Brussels’ Beloved MIM — The Musical Instruments Museum

If you have a penchant for music, for mechanical fiddly bits, for art, for anthropology, for physics, or for architecture, then plan to spend a good two hours at the “mim”.

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The beautiful MIM!

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Belgian Chocolate: The Verdict is In

See’s is better.

I’m sorry, but it is. It’s richer. It’s creamier. It’s yummier.

Belgian chocolate comes, as, evidently, European chocolate everywhere does, in two types: pralines and truffles. Pralines are hard molded chocolate shells with flavorful fillings of various viscosities. The “caramels” are like Dove or Ghiradelli caramels, spilling out as soon as you crack open the shell. “Nutty” pralines are faint nut flavors, perhaps very finely ground, in bland chocolate. I could not find a single “almond” praline with actual almonds in it. Texture variety is provided by the equivalent of rice crispies sprinkled in surprising spots.

Truffles are very rich, hand-rolled chocolates imbued with mostly alcoholic flavors. They can be hand-dipped or roled in cocoa powder. These were, on the whole, closest to See’s, though apart from straight-up chocolate truffles, the textures were much softer than expected.

Belgians also seemed to be way okay with brazen displays of a whole gamut of molded chocolate gendered nether-regions, frequently on sticks to be . . . I hate to say it . . . sucked. Yeah. It was cultural border jump for sure.

The only thing Belgian chocolatiers produced that made me want to rap on See’s corporate candy door were candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate: for the WIN.

But if you’re in Bruges, and there is no See’s available, I would recommend the following places:

Neuhaus seems to be the See’s equivalent. It seemed to be a smaller chain than Godiva (though definitely a chain, as it popped up in Brussel’s Grand Place as well), but it was very good quality. The presentation was elegant and upscale, and the service was very helpful. I very much enjoyed their caramels. They are a few blocks down on the main shopping drag, Steenstraat.

Stefs Chocolate was lower quality but still creamy, delicious, and, importantly, cheap. It was just half a block off the Markt (on Breidelstraat between the post office and city hall) and gave me three delightful pieces for just a €1.

And, I hate to say it, Godiva was pretty good. Not miraculously good, mind you, but when it comes to “candied orange peel enrobed in luxurious dark chocolate,” I was pretty impressed with how much better it tasted than all the other chocolate-covered orange peel. It’s impossible to miss the store smack on the corner of the Markt and Steenstraat.

I would stay away from these places:

The Chocolate Line is expensive, even by Belgian standards. One precious piece of not-so-good chocolate (granted, I only had one piece, which is not a huge sample size, but if you are charging me €0.97 for one piece then get used to abrupt reviews) was not bad but it definitely was not up to par. It was even recommended by Rick Steves. I don’t know if Rick Steves has ever had See’s to compare it to, but then, he lives in Washington state, so he has no excuse.

Leonidas was bad. Just . . . no. Did I mention yleuuuch?

Le Clercke‘s was so disappointing because of the incredible display and prices, but the fudge that had been taunting me for weeks was chewy but not quite. It didn’t melt in your mouth, and it was seriously difficult to chew, but it wasn’t sticky like a caramel. The truffle was meh. Rick Steves strikes out again.

. . . and everywhere else, though are undoubtedly shops I did not try. It was just all so disappointing. But then you may disagree. Go ahead and try some and let me know what you think!

Three Thoughts from the D-Day Beaches

I have only three thoughts from my day today.

1. God damn war.

2. D-Day was a miracle of miracles.

3. All hail mothers and their woolen socks.

AN EMOTIONAL PLACE TO START

A good place to start is right above Arromanches (Gold Beach), at the center with a great view of Port Winston and a the 360 degree theater. This theater, well worth the trip, was nevertheless incredibly jarring. You stand in the center, and 360-degree scenes shift back and forth between present-day Normandy and actual footage of the invasion, complete with very loud mortar and gunfire. I was very glad when it ended and wondered how anyone could live through that.

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Outside the museum at Arromanches (Gold Beach)

AN EDUCATION OF D-DAY

I’m not a war buff, or even a World War II buff, but I had heard of D-Day, and that it was this big invasion of the “beaches of Normandy,” and that it turned the tide of the war.

So forgive me if this is all old hat to you, but this is what I learned.

The length of the beaches that had to be captured was long — miles and miles.

About one hundred individual operations had to be completed on a tight shedule involving dozens of deployments of pilots, paratroopers, infantry, navy, marines, rangers, bombers, and — perhaps most importantly — engineers. Everything had to be coordinated with the French resistance network and kept out of the hands of German spies. The weather had to be perfect. Almost nobody knew the whole picture and had to charge into enemy territory — and on the beaches, highly visible and well-defended enemy territory — praying that they could get their job done.

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Recreated pilot assignment board from the Utah Beach museum.

At Arromanches, perhaps the biggest military engineering feat since Caeser crossed the Rhine occured to start the proceedings. A “temporary” harbor — the remains of which are still visible — was created by sailing seventeen ships 90 miles across the channel and scuttling them bow to stern to form a primary breakwater. 115 football-field-sized concrete blocks created for the purpose were towed across the English Channel and sunk to form a secondary breakwater.

Once the larger defence artillery were taken out, a dock with four mile-long concrete pontoon causeways whose supports could move up and down independantly of each other, keeping the surface of the roads level even with the roll of the waves. (The landing museum at Arromanches has working models of the whole shebang and is completely worth visiting.) They even found a section of the Omaha Beach causeway (a viscious storm took out the American’s harbor after only twelve days) in a junkyard a few years ago, and it’s now on display at Omaha Beach. Within six days, over 50,000 vehicles and 325,000 troops had arrived safely in Normandy on this beah alone. The port would last six months.

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Section of causeway.

And things did go wrong. At Utah Beach (the westernmost beach, with an excellent museum), for example, paratroopers deployed behind enemy lines came down hither and yon. The U.S. Army Rangers mistook the wrong place for the Point du Hoc, costing them time, the element of surprise, and lives. The Germans flooded the plain directly behind Utah Beach, leaving only four well-defended causeways that the Allied forces had to cross (and if the Germans had destroyed them, it would have been impossible to cross).

But it worked. Everything worked. The paratroopers managed to group together and take out targets, though they might be taking out a target they had never been briefed on, following the lead of someone else in their group and their actual location. The Rangers managed to take control of Point du Hoc, and after discovering the guns they had so desperately needed to capture had been puled back, went and found them and destroyed them.

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The Allies had to approach at low tide in order to expose the mines and anti-tank defences on the beach. And these beahes are long and wide, running up into hillsides protecting German artillery and gunners. Omaha Beach, termed “Bloody Omaha,” evidently still turns up rusty metal and barbed wire. Of the first group of soldiers to hit the beach, all but two were killed or missing in twelve minutes. But they kept coming and eventually made it.

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It was a LOT of beach. Panorama to come soon.

I didn’t stop at the museum at Omaha, but I spent a few minutes on the beach. I had hoped to spend a good hour, but it was cold and windy, and wind and sand don’t mix.

The Point du Hoc remains open — just as it is. There are only a few areas that are clearly blocked off — you wander in the ruins at your own risk. It is a great opportunity to see what artillery craters look like; the Allies bombed the heck out of it to prepare for the Ranger assault, but due to their navigation error, the Rangers lost the element of surprise. They scaled the cliffs, starting with ladders provided by English firemen. Of the over two hundred Rangers thatnparticipated, only 90 were left 48 hours later when they were relieved — but they held the point. It is still considered a gravesite today.

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The gun bases remain in place--or strewn about.

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The cliffs that had to be climbed with rocket-launched grappling hooks.

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We even had a flyby by an old-timey bomber-like plane.

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Rubble and craters serve as reminders.

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Even twisted rebar remains where it curled.

The Battery at Longues sur Mer, which lies between Arromanches and Omaha beaches 300 yards inland, was crucial to take out, since the guns, with good direction from the sighting bunker fifty yards closer to the coast, could hit ships twleve miles away. Here again you are free to wander and imagine the deafening noise would come with seven men manning these guns that could fire six shells a minute.

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These three guns are almost all the remnant of Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

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From behind the gun, looking out.

I did not have time to visit Juno Beach or Sword Beach, or the American cemetery, or the German cemetery. It would also be interesting to take a road trip on “Liberty Road” that runs from Utah Beach to Berlin.

I am left in awe of and intrigued by military engineers.

THANK YOU, MOM

My day was saved from utter misery by the stripéd woolen socks of my mother, who insisted I pack them. Also, knowing how to drive a stick means you can zip through the Normandy countryside in an excellent little car!

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My car.

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Me in my car!

Bruges Bustles, Brussels Bristles

The “tourism” in Brussels — even at the beginning of low season — is enough to make one go mad. It’s crowded and kitchsy. The Grand Place is very pretty, especially first or last thing when there are only twenty people around instead of two hundred standing in awkward places or walking backwards to get a good picture.

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It *does* make a pretty picture.

The city is old European, which makes it difficult for me to find my way around. It gets pretty modern pretty fast and it seems fairly gritty, but that could be my projection based on the weather and my being ready to go home.

I did not suffer myself to take a picture of the Mannekin Pis, which did not deserve such condescension.

The European Parliment was closed both days I was there for All Saints Day, which was rather disappointing.

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And when I say closed, I *mean* closed.

There were a few beight spots, including the Galleries du Hubert, which is the basis for all modern shopping malls but much prettier, the Costume and Lace museum (great for research!), the Musical Instrument Museum, the Comic Book Center, and the BELvue Museum, which celerbrates Belgium’s modern history. (As a nation, it’s younger than us!)

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A Napoleanic shopping mall, which is different tyan a Neopolitan shopping mall.

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An actual glove shop in said shopping mall.

I would highly recommend the BELvue, as it gives a really interesting and educational background not only on the country itself, but its role in both world wars and the modern political scene of Europe. Plus, you get to see really great artifacts, like this catalog page demonstrating the modern industrialism surge at the end of the nineteenth century.

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This is IMPORTANT STUFF, people.

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The Official Penholder of the Official Pen od the first Official King (Albert I)

All in all, I’d go back to see the EU center, but I’ve seen what I want to see. I’d make Brussels a day trip or overnight from Bruges, but of course, that’s my opinion!

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The Belgians have a thing about spires. . .