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Published: February 10th 2008
probably an important church, but didn't get close enough to find out.
Belgium - country of cheese, fries, chocolate, and all those other artery clogging treats that help you meet an early death. I didn't think my trip to Belgium would be so food-filled, but thankfully I was happily mistaken.
I'm in Belgium as part of the Interspeech 2007 conference, an annual event that brings together speech scientists from around the world. Its a 5 day series of non-stop talks and paper sessions where speech geeks get together and get excited about the latest ways to model our vocal tracts.
Belgium is a bi-lingual country, split into a french speaking east and a flemish speaking (almost dutch) west. The conference itself is in Antwerp, apparently the 5th biggest port in the world, and also the name of a curious bagged-shaped mythical creature from Hero's Quest (PC game from the 80s).
Day 1 in Antwerp consisted of attending a satellite workshop called Temporal Dynamics of Speech. Fascinating stuff, though by 2pm the jetlag was starting to drain my attention span, so I decided to skip the final session and head out to Bruges. Bruges is regularly quoted as the most beautiful city in Europe, and is also associated with other monikers
Since Bruges is built around a system of rivers, there are quaint little bridges everywhere
such as fairy-tale, quaint, and "place to eat lots of mussels for cheap". Its the premier tourist destination in the little country of Belgium.
I traveled to Bruges via train - Belgian trains are fast, clean and efficient, though the two I caught that day were both sadly late. On the train I got talking with a local who filled me in about the under-the-surface ethnic feud in Belgium. Its ironic that the headquarters of the EU, the unifying force of Europe, is situated in Begium, a country that local politicians are trying to split in two. Apparently the Flemish side doesn't like the French side as they feel that too much taxes go into supporting the disproportionately large (according to this guy) number of Belgian French on welfare. The French on the hand don't like the Belgian Flemish because they ... well ... since when have the French liked anybody 😊
Anyway ... arrived at Bruge to find that it lived up to just about every good description I had heard about it. The old centre has an endless number of old buildings that are adorned with a beautiful combination of orange and sky blue ornamentation, all
The compulsory food photo
Eclairs - I love them... so creamy, so chocolaty, so full of all those good things that clog up your arteries. Luckily my wife was not there to stop me chomping these down.
lovingly restored to recreate the quaintness of yesteryear. Picture ornamented roofs with boldly painted eves, together with mini-arched windows and the occasional bit of gold trimming. In addition, a network of canals flows through much of the old centre, adding a calmness and serenity to the already quaint atmosphere.
The icing on the cake is pure white swans paddling about in the canals. My cake alas was uniced - my tireless search for the white swans only dug up a rather mangy ruffle-feathered duck that was busy slurping moss off the canal wall. There are also the compulsory windmills - popular in this part of Europe, but alas, a bit too far from the rest of the action to really enhance the scenery.
As luck would have it, today was the day of some Belgian festival that happens for 2 days every 5 years in Bruges. So the lucky tourists of the day were all treated to a 2 hour procession of characters from Belgian, Dutch and Danish folklore. This was once of the most colorful 'medieval' festival I had ever seen - most of the characters sporting bright oranges, reds, blues and greens. We had everything from
The red and green ivy-like stuff looked great from a distance, making me want some for myself. However, closer inspection revealed the plethora of bugs and spiders - don't want those guys hanging around my windows
fat burgomeisters stealing money from town treasuries, to operatic vikings prancing around in tights. The highlight was when a horse of one of the knights got frightened by all the noise - he started snorting, then jumping and bucking about, and finally stood on his hind legs and flung his rider onto the hard cobblestone - the rider missed falling into the crowd by centimeters, instead landing on some barricade chains. Poor chap - it must have hurt, but luckily he was alright. Of course, the clever audience was so happy that they applauded all the louder, causing the already agitated horse to get even more nervous. Eventually though, the horsie calms down, the rider remounted, and they proceeded to walk on ... at which point the crowd let out a big cheer! Horse went a bit crazy but the rider managed to calm him.
By then it was dinner, so I headed over to one of the restaurants situated in one of market square. Every european city seems to have one of these, and they're always filled with overpriced tourists and oversized tourists overindulging in the overly fake 'local' fare. Nothing different here ... but at least it
The fallen knight
This horse went crazy from all the clapping and reared up on its hind legs. The knight went falling down on the cobblestone ground, almost squashing a few crowd members under him. The horse then started snorting and going crazy - luckily some handlers saved the guy from being stomped by the crazy horse.
was beautifully scenic. Mussels are a big thing in Belgium, and although European seafood is generally is not my number one choice (I prefer my seafood slathered in chilli, and other strong spices - none of this natural flavour and tender texture rubbish), I decided to try some. Also had a steak, and finally some fries. Belgian fries are another 'must eat' according to guidebooks - apparently they are double fried, much lighter, and are actually the original 'french fries' (during one of the world wars, soldiers mistakenly called Belgian fries, French fries). Conclusion .... all fairly average - the fries in particular taste pretty similar to McDonalds fries - not that thats a bad thing - but I didn't see any of evidence of 'extra lightness' and 'double fried'.
Eating alone was fairly miserable - I've decided one very important plus point of marriage is that you've always got somebody to eat with in restaurants. The rest of the restaurants were filled with romantic couples and package tour groups - and here I was all alone looking like a nigel-no-friends. The fact that I also spent most of my 2 hours in the restaurant reading a book full
Just more quaint buildings
of research papers probably did nothing for my friendless image. Being alone at a restaurant does have one advantage though - it gives you plenty of chance to eavesdrop on the people next to you. Turns out the couple on my right had unsuccessfully spent the day trying to find dandruff shampoo in Bruges. The wife also was a bit frustrated that Bruges had a very limited selection of cotton-tips. Honestly, the things people talk about!
Between looking like a friendless geek, and acting like a nosy granny, I managed to waste a good 2.5 hours in that restaurant. Long enough though to watch night roll over Bruges and enough to make me miss the regular trains back to Antwerp. Luckily there was one final slow one going back at 10:30pm.
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