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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chocolate, Waffles, and Beer - Three of my favorite things!

August 16, 2011

Big day today! I woke up to find my friend gone to the airport which was really sad! Check out was at 10am and I was happy to be out of there so I went online and booked a room at the Black Sheep Hostel in Cologne since I'd decided that was the best place to go with the limited time I have left. I booked this particular hostel because the reviews said it was close to the clubs and it was easy to meet people so I'm hoping I make some friends to hang with.

From there I jumped on the S Bahn to the main station and purchased my ticket to Cologne. It cost me 48 Euros for one way! The train was easy to catch and I walked down to Coach 2. If you book too close to the departure time you can't reserve a seat so I had to wander through Coach 2 until I found a seat that didn't have a name above it. I settled in and caught up on my blog as the train made its two hour journey to Cologne.

Every so often I'd look up and see the cutest towns pop up as the train followed along the river. I'd already made sure to check how to get to the hostel so I easily bought a ticket on the KVB (local tram/metro) to Barbarossaplatz station. Just so you know you can only use coins in the KVB ticket machines so make sure you have plenty of them handy in Cologne.

Upon arrival I was a little sketched out...the neighorhood is awful! I walked into the hostel to find a long hallway of doors. The guy at the front desk (he has a beard) was relatively unfriendly and made me feel like an idiot anytime I asked a question. I was staying in the Africa room which was a six bed mixed dorm. Living with boys again is what that means! Each of the rooms has a different theme if you didn't pick up on that.

I was pretty positive I didn't want to spend another night here regardless of how cool Cologne might be so I spent some time on the Internet booking a two night stay in Brussels as my next stop. This time I chose the Sleephere "hostel" which apparently is more like a B&B. I thought about booking the SleepWELL hostel which is the party hostel but the choice was made when they didn't have availability. Well my attempt to pick the party hostel in Cologne backfired so maybe I just saved myself from a repeat experience.

I don't have much time to waste so I set out to explore the town. I was told that the Cathedral is the closest thing so I walked up past Neumarket station to the shopping streets. You can follow the shopping streets all the way to the Cathedral which was most impressive! It was also nice to order a coffee frappucino from Starbucks and get what you were expecting. Ah to talk to people who speak English - I so took that for granted!

From the Cathedral I walked towards the water and had a lunch of goulash and beer on the waterfront. This goulash was ten times better than the one I had in Rothenburg. It was thick, hot, and a little spicy!

I really wanted to stay at the restaurant until sunset so that I could get pictures of the buildings all lit up on the water but I had run out of money at this point and couldn't afford any more beer. The sunset looked to be hours away so I walked back to the hostel. The walk back was fine because it was daylight but this city kind of creeps me out. There just aren't enough streetlamps for me to feel all that comfortable walking at night.

Back at the hostel I chatted with a few of the other people but no one was going out or seemed to be any fun. Just my luck! Not to mention that the internet is horrible (there is one computer that everyone uses and no Wifi) and it won't work with a thumbdrive so I couldn't upload my pictures to the blog.

Just before sunset I took the metro to the main station and exited near the Cathedral to walk out across the main bridge to get my awesome pictures. My goal was to get the sunset pictures and get back to the train station just after dark so that I didn't get caught in Creeperville. I am an excellent navigator as many people can attest to and rarely look at a map after the first time. Well this time I managed to get REALLY lost. I think it's because I stopped at an internet cafe near the Cathedral to upload my blog pictures and somehow when I came out I thought I was on the opposite side of the Cathedral from where I really was.

Finally I pulled two older women over and asked them to point me in the right direction. Keep in mind I'd been really confident because the Cathedral is like five minutes from the water (I'd walked it that afternoon!) Apparently somehow I'd managed to walk south parallel to the water almost all the way back to my hostel. Wonderful. It took me twenty minutes just to get back to where I started and then I walked out onto the bridge. So much for avoiding walking around alone at night!

Once on the bridge there were tons of people so I felt much safer. The bridge is covered in locks that couples have left with their names inscribed on the side.

There are thousands of them and they twinkled under the lamps on the bridge. I got some awesome photos so it was well worth freaking myself out for the previous twenty minutes.

I also passed a bunch of fun looking bars right across from the Cathedral to the south but I wanted to be able to take the metro back to the hostel and it was quickly approaching 11pm.

The subway was COMPLETELY empty and the train itself was almost empty so it wasn't a pleasant ride. Once I got off at my stop though I was surrounded by tons of young people going out. So my hostel wouldn't be bad if you were in a group or had a friend - it is definitely a great location for going out. I probably would've liked this hostel more if I'd had a friend!

From there I decided to crash early since my friend's sickness is threatening to get me and I want to have a full day of it tomorrow morning before I take the train to Brussels. Night!

August 17, 2011

I had a horrible night of sleep last night. Whatever my friend came down with I'm pretty sure I have. It didn't help that some random guy came in at 3am and turned the lights on while saying DUDE, DUDE, DUDE, to his sleeping friend. He wasn't even drunk! It was really rude. I think my patience with hostels is thinning.

After checking out, I hiked up the Cathedral tower (3 Euro) and was greeted by a pretty lame view. If my history is right Cologne suffered alot during the war so there isn't much left of the medieval city to view from the tower.

My next tourist attraction proved to be more fun - an hour boat cruise down the Rhine river for five Euros. That's the student price but they don't even ask to see a student card. It was a beautiful day and the front of the boat had these little baskets you could sit in that were cushioned and shaded. There was even a lady who came around selling 2.70 Euro beers which was perfect to keep me cool. The riverbanks didn't have anything of much interest but just being on the water was really relaxing so I didn't care.

I continued the suntanning back at the hostel while I waited for my 5pm train to Brussels.
When I got on the train I was really confused because I'd been put in the really nice business class coach which only has four seats, air conditioning, and free Wifi! That's crazy considering I paid 39 Euros for a 2nd class student ticket. I would've thought I'd end up with the worst seat on the train not the best!

I arrived in Brussels Centraal Station and then took the metro to Louise (you can take metro line 2 or 6 to get there). At Louise you walk outside and take the tram to Faider stop on the 94 or the 92. Just ask someone to make sure you are going in the right direction! You can also walk to the hostel from Louise station but it's a little tedious with bags.

The hostel was by far my favorite of the trip. It's called Sleephere at 82 Rue de la Source and it more of a B&B. It's run by a man named Karel and his half husky, half collie, Cesar. I immediately fell in love with the building which is a house that was built in the early 1900s in the Art Deco style of the time. There are three floors and a lovely backyard. I was staying in the four person deluxe dorm and right away made friends with Sebastian from Montreal, Canada, and Nicolas from Santiago, Chile.

It was pretty late in the evening at this point so the three of us decided to walk to Cafe Delirium which Karel had recommended as a great place to start the night. We had to walk for quite a well because Sebastian got us lost but our wandering took us past a waffle stand called The Waffle Factory. I obviously had to get one. It was fresh off of the press and smothered in Nutella. It was warm, chocolatey and delicious but really rich so I couldn't finish the whole thing.

Next we stopped for dinner just around the corner from Delirium at a place called La Terrasse because I saw a sign that said "Steak and fries for 15 Euro" which sounded like a really good deal. Turns out you have to pay extra for sauce on your steak which is really ridiculous. The steak wasn't that great but I could've expected that for the price. Plus it is really close to the Grand Place making it overpriced and expensive but "c'est la vie!"

We made our way around the corner to find Delirium packed with people. We bought some of the "famous" Delirium Tremens which I thought wasn't that great and sat down next to a random tables of guys who were speaking English. I started talking to one of them named Ben who goes to Purdue and is from Chicago. His stepdad lives in Brussels and he was visiting with his two friends who soon headed home. Ben on the other hand couldn't wait to play tour guide and take us out for a good night. It started with us walking across the street for shots of some fabled absinthe.

Drinking absinthe has a whole method to it. The green liquid comes in a standard shotglass with a cube of sugar, a spoon with holes, and a lighter. First you dip the sugar cube in the absinthe, then put it on top of the spoon and then light it on fire. The sugar melts through the holes in the spoon down into the absinthe. Then you take the shot. It was a crazy little ritual. I felt like I was in a crack den or something and boy does that stuff burn on the way down!

From there we walked a little ways to a hookah bar and sat for hours smoking. It started off a little harsh but we perfected the coals until it was buttery smooth. The owner came out to talk to us for awhile and we stayed until the place closed around 1-2am. If you sit outside you can drink alcohol as a note.

We were finally ready to do some clubbing but I think Ben's navigation skills had dulled with the booze because we couldn't seem to find the first few places he was looking for. The first place was lame and had sort of slow reggae music so we left. As we were walking to some club called the U we passed a place that looked fun so we walked inside. They had a little dance floor and great U.S. top 40 pop songs like Kesha which Nico and I loved!

We danced until the place closed and then headed back to the hostel after saying goodnight to Ben. While outside the club I heard a girl say, "like Heath Ledger." That's my line that I use when I'm explaining how to spell my last name! I walked up to her and asked if her last name was Heath and she said, "No it's Ledger," to which I replied, "What! Together we are HEATH LEDGER!"

On the way back Sebastian almost ran into a pole. I pushed him out of the way just in time only to ran smack into an overturned sign.

What happened to good karma?! I ended up with bruises on both shins one of which was bleeding. I spent the rest of the walk back to the hostel telling Sebastian, "I bled for you!"

August 18, 2011

This morning I woke up...on the floor. And no, not the floor by my bed, the floor in the middle of the room. I have no knowledge of when or why this happened. I crawled back into bed and slept in for the first time in ages! That's the #1 best thing about staying somewhere for two nights instead of one is that you don't have to check out at 10am in the morning! The boys had a good laugh about sleeping on the floor and neither had any idea how I'd gotten there. Sebastian was positive I'd gone to sleep the night before in my bed. Random.

He, Nico and I decided to go on a search for some famous Belgian fries. We drank a different beer at each bar along the way. Belgium really does have GREAT beer but it can be a little hit or miss. Then again everyone has different taste.

One of them is called a KWAK. You drink it from a strangely-shaped glass that will make a quacking noise when you reach the thin part of the glass' neck. We listened for it but never heard it!

We finally reached the location of the famous frites only to find out it was closed!! Dejected we some at the random carnival that was going on near the Gard du Midi. They were really good! In my opinion it isn't the fries that are so amazing it's the mayonnaise. It's thick, creamy and rich and I devoured the whole thing.

The fries whet our appetite so we stopped at a cheese shop and bought goat cheese, salami and wine from the cutest old French lady. She thought we were crazy. The plan was to eat our picnic in the park but on our walk there it began to rain really hard.

We tucked our tails between our legs and made for the hostel. We were almost back when I insisted on going to the chocolate shop just past the hostel that Karel had marked on the map. We got there just before they closed and got to taste about 30 different types of chocolate.
This particular shop, Zaabar, is known for mixing different spices into their chocolate (Chaussee de Charleroi 125). They experiment with saffron, ginger, nutmeg, sage, pepper, mint, amaretti, lemon, banana, and more. I bought a ton!

Back at the hostel we had an indoor picnic of sorts before going back to Delirium with a giant group of kids from the hostel.

We were so tired though that we had one beer and then walked back to go to bed. Grr so sick of this cough!

August 19, 2011

Sad! Sebastian left early this morning. I too was supposed to check out this morning but thanks to the rain yesterday I still haven't seen any of the Brussel landmarks! Karel is the coolest guy ever because the hostel was completely booked except for the single room. He offered to let me stay there for a reduced price since no one had claimed it.

A big group of us decided to take the metro to the Atomium, a strange metallic structure that was erected for the World Fair? As its name suggests it is built in the shape of an atomic cluster.

Next to the Atomium is Mini-Europe, which again as its name describes is a park with mini structures of famous landmarks in Europe like the Eiffel Tower and Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was 13 Euro per person so four of us declined because we'd rather spend the money on beer.
Nico and I were joined by Emily and Joe from Manchester and the four of us decided to go to the Grand Place and wander around there.

We got fries on the Street of Fish and resumed the game of trying new beers at each bar as we meandered our way to all the famous chocolate shops! The first chocolate shop was Laurent Gerbaud (Coudenberg street) and we bought some chocolate-covered orange peels to share. Unknowningly we also met Laurent himself but I didn't realize it until I saw his picture in a magazine later. There was a park nearby so we decided to try the picnic idea again. We wandered through a little outdoor market and bought sausage, cheese and wine. This time we made it through the whole picnic in the park without rain!

Next we stopped for beers at a place that mixes the beer with fruit and chocolate. We ordered a glass of chocolate beer, peach beer, apple beer and raspberry beer. Apple was too ordinary and the chocolate too rich but the other two were delicious!

Our last stop on the weary walk home was the other famous chocolate shop, Pierre Marcolini (Rue de Minimes). From the outside it looks like a high-end jewelry shop or makeup store! The chocolates were tiny, expensive and so luxuriously tasty. My favorites were the The au Citron, Caramel Fondant and above all the Palet Or which actually has flakes of GOLD on top!

We rejoined most of the original group back at the hostel and spent the evening in the backyard drinking, chatting and sharing pizza from Pizza Box down the street before heading to bed.

August 20, 2011

This morning Nico and I woke up bright and early to take the train to Brugge, a famous medieval city an hour outside of Brussels. The train station was absolutely crazy because tickets in Belgium are half-price on the weekends. Somehow Nico was able to blaze a trail through the crowd so a forgotten counter at the other end of the room. Because of the lines we decided to not only book our train tickets to Brugge today but also a ticket to Ghent tomorrow. We even walked next door to buy our tickets to Paris (Nico) and Amsterdam (me) since we were already there. The best part is that all the tickets in Belgium (that don't require reservations like the TGV to Paris) are open-ended so you can hop on any train you want to a location and whatever train you want back as well.

Brugge was a beautiful, well-preserved town PACKED with people. It was so crowded that I felt uncomfortable.

We were starving so we walked into a little cafe built in the interior of a building that was open to the sky called Eetcafe. It was pleasant bereft of people. Lunch was stewed Flemish rabbit which was the best meal I've had since my goulash in Cologne.

There was a young Dutch guy sitting next to us whom we befriended. His name was Sander and he was attempting to learn Russian because he has a lot of Russian friends. He was raised by hippies, had been a vegetarian his entire life, and made art installations. He got really excited when I mentioned Burning Man and said he really wanted to go someday. I told him his English was really good and he said it was because he watched a lot of Michael Jackson when he was a kid. Random! He also bought us a round of beer which was really nice although I think the waitress, his girlfriend, had a hand in it! The beer was a lager called Brugge Zot and it was the best Belgian beer I've tasted so far.

After lunch we walked to the canal for a cruise on the water. There was an adorable three-year-old Vietnamese boy on the boat who I flirted with for most of the ride. He would hold open his palm and I would poke it with my finger as he tried to grab my finger in his fist. SO CUTE. His mom was adorable too and thankful to have him off her hands for a few minutes. I think I missed most of what the tour guide said about Brugge because the kid was so much fun! I highly suggest during the canal cruise because it's only like 6 Euro and it gives you a good idea of the layout of the city (not that it's that big).

We continued to drink beers on our way to the chocolate museum where we learned everything you could possibly know about chocolate, watched a demonstration of how it is made, and got free samples at the end.

There was a video about the process of making chocolate hosted by a fat old man with a really curly moustache. It was really cheesy and both Nico and I were crying by the end of the video because it was so funny. That alone was worth my entrance fee!
Here are some of the interesting facts I learned alone the way:

1) To turn cocoa into chocolate there are seven steps - Roasting, Winnowing, Grinding, Mixing, Refining, Conching, Viscosity.
2) The first chocolate house opened in 1657 where men (only) would drink chocolate, gamble and talk politics.
3) Chocolate started off as a drink and only later was eaten in its solid form.
4) Chocolate was originally only for royalty and spread through Europe when it appeared at royal weddings.
5) White chocolate doesn't have cocoa powder in it which is why it is white. Instead cocoa is put under intense pressure and the oil is extracted. This clear oil is then used to make cocoa butter. It's a lengthy, expensive process which is why white chocolate is more expensive then milk or dark chocolate.
6) Cocoa beans were so precious that they were used by early tribespeople as currency.
7) Here is the secret recipe that Cortez brought back with him in 1528:

700 grams of ground cocoa
750 grams of white sugar
56 grams of cinnamon
14 pepper grains
14 grams of cloves
3 vanilla sticks
1 pinch of aniseed
hazelnuts, musk, amber and orange

I will have to try it out!

We spent the rest of the afternoon near the center of the old city which was away from the bustle of the main square. We soon realized that we'd been talking for two hours and needed to head back.

We took a new route to the train station which passed through a lovely park with a beautiful building reflected in the water.

A much needed nap was in order back at the hostel and then we went out with the group again to an area of bars just past the hostel. I really wanted a real dinner but the only thing open was nasty kebab which made me feel worse. I chatted with Liv from Australia and Justin from Chicago in hopes of getting up the energy to have a big night but alas no luck. Justin did tell me a crazy story about his best friend who ended up marrying his neuroscience lab partner and then running off to join the circus. They've been doing trapeze for a couple years now and are apparently really good and have traveled all over the world! I guess some people really do run off and join the circus!

After a couple of beers I returned to the hostel to pass out. I think I'm almost ready to go home.

August 21, 2011

Today was another early day as Nico and I took the train to Ghent, 30 minutes away from Brussels. Ghent is much bigger than Brugge with less crowds, more young people and more interesting buildings. I immediately liked it much better! You have to walk quite awhile to get to the old center of the town but there is also a tram if you prefer.

We took a canal cruise here as well and learned that the oldest house in Ghent was built in 1112 and the smallest house is only a few meters wide. Not sure how it was possible to live in it!
Once again there were the cutest two little girls sitting around from us. One asked her dad if she could have her snacks. Her dad said she needed to wait until the boat ride was over because you couldn't eat on the boat. She promptly pointed at an older woman scarfing down a sandwich farther down the boat and said, "But she is eating." Clearly beaten her dad handed her a bag of chips. Ah, she reminds me of me haha.

After the boat ride we found the cafe that Sander from Brugge had recommended called It Spijkeb(?). It has terrible service! We waited for about 20 minutes to order and no one appeared even after I searched the interior. You can definitely see how it was be hopping with young people on a Friday night though. Ghent has the largest university in Belgium I believe.

We spent the next few hours eating fries (not as good as the carnival ones!) and buying chocolate. This chocolate shop was one of the many Leonidas shops that have sprouted up since the brand became famous. It was here that I tried my first Manon, a famous type of chocolate. It was really rich but really good. I could only eat one.

Nico also told me a funny story about how his older brother used to get lonely playing video games so he would give their sister a controller. She thought she was playing but really her controller was dead and his brother was playing the computer. Anytime the computer won she thought she had and would get really excited. It was cute!

The next place we stopped for beer an old man befriended us who told us about this place called the Street of Glass. It's the street where the prostitutes hang out. We decided we'd seen everything else so we'd check it out. It was a mini, dirtier version of the Red Light district in Amsterdam. All the women were really old, one was eating a sandwich, and there was a wire net above the hallway where pigeons were roosting, laying eggs and pooping. I had to run through it for fear of getting pooped on.

The Street of Glass led us through the older area of Ghent that no one bothers to see or has since forgotten. Old construction sites litter the canals and graffiti graces the rundown buildings.
The desolation led us to a large, shady park, Citadel Park, where we passed under a waterfall and hiked over green hills back to the train station.

Back at the hostel I read for a few hours and then Nico and I went down the street for a real dinner of lasagne and wine at Il Vecchio Mulino. The lasagne was fine; the wine was delicious. The night also came with free entertainment as a huge fight broke out at the cafe down the street. We watched as two police officers waddled down to see what all the commotion was about. Later two of the girls walked by talking angrily in French with long, angry red gouges covering their arms.

I was exhausted yet again and decided to get an early night in. I'm bummed I feel so sick because it is Nico and my last night to hang out! He has become such a good friend! Tomorrow I leave for Amsterdam so it is probably a good thing I get some sleep in!

August 22, 2011

Yet again Karel is awesome and let me sleep in until 3pm! I scurried out into the pouring rain to get money from the ATM, buy some more chocolate and test out the sandwich shop next to the Carrefour that Nico had recommended. You can make your own sandwich which was pretty cool!
Back at the hostel I paid Karel for the last three accidental nights and gave him a bar of chocolate for being so awesome. He was really appreciative. I highly highly recommend this hostel to anyone coming to Brussels. I wish I could just move in forever!

I got bored because everyone was out and decided to head to the train station (I had an open ticket so I could leave whenever). I arrived just in time to walk onto a train to Amsterdam and spent the next three hours with my nose deep into my Kindle catching up with Cersei, Tyrion, and Jon Snow.

Upon arrival in Amsterdam I found out that my friend, Eva, was expecting to have to work late so I tried to store my bags at the train station. Turns out you need a credit card to do so. Debit cards won't work. I decided to try my luck at the Flying Pig Hostel which is extremely famous. The girl at reception took pity on me and let me store my bags.

I went to an internet cafe and used Skype to text message Eva and my friend, Emily, from the hostel in Brussels. How cool is Skype?! Emily called me and I met up with her, Joe, and two Canadians from their hostel. We went to Green Light, a shisha place near the train station. It's crazy; I came to this same place back in 2008 and it is exactly the same! We sat in the boat. Yes, it is an actual wooden boat in the cafe.

Eva ended up getting off early and came and had shisha and beers with us before she and I went back to her place to settle my bags before going out for the night. To get to her place she gave me her parents' bike to ride. Uh oh! We all know Laura and bikes...I usually end up in a bush or running into someone! This should be interesting. Eva looked like a natural. She could even balance my suitcase on the bike of her bike and still ride it!

We sat drinking beer and eating my chocolate for a bit and then went to meet up with her friend, Lotte, who had two couchsurfers staying with her. We went to Alto in Leidseplein Square which is a cool little live jazz bar. It was a very chill night - not sure who was more exhausted, Eva coming off a 14 hour day of filming or me! I was super impressed with myself that I made it all the way back to her house without crashing the bike!