Contes d’Opales – Glorious Ghent

Hi, it’s Libby again. We took a hiatus the last couple of days, resting up from a marvellous three days in Ghent, Belgium, before hitting the road again tomorrow for a quick trip to Le Touquet.

In planning our trip to the north of France last winter, I happened to read one of the New York Times’ “36 Hours” travel series touting the charms of Ghent (see here) as one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It oohed and aahed over this overlooked Flemish city’s canals, spires, cobblestone streets and some of Belgium’s best food and historic architecture and design.

It sounded like a must-see spot, so I booked a nice B&B and a car to get us there. We ended up cancelling the car and took a train instead, via Lille and Courtrai (Kortrijk in Flemish). Once there, we hopped on the number 4 local tram which took us to our accommodation in the old town. To be honest, the trip from the train station on the tram through workaday Ghent did not reveal any of the promised treasures. But once inside the old city, WOW!

Ghent is a city of 260,000 inhabitants, of whom 70,000 are students. It lies at the confluence of the rivers Lys and Scheldt and derives its name from the Celtic word for confluence. Ghent was once one of Europe’s two largest cities, after Paris, due to its burgeoning wool trade. In the 1500s, however, the people of Ghent rebelled against Emperor Charles the 5th as they were unwilling to pay his taxes. The emperor arrived in Ghent to restore order and revoked Ghent’s rights and privileges. The punishment and humiliation of its dignitaries were so severe that Ghent lost its leading position in Europe. Some regard that as a fortunate event, as Ghent was able to retain a smaller city atmosphere and matching civic pride.

I took a two and a half hour free walking tour and was introduced  to a bevy of Ghent’s architectural and other delights, for example:

–  the tour started just outside of a youth hostel on St. Michael’s bridge which spans the river Lys. Whichever way you look, you see picture-postcard views of three medieval towers, St. Nicholas church, the Belfry, and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.

The bridge itself is an early 20th century construct, having been erected as part of the 1913 World’s Fair which took place in Ghent that year. The gothic cathedral, on the other hand, dates back to the 16th century and stands on the site of two previous churches dating, respectively, from the 10th and 12th centuries. The Belfry is a 91 metre edifice; adorned on its top is the “Dragon of Ghent”, the city’s symbol. St. Nicholas’ Church predates them all, having been constructed in the 12th century.

–  a 16th century gothic town hall where local Ghent citizens can enter only to marry and work;

– the Castle of the Counts, a medieval castle that was occupied only once – in the 1940s by drunken students protesting a proposed increase in beer prices (!);

– on either side of the river Lys, the quays of Graslei and Korenlei boast several outstanding buildings, formerly used as grain warehouses, one of which leans forward (on purpose) to make it easier to hoist up the sacks of grain which passed through this inland port.

Another building, now the Marriott’s signature hotel, once housed a brothel, where sailors spent many an evening. The golden swans facing away from one another on the hotel facade signify its earlier purpose.

– Ghent displays its civic pride in a multitude of ways. It carefully uplights its squares and historic buildings, making an evening stroll through the city’s fairytale setting the height of romance.

Amongst the vibrant squares we visited was the Vrijdagmarkt, where a lively Friday morning market (produce, prepared foods, baked goods and clothes) took place. We had breakfast and coffee on this square and noticed the locals having early morning beers on the terraces of some of the restaurants.

Also on this square, we were introduced to the renowned Dulle Griet pub, with a wonderful old Flemish interior, where no less than 500 different beers are available, including, for a price, the award-winning, Westvleteren Trappist beers. We watched as others imbibed the house beer from a large bootshaped “stirrup” glass – patrons are required to give up a shoe when ordering one of these beers in order to avoid the glass being purloined as a souvenir. The shoe is hoisted up to the ceiling in a cage and returned to the patron after the beer is consumed.

In the centre of the square stands a statue of one of the city’s most prominent entrepreneurs, Jacob Van Artevelde, who was responsible for developing the lucrative wool trade and who became a city hero. Around the corner from this most romantic square, an artisan chocolate shop sells its handmade, delicious Belgian chocolates. I bought 6 pieces for under 5 Euros!

– our tour guide also pointed out that Ghent was not only known for its beer and chocolates, but also for its frites. He inspired us by indicating the location of his three favourite “frites” places and carefully warned us not to call them “French Fries” as the locals would take offence. While you can have them with mayonnaise, they are also served as a main course with Flemish stews and other meals as an accompaniment. Yum!

– amongst the beer, frites and chocolate outlets lies a fantastic store specializing in vintage and new wallpaper. Apparently, the White House orders its wallpaper from this store, and it is widely known in Ghent. It had no name I could see on its front door, but its windows were replete with the most beautiful wallpaper I had ever seen. The prices were set out clearly in the window and when I asked, I was told the price was per roll. Some of the most beautiful ones were only 24 Euros per roll!

– I didn’t even mention other sites that were pointed out to us – Graffiti Street, an alleyway reserved for Ghent’s many graffiti artists. (As a result, one hardly sees graffiti on any other street in the city.) Or, the new open-concept city pavilion, or Ghent’s Design Museum across from which we had a light dinner one night, or the brand new De Krook library, an irregularly layered steel and glass edifice representing the new architectural face of Ghent, but whose windows symbolically reflect the old cathedral.

Other squares we visited included the Groentenmarkt where vendors sell the famous cuberdons, or “noses of Ghent”, a cone-shaped Belgian candy. That square also features a “food truck” selling the most delicious oysters I ever had and glasses of champagne or chilled white wine.

Another square, the Korenmarket, is surrounded by many beautiful buildings, often housing excellent restaurants, including one called “du Progres” where Gary enjoyed a filet of chicken with mushroom sauce. Gary noticed that the chicken had whiter flesh than our chickens, ditto the famed Licques chicken in France. Perhaps it was the famous poulet fermier or even the aforesaid chicken from Licques.

On our way back from that delightful dinner, we popped into the local genever-only bar, in a picturesque setting right on the banks of the canal, right beside the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, another of Ghent’s historic beer pubs. This genever specialty cafe specializes in 215 genever flavours, ranging from classic Dutch-style gin to exotic gins flavoured with vanilla, coconut and cactus.

Finally, no description of our trip to Ghent would be complete without mention of our hour long tour threading through the rivers and canals of Ghent in a long slim, open air boat. Fantastic!

How can you tell we fell in love with Ghent? It was hard not to.

So, with this lengthy post I am signing off and returning the pen to Gary. We’re back to Paris this Saturday and then home to Toronto on the 5th. It’s been a great journey and I’ve really enjoyed sharing it with you. Hope you enjoyed it too!

Until the next trip, a  bientot!

Libby

 

Contes d’Opale – Pot Pourri

Hi, everyone – Libby again. Well, I want to catch you up on our adventures, culinary and otherwise, since I last wrote.

We settled into day-to-day living in Boulogne-sur-Mer for a while, with me attending fitness classes at a nearby gym called “BodyFit Club”. I’m fitting in with the regulars there, who now greet me with “air kisses” on both sides (as if I was one of “les gars”), and trying to keep up as the instructor called out his instructions, in French, “un, deux, trois, remontre, encore”.

Meanwhile, back at the flat, Gary was cooking up a storm with his already famous “carbonnade a la flamande” with French beef, local beer, and Pas-de-Calais’ own smoked garlic. We thought the French beef was superior to Canadian for this dish, but even if it wasn’t, it sure tasted good alongside the superb Cote de Rhone our landlord left for us when we arrived at the flat (along with two jars of excellent local pate, a selection of French cheeses, and some jellied candies).

We decided to spread our wings again after our Lille jaunt to day-trip the connected set of towns called Les Etaples and Le Touquet just up the coast not far from Boulogne. A short train ride took us to the combined Etaples-Le Touquet station.

Since it was market day in Etaples, and Le Touquet was still a bus-ride away, we resolved to focus on Etaples that day and return another day to Le Touquet. French President Macron represents that riding as it happens, and apparently has a house there.

Etaples turned out to have a lovely, bustling market full of locals buying produce and household items. Etaples is a fishing port and boasts some seriously good fish vendors and fish restaurants. We saw the freshest and most inviting fish and seafood of the trip at a fish market and adjoining restaurant called Aux Pecheurs d’Etaples.

Fish caught that very day is prepared by the chef and his team there and reservations are at a premium. We couldn’t get a table but resolved to return next week. Instead, we installed ourselves on the sunny patio of Au Vieux Port right on the main square where we received a warm welcome and enjoyed delicious salads and local beer and wine. Gary noticed the heaping portions of steaming moules marinieres and wants to go back. Sigh, so many things to do and taste and so little time!

A day later, we headed to Saint Omer only 50 km away, where we spent overnight. We heard, from a vendor in the Boulogne outdoor market, that Saint Omer’s market was not to be missed, if one likes such things – which we do. This time, the train ride required a switch in a small town called Les Fontinettes.

Having gotten on and off a half dozen French trains on this trip, we have been amazed that not once have we been asked for our tickets. No one comes to collect your ticket. No conductor paces through the cars and no one stands at the entry way to the tracks. Strange.

In any event, Saint Omer turned out to be a dream. Untouched by the world wars, it has much to recommend it. Beautiful, spacious squares, clean streets, historic architecture, and much more.

We were more than impressed by their “jardins public”, a 20-hectare public garden, described as “one of the finest and most original landscaped parks in the north of France.”

It has a multitude of delights including manicured English and French gardens, the remains of the ramparts designed by Vauban on its western edge, a 1905 carousel (hidden from the Germans), a gazebo, and a zoo of chickens, roosters, ducks and peacocks with even an occasional fawn. It also has outdoor gym equipment and fitness areas.

A city brochure explains as follows:

”The multiplication of public gardens in the 19th century stemmed from a trend among the bourgeoisie who wished to reproduce the way the aristocracy lived during the ancien regime. The landscaped gardens of Saint Omer immediately became a favourite place for a stroll or for enjoying leisure pursuits. Nothing has changed in that respect.”

The historical centre reflects a treasure trove of riches. A recently renovated beautiful theatre, formerly its town hall, holds court in the main square.

In addition, Saint Omer’s beautiful cathedral dates from the 13th century. Its interior is now known as one of the richest in France. Its two main treasures are the clock dating from 1558 and its organ case but the woodcarving is also spectacular. In addition, the ruins of an abbey created in the 7th century are available for a visit.

Finally, the library of Saint Omer is now housed in a part of what once was an old Jesuit school (both French and English Jesuits resided there.) There is a collection of ancient books, amongst them a copy of two of the most sought-after books in the world, the Gutenberg Bible and a First Folio of Shakespeare. We were given a personal tour by the resident director of the library, a Ph.D. in medieval literature who actually discovered the aforementioned Shakespearean tome. He told us that the French Jesuits who were previously resident there and who were tasked with the job of cataloguing the ancient library’s contents perhaps didn’t fully realize that they had a First Folio copy of Shakespeare’s works and catalogued the author as “Guillaume Shakespeare”. This delayed revelation of the holding.

 

Saint Omer is also considered to be foodie heaven with many excellent restaurants, some regionally-focused. We had dinner one night at a place called the “Dries Kalder”. Its owner has an off-beat sense of humour with a series of ladies’ bras strung over a laundry line suspended from the ceiling. Notwithstanding, it was one of the best meals of the trip; Gary absolutely loved the waterzooi, a Flemish stew of fish (it can also be made with chicken), vegetables, including carrots, leeks and potatoes, and a light cream sauce.

Saint Omer was a highlight of our trip to that point; but next we went to Ghent in Belgium for a three-day visit. It was the “cherry on top”. But, more on beautiful Ghent in my next post, so stay tuned.

A bientot!

Libby

 

Contes d’Opale – Adventures in Lille

Having spent a week or so in Boulogne, we decided, for a change of pace, to visit the sizeable metropolis of Lille, which is in the far north of France, inland, not far from the Belgian line.

We have a warm remembrance of the city of Lille from about 30 years ago, where we hooked up with Michael Jackson, the famous beer writer (not the rock star, although our Michael Jackson was a rock star in his own right, albeit to the beer world, being responsible to a large degree for the present-day interest in craft beer). Lille holds, for us, fond memories of that rendezvous with Michael, at the then almost-fledgling Les Trois Brasseurs, when the three of us set out on a tour of the artisan breweries making the traditional “biere de garde”, an old specialty of the region.

We had been to Lille several times before that (from Paris) to enjoy the carbonnade a la Flamande, or beef cooked with beer and onions, the pungent Maroilles cheese, Flemish-inflected genever gins, and the breathtaking architecture of the Grande Place and Vielle Ville. Those charms still exist, but, sadly, Michael is no longer with us.

The trip of 2019 started tentatively; it poured heavily as we walked from our apartment in Boulogne-sur-Mer to the SNCF train station, just a 15 minute walk, but which seemed an eternity in the heavy rains. We both got soaked.

The train ride was only a hour and by the time we got to Lille and had lunch, the weather had dramatically changed and the sun shone brilliantly. A notable aspect of this part of the world is the changeability of the weather. One minute it rains; the next, it is sunny and bright. It is not a warm climate and, I have found, a jacket is always needed. As George Bernard Shaw said, the coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco. Same thing here.

We stayed in a hotel close to the Lille Europe train station where we arrived – Lille Europe is a stopping off point for the Eurostar from St. Pancras station in London on its way to Paris, and just on the edge of the Vielle Ville. That train station is next to a huge modern-day shopping centre called Euralille and to the old train station called Lille Flandres.

By contrast, the old town has cobble-stoned streets and multitudes of independent and high-end clothing and accessories and food stores and many restaurants and bars. I liked, in particular, Gerard Darrel, Satellite, and Un Jours Ailleurs (UJA) there.

Gary enjoyed a craft beer bar called La Capsule in the old town. This is part of their very with-it beer list:

I am told there are three reasons to go to Lille, the food and beer, for business, and for the art collection at the Musee de Beaux Arts.

I would add to that listing, the beautiful architecture of its oldest buildings. The belfry attached to the city’s town hall, the Grande Theatre, and the Nouvelle Bourse are some of the finest examples.

Our short weekend culminated in a day at the Sunday morning Wazemmes Market, a bustling outdoor and covered market with vibrant colours and a wide diversity of clothes, household products, and food.

All in all, a lovely time in Lille. We highly recommend it.

A bientot!

Contes d’Opale – Becoming Boulonnais

Bonjour, mes amis,

Gary and I are settling into the Boulonnais way of life – cooking chez nous and setting up house at our aptly-named apartment-hotel called “Comme a la Maison”. We have a small, but very efficient, kitchen/living-room, bedroom and bathroom. The apartment is spotless and the kitchen has microwave, toaster, a 2-element stove, coffee maker, dishes and utensils – everything you need to feel at home.

We are located in la Vielle Ville on a cobble-stoned street with plenty of restaurants and bars. We are told that our apartment building, dating from the 1500’s, is the oldest edifice in Boulogne.

 

To set ourselves up, we acquired some basic provisions at the local Casino supermarket – it was fun in and of itself to compare French products with Canadian ones. For example, while searching for 0% fat content Greek plain yogurt, we came across “fromage blanc”. While apparently different in fabrication, they are similar in appearance. We found the fromage blanc a delightful alternative and less acid than yogurt.

Even better then the traditional supermarkets, we joined the throngs of locals for the colourful Saturday farmers’ market centrally situated in Boulogne’s Place Dalton.

Here the vendors offer fresh vegetables right from the nearby fields, regional cheeses, roasted chickens (sur place), honey, jams, olives, roasted garlic (a local specialty) and other regional products as well as all kinds of prepared foods, like paella, couscous and cassoulet.

 

There is a market at Place d’Alton on Wednesday’s as well and we hope to visit it soon.

We did, however, make our way to the Sunday fish market where there were all kinds of weird and wonderful super fresh fish and seafood we rarely see in Canada, if at all. Right out of the ocean, these fish glimmered in the sunshine.

Some vendors at the Sunday market also offer salads and olive and artichoke tapenades as well as home-prepared baked goods. We remembered the “financiers” (golden brick-shaped cakes) we used to buy in Paris years ago and were delighted to find them here.

 

Today, we visited the Auchan store on the suburbs of Boulogne. Gary was in seventh heaven as he perused the extremely comprehensive beers of this northern French region (which is traditionally a beer region, ie. too far north to grow grapes) and nearby Belgium.

I’ll leave you with a glimpse of just part of the acreage devoted to beer at Auchan!

A bientot!

Libby

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu – Paris

Hi, again. I wanted to reprise the time we spent in Paris, a short 4 days, getting accustomed to the time zone and settling in to the French way of life.

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle via Air France, on a quiet Sunday morning and took the RER B to the Gare du Nord, a short 10 stops from the airport. We were most impressed with Air France – it was very efficient and smooth – once airborne, it was as if you were sitting in your own living room.

This trip, we decided to stay near the Gare du Nord as it is a stop on the RER from the airport and also because it is the train station from which we would depart for the north of France. It’s not the usual touristic area, but it has a lot of good restaurants and bars and is proximate, on foot, to a variety of sites such as Place du Republique,  the Canal St. Martin covered market, Rue Maubeuge, the Marais and Galeries Lafayettes.

In fact, it is only a 20 minute walk from 2 spinning clubs which I attended, Dynamo and Kiwill, which had Soulcycle-style classes, but in French. The classes were good but with with the music blaring at ear-piercing volume, it was difficult for me to hear and understand the instructor’s instructions, en francais, of course, except for the occasional “let’s go”.

While waiting for one of the classes to begin, I resolved to canvass the various modes of transportation used by Parisians to get around their beautiful city. These include the obvious cars, metro and taxis, but now include bikes (regular and e-bikes- see the bike below) as well as something called a “trottinette electrique”.

 

These trottinettes electriques are driven on the roads or on specially designated bike paths reserved for bikes, but strictly speaking, they are not permitted on the roads, sidewalks or bike paths. We witnessed one rider wipe-out on the trottoir in front of us as he skidded on some damp leaves and lost control. Nevertheless, they are hugely popular. See https://www.bienpublic.com/actualite/2019/02/27/trottinette-electrique-attention-aux-failles-de-securite.

Paris is one of the best cities in the world and each time we are there, we marvel at its beauty, diversity, food and drink and culture. We ate out as we did not have cooking or refrigeration facilities, and in spite of my WeightWatchers regime, could not resist a lemon tart and a couple of buttery croissants.

 

Paris is relatively calm these days as it is the time of the traditional summer vacances. Even our favourite Canal St. Martin covered market was closed. Dommage. Most businesses appear to re-open mid-month as people come back to the city to resume their business and school lives. We will be back in Paris at the beginning of September, so we hope to visit our usual haunts then.

Today, in Boulogne-sur-Mer, we visited the lively Saturday market, held between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., in the town square, full of vegetables, fruits, meat, roasted chicken, jams and honey, but more about that tomorrow, so stay tuned.

A bientot!

Libby

Contes d’Opale


Hi,

This is Libby, Gary’s wife, guest blogging about our trip to the Côte d’Opale in France. We decided to call this series of blog posts, Contes d’Opale, a play on the words, Côte d’Opale which is the region of northern France, on the English Channel, where we are visiting for the next month.

We have rented a flat with a fully equipped kitchen in a 16th century building right in the old town of Boulogne-sur-Mer on a cobble-stoned street called Rue de Lille. Surrounded by a centuries old fortress, this old town is replete with charming restaurants and cute shops. Our landlord, a good-looking Frenchman who also happens to own the delightful tiny bar across the street called the “Vole Hole”, kindly picked us up at the train station yesterday and schlepped our heavy bags up three flights of our 16th century accommodation.

This is our base for the next month as we travel hither and yon in this  friendliest corner of France. Known primarily by British and Belgian tourists, Boulogne is best known for having the largest fishing port in all of Europe. It’s from here that the best tables in Paris get their fish and seafood. This morning, we visited the Boulognais port where we saw a multitude of fishing vessels bringing in their daily catch. Today’s catch seemed to focus on cockles, mackerel and crab. On the way back to our flat, many restaurants were busy serving mounds of mussels with frites. We haven’t tried out the mussels yet, but had some terrific frites (served with mayonnaise and vinegar) out of a chip wagon situated at the port.

Anyways, I’ll do my best to keep you posted as our trip progresses and promise to include some photos taken by my personal photographer, Gary.

A bientot!