The most wonderful things that Belgium is known for?

Comics, waffles and chocolates of Belgium…

You knew that Johnny Depp is not the star of the 2017 remake of the classical movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’…its Kenneth Branagh as the famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But did you know that Agatha Christie’s fictional detective was inspired by a real-life Belgian policeman, Jacques Hornais? For Christie whodunit fans like me, Belgium is (and will always be) synonymous with Poirot. As will be comics, waffles and chocolates. On the trail of other wonderful things in Belgium’s capital, Brussels…

1. Comics: A whiff of childhood fantasy

I would like to believe that Georges Prosper Remi is, in fact, Belgium’s national hero. Remi who? Herge…the Belgian mastermind behind the famous comic book series, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’! The city certainly does not forego any opportunity to mark his presence. Scenes from his cartoons along with those of other comic artists amiably light up hundreds of dull corners in the city. My personal favorite? The much-publicised wall mural with a scene from ‘The Calculus Affair’ depicting Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock using a fire escape as a background.

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Purest of treats await comic enthusiasts at the majestic and quirky Belgian Comic Strip Center. Tintin, Smurf, Asterix…you name it, they’ve got it covered. The permanent and temporary exhibitions are spread over 4000 square meters and attract 200,000 visitors per year. Gloat over walls and walls filled with murals, artwork, life-size exhibits and vintage comic book covers. Retreat into nostalgia as you lose yourself in the dream world of comics through the ages, from across the world. Love it, right? Then follow my league and take home a small model as a memory to cherish forever.

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2. Waffles: Aroma versus taste dilemma

Waffles, waffles everywhere, but for nothing but the best, roam the delightful Rue de l’Etuve. The preamble is pretty enough too…let your eyes guide you in admiring the jumble of Flemish-style brick houses, 18th-century mansions and modern buildings. But watch out for jostling crowds, beer-loving patrons and people-watchers sitting on tiny close-set tables along the pedestrian path. All along, tons of stores sell expensive Belgian chocolate. ‘I luv Brussels’ souvenir shops showcase common ‘take-me-homes’. Locals and tourists hog frites (fried potatoes) dipped in mayonnaise and half-baguette sandwiches crammed with potatoes, sauce, onions and deep-fried meat. Walkers munch on Parisian-style hot croissants as they stroll along. Immerse in the lively atmosphere of the historic centre.

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Make a beeline for Le Funambule Waffles, a modest shop from 1867, graced with the company of esteemed neighbours like Neuhaus and Godiva. Right next to it, crowds are gathered around another famous icon…a bronze sculpture of a mischievous peeing boy. ‘The oldest citizen of Brussels’ from 1388 is usually dressed in costumes for major celebrations, events, and festivals in the city, but sometimes he is in his birthday suit too. If you’re expecting a larger monument…you will be surprised, even feel somewhat let-down. Believe it or not, the symbol of Brussels is only two-feet high!

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The sweet aroma of chocolate Nutella squeezed onto the fluffy, toasted waffle wafts into your nose. Naturally you are drawn like moth to the flame. Queue up for the sweet delight. The first bite is light as air. The slightly uneven crispy edges melt in your mouth. The piping-hot caramelized pearl sugar crunches musically in your ears. And the topping of whipped cream, bananas and strawberries spells pure perfection. The payout? Just 1 Euro! Round two then. Bring it on…

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3. Chocolate: A little indulgence never hurt anyone  

Endless Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas and Guyana storefronts…till you’re finally drawn in, hook line and sinker. The shelves overflow with temptations…basic chocolate for masses, artisanal chocolate for purists and avant-garde creations for connoisseurs. And your mind is filled with images of how it all started with Spanish explorers bringing cocoa beans to Europe from Mexico in the late 16th century. 100 years later, King Leopold II colonized the African Congo, and cocoa was introduced to Belgium. And today, the country known for the best chocolate in the world, producing around 220,000 tonnes of the coveted item every year.

Choices then. Go for the pralines…chocolates with a soft or liquid filling. Faultless taste and history to top. Pralines date back to 1857 when Brussels pharmacist Jean Neuhaus used chocolate to cover medicine and its bad taste. In 1912, Neuhaus Jr. replaced the medicine with a more tasty filling and called the sweet a ‘praline’. The first pralines were sold in a typical Belgian cone shaped bag, mainly used for fries. Obviously these were not fit to keep the delicate goodies safe and so Neuhaus Jr.’s wife designed a gift box, or ‘ballotin’, in which the pralines could be stored uniformly, safely and of course beautifully wrapped. The rest as they say, is history.

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Neuhaus, the 92-year-old chocolatier, is a favourite of the Belgian royal family, and is known for its inventive caramel, marzipan, chocolate mousse, ganache and cream-filled pralines. They say, Henri Escher, Mayor of Zurich, drank his first cup of chocolate on the Grand Place in Brussels. Impressed with its flavour, he exported the recipe to Switzerland. So much for Swiss chocolates!

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These days chocolate and chocolate making is part of the Belgium heritage. At every gourmet chocolatier, spreads of satiny bonbons entice…and the global ingredients like figs from Izmir, ginger from Guilin and hazelnuts from Piedmont, are pushing the boundaries of creativity, rewriting the history of Belgian chocolate. 

So what’s the one thing you wouldn’t leave Belgium without? 

 

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Comics, waffles and chocolates are the most wonderful things that of Belgium is known for #belgium #brussels #chocolate #waffles #foodculture #localfood

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Explore gems in the most famous boulevard of Vienna

Resplendence of the Ringstrasse in Vienna…

Sunlight dazzles on the calm waters of the Danube flowing through the city’s suburbs. You can almost hear the strains of the most famous waltz ever written, ‘The Blue Danube’ by Strauss. Well, hardly a waltz, more like Austria’s second national anthem. The aura of Europe’s cultural hub unveils itself gradually through broad boulevards, aristocratic architecture, glorious greenery and luxury hotels housed in old palaces. Missing your gown and tux?

Ringstrasse: Ring of resplendence

Start with the grandiose Ringstrasse, Vienna’s most epic public construction project generously commissioned by Franz Josef in the mid 19th-century. The 5-kilometer long, tree-lined horseshoe-boulevard circling the inner city, sports an ensemble of showpiece buildings for aristocrats, including Parliament and State Opera House, splendid parks, an array of museums. Chauffeured-driven diplomats in sleek black cars and awestruck foreigners in smart tour buses traverse the elegant roadway. But you’re imagining Vienna from another century…horse-drawn carriages, noblemen in top hats, the protection of a beloved emperor and the pride of citizenship of a powerful nation. There’s endless drama in the eclectic mix of diverse styles, revived motifs (inherently neo-classicist) in every building but, if time is a challenge, focus on these five spots on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Take this loop.

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1. Karlsplatz: Just a trailer

The modest-size of the Karlsplatz (Charles Square) its compensated by the glory of an ornate super-sized, green copper dome. The overt splendour of the Karlkrische (St Charles Church) proclaims its significance. This was Charles V’s grateful homage to the heavens when the Great Plague subsided. Moorish elements, inspired by sacred architecture in Spain combine with a Greek-temple like portico to create an unexpected jumble of influences, yet there is an inexplicable balance. Two ‘Pillars of Hercules’ in marble with spiral friezes (so like the Roman Trajan’s Column) accentuate its Byzantine-like dome. To the right of the church, a simple plaque commemorates the great Venetian composer, Antonio Vivaldi, who died in Vienna and was buried here. More than anything else, Karlkrische has a strong, commanding presence. And this is just a trailer of the majesty that lies in store. 

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2. MuseumsQuartier: Art attack

The baroque facade of the former imperial stables is a complete contrast to the unusual cubic structures inside the complex that house modern art museums. Choose the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) for over 9000 contemporary art pieces…paintings, photography and sculpture from classical modernity, cubism, futurism and surrealism to pop art, fluxus and nouveau réalisme. Play Rorschach-like experiments trying to interpret the polka-dotted question-mark face with a single eye and large teardrop. Or marvel at the photo-like quality of Hanns Kralik’s “From my window of 1930”. The vintage 1908 poster of Kaiser Jubilee by Ferdinand Ludwig Graf is endearing…was it even an art piece when he drew it? Outside, in the Haupthof courtyard, melt into the energetic and inspiring vibe on a comfy beanbag under the late morning sun. A quick doze, then?

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The seeds of culture addiction have been planted…and when you reach the Museum of Fine Arts and its counterpart, the Natural History Museum, you’re want both…but settle at one. The stone sculpture of a baby elephant with cute button-eyes wins your favour…and by the time you exit, your brains are overflowing with information on neolithic tools and dinosaurs. Nice!

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3. Heldenplatz: Stage for history

You’re at the Palace Complex, so pause at the Burgtor, one of the original gates surrounding the fortifications of Vienna from 1660 to read the inscription LAURUM MILITIBUS LAURO DIGNIS MDCCCCXVI (Laurels to soldiers worthy of laurels 1916). The middle archway, once a privileged entryway for the emperor’s carriage in imperial times, is public thoroughfare now, so march freely through. Here, in the monumental Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), the whiff of the ancient Austro-Hungary regime still hangs in the air, even after 100 years of the Empire being dissolved.

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Size up the high balustrade of the Neue Burg, now the National Library. One day in 1938, the Nazi flag had converted the balcony into a stage for Adolf Hitler to address more than 200,000 Austrians and declare his former homeland as part of the Third Reich. Freeze in the layers of history, get caught in a whirlpool of evolving identities and be lost in the waves of time.

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Tour the exemplary European baroque architecture inside…3-meter high magnificent frescoed dome, marble sculptures, mighty columns and natural light flooding in through the ceiling. The Grand Hall, laden by wooden bookshelves dressed with gold-plated wood carvings, rises to heights of almost 20 metres. Stuffed with over 7.4 million items including ancient texts written on papyrus, maps, paintings, manuscripts, rare books and photographs. Having an urge to read?

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4. Michaelerplatz: Of exalted guests 

Take a regal lunch break. Indulge at Cafe Hofburg in an Inner Courtyard outside the Imperial Apartments. How about grilled ham sandwiches and Kaiserschmarren ‘Hof köchinnen Art’, (sweet omelette pancake, served with stewed plums and apple puree)? Paper napkins with a dignified crest emblem, elegant silverware that clinks heavily, and poised waiters in black suits? Yes, please!

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Steps away, at Michaelerplatz, face the neo-Baroque entrance gate to the Habsburg imperial palace, and its oldest part (Alte Burg). The white curved building is graced by a green copper dome, elaborately gilt-embellished like a royal crown. Under your feet, you can see excavations of 18th-century housing, medieval cellars and Roman buildings…from the times the city was called Vindobona. Layers of history, one on top of the other reaching as far down as 9-meters below the ground level. The Habsburg Palace, the winter palace of the Habsburg family since the 13th-century has 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres. Spare a few hours. (Read my post on Habsburg Palace)

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5. Kohlmarkt: Coal to couture

From Michaelerplatz, stroll down Kohlmarkt, Vienna’s most luxurious shopping street, which had humble beginnings as a charcoal market. International jewellery brands like Cartier, Chopard, Tiffany and Wellendorff showcase glittering gems where court-appointed jewellers were once housed. Take in the drama of Romanesque columns, baroque stuccos of cherubs, graceful sculptures on entrance portals, elaborate stone fountains and engraved reliefs. Distinguished composers Haydn and Chopin had once lived in houses around here. Study the H&M store where a former court menswear store used to be. Transitions!

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Peek into the 200-year old Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, Demel, where Empress Elisabeth used to order her sweets. The famed Sachertore stands out like a diamond from the decadent display. Only two places claim to make the true Sachertorte: Hotel Sacher and Demel. Authenticity guaranteed. Can you miss a slice?

Head for the highlight of the area. The 12th-century Gothic cathedral, Stephansdom with pointy spires, tall windows and a diamond-patterned tile roof in blue-white-yellow. The story goes that composer Ludwig van Beethoven finally confirmed his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower when they tolled, but did not hear the bells. Catch the reflection of the medieval cathedral in a modern glass-and-steel building opposite. Traces of the past always remain in the present…and that is the undisputed law of the universe!

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Ringstrasse, Vienna's 5-kilometer long, tree-lined horseshoe-boulevard circling the inner city, sports an ensemble of showpiece buildings for aristocrats, including Parliament and State Opera House, splendid parks, an array of museums. Here's a guide.  #vienna #ringstrasse #historic centre #Habsburg palace

How to experience Prague with and without the crazy crowds?

Lively and quiet vibes in the Czech capital…

Prague. Praha. Mother of all cities. Eye-candy heaven. Home to ultra-magnificent monuments. Steeped in rich, unbroken history. Prettier than Paris. Quintessentially medieval, quintessentially European. So then…touristy and crowded? Or calm and serene? No need to pick, because Praha has twin vibes. Find both. Love both. Wherever you are in the charming Czech capital.

Staré Mesto: Hub for all times

Mingle merrily: The nerve centre of the old town of Prague has been pulling crowds since medieval times. Who are you to disagree with the magnetism of the great Astronomical clock (read more here), the time-blackened charm of the Tyn Church and the baroque beauty of the St Nicholas Cathedral? Or the row of pastel houses shoulder-to-shoulder in camaraderie since medieval times. The generously proportioned medieval square unaffectedly accommodates the swell of crowds, no matter what the volume. Perk up in the warm buzz.

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or seek solitude: Sacrifice snooze time, make a 6 am start and pamper yourself with early morning glory. Cobbled roads glisten with the glow of street lamps, art nouveau facades of mansions cast long shadows, cafe chairs rest upturned under folded canopies and dark outlines of the centuries-old heritage structures loom mysteriously. The padding of your footsteps, the rhythm of your heartbeat and the roving of your curious eyes are only things breaking the stillness.

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Charles Bridge: Iconic and irresistible

Mingle merrily: Jostling crowds is part of the Charles Bridge experience, so  join the gang! Admire the handiwork of street artists as you stride 500 meters of the most beautiful bridge in the world. Study the expressions of the 30 ominously dark statues poised on the balustrades over the 16 arches. Question the secret ingredient (ground eggshells) behind the infallibility of the Bohemian sandstone making up the 15th-century masterpiece that has survived vagaries of nature and World War II. Gloat and gawk.

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or seek solitude: Ascend the 138 steps of the Old Tower Bridge, one of most impressive Gothic creations of Europe. Views to kill for await on the breezy viewing gallery of the modest-sized roof. Feel this image burn into your memory: the Charles Bridge stretched between two parts of the city…the eternal river flowing beneath, and the incessant stream of human traffic drifting above. Come full circle for a 360 degree perspective of the red-roofed medieval metropolis. City of 100 Spires, indeed! Hungry for more drama? Return for a sunrise stroll.

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Prague Castle: Enduring appeal

Mingle merrily: Choosing to stay centric in the largest castle complex in the world is a no brainer, considering a 1000-year history of Czech rule. 120 steps up Hradcany Hill? Where’d they go so fast? Flashback to the era of clip-clopping horse-carriages while exploring 70,000 square metres of courtyards, palaces and churches. Jawdrop at the mammoth St Vitus Cathedral. Taste tranquility on vantage points and reflect on the refined atmosphere of the extensive gardens.

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or seek solitude: Diverge from the queues in Mala Strana, the pretty neighbourhood spread at the foot of the Castle Hill. Wander along the rows of noble mansions, which used to be homes to the city’s administrative officials. Stop to sample desserts at sloping streets or sip a soup at a hole-in-the-wall cafe frequented by locals. Find peace in canals of Little Venice and merge into the colors of John Lennon Wall. Put on a thinking cap in Kampa Museum or contemplate the quirkiness of the Cerny sculptures outside as you chew on a artisanal gingerbread.

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Vltava banks: Relentless river 

Mingle merrily: Get your lazy-fix by indulging in an hour-long boat cruise along the Vltava river that divides the Czech capital into two equally stunning halves. Gape at the panorama unfolding on the banks. Play guessing games with the names of the elaborate buildings lining both sides. Glide under some of the 18 graceful arched bridges, including the Charles Bridge. Watch the castle from a new angles. And watch Prague light up slowly. Intoxicating!

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.…or seek solitude: Slow your pace and quieten your mind with a refreshing stroll along the river banks. Spoil yourself with the openness. Linger. Stand and stare. Touch the tree trunks. Pan the scene. Zoom in on details that catch your eye. Give in to the whims and fancies of your camera. The grill with the castle as a backdrop. The redhead against the autumn forested canvas. Loosen up.

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Jewish town: Ghetto

Mingle merrily: Book a walking tour in this fascinating neighbourhood, which was home to a Jewish community of about 18,000 in the 10th century. The Parisian effect of the 19th-century screams out to be noticed in every street. Its a medley of gracious buildings in soft colors, high-end shopping, fine dining and stylish antique stores. Concentrate on the main draws…Synagogues, the birthplace of Franz Kafka and the Old Cemetery, where over 100,000 lie buried under piles of lopsided tombstones.

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or seek solitude: Melt into the oblivion of the back streets and take the same sights from unusual angles. Peek into old Jewish bakeries and taste traditional biscuits. Locate subtle Moorish influences in building architecture. Chase the shadows that lengthen as the evening approaches and witness the change hues.

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Wenceslas: Symbolic and sacred

Mingle merrily: If its hustle-bustle you seek, rest assured in Wenceslas Square…you will always be in the comfort of thick swarms. Czech history has been made here repeatedly over the ages. Humble horse market to celebration ground for creation of new Czechoslovak Republic to the peaceful Velvet Revolution of 1989…this has always been a preferred place for congregation. Art Nouveau meets baroque meets dull communist-era architecture in this ever-crowded shopping area. Spot arty buildings and tick-off retail therapy.

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or seek solitude: Luckily, in Prague, peace is never more than a stone’s throw away. Slip into one of the many side streets for a quiet moment or embrace solace as you enter an arcaded shopping passage (see post here). Hide away in a sheltered courtyard or discover a slice or paradise in a secluded park behind the buzzing main street. Surprises await at every few feet…museums, theatres, galleries, you name it. Contrasting worlds…so close, seeming so far!Wenceslas Square_Prague_3

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Vinohrady: Timelessly today

Mingle merrily: One of Prague’s most trendy residential neighbourhoods is a potpourri of hip stores, atmospheric cafes and chic galleries. And the star attraction awaits at Náměstí Míru, Vinohrady’s most important square. The Neo-Gothic St. Ludmila Church deserves all the attention it gets, don’t miss it. Admire the rich ornamental facade of the church and trace the star shape of the park around. Get literary with fellow fans at the inverted J of the Poetry Jukebox or be inspired by the statue of a girl setting a bird free.

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or seek solitude: Trust your instinct and pick a direction to investigate. Drift along, savouring the relaxed character of the dignified residences. Go gastronomical…be a slave to your tastebuds. Break for a delicious snack at a Greek bistro. Gaze from the windows of a coffee shop. Please your stomach with a refined Italian meal. Pick up odds-and-ends for your home. Go green and russet in one of the many parks. Lose count of how many times you said, “look at that”. See. Love. Repeat.

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Letna Hill: Sunset boulevard

Mingle merrily: Letna Hill. Steps up again, some 250-odd. Unquestionably worth it. For the seven-tonne, 75-foot tall Metronome installed in 1991 as a symbol of the new era, replacing a Stalin statue? No. For the skateboarding heaven that it? No, no. For the dozens of skaters’ sneakers dangling from a long wire stretching across the park? No, no, no. Its the views! Those aerial-kind-of views…of the Old Town, the river and Charles Bridge. Enjoy company of fellow revellers and the casual vibe.

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or seek solitude: Moments of calm aplenty in Letna Park…traverse the grassy hillocks, rest under the mature trees and tramp along the plane tree-lined avenues, till you’re all green in the eyes. And for the climax…trudge along the narrow path to Hanavský Pavilion, a Baroque-wannabe restaurant facing the riverside. Camera ahoy! Brace for the pride and joy of your Prague album. Its magic time…

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Prague can be touristy and crowded or calm and serene. Find and love the twin vibes of the Czech capital. #prague #praha #czech capital #traveldeeper