Monday, November 19, 2012

Rotterdam, Drenched in Wine

A few months ago we purchased some discounted train tickets from Kruidvat (similar to a CVS) in the Netherlands. 12.99 per ticket buys unlimited travel throughout the Netherlands on a Saturday or Sunday. The tickets are good for just a few months and since we purchased three each, we decided to get busy and take ourselves to Rotterdam, host city to one of the largest ports in the world.

The weather was dismal, bleak, dreary, frigid, and gloomy. Mist hung over the city like steam rising from a shower. Except it wasn't steamy; it was freezing.


We initially decided to go to Rotterdam for a Swedish Christmas market at the Swedish Seamen's Church. I am overly excited for Christmas markets this year and I thought it would be a great opportunity to get a jump-start on shopping. The church was a 15-minute walk from Rotterdam Centraal and we would normally begin such a short walk with lots of gusto, cameras in hand to take photos of everything we passed. But after exiting the station and entering a massive construction zone, we decided to just take the tram. It was almost impossible to get our bearings because most of the buildings were enveloped by the mist and it was just too cold to be parading around the busy streets of Rotterdam when we didn't really have any idea where we were going.

We took the wrong tram at first but fortunately we realized our mistake after only one stop. Once we found the correct route, the tram ride was just a few minutes and soon we were at the church. Several signs pointed to the market and when we walked in, carolers were singing songs (in English). This gave us false hope because everything else inside was in Swedish or Dutch, which I suppose was to be expected.

We wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes trying to figure out where the actual market was and how we were supposed to purchase items. As we started up a second flight of stairs, my husband looked out of a window and noticed a beautiful garden. Suddenly a man was beside us explaining something in Dutch... or Swedish. We sheepishly replied, "Oh, sorry... we speak English."

"Ah, no problem!" he replied. He began again and told us that it was the largest privately-owned garden in Rotterdam and they were very proud of it. Then he revealed that he was the priest of the church and we followed him the rest of the way upstairs. He stopped at the landing in front of a man with a booth and exclaimed, "This man wants your money!" Then he slapped my husband on the back and left us staring at the booth owner, wondering why he wanted our money and just how much he expected. Eventually he said, "You must buy a ticket and see if you will be lucky to win a prize on this table." So we bought a raffle ticket for a Euro and then the man said, "Open it up! See if you are a winner!" Luck wasn't on our side this time but I can't say I really understood what any of the prizes were anyway.

We continued to the back of the third floor and finally found the "market." It was a sad smattering of tiny booths with a random assortment of goods. Some were selling postcards while others displayed wine glasses. We realized that this market was more of a church fundraiser than a full-blown Christmas market, Germany-style.

Everyone was extremely friendly but overall it was a very confusing experience.

Leaving empty-handed didn't discourage us. We still had lunch to eat and lots of the city to explore. Following our guidebook's suggestion, we chose De Ballentent. It's a waterfront pub-cafe specializing in meatballs. We spent a couple hours there sipping wine and beer and eating meatballs with a pepper and mushroom sauce. They didn't compare to the meatballs we had at Cafe-Lequet in Liege, but they weren't bad.

We planned to go to Delfshaven next. Delfshaven survived the war and is a beautiful area for strolling. We did eventually make it there but not before an unplanned pit stop. A large cardboard cutout of a bottle of wine caught our attention outside of a shop called Jan van Breda. A flurry of activity was going on inside and it drew us in with an invisible vice grip. 

The proprietor greeted us and asked if we were there for the wine tasting. Without hesitation, we said, "Yes. Yes, of course we are." We traded our heavy coats for delicate wine glasses and began our tasting adventure with champagne. After sipping two crisp varieties, we asked the sommelier where he was from in France. He looked at us incredulously and replied, "I come from Champagne, of course!" Of course.

We moved on to Italy, Chile, South Africa, and back to France for a perfect Beaujolias. The tasting ended with some cognac and the only thing I regret about the event is eating some raspberry pate between sips. I just can't get on board with meat paste.

Backpack filled with booty.
Nearly two hours passed while we made our way around the wine shop and we certainly didn't leave empty-handed. My husband had to lug around bottles of champagne, muscat, and one of the most delicious white wines (a Gewurtztraminer) we've had in recent memory.

We spent the next hour walking around Delfshaven. We saw a reconstructed 18th-century windmill and we also learned that Delfshaven is where the Pilgrims tried leaving for America aboard the Speedwell. How appropriate to find this out the weekend before Thanksgiving! The Oude Kerk is where the pilgrims prayed for the last time before departure.

Reconstructed windmill in Delfshaven.
I wish I could tell you more about Rotterdam but the day was quickly darkening and it wasn't getting any warmer so we decided to make our way back to the train station for our two hour ride home. We had been on the train for about an hour when the conductor announced that the next stop would unexpectedly be our last due to one of the trains breaking. A collective sigh went up through the aisles and we all de-boarded. All passengers were immediately shuffled to waiting buses and we continued our journey to Sittard. Despite the setback, I thought the process was very efficient. And other than the clan of pre-adolescent Dutch girls singing along to songs like "Wild Ones" by Flo Rida, it was a pleasant detour.

I wish I could tell you more about Rotterdam. I know there is a lot more to see and do in the "2nd City of the Netherlands" but what can I say? I love wine. Most of the afternoon was over by the time we left Jan van Breda but there is one thing I know for sure in life: Time is never wasted at an impromptu wine tasting.

A fisherman and his bicycle on a dreary day in Rotterdam.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Beautiful Bruges

Life has certainly been hectic the past few months with visitors coming here and our big trip back home, but before we trekked back to the U.S., we made a stop in Bruges.

Bruges is beautiful. People are friendly, the food is tasty, and the sights are amazing. Like Budapest, it was an incredibly photogenic city and I took advantage of my camera as we walked along the cobblestone streets and listened to the ringing church bells.

We stayed at a Bed and Breakfast fittingly called A Dream. It was a quick 15-minute walk from the hotel to the city center. Our host suggested dinner at Den Amand. The tiny, nondescript restaurant is easy to miss because it is slightly off the beaten path. The intimate dining area probably seats less than 30 people and we certainly felt lucky to have secured a table. The menu is imaginative and authentic Belgian fare. The chocolate sampler dessert was heavenly. Portions were large, prices were fair, service was impeccable, and the wine was excellent. Don't miss it if you are looking for a place to dine in Bruges!

The next day was spent walking around the city and taking in the sights. We strolled through the Grote Markt, climbed to the top of the belfry tower, drank some Zot beer at De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) brewery, and gazed upon the sculpture of Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. 

Grote Markt
Bruges from the Belfry
Zot Beer
Madonna and Child in Church of Our Lady
We spent just one full day in Bruges and as we prepared to make the drive back home, we knew that one day isn't enough to devote to this fairy tale city. I'm hoping for a return trip very soon to visit the Christmas market and see all of the things we missed during our brief glance.

So au revoir for now, Bruges. But keep the gluhwein hot for us!