One Cold Week In Benelux!

Windmills in a sea of white... Have you seen that before? If you have lived in Europe for many years, then perhaps it rejigs old memories. We have been told that we captured a rare sight on our recent visit to Belgium and Netherlands.

Yes, you may ask "Europe in Winter? Really? What were you thinking?". But, in truth, our experiences of Europe have only been in winter and the last we visited, it was Paris in February. It was lovely ... not warm definitely but pleasant enough to stroll and sit in the Tuileries Gardens, which, was my favorite place in all of the city, and watch the kids plays with the wooden boats in the ponds there. So we figured, the Benelux countries shouldn't be too bad!

Day 1: We landed in Brussels, the day after Christmas. We spent a whole day in the city, exploring the beautiful and welcomingly warm cathedral with it's gorgeous organ and simply stunning stained glass windows. Since, Christmas had just passed, we even got a tour of the nativity-scene exhibition that had been set up at the church.

Brussels map

Moving on, we visited by the Place Royal, King's Palace and the Justice building. Interestingly (and not unusually as found over the course of the trip), most of the places were closed to the public, save a few days a year. So, we looked from the outside and continued on to Rue de Bouchers, which is the Restaurant Row of Brussels. They had really good lunch deals (recommend La Marmiton) and I had my fill of Moules and hub of Frites! We also tried the Flemish specialties of Beef cooked in dark beer (really good) and rabbit in plum sauce (decent).

Then we went in search of the Mannequin de Pis. Passing by the Hotel de Ville, the landmark tower in the square, we passed into a few by roads and suddenly came upon the infamous statue. I say sudden, because honestly, it was surprisingly small and tucked in a corner and would have been missed if not for the larger chocolate replica of it in a store opposite it! Ah well!


Day 2: We headed off to Bruges (Brugge). Bruges, we were told, is a quaint old town with many picturesque canals cutting through the city and many more fabulous chocolates stores! We had planned to stay there for two days, which was fortunate as the first day was literally a wash-out. We barely managed to see the Main Markt before rain and the cold drove us back to our hotel, Hotel Fevery.

Bruges collage

Bruges had a beautiful Markt area in the center of which, they had set up a skating rink and many food stalls around it. We got a big bag of Dutch Olliebolens generously dusted with powdered sugar. It was fresh, hot and simply fantastic on a rainy day! :) We also spent a few hours simply riding the local buses to various parts of the town, staying dry and warm and catching Bruges as it was!

The next day was lovely and we walked all over the little town, by the canals. They have four lovely, restored windmills in walking distance. As it happened, this turned out to be our best tryst with the mills as Holland was too cold and snowed in for us to spend much time at the mills. We also visited the old nunnery, Begijnenhuise, known for its white washed houses and puzzlingly slanted trees!

Ofcourse, we did not forget the chocolates. The manager at our little B&B had suggested a couple of chocolatiers and gave us a few useful tips.
  • You should not pay more than Euro 28/kg for great quality chocolates (Neuhaus, Cafe Tasse and other big brands charge Euro 50/kg). Any cheaper and the filling is nothing to write home about.
  • Freshness of the chocolate (except truffles) is estimated by the shine on it. Don't buy chocolates that are not shiny and appealing.
He recommended Steven Dumon's store and it was a real find. The flavors of the fillings are unique, contemporary and very good! One chocolate that the area is known for are those filled with Gruut (they used that to make beer before hops and such), which come in shapes of little swans. They are yummy!

Day 4: We set off to see the wonders of Holland. I was looking forward to tasting cheese and capturing some countryside sights of the windmills. Our hotel, Hotel Pulitzer, was a stone's throw away from Wester Markt. It is a gorgeous hotel by the canal and walking distance from the Central station and from Spui, the bistro area of the city.

Amsterdam city

After a lovely lunch of bouillabaisse and ox sausage sandwich (highly recommended) at Cafe Luxembourg, we set off on an hour long canal cruise, which gave us a quick history of the city and a nice twilight tour of the major sights. The tour begins and ends near the central station from where the notorious Red light district is only a short walk away. Even though it was only early evening, it was completely dark and we thought we would do a walk by. I must say, it was not as bad as people warned us. Surely better than Roppongi!! Or perhaps we were too early! :)

Day 5: We had booked a bus tour to visit the Dutch countryside. The promise was of visiting the windmills, a fishing village, a cheese farm, a clog factory and I thought also Edam. This as it turned out was a bit of a let down. The tour was supposed to be for 4.5 hours. To start with, it had snowed over night and the country side had a feet high blanket of snow and limb numbing cold accompanied by howling winds!

We started off by visiting an artificial village (Let down #1 :OOO) about 15 minutes from the city where there was a cheesy cheese shop (very touristy but we did get to try some flavored cheeses) which sold Gouda in different varieties. Next to the "farm" were the windmills. All we managed to do, given the cold, was run out to grab a couple of snaps before heading to the bus! Let down #2...

Cheese, Clogs and Windmills

Off we went to Markel where we saw how clogs are made using a machine. Our hostess was bubbly and she made the presentation quite a bit of fun!:) Yes, I did buy clogs here; bright red ones! They are proudly hanging on the wall of our living room.

We were then dropped off at Volendam, a harbor town (known for the fact that every house door is unique, to enable drunk fishermen to identify their home and wife after their much celebrated return!). Unfortunately, it was bitterly cold and we were left here to fend for ourselves for two hours (Let down #3). We spent the time warm inside a bakery, where we also picked up a yummy Stol for snacking in US. :)

We then headed back to Brussels to pack and get some rest before our morning flight back to NY!

All in all, it was an interesting trip. It would have been even more lovely in warmer weather with more leisurely walks along the canals of Bruges and Amsterdam. Perhaps, we will visit again!! :))