Monday, November 12, 2007

Bountiful Beers in Bruges…Absent ATM’s in Antwerp

Friday—Sunday, 9-11 November 2007

It was high time to get out of Amsterdam and start enjoying the continent a bit, so we booked a hotel and hit the road for a weekend in Belgium.

Ah, Belgium. The land of chocolates, beer, and wonderful bicycle racing. I especially was excited to return to a city I had not seen for 17 years, the exquisite “medieval” city of Bruges, located just 2 ½ hours from A’dam. The bridges, canals, and architecture alone are worth the trip, and with every turn on the town’s narrow streets, you feel as if you’ve been magically transported to an ancient kingdom. The cobblestone streets are lined with classic European cafes, shops, and people from all around the world who have traveled to the city to experience what the continent might have looked like hundreds of years ago (minus the cars, scooters, and designer fashion stores).

We set out on Friday with the VW packed well. The kids had been prepped a bit for the trip, but they didn’t need much prodding to get out the door, as they really do have an inherent sense of adventure.

Nearing Bruges, we got a bit hungry, so we typed “food” into the GPS for directions to a lunch spot. The next 30 minutes were remarkable, as we drove on the tiniest, winding, picturesque country lanes (at times, no more than a path through a farm field) to a small town, punctuated by a towering church steeple. The restaurant was a bit fancy for our tastes, but the small pub next door and its friendly owner proved just the ticket for our hungry stomachs. For the kids: Pancake meal #1.

Bruges didn’t disappoint. We ate wonderful food, visited the Chocolate Museum, wandered around the city, and took a horse-drawn carriage ride. Friday evening’s meal began with a trip to another pancake place (pancake meal #2), and finished with a visit to a second restaurant so mom and dad could dine.

A trip to the coast (to the rather posh town of Knokke) and a visit to a local pancake house (pancake meal #3) was Saturday’s highlight for the kids. Every meal was exceptional, reflecting Belgium’s top-notch cuisine and culinary training. The pancake house, in somewhat of a local convention, featured a HUGE adjoining outdoor playground area. Hooray!

Saturday evening’s meal was just off the center of the Bruges main square, and featured…what else? Pancake meal #4 for the kids, and yet another delicious offering for Stacey and I.

Any lover of the world’s best beers knows that Belgium is simply nirvana. Over 400 beers are brewed in the country, and I sampled my share during the weekend. After Stacey and the kids had passed out on Saturday night, I walked down the street to a tavern where I was presented with a two-inch thick beer menu. Oh, the choices in life! I was rewarded with a taste of three of Belgium’s finest: A tart lambic, a traditional Flemish brown, and a wonderful Abbey-style dubel.

Cole has been going through some slight behavior challenges lately, but nothing that any other kid hasn’t experienced. Pushing boundaries, challenging authority…all stuff that grandparents and friends might smile about, but stuff that can drive parents a bit crazy. We certainly experienced a bit of that this weekend. The testing will no doubt continue—one of the joys of parenthood.

After a trip to a local chocolatier for some goodies to bring back to A’dam and one last short walk around the center of Bruges, we headed out and pointed the car toward Antwerp. Someone had recommended a kid-friendly place called “Pirate Adventureland,” so we thought we would treat the kids to this indoor play park.

Bad move.

We’ve discovered that in this cashless society, not everyone accepts debit and/or credit cards. If we’re in Holland, it’s usually no problem to pay via debit card, but cross the border to Belgium and it’s a different story. So, blowing through cash is pretty easy. By the time we passed through Pirateland’s turnstiles, I was down to my last few Euros, and the kids were ready for some (overpriced, fried) food. I set out with vague directions on how to find an ATM machine.

Apparently, Belgians (or at least, Antwerpians) don’t buy into the concept that ATM machines should be located on every other city block. I asked, in my worst Flemish (an odd combination of Dutch & French) and best English where to find one. The fourth person I asked politely gave me directions to a location "that I think is only 6.3 blocks from here, on the right, after a laundrymat, next to a trinket store, and close to a pancake house."

Somehow, I knew that pancakes would be involved again.

A winding brisk walk through Antwerp’s gorgeous Grote Markt (central square) brought me to the promised land, where to my delight, I found an indoor ATM kiosk.

Which was locked.

I tried in vain to push the door open, cast a spell to magically turn the lock, and swear in my worst Flemish, but nothing worked...until I went around the corner and found the door that was open. My ATM search had ended. The fifth attempt to navigate the machine were successful, and I headed back to Piratevillage with cash in hand, ready to satisfy the young’uns’ appetites.

At least they didn’t want pancakes.

Tomorrow: Back to school (hooray!); sign up for a mobile phone plan; make Christmas vacation arrangements.

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