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

This is how to soak in the forgotten splendour of Orchha

Deep inside the temple town of Orchha…

A polite ticket-checker thanks each passenger, bright-red uniformed staff deliver breakfast goodies and pleasant station announcements guide you along the route. Office-going commuters jostle barefoot villagers at smaller stations. You’re rewinding to memories of childhood train travel. Racing the electric poles, beating the running tracks. Vibrant green fields climax into a glorious last stretch of lush hills-and-valleys between Delhi and Jhansi. You’re in a trance…hypnotised by the languorously curving slow train, blackened old monuments of Datia town and the muddy Betwa river cross-over. From Jhansi, its a 45-minute taxi ride down a narrow road through thick of a forested landscape. Prelude to a drama waiting to unfold in the unusual temple town on the banks of the Betwa. Aptly named Orchha (the “hidden”). Ready or not, here it comes…

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Discover unusual delights in the most charming street of Heidelberg

An afternoon exploring Haupstrasse, Heidelberg…(continued)

From the pulsating historical center of Heidelberg, follow the throngs to the right of Ritter Hotel, to face the other big draw of the town…the mile-long Hauptstrasse. Here, cobblestone streets and 18th-century buildings stand testimony to a history stretching back 600,000 years…if you count the fossilized jawbone of the Heidelberg Man. But stay in the present for now and trace the seemingly endless spine of the old town. Local bookstores, pretty boutiques, charming souvenir shops and commercial fashion houses…there’s a lot to absorb at every inch, so keep those eyes peeled all the way.

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Why you need to get to the adorable German town of Heidelberg!

Blend into the old square of Heidelberg…

You’ve started on a high note. Peak high. A ride on one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe stretching from Cologne to Heidelberg. Your mind is resonating with the sensory explosion, courtesy the Rhine river valley panorama. Little towns with tiny German houses, pointy old churches and broken medieval stone fortresses from Roman times. Hills rich with lush foliage, rolling vineyards, landscaped terraces and curvy roads kissing the gushing river that sparkles with the rays of sun. And you’re contemplating a strange paradox. In the birthplace of cuckoo clocks where keeping time is everything, how does time manage to stand so still? As if the journey wasn’t magical enough, you land in one of Deutschland’s most adorable towns…Heidelberg. Three million tourists a year. But why should statistics give anyone nightmares?

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What I really gained in my second year of travel blogging

Making Year 2 of travel blogging a breeze…

January 2018 was devoted to positive plans. March 2018 was centred around picky possibilities. But by May 2018, as the countdown to my second blogeversary (and coincidentally my 100th blog post) started, I was slipping into a whirlpool of diabolic doubts. Four and a half months to go, and all I had to my credit were ‘minor milestones’ (ok, not so minor brand collaborations). I could feel a sense of urgency haunting me night and day. How was my Year 2 of travel blogging going to be bigger, bolder, brighter than Year 1?

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Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?

Amateur guide to deconstructing Hindu temples…

The common denominating factor binding ancient civilisations of Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Indians? Temples! But beyond the structural ingenuity and fine craftsmanship of temple architecture lies a deeper science (read common blueprint) alien to the amateur eye. Especially in Hindu temples…where astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together in an enigmatic formula. Know one and you will know all. Ready to break the code?

Continue reading “Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?”