Saturday, June 21, 2008

In Belgium – May 2008

The best time to take a vacation is when you are between jobs. In our case, We were between jobs and countries! We decided to take a long 3 week vacation, the longest we ever took outside of an India trip. We spent a week in NY and UMass where we visited family and friends. Then we took a 2 week vacation in Europe. I was a little worried about the long trip because Saru is not a big fan of Europe. I love museums and churches and palaces, but Saru thinks if he has seen one, he has seen them all. That is why I alternate our vacations between historic places and those of nature. Our last vacation was to Belize, so this one ended up being in Europe. Added to that, it was on our way to India.

We were flying Jet Airways via Brussels to India, so it made sense for us to spend at least a couple of days there before going to other famous cities. My friends Arun and Rohini went there last year and came back raving about the little museums and churches and waffles and chocolate. We landed in Brussels. I exchanged $300 for Euro and was horrified to get back only $160. The exchange rate was 1.77! I am glad we came now, because I doubt if we can afford this anymore. In the next 2 weeks, we would notice that there were hardly any American tourists. There were no American backpackers or families, only a couple of retired folks. We did however see busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists.

We left our luggage at a friend's home and took a train to Bruges. Bruges or Brugge (translates aptly to 'wharf') as the locals call it used to be a very important port in its hay days. Now, it is a very popular tourist destination. This World Heritage town in the Flemish region of Belgium is considered to be one of Europe's most well preserved medieval towns. It is about an hour's train ride from Brussels.

The train arrived promptly on time. There were a lot of people, so we boarded quickly and congratulated ourselves on getting the last available seats. We settled in and were talking about how cool the compartment was and how India should learn from the Western society about cleanliness and timeliness, when the conductor arrived and calmly told us that we were in the 1st class compartment with 2nd class tickets. Embarrassed, we moved to the exit to get down at the next station and get into the 2nd class compartment. Turns out there were a lot of us who made this mistake. Among them were some very well dressed and beautiful Indian girls. I found myself staring at them….at their designer clothes, knee length boots, dangling earrings and ethnic bangles…necklaces ….lipstick, beautiful smile, silky hair. Wait a minute….did I say I was staring…no no, it was Saru who was staring and he remembered all these details and told me later. While not staring at them, I smiled and asked one if she and her friends lived in Belgium. She said that she and her friends were air hostesses for Jet Airways (explains the beauty and style) and were touring on their day off before going to Toronto on their next flight. I complimented her on the excellent service provided by Jet and told her how impressed Saru and I were. Train ride was nice….the scenery was beautiful …I mean the outdoor scenery. Here is the first canal we came across as we walked to our B&B.

We took a bus to our B&B, a charming old Victorian. We huffed and puffed our way through three narrow and steep circular stairs. 80E bought us a room in the third floor, a nice brightly lit room with stylish furniture all under giant wooden beams. Yes…80E, $140 bought us a room in the attic!!

Saru: So….all that research and I end up in an attic?

Me: Yes, but isn't this a cute and charming attic.

Saru: Sure…maybe next time you should lift that big suitcase with my heavy camera backpack on those three flights of stairs.

Me: Of course the backpack is heavy…with all those lenses and cameras.

Saru: My camera bag is heavy?? What about the 100 dresses you packed in the suitcases.

Me: My ten dresses are lighter than your jeans and cargos.

Saru: But I brought only 3 pants.

Me: OMG!…You are going to wear only 3 pants for 2 weeks?

Saru: I would have brought more if you had left me any space.

Me: Whatever!

Me: BTW….the host told me that the weather is going to be great the next couple of days…around 68-70F.

Saru: Excellent. After all that rain in NY, we deserve good weather.

With the topic conveniently changed and jetlag kicking in, we take a short nap and step out of the room around 5:00PM. The walk towards downtown takes us through cobble stone streets and criss-crossing canals. The shadows of the old Victorian homes in the calm waters of the canal make it a really nice picture. You cannot resist taking photos with such a nice background.

We walk towards the downtown and find a roadside stall selling Belgian waffles and Belgian fries. We get one order of each. Waffles are served in three forms – plain with sugar, plain with sugar and whipped cream and dipped in chocolate.

Me: Umm…this is the best waffle I ever had…here take a small bite.

Saru: muttering….I should take a small bite but she finishes an entire waffle in 2 bites.

Me: If you want it so much…why don't you buy another one for yourself? Cheapo!

Side Note that Saru wrote:

Over the years, I have come to realize that my wife's concept of 50-50 is more like 70-30 and it even becomes 90-10 if it is her favorite food like fruits or desserts. I have to be really quick and grab my piece, Otherwise the food vanishes from the table. Of late, she decided to be fairer and started cutting things into halves and she tries to stick to her half (which incidentally is bigger than mine). She gulps her half at an astonishing speed and then starts staring at my half which I like to eat slowly. She says it does not mean anything, but how is a guy supposed to eat when somebody is staring at him!! Her very latest way of dealing with this is to not share at all! Even before we buy something, she says ' I am not sharing this with you. Buy one more if you want it!!'

Me: Let me try those fries. Belgian fries are supposed to be fried twice, once for cooking the potato and another time to make them extra crispy. These are quite crispy….no?

Saru: again muttering...If I buy fries from McDonalds or Burger King, it is considered junk food, but Belgian fries are cool!

Me: You should eat these with mayonnaise like a local. Only Americans eat fries with ketchup. Rohini always eats her fries with mayonnaise.

Saru: You and your friend must be born Belgians.

Me: Don't make fun of my friend.

With our hunger satisfied, we walk all over the little town. The carnival was in town and the locals were having a lot of fun in the merry-go-rounds and trampolines. The downtown was lined with these really cool Victorians outdoor cafes.

Night time in these cute towns is magical when the sky turns deep blue and the monuments are lit up. We hung out in this square before having dinner in an Italian joint called Pilli Pilli. They had very nice pasta and chocolate mousse.

Next morning, the host left this giant plate of breakfast. It had croissants and a basket of soft bread with sides of cheese and butter and assorted jams. Saru's face lit up when he saw the food. He was like "Oh good…we don't have to spend more money on breakfast". I was thinking the exact same thing, but of course I made a face and said "You are such a cheapo".

Belgians are very famous for their tapestries and carillons. I wanted to visit the bell tower, so we walked towards the tower through the canal-side lanes. Everywhere we turned, it was a postcard shot.

Our B&B host told us that the best bet was to get a combo ticket to rent a bike and see 3 museums and the bell tower.

Me: Hey Saru, it is 366 steps to the top of the tower and then we can bike 4 miles to the next village called Damme.

Saru: Damn!

Me: Yes, isn't that a funny name for a village?

Saru: You want me to pay to climb 366 steps and bike? Isn't this supposed to be a relaxing vacation?

Me: Don't you want to lose all that weight and become the young and dynamic executive at Reliance?

Saru: What happened to weight loss when you made me eat waffles and fries? (Muttering "conveniently changes stories when it suits her")

Me: But you cannot-not eat Belgian waffles and Belgian fries in Belgium.

Saru: So, I eat those and climb 366 steps and bike 4 miles?

Me (showing the "L" sign): OK. Why don't you sit here while I climb the steps and come back? I promise to not tell anybody about this.

Saru: FINE! Buy me a ticket too. You are torturing me on the first day of the vacation!

Huffing and puffing and complaining how not-relaxing this vacation was, Saru climbed the top of the steps. Me, I am a sucker for views. I will climb any number of steps if it promises a good view of the city and I am never disappointed. Looking down from the 300ft tall building you could see the view of the little town with its red roof tops and outdoor cafes.

We went to the bike rental and took off with the bikes. I was very happy. I am on vacation and riding a bike with the wind on my face and great views all around. Saru, I like to think was secretly happy but acting like I was torturing him just to get the upper hand. Once we crossed Bruges, the bike lane to Damme became more scenic. The lane was next to a canal and lined with tall trees on either side. Spring was in the air and the fields around had lush green grass.

Me: Man….the air smells so pure. I love this place.

Saru: Pure??? Don't you smell the cow dung?

Me: A little bit…it is all very rustic and village-like…very cool.

Saru: So cow dung is cool now??

Me: It reminds me of my mom's village in India. My grandparents had floors in their house made of cow dung. If you think about it, they had very creative uses of dung. They used it for flooring, in cooking and in farming. I wonder how they make gas out of it.

Saru: All organic matter has some amount of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. When you blah blah…decompose….ferment….blah blah…you can make gas.

Me: I lost you at Nitrogen!! I don't need a chemistry lecture here. Jeez!!

Saru: Can we take a break, I am hurting.

Me: You tired already?

Saru: NO, I am not tired…I said I am hurting!

Me: Where?

Saru: You know where…so Shut up!!

Me: Here…take my sweater and use it like a cushion.

A giant windmill announced the entry into the historic town of Damme. Saru was exhausted from the bike ride and sat on a park bench and took a nap while I biked around the town to look for lunch places. I picked a place and came back.

Me: Looks like you had a good nap, you lazy ass.

Saru: Vam….I am so embarrassed.

Me: What happened? Did you drool or something?

Saru: Chi No! I was sleeping very well until I woke myself from somebody's loud snoring. It stopped as soon as I woke up!!

Me: Oh God!! You woke yourself up with your own snoring?

We bought some sandwiches and ate them at a park. When we were ready to leave, Saru's cycle chain had come off and how ever hard he tried, he could not put it back. He was not very happy with the prospect of walking his bike back. I found two construction workers and asked them to help. They also struggled for a bit, but managed to fix it. We drove back. I wanted to get back to the city centre for free performances by some dance troupes, so I rode faster. I reached the city center and Saru was nowhere in sight. I waited for 10 mins, started getting worried, so I rode back and 5 mins later saw him all angry and walking back the bike. The chain had come off again.

After cursing me and the bike for 10 minutes, he cooled down and came and saw the flag dance show by high school kids. It was very well done.

We then went to Groeninge Museum, a small but nice museum and then went to a chocolate store. When in Belgium, eat Belgian Truffles. We then walked around the town, ate some Chocolate dipped waffles before it was time to head to the train station to leave for Amsterdam. All in all, Bruges was a nice 2 day trip.


  1. Excellent Pics !! The view of the town from the top is the best.

  2. Very nice travelogue. Hope you will blog about your India experience as well. Want to compare notes!

  3. Belgium sounds like lot of fun. Pictures of the gardens are spectacular.
    When did Saru buy all these cool clothes? After leaving bay area??

  4. Aaah I like your style of writing :-) My fav are the night time shots and the dance by the locals. The place seems very enchanting and appealing, looking fwd to visit it ...hopefully soon.

  5. Such a lovely place! I liked how all the homes have pointed red roof tops. Very picturesque. I just had lunch, but I can sure have a Belgian waffle for dessert now :)

    Saru, you look cool in the bright t-shirts.

  6. hey vam !

    you should seriously consider a career as a travel writer !

    excellent pictures !

    looking forward to reading about your adventures in India in the near future.

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  8. Vamsee: What a beautifully worded travel journal. I like the he said-she said method. Sounds very much like the lines from Hum-Tum.

    Did you take any pictures of the food items, or where you too famished to take photos of
    what you ate? For a blog, you spend a lot of time describing food, but show no pictures of what you ate. Not fair.And the one picture you do show is that of leftovers with Vamsee ogling the
    last remaining piece of toast.

    Loved the pictures of the road to Damme. BTW, floors made of cow dung Vamsee?!?
    Nice hint about his butt hurting, with the mention of the sweater. I am guessing its the same red sweater you so proudly display in all the pictures.
    In all, nice compilation of pictures and weaving a story with words.

  9. Awesome travelogue...keep it coming..btw...i love your new look with the straight longer hair!
    And cool pics saru!

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  11. Great Location shots Vam !! Saru would be jealous to have people appreciate Vam's pic's more than his :-) But truth is bitter sometimes .. ha ha.
    Austria is beautiful and this city looks picture perfect. Keep blogging.. its fun to read them.

  12. Love the way u write and the humor in the post..

    What a serene place!!!!

    Love the birds eye view....

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