Tuesday 26 March 2013

Next Trip: Israel Take 2

When planning our trip to Israel last year, we made a conscious decision to focus on the South and lesser travelled Negev Desert and leave to next time most of the more typical tourist spots.

Us at Masada with the Dead Sea behind us. Read all about our previous trip or see the pictures

Well, on Thursday night we leave for the second trip (gotta squeeze it in before Branson repatriates!) and as promised we're all set up for a slightly more traditional visit to the country.

Our current itinerary looks like this:
  • Day 1 - arrive early AM for Tel-Aviv. Hoping to catch an architecture walking tour & maybe some beach time before putting on our dancing shoes for a night out.
  • Day 2 - second day in Tel-Aviv. Maybe catch one of the museums (Museum of Art or Eretz Israel) or do some historical sightseeing near the old port.
  • Day 3 - drive to the Galilee via Haifa (maybe a second chance to tour the Bahai Gardens?) planning on a chilled evening at the kibbutz
  • Day 4 - visit Nazareth
  • Day 5 - Hiking in the Golan Heights
  • Day 6 - visit Safed and perhaps Capernaum along with the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves & Fishes
  • Day 7 - A mini hike in the AM and then drive to Jerusalem in the afternoon, first evening in Jerusalem. We may stop somewhere on the way instead of doing a morning hike. Will see how we feel
  • Day 8 - sightseeing in Jerusalem (probably focusing on the old city)
  • Day 9 - sightseeing in Jerusalem (probably focusing on the new city & the east)
  • Day 10 - visit Ramallah or Bethlehem depending on the security situation
  • Day 11 - morning in Jerusalem and then to the airport for our late afternoon flight back to London

It's pretty full, but should give us a nice cross section of some of the better known parts of Israel. No doubt we'll make substitutions and changes as we go depending on our moods and the situation on the ground. This is particularly true for Day 10 when we're hoping to see "the other side". I'm keen in particular to visit the Quaker Centre in Ramallah, but as with much in this region we'll just have to play this by ear.

We are super excited to be going back, not only to get to see the other half of the country, but also for the weather! London's winter has been beyond miserable, so the sunny, warm forecast for Israel is like something out of a dream. Sunshine and an exciting destination? Yes please!

We're using the same guidebook from before - our trusty DK Eyewitness Guide for Jerusalem, Israel, Petra & Sinai and Branson has a pretty complete collection of maps for our hikes. No doubt we'll pick up other bits while we're there, but this should provide us with a more than sufficient starting point.

In preparation for the trip, I've read (or am in the process of readng) a few non-fiction books:
Jerusalem, The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiori (excellent - highly recommended)
A History of Modern Israel by Colin Schindler (fair to middling, not convinced there isn't a better option)
The Arab-Israeli Reader edited by Walter Laquer & Barry Rubin (an enlightening read, but not good on its own. Much better if read in conjunction with a more traditional narrative history)

Also recommended past reads for those interested in a good laymen's understanding of the broader historical context:
The Middle Sea by John Julius Norwich
A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

I'll be aiming to live blog the trip again this year, so keep your eye peeled this weekend for the next installment!

Saturday 23 March 2013

Another Weekend in Paris - Day 2

Another slow morning, started off this time by breakfast in the hotel (quite a nice buffet, but very noisy)  before checking out (which took forever) leaving our bags, and then we decided a good long walk was in order. We didn't have any particular place in mind and the only plans we had pre-arranged were for later in the afternoon. So we walked where our feet took us. 

In this part of Paris, it seems like almost all roads lead to the Arc de Triomphe

From there, we took a stroll down the mostly empty Champs-Élysées and wandered through one of the little mini shopping galleries that had an art exhibition on.

Most of the work was pretty dull, but this one was quite cool. Later on we got to the art gallery that was sponsoring the little exhibit and realised that it was hardly a one off, which was kind of a shame, but it was still pretty cool in that space.

From there we wandered down a few side streets, ending up in the Carré Marigny, a little park*. At that point, we stopped to consider our options. We had a good three hours left before we needed to be on the south side of the river for our tour, so what to do? It was a little too chilly for me and I suggested something indoors. Stephen then remembered a video he had seen on youtube (as you do) featuring some cool** experiments with fire & electricity and that it was filmed at the Palais de la Découverte (Palace of Discovery). "I wonder" he said "if it's anywhere nearby". Little did we know, it was literally around the corner! It seemed like fate, so over we went. 

Spotting the first sign, Stephen started getting really excited. The building itself is very impressive and reminded me quite a lot of the Natural History and Science Museums in London - grand buildings that had been repurposed for even grander public purposes.

The foyer. Amazing, no? 
As a museum, the layout was kind of chaotic, but they do a pretty good job with the space available. Still, it can be a little bit difficult to navigate the various exhibits if you're looking for something specific. For those with a decent fluency in French, I would highly recommend getting there early enough in the day to check out many of the very interesting gallery talks. Unfortunately, these were too technical for me, so I let Stephen go off on his own, while I wandered around a little more aimlessly. Eventually ending up in the cafe for lunch. Stephen was like a little kid in a candy shop and enjoyed the museum immensely. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more had I been slightly more awake.

One of the interactive exhibits in the electricity section.

Pretty cool and we both committed to coming back when we would have a full day to spend wandering around.
From there we hopped on the metro and arrived in the Saint Germain district with a few extra minutes to spare before our afternoon chocolate & pastry tour with Paris by Mouth. We were expecting to be part of a small group, but when our lovely guides Meg & Diane arrived, we discovered the other part of our group had cancelled so it was now just us! While I'm sure the other people would have been lovely, having 2 dedicated private guides was a treat indeed and a very pleasant surprise. After a short introduction to the area, we were off to our first visit: Patrick Rogier. A Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF), Mr. Rogier is known as much for his chocolate sculptures as he is for his finely worked bonbons
The window of his shop dressed for Easter.
Like many of the finer London chocatiers that I've been sampling over the years, Mr. Rogier also works with unique flavours pushing the edges of what is perceived as being appropriate for chocolate. The lovely hostess let us sample a few of the treats on offer, including a really beautiful Jasmine tea infused chocolate. After much hemming and hawing, we took away several of his genache bonbons (oat infusion, lemon & lemongrass, Szechuan pepper, & praline) to try as well as a few of his speciality imported bars (3 continents bar, Tongo, & one other I can't quite remember). Before we left, Meg stopped to show us his most popular easter creation, eggs filled with praline
Aren't they adorable?
As she pointed out, these would make beautiful hostess gifts. Part of me is a little sad we didn't spring for these, but alas, it was only the start of our tour and we had the rest of the afternoon to go!
From there we stopped by another MOF, Arnaud Larher
Only Mr. Larher's speciality is pastries. And his window featured not only 2 towers of glorious looking macarons, but also a number of variations on other well known French pastries.
mmmm macarons. . .
This, Meg, explained, were two examples of St. Honoré pastries - the one on the left is the more classic chocolate, with the right is a caramel version.
We chose two desserts to take away with us, and unfortunately not only did I not get a picture, I didn't write them down! Oof! One was a delightful concotion of fig & cream with I think passionfruit coulis. Divine. 
One more stop before we would do our half way tasting and this time was one of Paris's most well known caramerlier, Henri Le Roux
Credited as being the man who brought caramels au beurre salé (CBS) back into fashion, it isn't by far his only flavour. While we were there they had everything from the classic CBS to winter spices to plum and they came in more colours than I ever could have envisioned caramels having.
a few of the examples of the beautiful caramels on offer.
Of course if that wasn't enough, we also picked up a few of his more unique chocolates (a buckwheat, pepper, and one other for contrast with Mr. Rogier's wares) and fruit jellies (lychee and grapefruit, and 2 types of plums!). . . because it's not enough to just make caramels. Many of his confections had a unique Asian twist, apparently due to his extensive travels in Japan and China.
From there it was across the street to a delightful little wine shop (caviste), The Last Drop, for our mid-point tasting and discussion.
Always a little skeptical of pairing wine with chocolate, I was really surprised at the Banyuls which although a dessert wine went very well with the chocolate bars from Mr. Rogier. The bonbons and pastries we tasted on their own. The other lovely surprise was being joined by Polly the shopkeeper and a brief appearance from the proprietor himself. Wonderful people, and great conversation while discovering some truly incredible sweets. Can an afternoon in Paris get much better than this?
After our tasting and buying a bottle or two of wine (they had a Côtes du Rhône!), we headed off to our last stop of the day, the rather upscale yet still playful Hugo & Victor
The flavours of their pastries change daily and when they're out, they're out for good. Each primary flavour has 2 variants - a "classic" and an "exotic" Arriving late in the day, we had three choices remaining to us: passion fruit, pineapple and lemon. We chose lemon "classic" (a cheesecake) and passionfruit "exotic" (a jelly/cream dome thing). The flavours of both were intense, but the passion fruit one was like an electric shock! I've never tasted anything so aggressively passionfruit ever. Amazing. 
It's hard to think back on the day and try to choose a favourite, because each and every one was amazing and interesting in their own way. I think that's one of the things that's so wonderful about tasting food at this level of expertise is that it's all so very good that it's just explorations in the marvellous. You can't really go wrong. 
So definitely all places that we are keen to go back and explore at more leisure - you never know perhaps we shall base our next trip to Paris in the St. Germain!
We owe a huge thanks to Meg & Diane who were not only knowledgeable, but passionate and fun. I couldn't imagine a better afternoon getting to know the sweeter side of Paris, comparing and contrasting with the different places we've known. Although definitely not a cheap option, I can highly recommend their tours. You can find the full listing here.
From there our visit was pretty much at an end. All that was left was for us to go back to the hotel, pick up our bags and head to the train station. Our return journey was a quiet and easy one. Enough to give us some space to think about all we saw and savour the memories.
Happiness truly is a weekend in Paris.

* I say little, it seemed like it at the time, in actuality it's rather big! Especially considering its location smack in central Paris.

**cool being a relative term

Read about the rest of the weekend. . .
The rest of the pictures for our trip, as always, be found over on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oufoxy/sets/72157633014089503/

Friday 22 March 2013

Another Weekend in Paris - Dinner at L'Entredgeu

One of the trickier aspects of staying a bit further out is that it becomes slightly more difficult to find a place to have dinner. And as anyone who has been following our Paris trips knows that dinner in Paris is one of the most important events. Stephen and I both love the French tradition of long, lingering dinners in a buzzy atmosphere filled with people who take delight in the food & wine on offer.
We started, as we almost always do, with  my very well annotated copy of Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris*. The pickings, unfortunately, were quite slim for nearby our hotel and while we could have gone further into town, now the search started to have an air of a challenge. After searching some of our other gotolistings for Paris restaurants, they all seemed to converge on a single place: L'Entredgeu. And no, it doesn't have a website. Yes, it's one of those**.
I had Stephen call and work his magic French (amazing what a good accent can accomplish) to obtain us a reservation. We duly turned up at our appointed seating (9pm***) and the restaurant was bursting to the seams, and it didn't look like anyone was going any time soon. Offering to go away and come back again, we were informed by the lovely waitress that "if you leave, no one will ever get up!" But she quite sweetly produced some snacks for us to munch on (as our tummies were properly rumbly) and the chalkboard menu**** for us to begin to think about our selections.
Not long after, a table finally cleared for us and we settled on our choices (£35 for 3 courses) and our wine. The wine list was impressive with a good mix of both regular and half bottles of wine. Nothing by the glass, unfortunately, but with the half bottles on offer it was easy for us to find something to match what we wanted to eat.  We ended up choosing 2 half bottles: a white Sancerre (2011 Paul Prieur et Fils) for our starters and a red Bordeaux (2010 Chateau La Grolet) for our mains.
For me:
  1. scallops in the half sheet with a roasted tomato & squash puree with a deeply umami sauce
  2. a filet of pork belly with wilted spinach and celeriac puree
  3. a Mont Blanc with a glass of Armagnac

For Stephen:

  1. chicken & fois gras pressé with a mustard vinegrette & salad
  2. a ragou of beef layered with macaroni & some steamed veggies
  3. a baba au rhum

My starter was definitely the highlight of the evening - the scallops were perfectly cooked and tender seared just enough that they had a good flavour to stand up to the sauce & puree. It was a really stunning complement to our wine - I could have eaten this three times over and still been coming back for more! The remaining dishes were perfectly executed and lovingly presented, but nothing outstanding. The service was swift, professional and only a little bit harried (considering they had a very full dining room, it was totally understandable). Since we were seated a little later, it meant that we were hurried away from our table and could linger, which suited us just fine.

While it wasn't the most impressive meal we've ever had in Paris, it was very good indeed and just what we were hungry for; very good value for money. Even better, it was walking distance to our hotel - a walk I was very glad to take at the end of the evening. I'm not sure that I would go out of my way to visit again, but it's clear that it's well loved by the locals and for good reason. If anyone ever finds themselves in the 16th, this is probably your best option, and you definitely won't regret it.

*highly recommended. If you are going to Paris, you absolutely must have this book

** and in Paris, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, it means that they have a loyal enough following that they don't need to bother with maintaining a website.

*** for popular restaurants we've had much more success in booking rather late seatings.

**** hard to read, but totally worth it as it usually indicates the chef is cooking seasonally


Read about the rest of the weekend. . .



The pictures for our trip, as always, be found over on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oufoxy/sets/72157633014089503/

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Another Weekend in Paris - Day 1

As I mentioned in my intro post , we were staying in a slightly different area than is usual for us and I must say were quite pleasantly surprised by it. We were on the edge of what most tourists would consider "central" Paris, but it was still very easy to get around - a metro stop literally at the end of the street or a very pleasant, if a little long, walk into the centre of town.

On the first day when we woke to beautifully sunny skies, we opted to take the walk. Stephen had already scoped out an exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo that he wanted to see, so we decided to take our time getting there.

And even though we were a bit off the beaten track, as you can see the beaten track wasn't that far away.

After another few minutes we came across this really lovely little church (Église Paroisse Saint-Honoré d'Eylau) and decided a short stop to look inside was in order.

It was a really stunning blend of neoclassical and modern Byzantine influenced architecture. I particularly liked the use of mosaics. One of those great little random moments of beauty. A reminder that no matter how many times you've been somewhere, there's always something else to discover & explore

A little further along we were already in well trodden territory.
All I can say is there's a reason that the Eiffel Tower is so frequently photographed - it's a truly elegant construction from almost every angle.

One of the things I love about Paris is that they very willingly give homage to other countries' leaders that they respect or who helped France. Gives me warm fuzzies to see so many great American leaders and thinkers given pride of place on the capital's streets.

And around the corner from there was a really colourful little market, selling mostly food, but some other bits and pieces. It was clearly a regular occurance and well frequented by locals. I love walking through markets to get a feel for what's in season or looking particuarly tasty. While I didn't manage to get a picture of it, the seafood was absolutely incredible. So much that later that evening, we both opted for fish for various courses based solely on what we had seen in the market. One of these days we really must take a longer trip and stay somewhere that we can do a bit of shopping & cooking.

And a French market couldn't be complete without cheese, like this enormous round of comté. I love French cheese. Yum. On this occasion, however, Stephen pointed out that as we were still in the early part of our day, it was probably best to refrain from purchasing said cheese as it would not be in the best condition after spending all day in my camera bag. *sigh*

From here all we had to do was cross the street to the Palais. We had a great discovery when the staff told us that due to our hotel being a current Corporate sponsor, our room keycards got us in for free! Woo hoo! From there we made a beeline for the Soliel Froid exhibit of works by the incredible Julio Le Parc that Stephen had identified earlier. Neither of us were familiar with Mr. Le Parc's work before this, and we enjoyed it immensely. It gives the phrase "painting with light" totally new meaning, and I couldn't help but think of the "chromalume" from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. We preferred the early parts of the exhibition much more than the later half, but still it was all fascinating.

A riff on the usual "hall of mirrors" - a small room where strips of shiny mirrors were hung and rotated freely as you walked through them. Fantastically fun and disorienting.

One of the things that I really liked about the exhibit was the interaction between light and movement - often your own (like the work above), though occasionally through "set pieces" like the one below.

Even his most beautiful pieces had a slightly industrial, haunted edge. This one was like something out of a steampunk nightmare.
Great play on light and shadow.

And many, many more. If you find yourself in Paris sometime between now and 20 May 2013, I highly recommend the exhibit.

We took a quick lunch in the museum cafe, and then couldn't resist being back outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. After the dismalness of a London winter, I needed the sunshine.

And apparently I wasn't alone! Tourists and Parisians basking in the sun on the terrace outside the Palais de Tokyo.

Another shot of the tower as we crossed the Passerelle Debilly bridge

As wonderful as it was to be walking along the rive gauche, we decided to head back to the 16-eme and take a meander through the Bois de Boulogne since we weren't sure when the next time would be we'd be staying in that corner of Paris.

A map of our (somewhat meandering) route. You can see where we got a little bit lost at the beginning (towards the bottom of the map) and ended up instead in the botanical garden before needing to backtrack. Ah well, it's not a true vacation if you never get a little lost right?

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyHike

We only really got to see a small proportion of the park and look forward very much to exploring the rest, perhaps by bike. A good excuse to finally try out Paris's bike share scheme, perhaps?

Roller blades & a stroller.

And it wasn't just people out and about, some of the local wildlife also decided to bask in the warmth
Bunny rabbit! Yes, little rabbit, we can indeed see you.

From there, we sat in a cafe for a while with hot drinks and perused one of the local newspapers (Stephen helped with some of the more complicated turns of phrase, but it was good practice for my French) while people watching (one of my favourite Paris past-times) Then back to the hotel for some down time before dinner. . .

Next post, dinner at L'Entredgeu.
As always, the above is just a smattering of the photos I took. You can see the full set of pictures from the trip over on my flickr page.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Next trip: Paris

There really is something phenomenal about Paris in spring. Cliche I know, but there is something about this time of year that I start to yearn to travel again, and where better to stretch our legs than Paris?

So tomorrow we're off for a quick weekend away. A little bit of fun to perk us up a bit. We'll be staying in a slightly different part of the city than usual, having found quite a good deal with Le Meridien Etoile located just to the north of the Bois de Boulogne, on the border between the 16th &17th arrondissements.

I've put Stephen in charge of sourcing dinner for Saturday night and I've booked us on a pastry & chocolate walking/tasting tour for Sunday afternoon (because, why not?). Otherwise, if it's rainy we'll check out a museum - there looks to be a cool modern art place not too far away or perhaps we'll head down to one of the museums in the Trocadero or, in a pinch, there's always the Louvre! - if it's sunny we'll probably wander around the Bois. There is always the chance that we'll get a wild hair and do something totally different! 

Unfortunately, it looks like our beloved Sunday organ concerts at Notre Dame are no more - they've moved them to Saturday evenings*. Not the end of the world, but the previous schedule made for the best way to round off our weekend. Paris is pretty quiet on a Sunday evening, so we'll see what we end up finding.
Stay tuned!

* a subsequent look at the Notre Dame website seems to indicate that the Sunday afternoon concerts might resume after Lent. That's great news and I sincerely hope it will be the case. Those concerts are always one of our trip highlights.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Belgium on a Whim - Day 2

So despite a rather shorter night of sleep than we intended, the next day we got a lazy start and headed off for breakfast. I'm used to the sleepy feel of Sunday morning streets in Europe, but this was really something else. Fortunately, by the time we ate and headed back out to see what our last day in Brussels held in store there was a little more life starting up:

Brussels Nov 2012-28.jpg

The weather was already pretty inconsistant with periods of rain and periods of grey, gloom. So we decided to make it a museum day. The Magritte Museum was quite high on our list, unfortunately for Bobby & Erica it was timed entry and the next available slot was after they needed to head back to Germany. So Stephen and I got those tickets in advance (our train being later), and the group's second choice was the Chocolate Museum, or more formally the Museum of Cocoa & Chocolate, located around the corner from the main plaza.

Brussels Nov 2012-42.jpg
It's quite a small, narrow space, filled with various tidbits & trinkets of the chocolate trade, both historical and more modern. While overall quite a fun space, many of the particular exhibits are somewhat dated; still there's plenty to wander around and poke your nose into.
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An example of a traditional canoe from Africa used to transport cocoa beans. Inside are baskets of beans from different countries to showcase some of the differences even at the raw stage of the chocolate production process.

Brussels Nov 2012-36.jpg
One level up from there was a room filled with various chocolate crafts including this display of chocolate clothing. Yes, clothing made from chocolate. Kind of cool, though for obvious reasons quite brittle.
Brussels Nov 2012-39.jpg
On the wall heading back downstairs was a series of stock certificates in many old chocolate companies. This one in Imperial Russian caught my eye. Even then, the chocolate trade was global - the stuff of empires.

The highlight of our visit however, wasn't the exhibits, but rather the demonstration! Held in a kitchen at the back of the musuem, we were taken through how modern day chocolatiers practice their craft. On show for us, was the way that pralines are made. Pralines were invented in Brussels, so it was a very fitting choice. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the truly charming young chocolate maker who gave the demonstration. Not only was he clearly skilled in his craft, but he also gave the talk in 4 languages! I was tucked back into the corner, so apologies for the rather awkward angle of the photographs (not to mention the bar of the glass cabinet to my left).
Brussels Nov 2012-41.jpg
Showing us how most chocolatiers receive their chocolates - in large bars of about a kilo each, which then have to be melted in vats (such as the one on the bottom right of my photo) before being worked.

I didn't realise how simple the process for making pralines was! Basically, you take a mold - that can be anything from something that resembles an ice cube tray to children's masks (see in the background below)- fill it with chocolate. . .

Brussels Nov 2012-41.jpg
Evening out any rough edges.

And then tip it over
Brussels Nov 2012-42.jpg
A thin coating of chocolate sticks to the sides while the rest falls back into the vat, resulting in thin shells that can be filled pretty much with whatever you like. Fun! And he encouraged us to try them at home and let our imaginations run wild. Erica and I exchanged rather meaningful glances. I haven't had a chance to give it a go at home yet, and wonder if she has. Still it was quite a lot of fun and he had such a gentle and kind demeanour that we stayed chatting with him for quite a while after. Definitely the highlight of our trip.

And after all that, we couldn't really help, but go around the corner to Leonidas and pick up some yummy pralines for ourselves!
Brussels Nov 2012-43.jpg
A truly mouth watering selection, no?

A quick bite to eat in a local pub, by which time, the sun had started setting on us again, and it was time to say good-bye to Bobby & Erica (it always seems to end too soon!) while Stephen and I headed off to finish our day at the Magritte Museum.

Brussels Nov 2012-46.jpg
Approaching the Museum from the South.

Our tickets included an audio guide, which Stephen got in French and I took in English (sadly, my French isn't quite that good). We were both really impressed not just with the guides but with the over all curation of the permenant collection itself. It manages not just to cover Magritte's development as an artist, but to place that development within the overall historical context of the region. So the collection includes not just paintings and sketches, but family snapshots, letters, journals and other publications of the period. Very thoughtful and we walked away with a much richer understanding of this incredible artist but also a larger appreciation for his particular moment in art history. We literally stayed until they kicked us out, going back and forth between different works that we liked or didn't like and exploring some of the themes (body image, peace, social conciousness) in more detail.

We took a leisurely route back to the hotel, still thinking about Magritte and enjoying the late evening sunshine as it reflected off the buildings.
Brussels Nov 2012-45.jpg
Golden sunlight

Overall, I must say I was much more charmed by Brussels than I expected to be. I expected a slightly dingy, industrial city that lacked soul. What I found was a relatively quite capital that had really interesting architectural features and history to match. A delightful weekend full of unexpected surprises - just what we needed!

A selection of my photos appear above, but if you want to see all of them, head over to my flickr page.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Brussels on a Whim - Day 1

Whew! Sorry for the long gap, everyone. It's been a pretty hectic six months or so at work, which has put me behind on the blog. Thanks for coming back and without further adieu here's a few catch-up posts.

After hurridly making plans the day before, we arrived into Brussels on Saturday lunchtime where we met up with Bobby & Erica, took a quick trip to the hotel, check-in and drop bags then out to explore a little and (most importantly) find lunch!

On the way into town, though, we took a bit of a detour past the Royal residence & nearby park. Despite being in the depths of winter, there was still a goodly bit of green about.
Brussels Nov 2012-02.jpg
In the park, they had a few pieces of sculpture installed that focused on the culinary heritage of the city. At first we couldn't figure out what balloons had to do with Brussels, but on closer inspection we realised that it was decorated with mussel shells!
Brussels Nov 2012-03.jpg

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Giant moule in bright orange (no I didn't get it either, but you certainly couldn't miss it for the colour!)

A recommendation from the hotel had us heading into the centre of town, threading through some wonderful old streets. Unfortunately, both of the places we had recommendations for had since closed, so finding ourselves on a random street corner in Brussels we decided to take a punt. Across the plaza was a fairly unassuming bistro called Brasserie du Jaloa. Why not? Over we went and sure enough they had a table for four. Win! Only once we were seated and I did a bit of googling did I realise that we had managed to plonk ourselves down into a Michelin starred bistro. Rather more indulgent than we were originally intended, but extremely tasty with good service and quiet enough the four of us could get caught up properly.

After words, we definitely needed a bit of a walk, and being November, the sun was already starting to set, giving the city a beautiful golden glow.

Brussels Nov 2012-09.jpg
The bourse or stock exchange. One of Europe's oldest.

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Sadly the city's Roman foundation museum was already closed. But we peeped through the glass doors down into the ruins. Will have to try to visit on our next trip

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The grand plaza

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Beautiful frescos on the side of one of the buildings

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And coming into another square, a market was packing up where 2 horn players were playing around with some antique instruments.

More than a little cold and still pretty full from our epic lunch, we decided to take any easy night of it. Chatting away, with a light cold supper (cheese, crusty bread, pickles, charcuterie and plenty of wine) was a great way to spend time with old friends.

A minor hitch with our room (in the form of a smoke alarm that beeped incessantly and very loudly) meant that we didn't actually get settled in to sleep until gone midnight. Fortunately, the next day was to be a late start and somewhat flexible. . .to be continued