Monday, August 17, 2009

Love and Chocolate in Brugge

I can honestly tell you that as a woman, there is definitely some chemical reaction that happens to a girl when she eats choocolate. It's a soothing, zen-like breath of richness that creates a moment of inner peace. It's so good that we go back, over and over, for more with no regard to the amount of additional sit-ups or minutes on the treadmill we have added to our life. For that one minute, calories do not count and we are one with the candy.

When I was asked to travel to Brugge, Belgium to do a simple story on a chocolatier, I knew that it was going to be beautful and delicious... and it was.

I flew into Belgium after a few fabulous days working on another project in Barcelona, Spain. I flew Brussels Airlines, which reminded me a lot of JetBlue - minus the Satellite TV at every seat. My ticket was booked in their "light" service, which meant a cheaper fare in exchange for less luggage. Meaning, I could only take one suitcase and one carry-on.... that's it. You did not even have the option to pay for another bag. Thank goodness I packed light.

I landed in Brussels at around 8:45pm and headed right to baggage claim to retrieve my luggage. Brussels National Airport is very easy to navigate and after a few days in Spain, I was relieved to hear the English speaking over-head announcements.

I caught a train on the lower level of the airport to Brussels Midi rail station where I could then catch my train to Brugge. The trip from the airport to Brussels Midi was around 20 minutes and cost 3 EUR.

I ordered my ticket to Brugge online from Rail Europe and it was delivered to me by mail. If you have some time to spare, be sure to purchase your ticket at the rail station so that you do not have to pay the hefty shipping fee. I paid $30 for that convenience. Also, I booked a first class ticket for $38 each way and I would recommend just paying $25 for the second class fare. In other areas of Europe, the class of service really makes a difference. However, on these trains all of the cars look alike and just bring a power bar and some water instead of paying a little more for the same thing on this train.

The ride to Brugge from Belgium was about 80 minutes. It was fast, relaxing and really quiet. I think there were only 4 other people in the car that I was in. It was the perfect way to take a breath and get ready to experience another European city.

I got off the train in Brugge and walked out the main door to a line of Mercedes Benz taxi cabs waiting in line to take me to my hotel. I quickly jumped into the car and we made our way into the gates of the small city. As soon as we came upon the main square, my eyes widened and I knew that I just stumbled upon something very special. It was almost 11pm at night and I could still see the charming elegance of this Medieval city glistening in the night.

I was excited to check into The Pand Hotel here in Brugge. I had checked the website before I left the hotel and it looked really nice. This 18th Century Carriage house is now a boutique hotel with only 26 bedrooms. My room was on the first floor which could be reached by a very tiny elevator or a very narrow winding staircase. Kind of a pain to get my luggage up and down, but charming and well suited for the surroundings.

The next morning, I met the TJ working on this project, Brian Knappenberger, for breakfast in their dining room. The staff quickly offered me some fresh juice, breads and cheeses. They also offered fresh fruit and yogurt, cereals and egg dishes all served on white table cloths with sparkling silver tea service.

After breakfast we jumped in a Mercedes Taxi and headed out to Carline Chocolate factory to start the shoot. Katrigne, the chocolatier was meeting us there and would be showing us the secrets of creating Belgian chocolate. She actually works for the US distributor of the chocolate and you can order them directly through Nirvana Chocolates located in New England.

As soon as I walked onto the factory floor, I felt a tingle of that chemical reaction. You could actually smell the chocolate as soon as you walked in the front door. One breath in and I knew I was in heaven.

So, what makes Belgian chocolate so irresistible? The Belgians pride themselves on creating the richest (without being too rich), highest quality, most natural chocolate. They do not use any preservatives and they also pride themselves on only using cocoa butter.

With full tummys in tow, we made out way back to Brugge to tour the city. Brugge has this fairy-tale quality to it. Castles and bell-towers standing over cobblestone squares and horsedrawn carriages creating the perfect clippity-clop soundtrack as you walk the narrow streets. Be sure to give yourself a day to explore and another day just to relax and enjoy.
One thing is for certain, you will have plenty of chances to buy chocolate. I loved The Chocolate Line where Belgium's answer to Emeril Lagasse, Dominique Persoone, reigns as chocolate master. His creations range from nut infused bars to the wacky chocolate covered cauliflower to the choco-tequila shot. Think thats crazy? He also developed sniffing chocolates for a famous US Rock Band. Yes, sniffing chocolates and yes, that means you put it up your nose.

The food in Belgium was good... loads of frittes, Belgian Wafles (using only one "f" - not two like we do here) and beer. I tried a cherry beer which was a perfect while sitting out over the string of canals that wind throughout the city.

There is a legend in Brugge that says that if you see the swans swimming on the canals, that you will experience love in your lifetime. I definitely fell for Brugge and walked away completely smitten with Belgium. I found the people to be friendly, travel easy and the food yummy. Was it the swans or was it just a chemical reaction to all that chocolate? Who cares...

Travel On.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Walk Down La Ramblas - Barcelona, Spain

A few years back, I was inspired to create a list of 101 things that I wanted to do before I left the planet. Year by year, I keep checking things off... make my own pasta in Rome, Ski in Colorado, Have a baby. This week I checked off another - I took a stroll down La Ramblas in Barcelona!

Barcelona is a beautiful city that sits right on the Meditteranean on Spain's North Eastern Coast. It has that classic European charm and that undeniably relaxing Spanish vibe.

Downtown Barcelona is only about a 20 minute cab ride from the airport. My cab driver was friendly, but did not speak a word of English. So, make sure that you know at least a few lines of conversational Spanish. My ride cost about 20 Euros ($28 US), but for only around 4 Euros there is a bus right outside of the terminal that will take you downtown.

For this trip, the crew and I were staying at the Silken Ramblas, located only steps from the famous La Ramblas. La Ramblas is a street filled with cafes, shops and some of the most vibrant street performers I have ever seen. This is the perfect place for people watching and a must-do when in Barcelona. Be sure to stop into the Mercat right in the center of La Ramblas to see some of the freshest produce, meats and other foods from the local vendors.

On this trip, I was working with Alex Boylan, one of our best Travel Journalists. Alex has traveled the world on his show Around The World for Free and he is also a past winner of the Amazing Race. So, I knew that traveling with Alex was sure to be an adventure.

Our first stop was to a typical tapas bar to learn the art of small plate dining. One of the locals guided us to a place that they claimed to have the best tapas in town - Cerveseria Catalana. We enjoyed a few sample tapas - a bruschetta with prosciutto and cheese and then a salmon ceviche. The dishes were fresh and simple and the prices were reasonable.

We then headed up to Park Montjuic to get a bird's eye view of the city. The best way to get up to the top of the mountain is to take the Teleferic de Monjuic, a gondola that will lift you "ski resort" style up to the fort that sits atop Montjuic. At around 8 Euros for a round trip ticket, this is a fun way of seeing all that Barcelona has to offer.

I celebrated my birthday that evening in Barcelona with some fisherman's paella and some nice Spanish wine. After a long say of shooting, we headed to dinner at 9pm and we were alone! Book a reservation at 10 or 10:30pm if you want to eat with a crowd of locals.

The next day we toured the beautiful Park Guell in the heart of Barcelona. This park was commissioned by Eusebi Guell and was designed by Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi's whimsical approach to architecture can be appreciated around every corner of the park. Journey through the gingerbread looking gate houses and head up the almost crooked stairs to a large plaza where you will find street performers, locals and tourists all enjoying the shade from the hot Barcelona sun. The park also features shaded pathways and flintstone style arches where you will find people relaxing, reading, or enjoying the many street artists that line the paths.

Only a few minutes from Park Guell is the amazing La Sagrada Familia where you can see Gaudi's most famous piece of art that is still under construction to this day. In fact, after a century of buidling, most people think that the church is better left undone. The building is ornate and my favorite part was the crucifix located on the back side of the cathedral. Be sure to stop and really look at all of sculptures that are embedded into the facade.

For our second night in Barcelona, we made our way down to the Barcelona Seafront for dinner and some cocktails. This is the most popular place on the weekends - so expect a crowd and plan to make reservations at one of the many restaurants. Remember to book late or you will be eating alone! A popular wine to order with dinner is a Rioja or take a splurge and try one of their yummy mojitos. Be careful though, the rock sugar they use is super sweet and it will make you forget just how much alcohol you are throwing down.

In all, Barcelona was a charming city that was filled with good food, warm people and a relaxed culture. Everyone we met had a "Don't worry... you are in Barcelona" attitude that just forced you to slow down and take it all in. It will also seduce you into many evening cocktails and long nights with friends. They really want you to rest all day so that you can party with them all night.

Next Stop on this trip - Brugge, Belgium where I explore the art of making fine Belgian chocolates.

Travel On.