Friday, September 12, 2014

A sunny day chez les Ch'tis

As mentioned in the previous post, we were treated on Sunday to a warm(ish), (mostly) sunny and much less windy day than on Saturday. As you can imagine, our hearts were gladdened when we stepped out on to the balcony to see this view:

We grabbed Susi the dog and headed down to the beach. Jules had been talking for a while about childhood exploits gathering mussels, crabs (mostly too scary) and shrimp on the coast here. I misunderstood how you got the shrimp, and thought it involved wading in the same sort of small rock pools where you got mussels, so I declared my intention not to partake. However, you actually get them by dragging a small (in our case) net along the sea floor and scooping them up. Turns out it's so much fun! I was inappropriately dressed and hence got a wet bum, but totally worth it. We only gathered around a dozen shrimp over the course of 20 minutes or so, plus I caught a baby crab a couple of inches long and two baby flat fish (these all went back in the sea, of course). I'd never seen baby fish/seafood like that, the flat fish were almost transparent, they were so small. We did cook and eat the fresh shrimp, although Jules grossed me out by pointing out that several (mostly the biggest ones) were covered in eggs. Ugh, I would have returned them to the sea too had I realised. I've eaten caviar, but gotta draw the line somewhere.

View of Ambleteuse from the beach
Me and Susi - obviously still a bit windy

Not Susi on the shore

Me and tiny camouflage man

Fisherman Jules having a Daniel Craig moment

Which I suppose makes me the woman in the white bikini, whatever she's called. Disclaimer: I've never seen a single Bond film

We realised while splashing around that the sea wasn't actually that cold, so we dropped Susi back off at the flat, I changed into a bikini, and we hurried back to the beach for a dip in the North Sea. Very brave! It was not that bad when you sucked it up and jumped in, and we even lay on the beach a bit afterwards, until the quickly-advancing tide threatened to dunk us again.

In the afternoon, we took another drive, this time to Blanc Nez, Gris Nez's twin, so named because it has white chalk cliffs similar to the Dover cliffs on the other side of the Channel. We actually parked near Escalles (I think) and walked up to a height of 134m or 151m, depending who you ask. I found the path, covered with myriad small, sharp stones, quite trying, I must admit (I had changed into thin-soled sandals). But at least I did better than Susi the dog, who had to be carried a fair bit of the way. She is 16 years old though. It was worth the walk though, as we were rewarded with beautiful views of the sea, Calais, Cap Gris Nez and all the way over to England.

Driving to Blanc Nez

Hello England!

Jules lets Susi rest her little legs

The land side of the cape

Susi selfie!

Looking towards Gris Nez

In the direction of Calais

View to Calais

I assume this village is Escalles 

Me, Jules and Susi

Okay, that was probably too many photos. But it really was pretty. The weather in August around these parts has not been too flash most of the time, so it was great to have a little taste of summer as the season draws to an end. Even more so since the forecast for the weekend had not been great, so it was a lovely surprise. We really had a good time and were just sad that it was so short! Luck definitely plays a part, but I'll think twice before badmouthing the Nord-Pas-de-Calais again.

Monday, September 08, 2014

In defence of Northern France

As some of you know, I lived for a while in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais way back in 2007. When I mention this fact to French people, they normally get an expression on their faces like "why on earth would you do that?" And much of the time, I would agree. For the most part, I found the accents incomprehensible, the weather abysmal, and the landscape unremarkable. Most of the time I was there, we were traipsing about WWI sites or cleaning children's dormitories, which doesn't help I suppose. One thing I rarely got to do was to go to the coast - and if I had, the weather the spring/summer/autumn I was there wasn't often beach-worthy.

Still, when Jules suggested we spend a weekend at his family's beachfront apartment in the small town of Ambleteuse, I thought, why not? Might be fun to see the old stamping grounds. My heart sank a little as the forecast for the weekend predicted more and more rain, but hey, free weekend break can't be too bad.

You'll probably have divined from the title of the post that it actually turned out to be a great weekend. We turned up in the dark late on Friday night, the wind blowing so hard along the sea front that I could barely open my car door, and it continued to howl around the house all night until we woke up to a grey and extremely blustery day on Saturday morning.

Undaunted, I put on my best tramp's assemblage of Jules's mum's too-small tennis shoes, rolled-up leggings, a dress and a mismatched cardigan, and we headed out to the beach with Susi, Jules's dog, to clamber around on the rocks while it was low tide (the beach actually disappears altogether at high tide).

Jules and Susi on the rocks
I don't want to badmouth Susi, but she did a poo right behind us while we were taking selfies. Everyone's a critic

I have so many where I look like I'm doing awkward Russian mail-order bride poses, when I'm actually trying to keep my hair from flying everywhere

Little red riding Susi gets a cuddle after her beach trip
In the afternoon, we took a trip to nearby Wimereux, because the weather still wasn't great and I wanted to buy some photo frames (no luck). The sea was at its peak by now, dramatically pounding the sea wall and sending plumes of spray up into the air and washing on to the promenade.

That's the face of someone wondering if they're about to get drenched
High tide at Wimereux
Stopping at a pretty bay between Wimereux and Ambleteuse

Panorama of the bay

We finished the day off with a drive to Cap Gris Nez, the closest point between France and England. I remembered once taking a drive up the Côte d'Opale (as it's called) when I was living there, and how pretty it was. There wasn't quite as much coastal views as I remembered, but it still was very pretty.

View from Cap Gris-Nez to Cap Blanc-Nez (and sheep)

Somewhere on the way to Cap Griz-Nez

So, it might have lived up to its reputation for fairly inclement weather, but luckily it didn't rain, and the wind, while extremely strong, wasn't all that cold. And it turned out the next day would bring us blue skies and sunshine...

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Chocolate, lobster and (no) wild pissing

When we visited Belgium en famille last year (can't believe it was that long ago already), Brussels was pronounced to be pretty much the most boring place ever by my sister, who stayed behind while Dad and I were off to Spa for the Grand Prix. So when she came for a visit back in July, the pressure was on to find some fun activites to show a different side of Belgium. Basically, as long as it involved yummy food and drink, Jess would be happy.

So on the Saturday, I booked us in for a chocolate-making workshop at Zaabär. I've had my share of fairly cheap and nasty Belgian seashells bought from tourist trap shops around the Grand Place, so I thought this would be a fun way to learn a bit more about how chocolate is made and, more importantly, get to make our own creations. The class started with a brief demonstration of how chocolate is tempered, before we got to go to work making our own chocolate bars, mendiants and truffles.

Tempering chocolate the traditional way, by spreading it out on stone

Jules all frocked up for the workshop

Making some non-traditional mendiants
Making truffles

Our tray of truffles

It's not the world's most flattering look

My very own chocolate bar
Overall, I would say it was a fun activity and good value for money (20€ for the hour and of course you get to take your chocolate home). It's not the sort of thing you'd go and do any old time, but for an activity with visitors, or if you're a tourist yourself, why not? The chocolate bar and mendiants were done with individual piping bags, and it was pretty fun making different mendiant designs and choosing the toppings. The truffles, on the other hand, were made by dipping a truffle centre into a bowl of liquid chocolate (using tongs) and then rolling them in nuts. Our bowl of chocolate was shared with a couple of kids aged around 7 and 10 or so, who had the unfortunate habit of losing their tongs in the chocolate and fishing them out again with their hands. I'm not usually the most squeamish person in the world, but I also view children with a general suspicion, so the truffles we made are actually still sitting in my fridge uneaten.

A big bonus to the chocolate workshop was going into the factory shop afterwards. There were abundant bowls of free samples, and nobody bothered us as we duly sampled pretty much every type of chocolate (whether they're as welcoming if you've just come off the street, I don't know). They specialise in exotic flavours, so it was great to sample chocolate made with all kinds of crazy things, from thyme to jasmine, to chilli to sage to curry powder and many more. Not all of the herbs and spices quite worked for me, but it was fun tasting them. I went home with the less adventurous choices of plain, macadamia and tonka bean (although I looked up tonka beans on Wikipedia later and found out that they're banned in food in the US because they're poisonous in large doses, so that's quite exotic).

Jess doesn't eat meat, but luckily Brussels has some great fish and seafood restaurants, so in the evening we headed to François restaurant for some lobster. I've had lobster before, but this was actually my first time eating a whole (actually a half, but you get what I mean) one rather than in a salad or a soup etc. It was nice, but I don't think it's amaaazing. It came as part of a fixed-price menu, so it was a case of "might as well order lobster" rather than getting cod or something for the same price, but I wouldn't pay squillions of dollars for it.

Fashion tip: always try to match your shoes to the curtains

It was a good day for protective clothing

On Sunday, we went to the Gentse Feesten, a street festival in Ghent. Allegedly, this is one of Europe's biggest city festivals, attracting around 2 million visitors. All I can say is, there was not much going on when we were there. Not many visitors, but more importantly, not much festival. Maybe we were there too early, maybe it was because the previous couple of days had been hot and sunny, whereas the Sunday was a bit grey and drizzly, maybe it was because it was a Sunday (although the next day was a Belgian public holiday). We walked around a bit, had a yummy lunch, a few drinks, and saw the famous van Eyck altarpiece, and that was pretty much that.

Didn't even have the chance to do any wild pissing

Me and Jess in Ghent
So maybe that was not the most exciting event either, but I tried! Before we knew it, it was time to drop Jess back off at the Eurostar, to send her back to the land of Lewis Hamilton.

Is that a pain au chocolat in your hand, or are you just happy to see Lewis?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Le plat pays

One of the advantages of Belgium is that its small size, relatively centrally-located capital and long history means that you can get to many interesting places within a couple of hours - and of course, you're spoilt for choice if you want to go beyond its borders as well. So it would be silly not to make the most of living here by getting out and exploring ce plat pays.

Before I started work, Jules and I took advantage of our free time to take a day trip to Antwerp, where I'd never been before. To be honest, a lot of the day was taken up with shopping. Even though we stuck to chains, Antwerp has a great reputation as a fashion capital, and I think a little of that must have rubbed off on to the chain stores too, as we both managed to pack multiple purchases into our day. To add to the authentically Belgian experience, we had Wagamama for lunch, which was fun (and tasty). And Jules had Starbucks, so he was happy.

But we did have a little time for some cultural pursuits, mainly wandering around the city on a fairly grey day:

Grand Place, Antwerp

At the train station

Inside the train station
The absolute highlight, though, was St. Paul's church. Jules had a city maps app that gave some short descriptions of tourist sites, and it just said that this one had a good collection of statues in it. So it felt kind of magical to track down this out-of-the-way church (after first trying to go to a different one which was closed) and stumble upon an exterior tableau of the crucifixion, made up of 63 life-sized statues which date back to the 18th century, collectively known as the Calvary. We had the place to ourselves for the most part, and it really felt like a special discovery, with a peaceful, gloomy atmosphere no doubt helped by the dull weather. (Looking online, it seems to be relatively well-known, and we were guided there by an app, but it's still nice to stumble across something that feels off the beaten path, even if it's not in reality).

The Calvary, Saint Paul's church

The inside, beautifully bright in contrast to the somewhat eerie statues outside, is also filled with treasures from paintings to elaborate wooden carvings. I must confess I missed most of the famous paintings by the likes of Jordaens, Van Dyke and Rubens, but I'd really like to go back again anyway, so perhaps I'll get another chance to see them.

Interior of Saint Paul's

Carved wooden confessionals

Me and some ghost monks
Based on our quick flip through the app, there was plenty we missed in Antwerp, such as the Diamond and Fashion Museums, the Museum of Fine Arts, Rubens' house and the church where he was buried, and lots more. And as our day there attested, it's a fun place just to wander around and get your shop on. I'll definitely head back some time!

Apart from a trip to Ghent with my sister (blog post pending), our other main daytrip was to the Belgian coast, Knokke to be exact. First things first, it's really hard to park in Knokke. Having hit a bit of traffic on the motorway on our way there, followed by having to circle and then queue for a park, I was kind of dying for the loo by the time we got to the waterfront, which largely determined our choice of restaurant. Leaving Jules to find a seat on the terrace, I charged off into the restaurant and asked a waitress where the bathroom was. "In the tourist office", was the reply. I impatiently explained I was dining there, fighting the urge to knock her over on the the way to the loo, but I made it thankfully. And turns out, our lunch was actually nice. Of course, we sampled the (hopefully) local seafood - grey shrimp croquettes, which seem to be a bit of a Belgian delicacy, followed by a fish soup and a chocolate moelleux for dessert, miam miam!

Lunch was pretty leisurely, lasting about two hours or so, so it was mid-afternoon by the time we finally hit the beach. I would say it's been so long since I've been, but I keep forgetting that I did go in Majorca, so although infrequent, it's not actually been that long. I was surprised really by the fine, golden sand on offer. I suppose if you'd asked me, I would have pictured pebbly or shelly beaches in Belgium for some reason. Perhaps not so surprising was the constant gusts of wind tearing along the beach from West to East (or thereabouts). The temperatures weren't that high, and although it was pleasant when the sun was shining, any time it went behind a cloud (which was often) we were shivering. Suddenly it made sense why many people hired beach huts and why the sound of the ocean was frequently drowned out by people hammering windbreaks into the sand (seriously, a Belgian beach is about as peaceful as a construction site). There was also some guy with the deepest, growliest voice playing some sort of beach tennis behind us. We were giggling at the idea that he was a troll playing for the right to eat his opponent, but you probably had to be there. The match finished without anyone getting eaten, as far as I could tell.

Jules on the beach at Knokke

Beach selfie #nomakeupselfie

What's a day at the beach without icecream? I had gianduja (yum), limoncello (yum) and watermelon (too sweet) from an extremely popular icecream shop with an array of very exotic flavours - I tried to pick three I hadn't had before, but was spoilt for choice and changed my mind ten times even within those parameters

And a pretty bench
So that was our trip to the coast. I think Namur is on the to-do list, Jules would like to go to Bruges and I'd quite like to go back to Liège, since last time was mainly just running back and forth to the Spa Grand Prix (this weekend, yay), and we have trips to the French Côte d'Opale and Aachen, in Germany, on the books, so lots to look forward to!