ruges or Brugge, depends on what language you are speaking, prides itself in being a well-preserved medieval town and one of the many Unesco’s World Heritage site in Belgium. Stripped off tourists that floods Brugge everyday, it can actually be just a ghost town, as if time stood still in there and you can expect to meet a man in cloak and a woman in kirtle while taking a midnight walk in one of its dark alleyways. Probably that’s why director Martin McDonagh chose it as the setting of his dark comedy film In Bruges.
was in Mechelen for the weekend for one of those spontaneous trips you book in the middle of a difficult week. Some personal issues have been bogging me down for months and I thought a weekend away from child and work would do me good.
I have a yearly tradition of travelling in August, before or after my birthday. Last year though, my mother visited me in the Netherlands and we made a small European tour so money was a bit tight when my birthday came. Not wanting me to miss my tradition, my husband took me to Brussels for a day trip.
When I came to Europe, I didn’t always like going to the same place twice – restaurants, hotels nor cities. I used to say that Europe is so vast and beautiful and I should be able to visit every place, eat at the best restaurants and stay at the nicest chateaus. But that has changed, the Asian tourist in me had disappeared and I am beginning to value more and more the experiences that are worth repeating. And besides, I am a creature of habit, I do like doing things on a regular basis, for example playing the same song for one straight week. I think it drives my colleagues mad.
Anyway, one of the restaurants I’ve been frequenting in Antwerp lately is Arte. It used to be my alternative for Restaurant Raven, which has now turned into a brasserie. I don’t know what Chef Gert Jan was thinking. I travel to Antwerp regularly, to the ports of Antwerp to be exact and after every inspection, I look forward to eating in a new restaurant. But after a while and especially when you are tired and exhausted from all the work, you just want to walk in to somewhere familiar, where you don’t have to guess which food is delicious or which wine to pair with it.
Arte has always been a safe choice for me. The food is excellent, the Sardinian wine is delicious and the waiters are charming and accomodating. They have beautiful photographs on the wall and I’ve always enjoyed looking at them while waiting for my food. And of course eavesdropping on other diners in nearby tables. The place is small and compact, you can hardly squeeze yourself in between tables and on a Monday night when there aren’t many restaurants open, the vibe gets cozy (or gezellig as we say in Dutch). I always order osso bucco with a generous serving of spaghetti on the side and lots of parmesan cheese. I pair it with a half bottle of 6 Mura Vermentino di Sardegna. I think the wine was what pulled me in to this restaurant. I’ve developed this love for Sardinian wines when I visited the island last year but unfortunately, there is only a handful Italian restaurants that serves them in Belgium. In Holland, forget about getting them at all.
On my last visit there were a couple on the other table who were quite loquaciouos, to say it nicely. The man was speaking (or trying to) Italian but I could tell from his funny accent that he is not Italian. The woman was always answering in rough Dutch. At one point, when they became drunker than they already were, they started speaking in Dutch and they live in Rotterdam as well, of all places. We talked about how expensive and difficult it is to dine out in the Netherlands but after a while, I got tired of his loud voice. They shifted their attention to the Flemish group on the other table and got a one round of wine for free. Meanwhile on the table on my right, the young girl was finally enjoying her pizza and grandfather’s story after being disinterested at first. Although they are speaking in French, I could understand a few words related to the food and Italy. The old man of about 75 years old speaks fluent Italian and French and when he saw how I enjoyed the tiny bars of chocolates that came with the espresso, he gave me his. A very sweet gesture from a stranger.
These are the kind of experiences I am beginning to treasure – vibrant conversations with strangers, random act of kindess and enjoying good food and rare wines. And usually you experience them on places that are familiar like Arte.
The sleepy town of Stavelot in the Wallonian Region of the Ardennes only wakes up for one thing – The Laetare Festival. Every second Sunday of Lent, hundreds of Blancs Moussis – men (and boys) clad in white robes and masks with red nose – parade around the town carrying what looks like balloons but are actually dried pig’s bladder.
During the parade, your nose could not escape the distinctive smell in Stavelot. It is the smell of combined animal organs and sterilizing agent, like the pig’s bladders were washed in alcohol. I was glad that I did not have the misfortune of being smacked with those but some spectators were not so lucky. In the first place that is what the Blanc Moussis do during the parade – slap people with dried pig’s bladders.
But Carnival du Laetare is not all about the Blanc Moussis. The night before the Sunday parade, participants would wear their most colorful costumes and participate in an early parade in the center of town. This is of course simultaneous with a lot of partying and beer drinking.
It was not my first time. I spend a weekend in Stavelot last year in autumn. While strolling down the town looking for a place to eat, I noticed the tiny Blanc Moussis figurines adorning the windows of the houses. I got curious and found out about the Laetare and promised myself I will be back the next summer to participate.
Unfortunately I was alone this time. And cautious. Because of the festival, public transportation was rerouted and I could not stay so late in town otherwise I would not have any bus to take. I was staying in Coo and it was a good 15 minutes by bus from Stavelot. I did not have anyone to celebrate with and no one to accompany me back to my hotel. I did not want to get drunk with a stranger no matter how much I wanted to party. Alone amidst the crowd of jovial residents, I turned my attention to one thing that always lift my mood – sweets!
Near the Abbey were two stalls selling all kinds of sweets – from candy-coated apples and grapes, chocolate coated bananas to candies, Belgian chocolates and flavored slush. It didn’t taste wonderful at all but somehow, while munching on a stick of grapes sprinkled in cocos bits and hardened sugar, I began to enjoy watching the stream of colorfully dressed Stavelots walking aimlessly with their respective groups around the town. There were teenage girls with fake pink braids with their mother who was donning fairy wings. There were some dressed as princesses, many were clowns, policemen and different kinds of animals.The kids were especially charming, throwing glittering confetti at each other or to passerby’s. And they are usually very generous posing for pictures.
Sadly it rained during the parade of the Blanc Moussis. This reduced the fun significantly as everyone had to scramble for a dry place or struggle to see the parade behind a sea of umbrellas. However for the Blanc Moussis, this was not a problem. They danced, sang, paraded and fool around with their dried pig’s bladder despite being drenched in the rain. I wonder if they got cold as much as I did. But surely they had fun, just like in this video that I took before the start of the parade.
I was a bad tourist. I wanted to watch the fireworks and party with the Blanc Moussis in the evening but I was so easily discouraged by the rain. And the prospects of having dinner in Paris. So after an hour, I left Stavelot and rushed to the border to enjoy champagne in the City of Lights. But that’s another story.