Mastering the culinary experience on Benelux trains


Hitting the rails around Europe can be a blast, and I particularly enjoyed it in the so-called “Benelux” countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). The scenery in the Netherlands was a bit thin, but the Belgian towns were incredibly cute, and it was fun to watch the Dutch signs yield to French as we approached the Luxembourg border.

And let’s face it: any alternative to air travel is a welcome one.

While the trains were a bit slow, they did offer plenty of space, and the ride was comfortable. The only downside was dining: some had a cart that was pushed around periodically, but that was the best available. In other cases, there was nothing at all.

So, if you’re going to hop the train to places like Amsterdam, Bruges, Brussels and Luxembourg, you’re going to want to pack your own grub. You can always pick something up at the train station, but packaged sandwiches and snacks pale in comparison to what you can accomplish with a little planning.

You can do better!

Below, you’ll find tips for giving yourself a better dining experience when you ride through Benelux:

%Gallery-129425%The Netherlands: let’s focus on Amsterdam; after all, it is the country’s major destination. You might be tempted to pick up a “spacecake” while they’re still available to tourists (the fun, for those who indulge, comes to a close at the end of the year), but that only appeals to one type of audience. Instead, head into town and pick up some of the local cheese – one of the few areas where Amsterdam truly excels in food and dining. You’ll wind up spending $10 to $15, but you’ll walk away with enough cheese to feed a village on a three-hour train ride. To make it a bit better, add some spicy mustard to your order (it complements the cheese nicely).

Plan ahead: the cheese and mustard will stay edible for a while, so spend the extra cash to get enough for several long train rides. You’ll be happy you did.

Belgium: in Bruges, there’s a great farmers market in the main market square. Visit it. While the vegetables look delicious, they do have a fairly short shelf life (unless you happen to travel with a refrigerator strapped to your back). So, you’re better off heading to the sausage stand. Pick up a few sausages, and make it interesting by selecting from a variety of animals. You’ll be able to dine on pig, bull and ass, among others. Bring some variety into your on-train meal, and you’ll have a better experience.

Remember the cheese you picked up in Amsterdam? And the mustard? If you bought enough, you can add some awesome sausages to the experience. The meal builds on itself! Again, plan for future train rides, and buy some extra sausage.

Luxembourg: you have cheese and mustard from Amsterdam. You just picked up sausages in Bruges. And, you’re Benelux trip will likely end with a trek from Luxembourg to Brussels or Amsterdam to catch your flight home. What’s missing from your meal on what could be the longest leg of your Benelux train experience?

Wine!

Luxembourg’s local white wines are nothing short of delicious. Skip the Alsacian, French and German options in favor of what the locals produce. If the imbibing experience matters to you, spring for a few cheap wine glasses that you’re fine with tossing at the airport (or losing to breakage in your bags). Otherwise, a few plastic cups will do the job just fine. As you ride back to your final stop before leaving Benelux, you’ll wash down your accumulated sausage, cheese and mustard with something crisp, tasty and unlikely to be on the shelves of your local liquor store.

Amsterdam hot dog review: THE CHUBBY!

Sometimes a food’s name says everything you need to know about it. Tucked away in the museum part of Amsterdam, the Lunch Kiosk is a mobile operation intended to feed the tourists in need of some fast grub. I was in that spot on my visit earlier this month, and I do like to sample a hot dog wherever I go. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

At the Lunch Kiosk, the Chubby Hot Dog on the menu caught my attention immediately. How could it not? The big dog is wrapped in bacon and cheese, making it (what I thought would be) an artery-clogging delight. I had visions of Vancouver and Reykjavik, which made me salivate all the more. After waiting in line for what felt like an eternity, I placed my order and waited some more. I took this as a good sign, too. After all, immediate doesn’t usually equate to culinary quality (not even with hot dogs).

When my order was up, I snatched it with excitement and headed over to the ketchup and mustard. The latter was particularly interesting, as Amsterdam tends to do mustard well (I do suggest smearing some on any of the local cheeses).

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My first bite was nothing but … disappointment. The Chubby Hot Dog nailed the aesthetic, but it failed to deliver on taste. The dog was lukewarm at best, a risk inherent in eating hot dogs from vendors that have four wheels. It didn’t snap as much as hot dogs from the likes of Gray’s Papaya or even Banger Bros in London. And for flavor, it just held flat. At best, the Chubby tasted like lukewarm bologna. While I was able to tolerate the dog at first (I was incredibly hungry), I wound up abandoning it at the half-way mark.

Foreign hot dogs tend to be a role of the dice. Where East Anglia (England), Madrid and Amsterdam fell short, Stockholm, Reykjavik and Montreal came through in style. Though considered to be among the lowest forms of food, it’s nonetheless tough to master the hot dog. The Chubby just failed to execute on its delectable plan.

Five ways the Bruges chocolate museum will make you nuts

Choco-Story is a pretty wild place. Predictably, it calls Bruges home. After all, Belgium and chocolate go together like hot dogs and obesity. On my recent trip to Bruges, I heard about Choco-Story from the guy at the front desk of my hotel. Given that I like to nibble a bit of chocolate every now and then, it seemed worth a visit.

What I saw shocked me.

This isn’t a museum in the conventional sense. The displays seem to have been designed from the tobacco industry playbook. The propaganda was extensive, and in a departure from the cigarette world, it wasn’t shrouded effectively. Rather, insane innuendo was offered throughout the museum, and its true nature was painfully obvious. Had it been executed slightly better, the whole thing would have been funny. Alas, it was not.

So, if you’re looking for some chocolate fun, Choco-Story will drive you absolutely nuts. Here are the top five ways this stop in Bruges will make your mind swirl:

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1. Orwell would be impressed: Choco-Story resembles the industry’s Ministry of Truth more than it does a museum. Sure, you can walk through the history of chocolate in this Belcolade-sponsored environment … but you’ll get some strong “messaging” along the way. Chocolate, it seems, hasn’t sufficiently been linked to acne, weight gain or tooth decay – at least not according to the signs. Without coming out and claiming … well … anything, exhibits suggest that chocolate may be an aphrodisiac. And that the fat should probably lose weight before introducing dark chocolate back into their diets (the slim, on the other hand, can munch as much as they want).

2. It takes a while to get to the food: I realize that chocolate has a long and rich history. It takes centuries to get anywhere near the developments most closely related to the snacks we enjoy today. That doesn’t mean that Choco-Story needs to cover every historical moment in painstaking detail. Not every contribution should get equal weight, especially from the perspective of the sugar-fiending visitor.

3. There isn’t much chocolate: to say that Choco-Story isn’t interactive is to conceal the frustration that a visit invites. Throughout the museum, you’ll wander through displays that range from historical to propaganda, but you won’t really find any chocolate (not the kind you can stick in your mouth). At the end of the tour, there is a display. You can see a chocolatier at work in a spotless kitchen, surrounded by statues constructed in that particular medium. You’re limited to looking and not touching, however. This strip club-style constraint continues into the demonstration room, where a speaker shows and tells without letting your fingers near a nibble. Guests are given only one piece of chocolate, and they can’t get it until they leave through a door that’s closed until the end of the lecture.

4. Toys: okay, so the chocolate is controlled tightly. That wouldn’t be so bad if the museum actually rocked. While there are some interesting chocolate-related artifacts, they are mixed in with Lego-style displays intended to illustrate the history of the sweet. They really don’t look that good. It’s a joke. A cartoonish chocolate character appears in some signs in an effort to inject a bit of humor, but he fails – horribly.

5. Cash only: for most people, this might not be a big deal. I don’t carry a lot of cash, though, and I know I’m not alone. If you don’t have cash with you, you’re stuck looking for an ATM when you’d rather be inside the museum. The silver lining in all this is that you really aren’t missing anything anyway.

It’s enough to make you want to snort some chocolate …

Five ways to get the most out of your Luxembourg trip

Luxembourg is a tiny, interesting place. It probably isn’t a destination in itself for most people, but it can be a great side trip from Paris, parts of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. If you can tack a few days onto your next vacation to that part of Europe, Luxembourg is a fun spot that you’d probably never visit otherwise.

Since your time in Luxembourg is likely to be short – and dependent upon other factors in your vacation – it can help to have a few ideas in mind before you hit the ground. You want to make the most of your experience, of course, while minimizing the aggravation that can come with going from Point A to Point B. Below, you’ll find five tips for making your Luxembourg visit easier and more enjoyable.

%Gallery-129220%1. Dip into the valley: up on the hill, Luxembourg is a city. It’s reasonably large and more interesting (as a city) than the likes of Amsterdam and Brussels, but it’s still a run-of-the-mill city. Step onto one of the walking paths, though, and you’ll descend into the Old Europe you’d expect from this microstate. Wander the winding streets, and enjoy the architecture that reminds you what the meaning of “classic” is. Interestingly, you’ll get a shock to the system when you see old and new side by side. There’s an interesting mix of contemporary and traditional architecture in Luxembourg, which gives the towns below a more organic vibe.

2. Drink the local wine: it’s old hat for most travelers to sample the local stuff when visiting a new place. Trying new food and drinks is part of the fun! The food in Luxembourg won’t strike you as particularly exotic (though you can find a good meal there), but the wine is a different story. Crisp, flavorful and a pure pleasure to drink, you’ll find the perfect afternoon kicking back bottle after bottle while sitting outside and watching the people pass by.

3. Don’t bother paying for the bus: in the mood for some international crime? The buses in Luxembourg provide the perfect opportunity. You have to pay to take them, but the bus drivers don’t check to see if you have a ticket. They don’t care. So, you can step onto the bus and go where you want without paying a dime. You are running a risk, however. The fines are steep if you get caught by the authorities tasked with spot-checking for tickets.

Of course, I’m not advocating such illicit behavior. Buy a damned ticket – they’re cheap.

4. Stay for the right amount of time: you don’t want to breeze through Luxembourg in an afternoon … but staying for a week probably doesn’t make sense. Give yourself two or three days, depending on how much time you want to invest in #2, above.

5. Spring for a hotel downtown: to save a few bucks, I stayed out in the business district. It was a lot cheaper, and bus access to the city was fast, easy and reliable. But, it’s still a lot more enjoyable to roll out of bed and head right into the action.

Five Belgian chocolate statues and their inspirations

When you wander through Europe, you run into statues (literally, if you have your nose stuck in your guidebook). There are lots of ’em, and they’re all old. Some are incredibly impressive: I still have a soft spot, of sorts, for Venus de Milo. Others, however, are utterly forgettable – vast collections of stone or metal that are important while falling short of stunning.

Visit Bruges, Belgium, and the rules change entirely.

Sure, there are plenty of statues, including a piece by Michaelangelo that somehow found its way out of Italy (this doesn’t happen much, to be honest). The interesting stuff isn’t sitting in churches or etched from stone. Rather, it’s built from a distinctly Belgian medium: chocolate.

I’m not joking.

Spend a few minutes in Belgium, and you’ll be bombarded by the sweet stuff (you’ll even be encouraged to stick some up your nose). There’s chocolate everywhere, and as I saw shortly after I hit the ground in Bruges, it’s even on display.

The local chocolate museum, Choco-Story, is home to quite a few of them – unsurprising, really, given that the propaganda exhibition museum has the tools and expertise necessary to make it happen. There are a few more elsewhere in the city, though, and you should keep an eye out for unique, interesting and tasty creations all over the cute little city.

Below, you’ll find five interesting chocolate creations, along with some guesses at what may have inspired them. In some cases, it’s a straight line from the real world to chocolate equivalent, but I will admit I stretched plausibility in a few places. Ultimately, the extent to which I may have fudged is up to you!

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