. The country has 11 provinces and three official languages: Dutch (Flemish), French and German. (By the way, this means that on every consumer product label everything must be written in all 3 languages). Oh and ‘swinging’ is legal.

The town of Bruge holds a special place in my heart. When I was 20 years old and in college, I was fortunate enough to get accepted into a program through Johnson & Wales to study at a Hotel Tourism school here in Bruge called Spermalie. It is here that I met Chelsey. Chelsey and I were roommates at Spermalie and have been the best of friends ever since. Chelsey is from Massachusetts and she moved to Boca Raton too. We have been friends for 18 years and still talk almost everyday. And for this and many more reasons, I cannot wait to see Bruge again 18 years later. 

Our first stop is the main market place in the historic centre of Bruge. The historic city centre is a prominent World Heritage Site of UNESCO. And, it is just as amazing as I remembered. It seriously looks like the backdrop of a fairytale only with chocolate shops on the corner of each cobblestone street that lead to the main center. 

‘Burg Square’

We than make our way through the market stopping to buy patés, cheeses, breads, pastries, sausages, mousses, mustards, speculoos spreads, etc. The weather is perfect, about 10 degrees Celcius and sun is bright. We continue our day with a walk over the beer pipeline to see the magnificent architecture in ‘Burg Square’. Yes, a beer pipeline! In September of 2016, a 2 mile long pipeline was completed to connect the ‘Halve Maan Brewery’ to their bottling plant. Apparently, it was too complicated logistically for the trucks to maneuver down the cobblestone streets of this mideval town so they installed an underground pipeline! And, it was a crowdfunding project! Go figure! Jeff, Stephans brother, explained to me that 4,000 liters of beer an hour flows through this thing. These people are very serious about their beer. Jeff also explains to me that there were three levels for the crowdfunding. The gold level cost €7,500 and with that came one bottle of ‘Bruge Zot Blond’ everyday for the rest of your life. In my opinion, this gold plan definitely seems the most cost effective. After discovering the price per bottle of this ‘Bruge Zot Blond’, if one lives for only 10 more years and drinks only one per day, it has paid for itself. Not to mention, the 18 personalized Parisian glasses that is included in the Gold membership. Just sayin.

Siska eagerly continued the tour up and down weaving us all around town. Our movement continues toward the ‘Belfry’. The ‘Belfry’ is the famous bell tower located in the historic center. We passed on the opportunity to pay to climb 366 steps to the top in claustrophobic conditions. When I think about it, I can’t understand why when I was 20 years old that I would pay to do such a thing. But then I remember that back than I was on a mission to drink my way through Belgiums entire beer selection. Which, by the way, these days exceeds 3,000!!

We than circumvent the ‘Basillica of the Holy Blood’ to continue our tour with a stop at ‘Pierre Marcolini’. The ‘Basillica of the Holy Blood’ is a church said to house a small bottle of blood from Jesus Christ. I don’t think either of us felt the need to venerate the phial. The master chocolatier was what was peaking my interest! Now this is some profound chocolate! This is a man that travels the globe half of the year in search of his ingredients. He than spends the other half of the year producing the most delicate chocolate that I have ever tasted.

We continued to wander down the ‘Begijinhof’ and I am reminded of just how Bruges literally transports you to different age. This area was once home to Benedictine nuns. Now it is simply a tranquil haven with beautiful streets selling lace and waffles over-looking the beautiful canals. More about lace and waffles tomorrow.
After spending a beautiful afternoon in Bruges, Siska and I are off to visit her parents back by the seaside. They are so incredibly kind and were so interested to hear about my adventures in España. We stayed for a couple of hours just chatting away and I got to hear their love story told by Siska’s mother  with her father commentary. Visiting with them truly made my day! I’m truly grateful for their kindness and company. It was wonderful.

We went to a fantastic dinner at their friends restaurant where we both enjoyed dishes indigenous to this region and than called it a night.  I still have two more days to go in Belgium with my Bourgondiers and I  am estatic about that!