Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bicycling Belgium

Since it finally got really nice out recently, we took a nice bicycle trip from Gent to Brugge. Belgium is a bicyclists paradise, and not just within cities. They developed a network of dedicated bicycle paths connecting various cities, through rural farmlands, highlighting different landscapes and items of historical interest, and complete with indicator signs so you know how to get where you want to go. You can easily bicycle to many places in Belgium. Plus, most of the country is about as flat as Chicago, so no difficulties in climbing hills.

The ride to Brugge was about 50 km (31 mi). We stopped once for a beer by a canal in a tiny town, once for lunch, and plenty of short breaks here and there to take in the scenery and refuel.

Bicycling the countryside is also exceptionally cool due to the various WWII relics and memorials you can see that are not necessarily published tourist attractions. Small but interesting tidbits of history. Part of this route was filled with concrete bunkers that the Germans built in WWII. Apparently they were used for storage and the Germans had planes that took off from the adjacent canals. The walls of the bunkers are 1 meter (3 ft) thick!!! They are also quite typical of WWII bunker (such as ones in Scotland and north of San Francisco) in that their roofs were covered in grass to camouflage them from bombers. Now they have bats living in them :) There was also a memorial to 52 Canadian soldiers who died at that location. The memorial was comprised entirely of scrapped tank parts.

You know your in a tiny town when you can stop in the middle of the main road.

rural bicycle path

Belgian beer break!

This town's highlight. And emptiness on a Saturday afternoon.

WWII bunkers built by the Germans.

Memorial to Canadian soldiers made of tank parts.

Lunch time in another small town!

Flea market in Brugge

Having an ice cream in Brugge

The concrete was oh so comfortable for a nap after a long day. Brugge's central plaza.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Ominous Church

It's really funny going into churches in Europe with Europeans. I'm fascinated, they think I'm nuts and a silly American for being so interested in a church. Guess that's the tradeoff for not having anything monstrous gothic buildings hanging around from 500+ years ago in the US.

Koen is from a tiny Belgian town (well, from the looks of it, a farm...) and decided to show us around one of the town's he went school in while growing up. Oudenaarde is located about 20 or 30 minutes outside of Gent. We went into one of the towns massive (from my un-refined perspective) churches. Koen and Monika were, however, quite excited that I was actually interested in looking around and taking pictures, cause frankly, they were more or less bored at seeing just another church (in truth, they all begin to seem the same after you've seen 50 or more gothic churches).

This one stood out though, as it had all these ridiculous statues lining the main aisle. Each statue was an individual (probably each a particular saint) with a different weapon. I thought that seemed a bit violent for a church, but hey, it actually dates all the way back to the 12 century when the crusades were still going on, so who knows. 

This one is particularly mean. How would you like to pray with an axe pointed at your face?

Ceilings are always awesome, artistically and architecturally.

Church of Our Lady Pamele

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Soupy Loopy

I got a little soup crazy at some point in the winter. I think I was inspired by my new 'vegetable guy', whom I was introduced to in November or December. He only sells at the market in Ledeberg on Sunday mornings and the Friday morning market in Vridagmarkt, and is the only both organic and local seller. At first, he had lots of vegetables which I had never tried nor knew the names of nor knew how to use (kohlrabhi, endive, sunchoke!?). Now, I have pretty much gone through his entire selection of winter vegetables, using them in some form or another, but quite frequently in soups! He is a friendly guy in his 50s, who is quite chatty when his tent is not mobbed, and even throws in occasional free item or two now that he knows me as a regular. I was introduced by a Romanian girl, and have since brought Ethiopians, Costa Ricans, Australians, and others....he seems to enjoy the international contact and even asked me about US politics on one occasion (he said the Tea Party was a bunch of crazy people, haha). 

So, for the pleasure of your taste buds, here are a few of my yummy winter soup recipes:


Belgian Endive Soup (Serves 6-7, can  halve recipe)…damn good :)
4 Belgian Endives, cored
2 white onion,
2 garlic clove, diced
4 tablespoons butter
4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken broth
2 cup milk or cream (I used half of each)
(I also added 1 carrot and 1 turnip in addition to what was called for in original recipe)
salt and pepper to taste
chopped chives dill sprigs for garnish
Mince the Belgian Endives, reserving a few small leaves for garnish. Saute the onion, garlic, and minced Belgian Endives in the butter for three to five minutes. Add the potatoes and chicken broth and simmer for about fifteen minutes or until the potatoes are soft. Put this in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Add the milk, salt, and pepper and blend. Serve hot or cold. Garnish with the small Belgian Endive leaves, chives, and dill. Serve with white rice (also veggies or salmon would go well). 
French Veg Soup
3 tbsp EVOO
6 cup Water
2 tsp Salt
1 onion, cut ¼” dice
2 medium yellow potatoes, ¼” dice
3 Leeks, white and pale green part only, thinly sliced
2 medium turnips, diced
3-4 carrots, diced
1 celery root, peeled, cut, diced
1 fennel, trimmed, cored, diced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Note: You can probably put chicken or something in this, or chicken broth. More salt is probably necessary and maybe pepper.
Boil EVOO, H20, and Salt. Then, add all veggies. Cook 30-35 minutes. You can probably saute some of the stuff first like the leek, onions, & carrot.
Pumpkin Soup (wow, this was awesome) Serves 6 or so
1 kilo pumpkin (can keep skin on), chopped
1-2 potatoes peeled chopped
1 sweet potato (orange)
1 large yellow onion peeled diced
Approx 1 to 1.5 L chicken broth
1 carrot peeled chopped
Sautee onion for about 5 minutes with oil and butter. Then sauté a chopped piece of garlic. Add chopped pumpkin, chopped sweet potato, and chopped regular potatoes and chopped carrot. Add coriander (1/2 tsp). Cook approx 30-35 minutes .After, blend to desired consistency. Add about 150 ml of cream. Garnish/serve with chopped parsley and/or cinnamon. (can serve with shredded white cheese also). Serve with good brown bread (can make croutons out of it with oil in a pan). Also sauté the seeds (don’t use much if any oil at all) on low heat for awhile until brown.  Serve with bread. 
Rojas Soup/Stew (perfect for when your sick!)
Place uncooked chicken thighs (drum+thigh) in pot. Add small-medium yellow potatoes which have been cut in half. Add water. Boil for 20 or 30 minutes or so until cooked. Serve with rice. Also serve with Rojas tomato paste: cook a tomato in a sauté pan for a long time until liquid sauce consistency. (She actually grated the tomato on a cheese slicer first).
Generic Simple Veg/Chicken Soup
Sautee sliced leeks and carrot slices in pot with oil. After awhile, add a shallot (could add onion) and minced garlic. Then add something like 6 cups water. Add chopped celery root, chopped turnip, sliced potatoes. Then add chicken (best in wings or breasts with bones & no skin). Also add an ear of corn (cut into 6 or so sections). Add the Claudia special (puree some red/yellow peppers and carrots then add to pot). Seasoned with salt & pepper. Red pepper flakes might be nice (for some hotness). Could add other vegetables also. Or other spices such as oregano or tyme. Boil 30-40 minutes until all is tender. Could add a chicken boullion cube also for more flavor. Even good with couscous added. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Edinburgh Randoms

Group teeth brushing time.

Windy on top of Scott Monument. Mark & Mayke

Scott Monument. Built in the 1840s, 200 feet tall. Like the spire of a gothic church chopped off and stuck in the ground

Gotta love pie shops (Scottish meat pies, that is)
Nets sits in the kings chair at a local Edinburgh pub.

A view of Calton hill from Scott monument (the columns are the National Monument of Scotland, a project never completed, designed to resemble the Parthenon)

So nice to see these guys!

Just a little narrow going up Scott Monument

Monday, March 26, 2012

Dumfries and the Scottish Borders

I made my triumphant return to Edinburgh for 6 days a few weeks back, managing in that time to see a different region of Scotland which I had not previously been to.

Fortunately, Dennis & Mark are friends with one of the PhD students working in the same building at the University. Doug, who is in the water research group, by some miracle is actually from Scotland, as opposed to the rest of the fire group, who are from pretty much everywhere else.

Doug invited Dennis, Mark, Nets and I, along with 6 or so others, for a hike near his hometown, and following that for a meal at his parents house just outside the city of Dumfries.

The drive from Edinburgh took a few hours, through the typical windy Scottish roads. Dennis, Nets & I rode with an Australian couple. It was a bit difficult not get a little car sick on those two lane Scottish roads. Narrow, up, down, left right, and always changing. Halfway there my stomach was feeling a bit uneasy. The scenery, however, was truly Scottish. Green, hilly, large valleys, sheep, stone walls, and plenty of small towns.

The hike was quick but impressive. We walked up the side of a large hill through a bit of a valley.

Doug took all 10-12 of us back to his parents place to watch the Ireland v Scotland rugby match. It was about a 20 minute ride from the hiking spot, and his parents live what I would say is approaching the middle of nowhere. i.e there are no houses in sight and their 'driveway' is a bumpy and long turn-off from the main road. They have tons of land and a few herds of cows which they took us out to see.

Doug's family was seriously welcoming (and the house was damn cozy with that ancient stove, home made everything, and country feel to it). They served all of us multiple servings of coffee, tea, and home made desserts while the game was on. After which, they took us on a walk to show us the property and the cows, while dinner was being cooked inside.

Unfortunately, there was not enough space in the cars driving back for a few of us to stay for dinner, so Doug had to drive Dennis, Nets, & I back to Dumfries to catch the last bus back to Edinburgh. We looked at the clock and had 15 minutes to drive what usually takes 20. So Doug stepped on it and flew around those blind country road curves and ups and downs like a mad-man. When we got to the main street of the town, seconds before the bus arrived, we had to hop out of the car, walked into the middle of the street, and flagged the guy down, as we had no clue where the actual bus stop was. We hopped in as soon as the bus approached.

The Scottish Borders is a municipality of Scotland, and Dumfries and Galloway another, along the English border. While not technically considered 'highlands' (the mountainous 'high' lands north of Edinburgh), some of the region is hilly if not even mountainous. Dumfries has a booming population of about 40,000.

The hike

Lovely Scottish hills

That's right, they're that good (where else in the world do they serve scotch pies outside of scotland?)

A butcher in Dumfries

Some of Doug's land.

Fascinated by cows. I successfully know how to approach a cow now.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Spring is Here

And the people are out like there's no tomorrow.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Béguinage

The béguinages (French)[begijnhof in Dutch] were communities that began in the 13the century around Belgium, NE France, and the Netherlands. They were communities of women who decided to dedicate their lives to God without actually becoming a nun or leaving society completely. Often they were widows who could not become nuns because they had previously been married or had children, but still wanted to follow a similar religious lifestyle.

They were like abbeys. Cities within cities. Once entering the main gate, you might be greeted by a large and cozy centrally located plaza with houses/apartments surrounding it, some internal streets/walkways to other housing areas, plus probably a garden and a chapel.

I visited two this weekend, one in Kortrijk (pop 75,000), one in Oudenaarde (pop 30,000). At the one in Oudenaarde, the last woman died in 1960 and so there is no longer anyone living there. In both cases they are UNESCO sites. The one is Kortrijk has 40 well preserved houses and is quite beautiful. Only a few women still live there.
Entrance to Kortrijk Begijnhof

Central courtyard

Houses on the sides of courtyard

Each door is an apartment/house

The chapel

Entrance to Oudenaarde begijnhof

Central plaza

An open area behind some houses. Chapel in back.