Lost in the Louvre

Hubby and I share a love of history and of course, that extends to museums. Whenever we travel, we make it a point to go to the nearest museum and since this is Paris, of course, the Louvre was on our list.

Right off the Metro station outside the Louvre.

Just a tip if you’re planning to be in Paris on the first week of the month: entrance to museums, including the Louvre, are generally free on the first Sunday of every month. Unfortunately though, we were a week too early for that. There are various skip the line tickets being sold online; I don’t know what the benefits are but there are no long queues buying tickets and getting in, and if you do your research well enough (or know how to read a map), you’d be fine on your own.
They say that even if you spend just seconds in front of every artifact inside the Louvre, it would take you more than three months to cover all of them. And I assure you, it would take you at least a few minutes to gawk at one artwork before you can move to the next. Luckily, hubby has been to the Louvre before, and I already knew which artworks I wanted to see so our work was cut out neatly for us. 
Egyptian Antiquities
I have always been fascinated with Egypt as I am sure a lot are – I just love how mysterious it is, how far advanced its ancient civilization seemed to be even for our modern age. So it was only natural that this would be our first stop (and of course, I had to drag our entire group with me). 
Egypt is in my must visit places before I die, but with the political turmoil there, this might be a long time in the making.
There are a lot of scrolls and tablets with hieroglyphics which I won’t post anymore but here are my favorites from the “beauty” section:

Look at those cuffs! They would be so en vouge right now, wouldn’t they?

Pots and jars used for beauty rituals.
These may be a bit tarnish, but the ones you see above are mostly vanity mirrors. Aren’t they so quaint?

There is also a section full of statues of the Egyptian gods, but I didn’t linger here. 😀

Sekhmet
I’ve read a lot of people say that Egypt is a place in love with death. Quite true as I think the ancients are quite fascinated with death and the concept of the afterlife. Think it morbid of me but I actually am too, so among the many highlights of our Louvre visit was seeing Ramesses III’s pink granite sarcophagus, mummies, and actual book of the dead.
Isis carved at the flat edge of the sarcophagus, and her sister Nephthys at the rounded edge. On the sides are stories about the daily journey of the sun god Ra across the Duat.
Fun fact: did you know that a coffin refers to a wooden box while a sarcophagus refers to a stone one?  This sarcophagus of Ramesses III weighs a whopping 18 tons! Reminds me of the characters of Lestat and Louis (from Anne Rice’s novels), when Lestat had to lift open Louis’ sarcophagus because he wasn’t strong enough to do it on his own.

Of course, if there are coffins and sarcophagi, there’s bound to be a mummy, right?
Right.
Now, I don’t really know who this dead guy is but it really gave me chills to see this display up close. Those little jars you see near his head and beside his hip are just two of the containers used to keep his organs, for when, you know, he lives in the afterlife and needs them again.

I was half-expecting the book of the dead to be some fancy schmancy leather/gold bound book ala The Mummy so I was a bit disappointed to see rolls of papyri. 
Nah. Of course I was very happy to see this.

This Book of the Dead depicts a deceased person’s deeds on earth, his heart being weighed against the feather by Anubis, and if it is lighter, then he fed to Ammit.If not, then he lives happily ever after in the afterlife, among the gods.

Every book of the dead is unique, and most also contain magical spells and rituals. Of course I can’t read hierogplyphics so I can’t tell you if there are any particular spells in this book.  I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was younger but I figured I don’t have the patience for it so I became an accountant instead. Haha.
Galerie d’Apollon
 
Okay, enough of the morbid stuff. Let’s move on to the arts. 
If Versailles has the Hall of Mirrors (more on that in another post), the Louvre has  Galerie d’Apollon, which was actually the model for the former. Both served as royal palaces but when Louis XV chose Versailles as his primary residence, the Louvre functoned more as a fortress/office, and a museum to house the royal collections.

I find the Apollo Gallery grander than the Hall of Mirrors
Bejeweled crowns. I wonder how heavy those are.

How anyone can look into the mirror without getting distracted by all those jewels is quite beyond me.

Not even the ceiling of the Louvre was spared from art.

Greek Antiquities
 
I am not very fond of statues; for some reason, I keep fearing they would spring to life and chase me but I have to admit, these beauties are impressive:

Materpieces, from left: Nike of Samothrace (or more popularly know as the Winged Victory of Samothrace ), Aphrodite (Venus de Milo), and Artemis (Diana). The latter is my favorite, but then, you all know that. Artemis/Diana/Selene (the two are mostly identified as the goddess of the hunt; the 3rd is the goddess of the moon) are the inspiration for my childhood anime favorite, Sailormoon.
A lot of nude statues. It amuses me that the epitome of beauty back then is almost equivalent to having rounded curves. Ever seen a thin statue being considered as representation of beauty? Now, it’s all about the skinny.

I forgot where we were when I took this photo (Roman Antiquities, probably), so I don’t remember if this is Bacchus or Dionysus. 😛
Mona Lisa
No visit to the Louvre is complete without paying homage to the lady with the mysterious smile (cue music: are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art). For those who do not know what to expect, you’d probably be disappointed to discover that this masterpiece is quite small (slightly bigger than an oslo paper), and since a lot of people want to get up close and personal, there’s actually a rope and guards to make sure no one gets to do just that.

I didn’t have the patience to elbow my way to the front of the red velvet rope (and the serious body odor was nauseaus) and this was as close as I could get.

Right before you exit, you’ll see these touching pyramids. For Dan Brown fans, this place needs no further introduction:

We only spent half a day at the Louvre and would have loved to stay longer but our feet were killing us (and all those extra baby weight I’m carrying didn’t help) so hubby and I agreed that the next time we’re in Europe, we’ll allot a few more days to the Louvre.

Beauty Picks

It’s no secret that I have really sensitive skin. If money were no issue, I’d have SKII products round the clock but since they’re so damn expensive and not locally available, I usually run out before I can buy it abroad (or ask someone to buy it for me). I ended up settling for a set from a well-known international brand that didn’t address any of my skin concerns and only made things worse (my skin got so dry, had breakouts, and literally broke and bled in some parts).
I’ve been holding off posting these products because I wanted to make sure they work really well and judging from the reaction of people who’ve seen me lately, I seem to be glowing and have gotten better skin (which is hardly the case when you’re pregnant with a baby boy). 
Cleanser
a) Nuxe Paris Mousse Cleanser. This one is a very light foam cleanser but does the job well. It removes dirt, oil and makeup in one go but doesn’t dry the skin. When I finish washing my face, it doesn’t feel taut or stretched but supple. The fact that it smells heavenly like roses is like the icing on the cake. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks now and my skin has been noticeably brighter and pimple-free. Even the hubby has noticed that it’s getting clearer every day.
Discovering this product was quite serendipitous. I was about to pay for my SKII loot when one of the ladies at Sasa in HK spotted my baby bump and advised me not to use SKII. Apparently, the anti-ageing properties might not be good for the baby. I am only familiar with retinoin as not being good for pregnant women, and I am not sure if SKII has this but of course, I wouldn’t want to risk it. So I asked around for a more suitable alternative and the rest was history. It’s not exactly cheap though – almost as pricey as SKII’s cleanser but I’m loving this more. I haven’t seen it in stores here in the Philippines though, but you can get it online at sasa.com. 😀

b) Physiogel Cleanser. What I like about this product is that you can use it with water. And without. How cool is that? You just massage a dollop on your face and tissue if off afterwards and you’re all set. Perfect for when you’re in a hurry or when your eyes are tired and you’d rather not strain your eyes with water (my parents’ keep warning me not to wash my face after using the computer all day – don’t know the wisdom behind this but I have not so good eyesight and I’d choose my eyes over my skin any day). 
Toner
I still like Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness Toner but for those looking for a cheaper alternative, this one’s the best I’ve come across – Snoe’s Awesome Poresome Pore MInimizing and Clarifying Tonic. If I remember correctly, it costs less than Php200 (more than 60% savings over Neutrogena). It stings a little bit when you put it on your face but it doesn’t dry my skin and my skin has become more evenly colored after using this for a couple of weeks/months (and not religiously at that). I can’t vouch for the pore-minimizing claims as I don’t really monitor my pore size (who does?) but I guess it works as my face is generally better looking. It smells sweet but not overly so and won’t cause you to sneeze (I guarantee it!) Hahaha. Oh, and this one’s proudly Filipino made!
Moisturizer
I used to be quite confused with my moisturizer – I have a day cream (SKII) and a night cream (Neutrogena) and on some days, I also use the Body Shop’s Tea Tree Oil moisturizer and Pore Minimizer. Not that I use them every day; having a lot to choose from just confused me that I end up not using any at all most of the time. So I’m really glad to find this Creme Fraiche moisturizer from Nuxe Paris.
It’s a strong acting moisturizer which hydrates and mattifies the face for 24 hours and can be used for day or night. I use it in the morning and at night. It smells a bit sweet and lotion-y like whitening lotions but it doesn’t overpower the senses so your nose should be alright.
Body Lotion
I’ve blogged about Avene soap and repair cream here and I was very satisfied with how well my skin regained its elasticity so I made sure to get the body lotion as well during our trip to Paris last month (can you believe it only costs EUR 4.99 there but costs close to Php2,000 here???). 
I can’t stress enough how much I love this lotion and the repair cream. My hand got so dry a few months that it cracked and bled and I ended up with dark, scabby skin but after two or so months, the scar is practically gone and my hands are back to normal!
Make up
a) Pore Putty BB Cream. I’m a lazy person when it comes to fixing myself so I gravitate towards no-fuss products. I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Japanese cosmetic products but could not find one that’s a) not so pricey and b) worked well for my face. Then I found this. It has various shades for different skin colors, glides on very smoothly, looks very natural with a dewy finish, and doesn’t have any fragrance. Plus it’s very cheap like a drugstore brand. Perfect. I still don’t know if it’s available locally, but again, you can purchase this online at sasa.com.
b) Lip Collagen lip gloss. I am not really sure of the brand name of this lip gloss (the entire packaging was in Japanese) but I love that it’s light pinkish and that it’s wand is made of plastic instead of spongy so it doesn’t get stained and I can put it right on top of my Benetint lip stain.

Hair Care
I thought I’d sneak in a hair product in this suposedly skin-centric post so here’s my pick for hair care:
a) Lucido-L hair make supplement. Being pregnant means no rebonds, perms, and other stressful hair treatments. My hair has always been unruly – never straight but not curly enough to be considered curly-haired. So this Japanese product is heaven-sent because it gives my hair that hot oil treatment in just a few minutes, it’s leave on, and it makes my hair behave when I want/need it to. It has a light scent that I am not too fond of but thankfully, it doesn’t make me sneeze and it dries up fast so it doesn’t cause me any trouble.
I am using the straight hair variant but they also have treatments for curly haired gals so there’s bound to be something for everyone.

So there you have it – my tried and tested beauty loot. What’s yours? 😀

Food Trip in HK (part 2): Dimsum Overload and Burger Mania

If there was one thing we didn’t run out of, or skimp on while in HK, it was food. I am practically as big (and as heavy) as a walrus so going to the touristy sights (read: Disney; I would have loved to go there but we didn’t have enough time and I don’t think I would have had energy for it) was quite out of the question so the next best thing was to eat.
For someone who is generally not a fan of Chinese food (and Korean, which I try to avoid as much as I can), except for the occasional dimsum and fried rice, I ate a tremendous amount of food. 

DIN TAI FUNG
After our three-Michelin star dinner, it was back to normal fare for us (and our wallets, for sure) although I couldn’t really complain getting the downgrade to a one-Michelin star, especially if the food was as good as at Din Tai Fung.

Luckily for us, our hotel was right across Silvercord where one of the two HK branches of this Taiwanese food is located (both branches have the same star rating). The waiting line gets a bit crazy a little after 12 but we came in shortly before that and got a table for three in less than ten minutes (or maybe it’s my baby bump luck striking again!).
And… tea was served. Seriously, I must have drank more tea during this trip than in my entire life. Once you are seated, your assigned server immediately pours you a cup of steaming hot tea. They never let you have your cup half-empty (or even your glass of ice cold water which we were delirious for after downing countless cups of tea) which I think is very nice and attentive of them. 
We weren’t particularly hungry so we just got some boiled spinach with ginger which I thoroughly enjoyed. I love spinach. I would sometimes eat it for days on end at home, paired with fried fish and I’d feel like heaven.

And of course, we had to get the xiao long bao for which Din Tai Fung is famous for. It’s funny to note that they even have a printed guide to show guests the proper way of eating xiao long bao: put a bit of soy sauce, vinegar, and ginger on the sauce dish, dip the dumpling, put it in your spoon, and using your chopsticks, poke a hole in it to let out the broth, and tada! Enjoy! I could probably live off of spinach and xiao long bao forever. 😛

Xiao long bao! This is one of the places that used cloth base for their dimsum, which was nice coz then they wouldn’t stick and give us a hard time picking them up. 😀
We also got the pork chop fried rice (it’s quite true, that you can’t keep a Pinoy away from rice for so long; two weeks in Europe prior to this trip taught me that I would go into serious withdrawal if I don’t get rice on a normal basis) – a good thing I shared this with my friend as the serving was quite L-A-R-G-E. The rice was good: soft and had lots of egg in it. But the pork chop was a bit bland (and surprisingly dry) for my taste. I prefer my pork chops drenched in salty McCormick breading or anything similar. Luckily, the spinach and xiao long bao more than made up for it. 

We had a hard time getting cold water to drink at the previous restos we’ve been too, and this one was no different. But our server had the presence of mind to call someone who can speak English and we got our precious bottled water.
I don’t recall how much our meal cost, but judging how quickly I forgot, it must have been quite reasonable. So anytime you’re in HK, try to visit DTF. I don’t recommend restos on a normal basis but this one is worth it. 🙂

MAXIM’S PALACE CITY HALL

Have to admit, this place wasn’t on our radar. We were just aiming at restos in the Tsim Tsa Tsui area where our hotel was located and this one was at Central (two stations away). But thanks to our lucky stars, my friend’s friend treated us to this dimsum feast. 
I can’t really give you a guide on how to get there but just get off Central, exit H, and ask around for Maxim’s and you should be able to find it. On the way there, we passed a couple of alleys that were filled to the brim with Pinoy OFWs – I honestly have never seen such a huge gathering of OFWs in one place. It was a Sunday, and as we all know, that’s rest day for most OFWs and it was nice to know they have this support group overseas. 
The line at Maxim’s was insanely long. One from our group had already line for us while we were still at the train station but we still had to wait over an hour to get a table. By then, I was really curious as to what awaited me – I mean, if people willingly waited this long, it must be good, right?
You betcha. This place is actually named the most famous dimsum place in HK on a couple of lists I saw online and I have to say, it quite lives up to the hype for a number of reasons:
a) Interiors are clean and classy – the dimsum places in Manila should take a page from Maxim’s book: this place actually has chandeliers, crisp white linen, gilded, tassled, and cushioned seats, and even a red velvet curtained stage for when you hold banquets (I suppose that’s where the bride and groom would be if a wedding feast were being served here). Even the servers wear starched white uniforms. Everything was so white and bright I felt like shielding my eyes. How’s that for rhyming? Hahaha! I know my description makes the place a bit gaudy, but trust, it contributes to the whole experience!
b) The dimsum is delivered on a traditional cart where you can just point and get what you want and the servers just mark it on your order card. The only downside is, most of the signs are in Chinese but there are a few English translations if you squint a bit. How quaint is that? It just makes the experience all the more “authentic.”
c) You can’t go wrong with the food. Even if you can’t understand the menu, you can always ask and as I repeat, you can’t go wrong because everything’s good (I’m starting to sound redundant now). We even made the “mistake” of ordering veggie dimsum but in the end, we still finished it off. It was that yummy. I can’t really recommend any single dish because I liked everything but what I remember are the custard and pork buns,  and the octopus tentacles. It was my first time (I think) to try the latter, and definitely won’t be my last. It was crispy/salty/spicy in all the right places, and it was cooked perfectly – not gummy at all which is usually what happens when food from this particular animal family is prepared. 

Well, they can say what they want about Thailand mangoes (this one tasted like it came from TH) but I will still pick our very own mangoes. They’re sweeter, softer, and fresher.
CRYSTAL JADE
As if we were gonna run out of dimsum, we also made pit stops at Crystal Jade. Funny, but our first meal in HK was at the Crystal Jade at the airport, and our last meal before we headed back to the airport was at the branch near our hotel. 
True to form, we ordered xiao long bao both times (Din Tai Fung’s is better though but I also enjoyed this version), some very thinly slice beef (so thin I had a hard time picking it up with my chopsticks. Not that I’m an expert in using those sticks but still), rice and veggies which I loved to bits. 
Not your average donuts – these are empty buns drizzled with confectioner’s sugar. Good, if you want a change from the overly/sickeningly sweet Krispy Kreme once. But if you have a sweet tooth, this one’s not for you.

I am not a veggie fan but the sauce was just too good and putting it in the wrap and finishing it in one big bite was the highlight of this meal. Hahaha!

So thin it was almost see-through!

xiao long bao. Arrg, I am salivating just looking at the photos.
Fine, we ordered a bowl of fried rice (I think we actually ordered a second serving). Can you blame us?
The good thing is, there are several Crystal Jade restos in the PH (and there is one just five or so minutes from our house, hahaha!) so you can always satisfy your craving (and that’s me making parinig to hubby).

BLT BURGER

Lest you think we stuffed ourselves full with Chinese food – we did make a couple of exceptions. One is our high tea outing which I wrote about here, and BLT Burger.

It was one of those instances when we were just too lazy to go anywhere far and since our hotel was right smack beside the Harbour City, it made sense to look for a place to eat there (and shop at the same time, right?). We wanted to take a break from all the dimsum we consumed so with our trusty TripAdvisor mobile app, we found this must-try burger joint at the 3rd floor of the Ocean Terminal part of the Harbour City.
Again, the line was insanely long – we waited 45 minutes and I was soooo hungry the entire time and also tired from lugging my purchases (this was after our second day at the outlet stores in South Horizons) that I would have walked away if not for the patience of my two companions. 
Haha, you know me all too well that I can’t really deal with long lines unless I’m stuck with good friends or a good book, or a really good mobile game to pass away the time. Luckily, I had all three on hand.
I was so hungry (am repeating it to make a point here, :P) that I ordered one BLT burger combo meal for myself (check out their menu here). The burger, as its name suggests, had one big patty -7-0z to be exact, smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato and it came with fries and soda which you can upgrade to fruit juice, milkshake, or beer. I opted to get an upgrade to the campfire marshmallow milkshake which was served with a huge grilled marshmallow dunked on top.
You can also choose the kind of fries you want. They have skinny, fat, and waffle fries. I was thinking the skinny ones were like the piknik ones but they turned out to be the normal sized fries (as you can see below) but one of my friends got the waffle fries which turned out to be a cross between KFC’s colonel fries and McDonald’s criss cut fries. I liked her fries much better. Tasted better too as I think they put some spices on it.
I am dubbing this the most expensive burger meal I ever ate –  at HKD202 for the combo. But that big mashy on top of the milkshake is just begging me to have another go at this place.
The meal is not cheap though considering I only ate a “burger” but the serving is large and my combo meal could have fed two. Silly me thought I was hungry enough to eat for an army but I ended up eating only half of the burger and barely touching the fries before my tummy begged to be spared more. Hahaha!
I made myself hungry with this post and if you end up with a growling tummy after my lengthy post, then I achieved my purpose (insert naughty grin here). I can’t wait to go back, and this time, I’ll make sure the hubby tags along – he loves Chinese food and he’ll definitely love these places.

Food Trip in HK: Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons and High Tea at the Peninsula

Let’s take a quick break from all the European posts and head somewhere a little closer to home: Hongkong. I’m about as big as a walrus and this is likely my last trip abroad until the end of the year so I had to make the most of it. By eating a lot.
We didn’t have any particular itinerary planned for this trip (except for the outlet stores that our friend was adamant we just had to go to; more on that in another post), so on our  third day, we agreed to have afternoon tea at the Peninsula, which is served at the Lobby Cafe from 2PM to 6PM.
We got there a little after two, but the line was already insanely long – we had to queue for an hour before we got a table. Good thing we were inside and the AC was working overtime. Otherwise, I simply would have fainted. Oh, and they have a casual vibe going on but please don’t wear flip flops.

Honestly, I am not a tea person. My parents both love tea (and coffee) but my tea “gene” never manifested. That, or I am just generally a lazy person who couldn’t be bothered with making tea. 😛
Oh but the scones were just so delish especially when mixed with the strawberry jam and the clotted cream! Quite filling too – one is enough to fill you up for your next shopping spree. And all those dainty sandwiches with smoked salmon, chicken, and ham were perfect (I skipped the cucumber one). I was too full before I even reached the third layer containing little cakes and macarons, not to mention the small serving of ice cream and a piece of truffle that came after.


And true to form, I ordered rose tea. I am really having a rose overload – I recently bought a rose facial wash and moisturizer, and regularly use a rose-based soap and perfume. I even use rose oils and spray for our house. Hahaha! 

But I digress. The rose tea went perfectly with the scones. I mixed about a 1/3 cup of milk and and white sugar in it and it was just heavenly. We spent the next hour or so just being lazy and chit chatting. I guess afternoon tea is really one underrated English custom which would be nice to indulge in every once in a while.

After tea, we rushed back to our hotel to change and get a makeover session before our dinner at the Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel. They have a smart casual dress code but since most of our clothes were fit only for sightseeing and shopping, we all had to make a mad dash to the H&M across the street to look at least decent. Hahaha.

Dining at Lung King Heen wasn’t really part of our itinerary but that’s what’s good about having to agenda at all – we were like go with the flow or whatever. So when a friend of a friend recommended we try this place, the only 3-Michelin star rated Chinese restaurant in the world, we just had to go. I mean, I’m not particularly fond of Chinese food (as hubby would attest) but if it’s good food, then I’m all for it.
Literally translated to “View of the Dragon,” Lung King Heen has a marvelous view of the harbour from the 4th level of the hotel. We didn’t get a nice view though since it was a full night (in fact, our reservation was for 9PM since all earlier slots were taken) but we did get a secluded couch dining area all to ourselves. A big plus that they gave me a fluffy pillow to rest my back (Don’t you just love dining at these places? The Peninsula also gave me a nice pillow for my back during our tea earlier. They really know how to pamper guests).
I loved the ambiance. It was classy and everything but didn’t feel stuffy at all. And the staff were all so nice and attentive. I don’t like fussy servers who are downright obtrusive but we never felt that here.  I felt so right at home I wanted to kick off my heels.
Of course, being a top-notch restaurant,  expect the prices to be quite on the higher end of the spectrum. The tasting menu costs a wallet suicide inducing HKD 1,600++ per set – which of course was way too expensive for us. Hahaha. So we opted to order ala carte (which was actually a good idea since of the three of us, two don’t eat much, myself included), which greatly reduced the cost to roughly the same, but for all three of us instead of for one.
For our appetizer, we had this crispy tofu with day fish surrounded with chili sauce. I don’t recall ordering it and I didn’t see it in our bill but it was oh-so-yummy. I don’t eat tofu at all but this one made me change my mind – melts in your mouth goodness. 

Our next dish was the crispy scallop with fresh pear and ham. This was served with fresh lemon and sugar, and we were also given three different chili sauces (light, moderate to hot; but I found even the hot disappointing as it wasn’t spicy at all!) to mix to our preference. The different ingredients would have been powerful on their own but surprisingly, they all tasted good together and I didn’t get that fishy taste at all from the scallop. Again, the dish melted in my mouth – I wonder how they do that? I do wish though that it was a bit more flavorful as I found it a tad bland without the lemon juice and chili sauce.

After all the dry, crispy dishes, I was looking forward to the next dish on our list – the shrimp wanton sweet and sour soup. It was my kind of spicy too and the shrimp must have been cleaned and cooked so well that my seafood allergies didn’t kick in one bit. I loved it! But make sure you have a glass of water nearby as you can get very thirsty.

I was more or less undecided whether I liked the place or not but their bestseller LKH roast chicken was served next and I went straight to heaven. You know how we have roasted pork (lechon) here in the Philippines and everyone scrambles to get a piece of the crispy skin? Well, this chicken has crispy skin which was way better than lechon skin ever was. It was thin, crispy, and so flavorful. It didn’t crack when you try to peel it off the chicken but it melted upon touching my tongue. Simply put, it was the clear winner of the night for me.

I was too full by the time our last dish was served – crispy noodles with vegetables and pork so I couldn’t comment much. And besides, after the roasted chicken, it was kind of a let-down. It was good to be fair, but not mind-blowing. In short, I’ve tasted better.

Of course, even with our wallets quite silently complaining already, we weren’t about to let the experience go incomplete without sampling dessert so we ordered the red bean puffs. To our surprise, we were also served custard puffs with jelly (or whatever it was called), which, according to our very attentive server that night, was quite a bestseller as well.
I would have been very happy with the red bean puffs, what with the gently sweet taste of mashed red bean enveloped in a very soft crust bursting in your mouth, but the custard puffs made me forget my name. Hahaha! I can’t describe it but do order it if ever you find yourself here. 

The custard puffs (?) we got for free
All in all, I would say the place is a definite must-try although there are some dishes which left me wanting a bit more, considering its Michelin rating. Oh, and for those on a budget, be prepared to spend at least US$50 per person (and that’s already the lowest you could probably go).

I Left My Heart in Bruges

Oh, Bruges. 
Calling this idyllic little city quaint or charming is an understatement. As per the hubby (I went there by myself but he just had to visit it the next day after hearing me gush about it all night), it was like being in a theme park… except that everything’s real. It is literally the most beautiful city I’ve been to (along with Paris; but Bruges just tugs at my heartstrings) and it was probably a bad decision to go to this city first before seeing the rest of Belgium: all the other cities paled in comparison.
Perhaps the 16th century inhabitants of the city will disagree, but the decline of Bruges’ power at that time, both economically and politically, is what we have to thank for its preservation. Bruges used to be the thriving capital of the Flemish region, owing to its port where traders would come and go. However, silting eventually dried up the waterways and losing its access to the sea, its prosperity also declined and most of its citizens eventually left. Bruges was stuck and frozen in time for all us 21st century people to marvel at.

My first glimpse – this was the view that greeted visitors upon getting off the bus.

Geez, the first structure I see and I already want to live here. In a house like that. With green grass all around and cobbled streets to walk on every day. Oh, and a nice little canalized lake just a few meters off.
Practially every building and every street in the historic center of Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a sight to behold. But probably because of its size, it is much less intimidating than Paris.
The Minnewater, a canalized lake marking the entry to the center of Bruge. Just ignore the truck, will you?
A few minutes into the town center (where the touristy stuff are), you’ll be greeted by the lovely view of the Minnewater. I wasn’t able to snap a decent photo except for the above (it was raining a bit and I was just too busy gawking at the sight) but it really is very lovely – imagine a clear lake with dozens of white swans happily flapping about on the water. Dreamy isn’t it?
Swans are actually one of the symbols of Bruges. According to legend, the people were punished by Maximilian of Austria to keep swans on their lakes for executing a member of his court. Whether true or not, swans are a very nice touch to the already picture-perfect setting of Minnewater.
The Beguinage

Once you get over how beautiful the lake is, take a few short turns and you’d see the Beguinage. A beguinage is a part of the city (mostly in the Flemish region) that’s dedicated to women of the beguine movement: women who are not quite nuns but live like one. They take the vows of chastity and obedience but not of poverty, and are free to leave anytime. Anyway, in beguinage of Bruges is a row of neat little houses surrounding a garden of tall poplar trees. Benedictine sisters now live in these houses and while they may look new, according to my trusty guidebook, the oldest one was built in the 15th-16th century. There’s also a nice little church you could visit (although I hear it’s only open on certain hours and you have to pay a minimal fee to view the artworks there) but we didn’t have enough time for it (sadly, our tour was only for half a day).   

It was raining a little bit and I was the lone solo traveler in our group but I wasn’t about to scrimp and miss out on riding one of the little boats along the canals of the Venice of the North – it is one of the things you should never ever fail to do while in Bruges.
Our boatman was very talkative and he said that privately owned boats are no longer allowed; this is to ensure that all the boats that traverse the canals are controlled and standardized. Makes sense. Imagine all the rich people who would otherwise fill up the waterways with their glammed up boats.
Again, I didn’t get many decent photos during the boat ride – there were some rude girls in front of me (fine, they were probably in their late forties but they behaved like girls) who kept flipping their hair and taking selfies of themselves, never mind that I almost hate half of their blond hair, so most of the images of Bruges that I have are only in my memory (cue soft music for dramatic effect). Pardon me for being snarky but they almost ruined the boat ride for me. ALMOST – in the end, the beauty all around me was enough to make up for it.

View of St.John’s Hospital from the back, facing the canal.

Side view of the hospital from the boat.
St. John’s Hospital, which is one of the first buildings you will note on the boat ride, is one of the oldest and longest serving still functional hospitals in Europe; the oldest known document dates it as early as the 12th century. But unfortunately, it lost that functional part of its distinction back in the late 1970s when a newer hospital was constructed and St. John’s was converted into a museum. Again, I wasn’t able to go in because of limited time but it does give me another reason to visit in the future, no?

This is one of the most photographed spots in Bruges but I wasn’t lucky with the weather (plus the boat was moving) to get that iconic photo of Bruges.

After the 30-minute boat ride, we had a few hours to roam about on our own in the Grote Markt. There are a couple of streets off where you can shop til you drop (or window shop, like me and still drop out of exhaustion, haha) – there are a lot of local and foreign brands with boutiques all over Bruges but don’t expect to see big name luxury brands here.

Guild houses. These are not exactly old – only 19th century, as the old structures had been torn, burned, or otherwise destroyed but hey, I’m not complaining.

The Belfry Tower and the Cloth Hall.
The Belfry and Cloth Hall is one other symbol of Bruges; it was here where the valuables of the city were kept. The Belfry also served as a watchtower, with bells of different sounds to warn of danger, mark the time, etc. Currently, it has a number of carillions which often fill the air with the sweet tinkling sound of church bells, much like in Mechelen.

And just how Flemish countryside can you get, with a true blue pipe player just around the corner???
An optional part of our tour was to inside the Church of Our Lady of Bruges. There’s a very minimal fee (I think it was at most two euros; down from six since it’s under renovation) to get in since it has a couple of valuable artwork. Of course I just had to visit. 
Tip to travelers: always research where you’re going and where possible, take all the optional parts. They may be added costs but they sure make your trip more worthwhile.

The church tower is the 2nd largest in Belgium; it lost the top spot to the cathedral of Antwerp by a mere one meter (Antwerp’s church tower is at 123 meters). Tough luck.

Even with all the construction works, the church was still very beautiful.
Inside the church is a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michaelangelo Buonarotti. Carved out of Carrara marble, it was supposed to go to the Church of Sienna but was bought by the Mouscron family and brought to Bruges (lucky for Bruges to have such rich citizens/patrons).

Madonna and Child, 1504-1505 by Michaelangelo. This was the closest shot I could get.

Doorway leading to the altar.

 
Old burial plots discovered near the choir during renovation works in the last decade. They are decorated with various symbols of eternal life. I wonder what marvels lay waiting to be discovered under all the old structures of the world?

The two royals gaze up to a triptych by Barend van Orley

Oh, and I got to see two gleaming sarcophagi of dead royalty: Mary of Burgundy and her dad, Charles the Bold. The duchess died in 1482 in Bruges of a horse-riding accident, while the duke died in France in 1477. Their tombs are decorated in gothic and renaissance styles.
Well, I hope I didn’t inundate you with all sorts of touristy stuff. After the tour, I went round the market looking at the bright shop windows. I swear, if looking at sweets is fattening, I wouldn’t have fit into a plane. I read somewhere that Belgians can make chocolate out of anything – it’s probably true, judging from the colorful and endless chocolate shops flaunting everything from iphone chocolates to insect chocolates.

Dolls wearing Bruges lace.

I am salivating just looking at this.
Before I conclude this post, I suggest you try the Flemish stew. Our guide, (who I must say is the nicest tour guide I’ve come across from my trips across three continents; my bad that I’m not really good with names but he’s from the Brussels City Tours), recommended that we try the Flemish beef stew and showed us the Restaurant Vivaldi which was right near the entrance to the city center from the Beguinage. We were all free to choose our own resto for lunch but I was traveling alone and I didn’t want to leave the group so I went with him (and discreetly chose a table where I could see him, hahaha).
The restaurant had mixed reviews on the net but I liked the unobtrusive service and enjoyed the stew so much. It was the best I tasted – very soft morsels of beef which melted upon contact with my mouth, with very rich flavors of butter, and what I suspect to be a few drops of wine. It was really, really good and despite the large serving, I finished off every single bite, including the fries that seems to go along with every dish in Belgium. And, since I couldn’t have wine like my fellow tourists, I just chased it all off with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. All for the price of around 25 euros. May be a bit pricey for some but it was a very good meal and I didn’t feel cheated.
A big burp!
I almost didn’t include Bruges in my itinerary – very few people seem to know of this place. In fact, have you met someone in your group of friends who has gushed about this place? Luckily for me, my friend Bretty told me about it and when I went to my OB to get a medical certificate (that I’m allowed to travel), my doctor told me NOT to miss Bruges. I’m glad I didn’t. And hubby and I are already thinking of visiting this city again.