Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Living in the Heart of Europe.

I'm having one of these moments where I feel incredibly lucky. It's connected with the lovely spring weather, I'm sure, and being tired helps too.

Yesterday I had a 15-hour working day, and it was a really good one.

I got up at 5:45 (okay, an awful start) to catch a train to the French city of Amiens. There I spent a few hours in a meeting and a working lunch, before getting on another train to Tournai, Belgium's oldest city, in the French-speaking part of our country.

After another meeting and a small reception in the crypt of Tournai's stunning city hall, I returned to my home town late at night to find my fabulous husband waiting for me at the station because he'd guessed I'd be very tired and not in the mood to walk home. Small actions can mean so much, sometimes.

Cathedral, Amiens (France). March 2012.
Because I travelled by train I also had some moderate exercise, walking through the wonderful city centres of Amiens and Tournai, ànd I managed to squeeze in a 30-minute visit to Amiens' stunning cathedral.

Not bad for an average working day.

Once again it hit me what a great part of the world we live in. Sure, Europe has its economic issues, political struggles and the odd cultural misunderstanding, but that's just one side of life.

It doesn't take away from the profound beauty of our surroundings and the awe-inspiring monuments those same civilisations have created all around us.

While society continues to change, our cities, villages and landscapes testify to the cycles that have been. They breathe our rich and colourful history and never cease to whisper stories, there for our hearts and minds to pick up.

We just need to listen.

What does your environment whisper of?

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Choco-Laté, Bruges (BE)

Today I got to experience one of the perks of living in Belgium ànd being a blogger: I'd been invited to the press event of Choco-Laté, the chocolate festival in Bruges.

Choco-Laté is a festival aimed at professionals, devoted chocolate fans ànd more casual ones. As a self-proclaimed healthy hedonist and passionate chocolate lover, I have been there in the past and I can testify it's a treat, a true feast for the senses.

This year's edition will focus on chocolate in its purest form: the origins of the cacao bean, organic fair-trade chocolate and authentic recipes prepared on the spot by representatives of the Kuna people of Panama.

Choco-Laté organiser Eddy Van Belle,
chocolatier Dominique Persoone and
representatives of the Kuna people.
The Kuna people have featured in several medical reports because of the absence of high blood pressure among them and remarkably low death rates from stroke, cancer or cardiovascular disease. This might be linked to their cocoa-rich diet, which is an interesting path for further research.
But I digress.

At this festival you can discover visually stunning chocolate art, learn about the origins, production, health and wellness benefits of chocolate, sample chunks and nuggets at a wide variety of exhibitor booths, or get your hands dirty (and lick them clean again) in truffle-making workshops. All this takes place in a unique historic location, permeated with the rich, velvety scent of more kinds of chocolate than you and I knew existed.

Trust me, it's not an event you want to miss.

'Choco en Lala'
book cover chocolates
The parents among you don't need to find a babysitter. Take your kids along and drop them off at the Choco Kids Village, where they can play and learn about chocolate while you indulge in more adult activities.

Allow me to make a few suggestions: find the perfect wine to go with chocolate, design the perfect cocoa drink or watch the bodypainting artists at work - with chocolate!

When you're at the festival, be sure to drop by author Marc de Bel's booth. At Choco-Laté 2011 he will present his new chocolate-themed children's book: 'Spikkel en Spekkie: Choco en Lala'.

'Bruges swan'
chocolate dress.
At first sight, fashion and (calorie-dense) chocolate might not be a good match, but this year even fashionistas will be able to indulge.

Star designer Nicky Vankets has teamed up with my favourite 'shock-o-latier' Dominique Persoone to design a fabulous 'Bruges swan' chocolate dress.

so want one. Or two: one to wear and one to eat.
But I digress again.

Choco-Laté 2011 will take place at the Bruges belfry from 11th till 13th November.

For more information and tickets, go to: http://www.choco-late.be/en.

If you can't make those dates, do not despair. Bruges has 52 (hyper)active chocolatiers, who sell their scrumptious creations all year round.

On top of that, until 8 December 2011, the city of Bruges celebrates "Choc'in Brugge" - chocolate month, if you will, with gastronomic events, chocolate-themed city walks, chocolate wellness and much more. You can find the programme here.

Last but not least, if you live too far and can't make it to Belgium this year, have some great chocolate wherever you are and consider stopping by in the future.
When you do, drop me a line and I'd be happy to point out a number of places that are worth a visit.

Have a choc-o-licious November!

Bonus picture. From left to right:
shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone, fashion designer Nicky Vankets
and yours truly, plotting an escape with the dress.
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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Glorious Rheingau, Ravishing Rieslings.

Last week, on the way back from 'Holidays - the Sequel', we spent a few days at the river Rhine, in Germany's second oldest hotel: Hotel Krone near Rüdesheim-am-Rhein.

Over the past few years, we've developed a taste for Riesling wines, and after visiting the French Alsace last year, we wanted to continue our discovery of this wonderful grape, in the Rheingau this time.

The Rheingau ...

The Rheingau is one of Germany's smaller wine regions but an important one, especially for Riesling wines. The oldest documented references about Riesling come from this area, and the first vineyards have allegedly been planted as early as the 8th or 9th Century.

Schloß Johannisberg in Geisenheim is supposedly one of the places where it was discovered that grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea (pourriture noble or noble rot) made delicious sweet wines.

For these and many other reasons, the Rheingau had been on my to-visit list for a while, so when the opportunity arose, I couldn't let it pass.

The Hotel ...

Hotel Krone is a charming, old-world boutique hotel, a bit outdated maybe but that only added to its character.

We stayed in one of their suites, with a wide balcony overlooking the Rhine and a huge marble bathroom, complete with private sauna and jacuzzi.

If we hadn't had all this wine-tasting and gastronomic dining on the agenda, we wouldn't have left the room.

I was glad we did venture out, though, because we discovered great wines in the Rheingau, in different price ranges, but nearly all of them of decent quality and fair value for money.

The Wine ...

We started our exploration with a visit to Schloß Johannisberg and a tour of the ultramodern Steinberg cellars at Kloster Eberbach. Afterwards we visited independent winemakers in the nearby towns.

It was interesting to see how in an area that's quite renowned for its wines, many of the local wine growers seemed to have little interest in actually selling their wines. One of them, when we asked if we could sample his wines, looked so surprised one would think he'd never had that request. He even had to check with his wife first, who wasn't home at the time.

When we came back a few hours later, he had recovered from the shock and sat down at the table with a couple of bottles. We ended up having a good chat and bought several of his wines: a lovely dry white, and his personal favourite: a medium dry weißherbst (a rosé made from one type of grape – pinot noir in this case – and harvested from one location). So everything worked out fine, but if we hadn't spoken German, we wouldn't have made it past the doorstep.

Now, my favourite discovery of the entire trip was Weingut Josef Leitz.

Not only were they incredibly accommodating by organising a short-notice private tasting for us; the guy who lead the tasting - Tobias, if I recall his name correctly - was friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about wine. He took the time to explain (in English, even) the individual characteristics of the vineyard's winemaking style and the different soils and 'Lagen' they worked with.

The Leitz tasting was one of the most enjoyable ones I've ever experienced. I can honestly say there wasn't a single wine I didn't like, even though they were all quite distinct. Leitz' wines are a perfect illustration of what a difference terroir makes in the final result.

Deciding which ones to buy became a true ordeal. Each of them unique, they all had an irresistible vigour and vibrance, intensely fragrant yet elegant, with a beautiful balance of acidity, minerality and luscious fruit.

After careful deliberation, we settled on one of his more modest dry ones for everyday consumption, and - for more special occasions - my favourite: the 2010 Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Spätlese, a sweeter wine with a delicate aroma of rose petals.

But before I get lost in lyrical outpourings, let me share a few photographs of:

The Rhine ...

Auf Wiedersehen!
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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Huize Colette, Ghent (BE)

My most recent discovery in my home town Ghent is Huize Colette, a chocolate and book house my husband had recommended. He was sure I would love it. He was right.

So I grabbed my Kindle and took off for a much-needed break in our beautiful medieval city centre, where I found Huize Colette tucked away in the shadow of the town hall.

Huize Colette's ground floor looks like a cosy tea room, which is nice enough, but if you're 'that kind of person', you need to follow the row of books up the stairs and discover the first floor.

Upstairs, the 'chocolate and books' house consists of a landing and what I can only describe as the perfect living room: funky colours, comfy armchairs, lots of books and bookshelves, and friendly people who bring you delicious hot chocolate.

I was so intensely happy when the chocolate turned out to be scrumptious. Underneath the hope I had braced myself for grave disappointment, but it didn't happen.

When I arrived, I asked the young woman downstairs what she would recommend (always a good way to get a feel for the people behind the place), and after enquiring about my tastes in chocolate, she recommended the 'fondant' hot chocolate. 

'Fondant' is the default name here in Belgium not just for the famous chocolate-cake-with-the-gooey-centre, but also for a type of dark, bitter chocolate that is still quite sweet. If I still fancied a more bitter taste afterwards, I could try the 'bitter', which is the darkest hot chocolate milk they're serving.

So I installed myself in one of the comfy chairs, took my Kindle, put my feet up and waited for the chocolate to arrive.

The 'fondant' was gorgeous: full of flavour while still creamy, and obviously made fresh. Quite a large mug as well, as you can see.

I also tried the 'bitter' afterwards, which I loved but is not to everyone's taste I'm sure. If you're into dark chocolate, starting off with the 'fondant' is definitely the right choice.

If for whatever reason you don't like chocolate, they offer a wide range of coffees (including several with a 'kick', i.e. a dash of liquor), teas, organic fruit juices and a few alcoholic drinks (no beer). I've heard great things about their pastry, breakfast and brunch as well, which will have to be tried soon.

After about an hour and half in hedonist heaven I was more than ready to face the world again and I left Huize Colette in a state of nerve-tingling, chocolate-induced bliss, temporarily in love with the world.

I've already arranged to meet with a friend there next week, and I will drag along several others in the months to come. Huize Colette is the perfect place for great conversation as well as for quiet reading or writing.

Too bad it's not open at night, but if this means the ladies behind the business continue to enjoy it for many, many years and keep the place as cosy and authentic as it is now, I am happy they've made this decision.

Contact details:
Huize Colette
Belfortstraat 6
B-9000 GENT

Open Tuesday to Friday 9:00 - 19:00 and Saturday/Sunday 10:00 - 19:00.

What's your favourite hideout?
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Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Giant's Tomb (BE)

Le Tombeau du Géant, Belgium. May 2011.

I spent the past weekend with a bunch of friends in the Belgian Ardennes, in a former water mill near the river Semois and a site called 'Le Tombeau du Géant' (the Giant's Tomb).

It is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt parts of the country, and very special to all of us. Some of my friends have been going there for over 20 years, and are still as much in awe as the first time.

I'd been looking forward to this weekend for a while. After a busy few months, I needed some time away from my computer with nothing but good friends and my Kindle for company.

Two days later, I've come home with sun-kissed skin (sun-nibbled and sun-bitten here and there), recharged batteries and a brain buzzing with the remnants of laughter and good conversation.

Of course, being me, I can't help pondering the paradox of wanting to go to places that are wild and virtually untouched by mankind, while by going there, we touch them - inevitably.

However, there are ways of being a respectful visitor, and I count myself lucky to have found so many people who understand this and try to live it.

Here's to friendship, laughter and heart-warming, mind-blowing beauty!

What are your favourite places to unwind?
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Friday, 4 March 2011

Ghent, City of Lights (BE)

'Ghent' by Fobach (cc 2.0)

My home town Ghent made it into the top 10 of Lonely Planet's hottest cities for 2011. It's being described as one of Europe's best-kept secrets, often overlooked in favour of Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp:
'Most Belgium-bound visitors rushing between these see nothing more than the stately fortifications of Ghent’s St Pieter’s Station. Those who do hop off the train and stroll along the Leie River to the historic centre will have their eyes out on stalks. Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses.' lp
I might not be entirely objective, but I agree with all my heart. Ghent is an amazing city to visit and to live in. It feels authentic and alive, with a rich history, great pubs and restaurants, an imposing castle in the middle of the historic city centre and lots of festivals, museums and cultural events.

The locals are known for being open-minded and strong-willed, and - like in most places in Flanders - most people speak several languages (usually Flemish/Dutch, English, French and some German) and will go out of their way to show you the best of what their city has to offer.

Belgians are proud of their Burgundian lifestyle, and it shows. All over the city you will find bakeries, tea rooms and chocolate shops, inviting you in with displays of delicious sweets and treats. Many of the pubs offer over 100 different beers to choose from.

When night falls, Ghent becomes even more beautiful. Thanks to the award-winning and well-crafted lighting plan, the city turns into a fairy-tale setting, with different quarters and atmospheres to cater to every mood, from romantic to vibrant, from relaxed to haunting.

To add images to words, here's a video that gives a good impression of the city:

Have you ever been to Ghent? Which are your favourite sights?
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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wild Wonders of Europe

This article appeared on my other blog some time ago, but I thought I'd repost it here because it fits very well in the idea of being enchanted by beautiful parts of the world and places and sights that have that something extra.

You don't always need to travel far to find beautiful scenery or reasons for optimism about our environment. Just have a look at this website: Wild Wonders of Europe.

You can tell that the people behind this project are passionate about nature. They want to remind us of the stunning biodiversity we still have, right on our doorstep. And they strongly believe that the emotional power of beautiful photographs is a great way to do that. I couldn't agree more.

What I also love is that, instead of telling the sad stories, they want to celebrate the successes and the wildlife-comebacks. Their motto: 'Conservation works! We just need more of it!'

You can also take part in a monthly photo competition with lots of great prizes. As a bonus, the two overall winners get to go on a photo mission to a wild destination in Europe, fully equipped with professional photo gear. Last year's winners Markus from Norway and Janne from Finland went on a trip to the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Check out beautiful pictures from your favourite countries in the Wild Wonders galleries, their beautiful videos of wildlife in action, or have a look at the book they released earlier this year. Enjoy!

Wild Wonders Banner
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