Before I get to our visit to the Low Countries, let me finish up with the UK. On our last day in the country, J2 and I left our friends’ flat in town and headed to meet another friend (this one from DC, whom we even saw on our last day there) to introduce her to the British culinary tradition of fish and chips. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and not many good places were open, so we wound up at a rather poor example of the art and J2 and I left a bit disappointed (the f&c at Sally’s in Oamaru is far better). From there we set off to finish doing the shopping for the evening’s dinner that we were to make for my cousin David and his wife Cathy back in Windsor. Stopping at a Sainsbury’s in Slough (famous for some as the home of the British version of “The Office”) I was a bit surprised to find that some things that can be found even in our small New World grocery in Oamaru could not be easily found here, chief among them organic chickens and fresh basil. I finally did find one last chicken, a bit bigger than ideal, but workable, and would up having to go to the Windsor Farm Shop to find the basil.
When we got to their apartment, I set to work making dinner. For the starter, it would be a salad of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes with my mother’s Caprese sauce; for the main, chicken in the style of Treviso with chanterelles and baby artichokes, served with sweet potato gnocchi in a sage butter sauce; for dessert, zabaglione with fresh berries, followed by a selection of cheese from Neals Yard Dairy. Cooking in a strange kitchen is always a challenge, but they had everything I needed and the meal came together pretty easily and tasted OK.
Early the next morning we left for the airport and our flight to Amsterdam. Arriving in Amsterdam in the late morning, we made our way from Schiphol to our home for the night, an AirBNB in Regulierdwarstraat, right in the centre of things. Our hosts were an Irish-Scottish couple who could not have been nicer, especially given the fact that one of them had just had back surgery and was newly (but temporarily) confined to a wheelchair. We headed out to our meeting shortly after arriving, and as we left the meeting were confronted with the first real rain of the trip other than one day (July 4, as it turns out) in Connecticut. Unfortunately our umbrella was back at the flat, so we made our wet way to the apartment to collect it before wandering around town for the rest of the day. I have always liked Amsterdam, and this trip was no different; it’s a beautiful city, and I love the way so many locals get around on bikes. We even stopped at Rembrandt’s House, which we think we may have visited before on a previous visit to Amsterdam, though none of it was familiar to us. If you’re going to Amsterdam, we’d recommend a visit.
This was J2’s birthday, incidentally, so I told him he could choose whatever he wanted for dinner, figuring he’d opt for something with french fries or perhaps an Indonesian rijstafel, two typical Dutch treats. Instead, he said he wanted Ethiopian, so, turning to Yelp for guidance, I found a place that seemed promising, a reasonable walk away from our place. When we got there at around 7pm the place was deserted but for one table of diners, which gave me pause for a bit, but the aromas from the kitchen persuaded us to persevere. And a good thing we did, too, since the place was absolutely full by the time our dinner was served, and the food was extraordinary, better even than the famed Ethiopian restaurants of Adams Morgan in DC.
The next morning we left Amsterdam in our rented car (which it took a long time to locate, since the rental company had sneakily moved its depot between the time I made the booking and the time I was to pick up the car!) for our out-of-town meetings. The first was in a town called ‘s-Hertogenbosch (though everyone calls it “Den Bosch”), but when we got there we found that they had made a bit of a mistake with the scheduling so they could not see us then, so we had to reschedule for Friday morning. The second meeting was in Arnhem, famous as the site of the Battle of Arnhem, memorialised in the film “A Bridge Too Far”. The bridge itself is not at all interesting to look at, and so is the town (largely destroyed in the war, it was rebuilt in the period of European history when formless architecture was in vogue). After the meeting we took a quick visit to the war cemetery, which was moving especially to me, since the battle took place in late September 1944, so many of the headstones showed that the soldiers died on my birthday.
Our next meeting was to be in the early morning the next day in Utrecht, so we headed there to find a place to stay. We wound up in a very cheap (€45) hotel in the outskirts of town. The less said about the hotel, the better, but suffice it to say that it offered the bare minimum of comfort and service, but at least it was more or less clean. We of course wanted to minimise our time here, so we immediately headed out to check out the town for the rest of the day. First impressions were not too promising, but once we found the old centre of the city, our opinion changed–it’s a very pretty town, with canals and charming architecture, and some nice places to have a drink or eat. We chose a place at random and enjoyed some local beer and a bowl of mussels and proclaimed Utrecht to be a nice place after all.
After our meeting in the morning (which was another good one) we opted to make a detour for the night to Belgium, rather than stay in the Netherlands until our Friday meeting, and hopped in the car to drive to Bruges, a town I have long wanted to visit. We found a reasonably priced hotel near the centre (Hotel Fevery) and drove off, making it to the town by shortly after 1pm. Too bad for me that the weekly market closes at 1pm, so I just missed it! But even without the market, the town is simply beautiful, and the weather could not have been better (actually, it could have been a bit less hot for us, now that we’re fully acclimated to the moderate climate of New Zealand). For lunch we stopped a local brewery (“De Halve Maan”, or “The Half Moon”) for a glass of their wonderful beer and a snack (actually a large slab of local cheese with a pot of mustard), but the snack was so filling that we had little appetite for dinner later on, not that that stopped us from going out for dinner later on!
Bruges is clearly a popular destination with a lot of nationalities, as we heard just about every language imaginable on the streets. As a result of all the tourists, there are a lot of shops catering to their tastes, which apparently leans heavily toward chocolate–the sheer number of chocolate shops is dazzling! I don’t know how anyone can choose among them, so we did not try, since in any event any chocolate we’d have bought would have melted long before we got it back to our hotel, since the weather was unrelentingly hot and sunny all throughout our stay.
When beer o’clock struck we turned to Yelp and found a brewery near to the main square that seemed promising. Finding it was a challenge, since its address made it seem to be on a fairly big street though no sign of it could be found. Finally we asked someone for help and they directed us to a very narrow little alleyway leading off that street, and sure enough the brewery was at the end. This place, De Garre, is supposed to be the home of the world’s best-tasting beer, De Gulden Draak (the Golden Dragon), so we had to try that, along with another of their own beers. On the bottom of the menu where these beers are listed there was a warning–only in Flemish–saying that “for reasons of health, patrons will be limited to three servings”. Turns out, these beers are STRONG, around 11% each, so after one you definitely feel that you have had a bit to drink, even though the beers are served with a little bitty bowl of cheese to help soak up the alcohol.
For dinner we made our way to a place called Cambrinus, recommended by our hotel and clearly popular with both locals and tourists, and we were lucky to get a table. We placed our orders–rabbit in beer sauce for me and beef for J2–and promptly found that we were too stuffed–whether from the slab of cheese or the beer we could not tell–to finish our orders, but we enjoyed them both a lot.
The next day we spent wandering around town a bit more, including a stop at a candy shop that demonstrates the process they go through to make lollipops. We both thought that this would be a great idea for a shop in Oamaru–it’s “authentic”, artisanal, Victorian(-ish), and saleable, plus it would draw people to the historic precinct. We both also observed that, even in parts of town where the shops were closed, there were still a lot of people milling around in the evening because there were eateries and drinkeries nearby to draw them in. Perhaps a lesson for Oamaru? The rest of the day was spent in the usual way (for us), wandering the streets, having a beer at the same brewery (this time we both had the Golden Dragon) and then dinner at Dell’arte, a place we found on Yelp. Here I tried to order a “light” dinner of a salad, but what was brought was so enormous that despite my best efforts I could only eat around 1/3 of it. J2 did a bit better with his Carbonade Flamande, the supposed regional specialty, which was delicious but still too big for us.
On our final day in Europe we left our lovely hotel in the morning and drove the 2-1/2 hours back to Den Bosch for that meeting that we had to reschedule. With that out of the way we were officially on vacation, so we returned our car at the airport and awaited our flight to Bangkok and connection to Yangon, which will be the subject of the next post!