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Holiday in Belgium – The Flanders Experience

As you likely read earlier, I found myself with a return ticket to Vienna on United (and Austrian) through Brussels. We weren’t really interested in visiting Vienna again. While I love that City and can’t wait to return, I was just there in March and was looking for something different. Belgium has been on our list for a while and I figured since I’d technically be flying through Brussels, I may as well just hop off the plane and explore.

I’m a pretty big World War I buff (not one of those nuts who reenact battles or anything, I just love reading personal stories about the war, watching shows that take place in and around the war and of course proper documentaries on the subject). Also, my favorite beers are Belgium beers, so it really seemed like a no-brainer. Since I had the ticket to Brussels, I just needed to find a way back home – which is exactly how I got into this “ticket to Brussels” situation in the first place. I’ve always wanted to try Brussels Airlines and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

The canals in Ghent.

Leaving on a Friday and returning on a Wednesday wouldn’t leave me much time to explore, but we could see a couple of places. Like I always say, I’d rather leave a destination wishing I had just one more day than wishing I had left a day or two prior.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll detail the portions of the trip that I think will provide the most interest to you all. If I’m leaving anything out, just ask – and feel free to use the comments section. Not that I don’t like getting emails from you all – which I love and respond to every one – leaving a comment will help others as well.

St. Bavo’s Cathedral – Ghent, Belgium

We spent all of our time in Flanders, the Flemish part of the country, so I didn’t really get a chance to speak French at all. A bit disappointing – but I did deal with the Brussels Airport and the Brussels Airlines crew exclusively in French.

You’ll notice I don’t plan on writing about my flight over to Brussels. There was nothing important to write about. We flew coach. Tight seats. EconomyPlus Legroom. Mediocre Food. Nothing to talk about here. Keep Moving.

Are you planning a trip to Belgium anytime soon? If you’ve been, what was your favorite parts of Flanders? I will return to Wallonia to explore Chimay and practice my French.

Steirereck – Fine Dining in Vienna

We had only a couple of days in Vienna and I needed to find a great place for dinner. On my last visit, we ate at some touristy places that were recommended by hotel (first mistake) and then we tried to find a place to eat after the opera (second mistake – everything was either sold out, or closed).

This trip, I turned to the trusty list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. We were very pleased with their selections in South America (Gustu, Central, Maido, Astrid y Gaston) and Asia (Nahm, Gaggan), and Vienna is home to number 10 on the list of the World’s Best. Not only does it make the top of this illustrious list, it has also earned two Michelin Stars. We were sold.

Steirereck im Stadtpark is a modern and innovative restaurant located in Vienna’s city park. The building is sleek and modern – the photos made me think it had a fully mirrored façade, but it is actually stainless steel surrounding the windows. It is truly a beautiful building. It looks like something Gehry created.

Steirereck im Stadtpark is located in this beautiful structure. So sleek and modern, nestled in nature.

Surprisingly, we were able to get reservations without a problem for 20h00 on our first night in town. Our second would be spent at the opera and the third would find me in a plane back home. The timing was perfect.

I stopped by the restaurant late afternoon to snag a few photos in daylight and was surprised to see a pretty full space – do the Austrians eat lunch at 16h00? Or was that someone’s dinner?

I researched the attire before we left for Austria and I found that for dinner jackets weren’t required and even nice jeans were acceptable. I did get thrown for a bit of a panic when I was reading more about the restaurant before dinner, when the more recent articles said men were all in jackets, but ties were not required…and no one wore jeans. I packed my clothes in a carry on bag and didn’t have space for a tux (opera), a sport coat and other finery. I was nervous as we approached the restaurant.

We were definitely the most underdressed. We were dress shirts, jeans and my casual Hugo Boss shoes. While we didn’t look like everyone else there, we didn’t feel out of place. People didn’t stare. The servers did treat us like we didn’t belong.

Before we even arrived, we knew we’d be doing the full tasting menu in lieu of the a la carte dining options. This is likely a once in a lifetime dining opportunity, and I wanted to see exactly what the chef could do – I didn’t want to risk accidently picking the three worst things on the menu (which I’m sure were great, but would leave me underwhelmed).

The seven-course tasting menu was 152€ + 89€ for the wine pairing, which included a class of wine for each course. Of course we did the wine pairing – is this your first time reading about my travels and dining?

Before we get into the pictures, let me start by apologizing for not getting a full and proper photo of the menu – everything was a bit of a whirlwind when we arrived. I also have a couple of issues with some photos – specifically, my notes were unclear on a couple of the courses, so you’ll have to forgive me.

On to the meal!

Eating Culture – The Amuse Bouche

Superschmelz Kohlrabi with Diamante Albedo, Ice Crystal Salad and Green Almonds

Chevril Root with Perigold Truffle & Asparagus.

Kale with Pumpkin “Leistling”, Mushroom & Viennese Caviar

Arctic Char with Moro Blood Orange, Quinoa and Dill

Tench with Beans, Artichoke, Chia and Walnut Leaf

“Süßer von der Krim” Onion with SPrinach Veal’s Tail and Mediar

Bean Stew with Puntarella, Rosehips, Yacón and Pistaccio

Beef Short Rib with Chinese Cabbage, Purple Salsify, & Horseradish

The Fabulous Cheese Cart with our wonderful guide.

My Cheese Selections – Complete with a gooey Époisses.

“Forellen” Pear
“Forellen” Pear with Spruce Tips, Parsnips & Rose Mallow

Cox Orange
Cox Orange Apple with Chamomile, Canihua & Salted Apricot

The dinner ended up taking about four hours from the time we sat down until we stepped outside, with full bellies. It didn’t feel like there was a long gap between courses, nor did it feel like the courses were overly complex, taking longer to eat.

Our servers were quite personable and didn’t hesitate in conducting the full meal in English as my German can get me around the U-Bahn and maybe the zoo, but not a hospital or fine dining restaurant.

We had a couple of hiccups on the wines where I’d ask a question – usually about geography as I’m not very familiar with the wine regions of Austria. Now I’d rather someone tell me they don’t know the answer and step away to find out than tell me a lie, but twice during this dinner the server stepped away to ask a question about the wine (again, mostly geography related) and just never returned. Now it’s not like the knowledge that he was going to impart upon me was going to change my meal or my enjoyment, but it surely was curious – especially for a restaurant ranked number 10 on the top 50 list in the world.

Honestly, the two parts of the meal that stand out most to me were the enormous bread cart that came by a couple times during the meal and the most magnificent cheese trolley towards the end. There were at least two dozen bread options, each sounding more delictible than the prior and the cheese trolley at the most beautifully runny and ripe époisses de Bourgogne – my all time favorite cheese.

I’m really happy we at at Steirereck im Stadtpark, but I would not return. The food was interesting, but it wasn’t all that memorable to me. The price point was at the highest end of any of the 50 Top Restaurants in the World that I’ve visited and I think I’d rank it the lowest of them all. The space was beautiful and the experience was truly once in a lifetime, but, I cannot see myself returning. For a meal experience (and it was that, an experience, not just a meal) for a price of about 770USD, I want more “WOW”, more interest, more invention and innovation.

What did you think of Steirereck? Was I just there on an off night? Did you have a phenomenal time and think I should give it another try?

Help Me Plan: A Week in Belgium

We decided to take a few days and explore Belgium this spring.  We’ve been to Brussels for a layover on our way to Spain a few years ago.  We had about 8 hours on the ground and we got out of the airport and explored the City for a few hours – eating waffles, drinking beer, wandering the streets, checking out the pissing statues…you know, a normal day in Brussels.

This time, we are getting out of Brussels straight away, but we aren’t totally sold on where we are going.  We figure Bruges is high on the list – it’s one of the dozens of cities called the Venice of the North.  I’m also contemplating Ypres, which has some amazing WWI memorials.

Can you help me answer the following questions:

  • What cities would you visit?
  • Where should we dine / which restaurants?
  • Which hotels should make our list?
  • Do you have any recommendations on bike tours?
  • What areas should we skip entirely?

Looking forward to hearing about your trips and recommendations!

The Sights of Stockholm

I didn’t have much time to spend in Stockholm so I put together a list of things that I just had to see before I boarded my return flight home.  The first thing on the list was the Vasa Museum, which I wrote about recently.  I had also heard many good things about the ABBA Museum, but I’m not a huge ABBA Fan (perish the thought, I know) and the museum entry was quite steep – I just couldn’t pull the trigger.

Interestingly enough, Stockholm was dramatically warmer than Chicago the week I visited.  Chicago was -40C (-40F) when I left and Stockholm was 5C (41F), which was downright balmy!  By my second day in Stockholm the temperature had dropped closer to freezing and a bit of snow dropped overnight.  Despite the weather change it was still quite comfortable and didn’t impact my plans at all.

My visit list included a walk around Gamla Stan – or old town Stockholm – and while there I visited the Royal Palace and Museum and the Nobel Museum (which was undergoing some reconstruction work).  In addition to these main attractions, I wanted to get a better feel for the City – see the architecture and learn more about the people and history of the City.  This last goal required me to just wander around the City, turning down streets that looked interesting, popping into bars and restaurants that had an appeal and chatting it up with the locals.

The view of Gamla Stan from my hotel room…before the snow came in.

Old Stockholm. Despite being a bleak and dreary January day, the colors of these buildings and boats just popped.

The Nordiska Museum is dedicated to the cultural history and ethnography of Sweden. A truly stunning piece of architecture.

The Royal Guard – all buttoned up and warm. Unlike the Beefeaters, he was very friendly and we chatted for a bit.

The canons standing guard at the Royal Palace Museum with a fresh blanket of snow from the previous night.

My appetizer of herring with a potato, cheese and crackers.

Proper Swedish Meatballs with mashed potatoes and lingonberries. What trip to Sweden would be complete without eating your weight in the delicious meatballs.

I will usually check out TripAdvisor and see if there are any places that hadn’t made my list, but should have – or to check out the self-guided walking tours offered on the TripAdvisor App.  There was an interesting one for Stockholm – a tour of the various art pieces found in the Stockholm Subway Stations. Yes, I used my three-day transit pass to schlep between stations to checkout the modern and classical installations.  At a couple stations, locals asked me what I was photographing – so I told them about the self-guided tour I was on, and talked to them about the object I was there to see.  It was a really unique way to explore the art of the City.  At each stop, I also made sure to go above ground and at least take a walk around a block or two to see where I was and what the neighborhood was like.

Station Art depicting the devastation of the natural environment.

Ancient statuary adorned one of the Subway Station Art Stops.

Portuguese tiling surprised me at one of the stations. Beautiful, but completely unexpected.

The people of Stockholm were very welcoming and anytime I had a question (if I had gotten myself lost or needed a recommendation, for example). Even when I was just walking around the City, I didn’t hear Swedish being spoken – only English – which was a little disappointing.  On the flight the announcements were only in English and not Swedish.  I understand that everyone (or nearly) in Stockholm speaks English, but I was hoping to hear some of their native tongue.

What was the thing you just loved about Stockholm?  What did I miss on my visit?  Am I nuts for going to Sweden in January?

The Vasa Museum – Stockholm

The one recommendation that EVERYONE I talked to about Stockholm gave me was to visit the Vasa Museum.  The Vasa was a Swedish warship built in the early 1600s.  It actually sank on its maiden voyage after sailing a bit more than a kilometer.  Some items of value (cannons and other weaponry) were salvaged later in the 17th century, but the ship was basically forgotten until the middle of the 20th century.  It was raised in 1961 and housed in a temporary location until it moved to its permanent home in 1981.  The Vasa museum is dedicated to the history of the ship, the salvage efforts and the period in which it was constructed.  

I decided to visit the Vasa Museum my first day in Stockholm and I figured I’d spent about 90 minutes exploring the museum, maybe grab lunch at the museum cafe and then head on out to make headway on my to do list.  That plan fell apart pretty quickly, once I arrived at the museum.  I was enthralled!

I was utterly surprised at how interesting the museum actually was.  The Vasa was so much more grand than I was expecting.  While you can’t actually go on the ship itself, you can walk around it getting amazing views of the craftsmanship.  The brackish water really preserved the ship – 400 years underwater and the boat looks amazing.  The museum worked with craftsmen to repair parts of the ship that were damaged while it was submerged or during the recovery process.

The aft section of the Vasa – enormous in scale and history.

The intricate carvings transfixed me.

While you couldn’t tour the boat itself, the museum did have a ton of interactive exhibits where you could see what life would be like on board.

A sampling of the ornate carvings that adorned ships of this era.

I ended up spending nearly four hours exploring the Vasa Museum.  I did also grab some Swedish meatballs and a beer.  I’ve recommended this museum to others, with the simple comment that you’ll need more time than you initially think and everyone tells me that the did indeed spend hours longer there than they anticipated.  Who knew a 400 year old boat that sank immediately upon completion would be so fascinating?

Swedish Meatballs, Potatoes and Pickles at the Vasa Museum. Really great for Museum Food!

Have you been to the Vasa Museum?  How much time did you spend there?  The meatballs were pretty tasty too, weren’t they?