Brussels, alive with fabulous art and food

Brussels: Grand Place at Night

Waffles, chocolate, cobblestone streets, grand plazas. Brussels is my kind of town. The city was my final stop on a recent, whirlwind tour of Belgium. The train to Brussels from Ghent was a quick 40-minutes and before I knew it I was checked into my hotel, The Dominican. Originally built as a Dominican Abby in the 1500s, the building was also once home to the famous neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David from 1816-1825. As I rode the elevator to my room, a soundtrack of chanting monks filled the air. A peacefulness prevailed in the property of 150 guest rooms and suites, and the main floor was dedicated to an airy restaurant and bar where remnants of the Abby’s cloistered halls remain.

It was Sunday and I was determined to see as many galleries as possible since they were all closed the next day. After purchasing my Brussels City Card, I made my way to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium.

Waffles everywhere, even outside the Royal Museums of Fine Art!

The Old Masters Department was breath taking. I started off in the Bruegel Box, a room where the 16th century artist’s paintings were projected, one at a time, on three walls. Standing in the centre of the room, I felt like I was rubbing shoulders with the villagers of his painting Proverbs then surrounded by demons from The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Wandering through the galleries I saw many of Bruegel’s works, as well as those of Jacque-Louis David, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. It was rather overwhelming and once I had completed the round I headed next door to the Magritte Museum to take in a totally different creative talent.

René Magritte was a surrealist well known for his paintings of pipes and men in bowler hats and much of his work was done between 1940-1965.

Brussels is very walkable, much of the historic downtown is pedestrian only and everywhere there is something to look at, from the statue of the little boy peeing, to The Grand Place, or central square with the commanding Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels and the opulent guild halls, sparkling with touches of gold paint.

After living and breathing Brussels for a day, I needed sustenance and headed to Bonsoir Clara for a little refreshment. A popular spot with locals, the menu featured Belgian/French cuisine with dishes such as terrine of duck foie gras, shrimp croquettes, salmon tartare, panfried baby sole, and rack of lamb. I wanted to go light that night and opted for the avocado, smoked salmon and goat cheese salad which was divine.

The next day I engaged a walking tour guide named Paquita who met me in the hotel lobby. She informed me that the city historically had been know for its woollen goods, especially tapestries. Our first stop was the Cathedral (officially known as St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), a mammoth structure with an interior of white stone that was filled with light.

Most impressive were the stained glass windows, some done by Bernard van Orley in 1537. “He was the master of the master Bruegel,” Paquita explained. The Brabant Gothic-style cathedral was begun in 1226 with the choir and various part came later including the stained glassed windows from the 16th century, the pulpit (carved from one giant piece of oak) in the 17th century, and the carillon in 1975. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte are just two of the world renowned figures to have passed through its doors. “To prove they were humble before God, they both used a small side door,” said Paquita on our way out, pointing to a shabby brown wooden entrance now permanently locked.

The next church on our tour was Notre Dame de Chappell, where Bruegel the Elder is buried. Getting in the spirit of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program, the church has hidden small figures, recognizable from Bruegel’s paintings throughout the church. It was so funny to see the sombre Catholic statures of saints bedecked with these funny characters, including a blowfish, a male figure relieving himself on the moon, and a little round frog-ish imp scampering up a ladder. We also saw some of the same figures at the train station!

Mad Meg climbs the train station stairs.

Needing a little warm up, Paquita took me to one of her favourite coffee and chocolate shops, Laurent Gerbaud, where you get your pick of a handcrafted chocolate to go with your beverage. Fantastic!

Chocolate to die for.

My final dinner in Brussels was at Henri’s, a tiny chef-owned operation where I was able to sit by the kitchen window and watch the action. I opted for steak frites and it melted in my mouth.

Belgium far exceeded my expectations. There is a lot more happening in the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 program with new visitors’ centres and exhibits popping up until well into 2020. If you get a chance, go! Check out the Visit Flanders website for more information. Visitflanders.com

Ghent, a beautiful city you never heard of.

My Belgian adventures continue…From Antwerp, I caught a one-hour train to Ghent. The trains in Belgium make exploring the country so easy. From the train station, I took a taxi to the historic centre of town and my hotel, the Pillows Grand Hotel Reylof. The hotel was once the home of wealthy poet Baron Olivier Reylof, built in 1712. Newly renovated, the 157-room accommodation had a unique library/lounge area atop a sweeping staircase where I was able to sort out my plans and sip a cup of coffee before exploring.

Ghent is crammed with castles, churches and shops, plus there’s a huge university so students are everywhere. I purchased a Ghent City Card and the first place I visited was the Castle of the Counts. Armed with headset and remote, I embarked on an entertaining, self-guided tour through the massive stone structure and learned of the original inhabitants – Philip the Good, Count of Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth, and second wife Isabella. Not merely a home, this stronghold in the center of downtown Ghent, was also where justice was meted out and many a grisly execution occurred here.

He told me he was Philip the Good’s cousin.

One of the best ways to get to know a place is by taking a tour with a local guide. Ghent native Patty Delanghe walked me through the ancient city and helped unravel many tangled tales.  She told me that in the Middle Ages, Ghent was very wealthy, due to the wool trade. During the Industrial Revolution, the textile industry really took off and Ghent remained a leading, quality cloth producer right up until the 1980s.

Wandering around Ghent’s streets was like walking into a fairy tale. Small tour boats plied the waters of the Lys and Scheldt rivers, ancient homes and businesses lined the river banks, church spires rose among the clouds and young people swarmed the streets and cafes. Of Ghent’s 250,000 population, students comprise 70,000, the largest in the country.

We stopped into St. Bavo’s Cathedral, the city’s oldest parish church, to see a world renown treasure. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) was painted in 1432 by Hubert van Eyck. After his death, it was said that his brother Jan, a diplomat and artist, completed the work. Patty explained that the oak panels were first covered with an extremely fine layer of chalk and then van Eyck painted the figures on in layers. Close up, the fine details of the faces were exquisite and realistic. There was a translucence to the piece that almost made it glow. Patty noted that in 1934, two panels of the altarpiece, The Just Judges and John the Baptist, were stolen. “The diocese of Ghent received a number of ransom notes and one panel, John the Baptist, was returned to lend weight to the demands. But no ransom was ever paid, nor was the other panel returned. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.” Currently, a team of specialists is working to restore the vibrancy of the original colours which have dimmed due to layers of varnish, fire damage and other environmental factors over the years.

Another highpoint (literally!) was the belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the huge alarm bell to protect the city’s citizens resides. I also enjoyed seeing St. Nicholas’ Church from the early 12th century, and the Great Butcher’s Hall that dates back to the 15th century where locally cured Ganda hams hang from the ceiling. Walking along the winding cobblestoned streets Patty also pointed out beguines, clusters of houses where single women (often widows of knights who fought in various crusades) lived together as a Catholic community.

After a full day on my feet, my appetite was fierce and I stopped into Souvenir, a tiny gem of a restaurant helmed by chef Vilhjalmur “Villy” Sigurdarson. I opted for the 9-course carte blanche menu with paired wines. The dishes were largely planted-based and delightful. I started with the house cocktail, made with gin, tonic, green tea and elderberry flowers – light, crisp and a tad tangy. “Tonight, we serve dishes made with plants from West Flanders, as well was fish from the North Sea,” Villy explained. The small plates included an oyster with young white cabbage and fennel, hake smoked in hay with kohlrabi and marigold flowers, three types of mushrooms, white and green asparagus with charred leeks, skate baked in butter and a dessert of Jerusalem artichoke with brown sugar and winter thyme cream. Delicious.

The second night I went to Mémé Gusta, a bustling spot filled with families and a funky, vintage décor – comfy sofas, flowered wallpaper, wooden tables and funky chandeliers. “The owners won a chef challenge on TV to open this restaurant based on their grandmother’s recipes,” Patty explained. I started with a small bowl of grey shrimp the size of my baby toe, then proceeded with buttery, pan-fried sole, and the mandatory frites with a pot of mayonnaise for dipping.

Ghent may be a place nobody has heard of, but in a way that is great. It’s a place where locals go about their business undisturbed and visitors can fit right in.

Belgium’s Artful Masters… Starting in Antwerp

The fabulous Mier shopping street.

The last time I was in Belgium I was 18. Not that long ago… Well, yes. Many things have changed, but also much has not. The chocolate is still exquisite…as are the waffles.

No shortage of my favourite food.

Along with the food, my main mission on a recent visit to this western European country of 11 million was to see famous masterpieces, including those done by the Van Eyck brothers, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The Flemish Masters Project 2018-2020 is a program of exhibits, virtual experiences, restorations, festivals and whimsical jaunts that art lovers can partake in throughout the country.

After touching down in Brussels, I hopped a train (the station is in the airport) to Antwerp. The trains are fast, frequent and well priced. I zipped to Antwerp in about half an hour for around 10E. Antwerp Central train station was completed in 1905 and was named the most beautiful railway station in the world by Mashable magazine in 2014. With soaring stone pillars, an imposing dome and decorative floor patterns, I could see why. Although damaged by bombs in the second world war, the station was restored In the 1980s and by 2007 an expansion for high-speed trains was complete.

The very regal Antwerp train station.

My hotel, Radisson Blue Astrid was conveniently located across from the train station. Dropping off my bags, I headed out to see the city with a local guide, Toon Livens (Toon is short for Antoon). The diamond district was fascinating, teaming with gemological centres, banks and traders. The security was serious. Toon told me the two groups of people involved in the diamond business are orthodox Jews and Jains (from India). Jewish diamond specialists were once predominant, but the Jains started arriving in Belgium in the 1960s. They started with low quality rough stones that they would send back home for cutting and polishing. It costs 1/10 the amount to cut and polish in India versus Europe. Now three quarters of Belgium’s diamond trade is controlled by Indians and 80 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds are processed in India. As you can see below, security is tight in the diamond district.

My first taste of Flemish art was in the home and studio of painter Peter Paul Rubens. He purchased the home in 1610 and lived there with his family, and painted with colleagues such as Anthony van Dyck in the studio. Although the home’s walls were hung with many outstanding works, I particularly enjoyed seeing Rubens’ self-portrait.

Nearby was The Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic Cathedral in Belgium that took 169 years to build. Toon pointed out four masterpieces by Rubens including Raising of the Cross, and Descent from the Cross. “These two works were confiscated by Napoleon and moved to France, but they were returned in the 19th century,” he explained. Rubens’ magnificent Assumption of the Virgin Mary graced the altar at the front of the cathedral and to one side was his Resurrection of Christ.

In the fall, the Rubens Experience Center will open and visitors will be taken on a virtual tour of the artist’s world. That’s also when the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp reopens after extensive renovations and you’ll be able to see one of the finest Rubens collections in Belgium.

Dinner that night was at Grand Café Horta, an art Nouveau structure lodged within a glass enclosure near the gorgeous covered shopping mall that was once a posh entertainment venue called Stadsfeestzaal.

Steak tartare…amazing.

One of the best ways to explore involves buying a City Card, which are available in many Belgian metropolises. My Antwerp City Card, 35 Euros for 48 hours, provided free entrance to museums, churches and discounts on attractions and tours, plus free access to public transportation. For free, I took in DIVA, a virtual experience that mixed storytelling with exhibits of Antwerp diamonds, and the Red Star Line Museum which chronicled how between 1873 and 1934 two million people (most looking for a better life) were transported from Antwerp to North America on Red Star line ships, mostly to New York, but some to Canada.

My last visit in the city was to Chocolate Nation, conveniently located next door to my hotel. The city card allowed a 10 per cent discount on admission. I was given a headset and remote control that I could activate throughout the exhibit to receive explanations about the ships that come to Antwerp carrying tons of cacao beans, local beanologists who pick only the finest, the roasting process, and how 1 in 10 pieces of chocolate found around the world are from Belgium. A highlight was the chocolate bonbon-making demonstration. At the end, a plate of finished chocolates was passed around and I popped one into my mouth. Heaven. Smooth, creamy, rich. Not at all like the waxy industrial chocolate so prevalent in North America.

Topping off my explorations was dinner at RAS overlooking the Scheldt River. As the sun was setting, I tucked into a delicious seafood salad with huge shrimp, seared scallops and slices of sole. A rich ending to an adventure in the city of diamonds, chocolate and culture.

Philadelphia’s Historic Playgrounds

Smith Playhouse Exterior
No matter what, kids love to play. And if it’s in a historic spot, all the better. But these spaces take a lot of elbow grease and creative fundraising to remain safe and in repair. Transformation of an historical building into a child’s fun/learning zone takes even more.
Philadelphia’s kid-friendly, history-steeped playgrounds are Franklin Square, a once a neglected magnet for the homeless that boasts a sparkling carousel and a mini-golf homage to the city’s history; Victorian-era Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse which underwent a multi-stage restoration, including that of a much-loved treasure, the giant slide; and Please Touch Museum, the nation’s first children’s museum in Memorial Hall, originally the Art Pavilion during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
FRANKLIN SQUARE
It may have been one of the three remaining green space squares that founding father William Penn designed for Philadelphia in the 1700s, but that didn’t mean it was always treated like an historic gem.
“Daycare workers used to clean away the drug paraphenalia in Franklin Square every morning before letting their charges use the playground,” says Amy Needle, CEO of Historic Philadelphia Inc.,founded in 1994 to promote tourism. Needle’s group, along with Fairmount Parks, is responsible for the 7.5-acre square’s rebirth.
Reopened in 2006, the square, which is a few blocks from Independence Mall at 6th and Race Streets, cost $6.5 million to renovate. It’s star attractions are a carousel painted with Philly scenes including boathouse row, a mini-golf game that features music by homegrown stars such as Patti Labelle, and food vendors with brotherly love staples such as soft pretzels.
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The inclusion of Philadelphia Park Liberty Carousel, 36 feet in diameter and outfitted with 30 carved figures (including a sea dragon and eagle), is fitting since Philadelphia was once the carousel-making capital of the world. In the mid-19th century it was home to three manufacturers, Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia and D.C. Mueller & Bro. The carousel in the square today was made by Chance Morgan Co. in Wichita, Ka., using original moulds from the Dentzel Carousel Company and Philadelphia Toboggan Company.
SMITH MEMORIAL PLAYGROUND & PLAYHOUSE
Deep in East Fairmount Park is an imposing three-story Beaux-Arts mansion, built just for kids. Designed by architect James H. Windrim at the height of the late nineteenth century Play Movement, the 24,000-square-foot Playhouse opened in 1899 and has remained open ever since.circus_practice
Outside on the Playground’s six-and-a-half acres, is the Giant Wooden Slide —a 40-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, 10-foot-high covered maple slide that was installed in 1905 and fits up to twelve children abreast.PlayhouseSlidepictureJuly2003_005 “The slide is one of the most unique sights I’ve ever known. There has been an enormous affection for it for generations,” notes Hope Zoss, the site’s executive director.
In 2003, the Playground closed due to the equipment not being up to safety standards. With the help of a donation of $325,000 from a 92-year-old donor who had fond memories of the slide as a child, upgrades were made and it reopened in 2005, bearing her daughter’s name, the Ann Newman Giant Wooden Slide.The second phase of improvement took place the following year with the installation of 18 swings. The Playhouse, which is aimed primarily at the under-five set, offers indoor activities such as riding tricycles through a child-sized “town,” and a puppet show theatre.
Richard and Sarah Smith (he was a wealthy Philadelphian who made his money in typesetting) built the site as a memorial to their son and as a country play haven for inner-city children. Since opening, it has drawn up to 1,000 visitors a day, from every income level. In 1977 it was listed on the City Historic Register.
Zoss notes that the Richard and Sarah Smith Trust of “two million dollars” is used for day-to-day operations and the funds for the improvements, estimated at “$10 million dollars,” are being raised through “individuals, foundations corporations and government agencies.”
MEMORIAL HALL PLEASE TOUCH MUSEUM
Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in West Fairmount Park after its inception as an Art Pavilion, served a few purposes, including headquarters for the Fairmount Park Commission. Its new role as the Please Touch Museum is far more playful.
PleaseTouchMuseum
The Beaux-arts building reopened in 2008 with 135,000 square feet of exhibits including a 40-foot high replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch created by artist Leo Sewell out of toys (the statue’s original arm and torch graced the 1876 exhibit), and a 1924 Dentzel Carousel Company of Philadelphia carousel, on loan from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Originally, the carousel operated at Woodside Park, less than 10 blocks away. Additional exhibits include a flight fantasy area with propeller bike and flying machine and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with rabbit hole slide. Plus, there are other hands-on displays of inventions unveiled at the 1876 fair such as the typewriter and root beer.
Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark, was renovated according to standards set by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Of the museum’s $88 million budget (raised through government, individuals and corporations), $40 million went into building upgrades such as new windows. Much of the renovation involved removal of 1950s intrusions such as dropped ceilings.
“It was in good shape structurally when we got it. The soaring atrium is 150 feet tall and was concealed by walls that had been put in,” explains Willard Whitson, the museum’s vice president, exhibits and education. The decorative filigree and statuary uncovered around the atrium dome are in “wonderful condition,” says Whitson.
It’s a happy fact that history, when preserved and sprinkled with imagination, can deliver a whole lot of fun and learning for kids and adults alike. Technology might be making advances at the speed of sound, but Philly’s historic play havens prove that old fashion fun still has power for today’s kids.

Munching my way Through Chinatown & Kensington Market

SanCosmeSteve:Mo
It was a cold morning in early January, but that didn’t stop us. My husband and I bundled up and headed out to Spadina Ave. and Dundas Street. This colourful area has been a draw for me ever since I was in university. Coconut buns, egg tarts, cheeses of the world, fruits, spices and funky boutiques. I have always loved it, but lately I haven’t spent much time down in Toronto’s Chinatown/Kensington Market area and I thought what better way to get acquainted with all that was new and delicious than take a three-hour food tour? I had been on one in the city’s east end with Culinary Adventure Co. in the fall, so we decided to try them again. And Forbes Magazine has called this one “one of the best food tours in the world.” You can’t buy endorsements like that.
CatPoleOur guide, Daniel G., met us under the yellow chair, topped with a waving cat. It’s one of the art installments along this stretch of Spadina. In China the cat waving its left paw is a sign of welcome. Aha! That’s why Asian shops always have those waving kitty figures in their front windows. “Back at the turn of the last century, Kensington Market was filled with fish mongers…and feral cats,” Daniel explained, noting the two neighbourhoods are intrinsically tied.
RolSanExteriorCrossing the street, we headed into Rol San, a restaurant with a huge exterior banner stating that it serves dim sum all day long. I had actually been here before, but today the dishes we tried were all new to me. Sitting at a table draped in white plastic (for easy clean up, the waiters just lift the whole thing, dishes included and whisk it to the back), we went through the yellow paper menu. Bottomless jasmine tea was $1 per person. The small plate dishes ranged from $4-5. Daniel told us the family-run business had opened in 1994 and in 1999 it became an all day dim sum spot, now open from 9 a.m.-2 a.m. “It’s the go to place to sober up late at night,” he joked.
RolSanMushroomDumplingFirst to the table was the bamboo fungus with mixed mushrooms dumpling. Delicious, especially when dipped into the hot, homemade chili sauce that graced every table. The next three dishes came at once. RolSanChineseDonutRice rolls with Chinese donut – a deep fried donut wrapped in gooey rice roll that we dipped into a mixture of spicy, sweet hoisin sauce and peanut sauce. I probably should have saved that for last. RolSanTripeNext came beef tripe with ginger and scallions, and steamed BBQ pork buns. The tripe was chewy, nicely offset with the tangy ginger and scallions. RolSanPorkBunThe pork buns were puffy and filled with a sweetish pork mixture.
LongAnAs we departed, Daniel treated us to some longan fruit. About the size of a grape, he told us to peel it and be careful of the hard seed in the middle. As I bit in, the flesh reminded me of lychee, but the flavour was more like a plum. “The name translates to ‘dragon eye,’” he said motioning to the fruit stand we were now standing in front of. “You can pick them up here, one of the oldest produce stores in Chinatown.”
This was just the start. We had three more restaurants to visit, plus some other little nibbles along the way. I knew I had better start pacing myself.
KingsNoodleExteriorKing’s Noodle, also on Spadina, specialized in BBQ pork and duck. They proudly use every part of the animal and we peered in the window at a pig’s head, and many hanging ducks, wizened and reddish with barbequing. “Stanley and Grandee Lee are the owners and the restaurant opened in 1984,” Daniel told us. Stan had been a chef in a hotel in China before he came to Canada, but the hotel specialized in western food. Now he and his wife serve multi-generations of clients with Cantonese dishes such as congee with ginger, onion and BBQ pork. KingsNoodleFrontKitchenThe pork, Daniel explained, was marinated, then cooked slow and low for hours, giving it a caramelized coating. KingsNoodleCongeeWe filled our bowls with the congee, a soupy rice porridge and dove in with our chopsticks for succulent pieces of pork. I loved how the chili oil here had a smoky flavour and blended beautifully with the congee. We also sipped an earthy black Chinese tea and dipped squares of deep-fried bread into our bowls to complete the taste experience.
Walking up to Kensington a few blocks away, Daniel stopped and pulled out a White Rabbit. WhiteRabbitSweetsWhite Rabbits are Chinese sweets and he had a bag full. We sucked on the mild, vanilla flavoured treats as he told us about Kensington Market. KensingtonSignThe history goes back to 1815 when George Taylor Denison had an estate on a 100-acre piece of land just west of Spadina Avenue. Eventually the land was divided into plots sold to British and Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s. In the early 1900s came an influx of Eastern European immigrants and many of the Jewish families built outdoor stalls in front of their homes turning the area into an outdoor, old-world style marketplace. That trend has continued and today the area is very diverse, perhaps the latest immigrants to populate the shops are from the Caribbean and South America. The people here are fiercely independent and you won’t see any chain stores. “Sobey’s was going to open an outlet, but when they put up their sign, the residents rebelled and threw eggs at it,” Daniel recalled.
SanCosmeCounterAcross from Global Cheese on Kensington Avenue at the corner of Baldwin Street was a Mexican torteria called San Cosme. This was brand new to me. We sidled up to one of the high stools at a communal table and Daniel headed to the counter, returning shortly with a sweet, creamy rice drink with a hint of cinnamon called horchata and a huge veggie sandwich called a De Nopales, that sells for $9.95. SanCosmeSandwichThe sandwich contained sautéed cactus, panela cheese, tomatillo, serrano salsa, refried beans and avocado. It was hot and richly delicious, the cactus having a little slippery, pickled taste. San Cosme is an authentic Mexico City style puesto (street food stand), serving tortas – sandwiches done a la plancha in buttered soft telera bread stuffed with assorted fillings along with pickled jalapeños. “They support their neighbours by sourcing many of their ingredients right in Kensington Market,” Daniel explained.
Time for another sweet treat. CXBOExteriorWalking along Baldwin, we came upon a jewel box of a store called CXBO Chocolates. CXBOInteriorEntering, a portrait of Willy Wonka greeted us, along with a case of the most divine looking art pieces. Well, they were actually chocolates. Daniel had us each pick one. CXBOBonbonI went for a dark chocolate salted caramel (their most popular) while my husband opted for a milk chocolate with sherry. The handmade collection was created in 2015 by chef Brandon Olsen and artist/filmmaker Sarah Keenlyside. “In 2017, they opened Restaurant La Banane, named Canada’s Best New Restaurant in 2017,” said Daniel. I noticed on the counter was a huge chocolate egg covered in splatters of edible colour. The Ziggy Stardust Disco Egg is served at La Banane and has been frequently called the “most Instagrammable dessert,” the counter clerk told us. Decadent! Not sure how much it costs at the restaurant (in another part of town, on Ossington Avenue) but at the shop it was $50. I was more than satisfied with my salted caramel and found out that a box of 9 cost $22.50. They also had a selection of bars for $9 (the Kensington Bar has apricots, chili and coffee) that I wouldn’t mind trying next time.
WandaExteriorWith just a tiny slice of room left, we headed to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, a funky bakery café around the corner on Augusta Avenue. WandaInteriorInside it was strictly old school with hardwood floor and glass case after glass case filled with savouries, cakes, pies and cookies. We were there for the pie. “Wanda Beaver started out making sour cherry pies, using fruit from her family’s small orchard when she was a child. As an adult, she began baking for consumers at a location in Etobicoke, but she’s since moved to Kensington Market,” said Daniel. WandaPieHe had brought a tray over with a small Ontario sour cherry pie and three plates. “I’m a sweets guy. This is my favourite item on the menu here,” he continued. We divided up the flaky pastry and juicy fruit and I took a bite. OMG. The crust was slightly sweet with a hint of almond. The sour cherries were floating in a bath of delicious sweet-tart goodness. What a note to go out on!
Culinary Adventure Co. offers tours in Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg year round and from June until end of September in Charlottetown, Kingston and Halifax. In Toronto they offer King + Queen St. W. brunch, St. Lawrence Market, Leslieville/Riverside and Kensington Market/Made in Canada, and Escape the City Canoe Paddle + Dining Adventure tours in addition to Chinatown/Kensington Market. Maximum number of people is 12 and costs start at $80 per person.

Metropole Hanoi’s Amazing Legacy

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The plush Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is a standout of French colonial architecture and was a favourite place of mine to have an afternoon coffee, evening cocktail by the pool or special birthday dinner. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhy? It boasts a rich history and many cultural icons have stayed and created literary works here over the years. Designed by architects André Ducamp and Gustave-Émile Dumoutier, the hotel’s doors opened in 1901. After a secret marriage in Shanghai in 1936, Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here with one of Hollywood’s famous female stars, Paulette Goddard. The hotel even named a suite in Chaplin’s honour.MetropoleCitroensVintage Citroens that are available to guests for city jaunts.
Celebrated British authur Somerset Maugham wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour about his observations in Indochine and Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. Greene stayed at the hotel in 1951 as a war correspondent and his experiences discovering “the third force” (covert support of the CIA) inspired him to write a novel that illuminated Vietnam’s independence struggles and the United States’ interference. A very insightful read about how the seeds of the Vietnam War were sown. Both Maugham and Greene also have hotel suites named after them, as well.
joanbaez-painting_at_lobby_hanmetIn the 1960s, a bomb shelter was built in the basement and in 1972, during the Vietnam war, actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda stayed here, as did singer/songwriter Joan Baez. On her return from Vietnam in 1973, Baez released the album, Where Are You Now, My Son? that includes the air-raid sirens and dropping bombs she heard outside. Baez has give up singing for painting and on a trip to Hanoi in 2013 she stayed at the hotel and painted a portrait of a young Vietnamese boy which is now hanging in the lobby.joan_baez_painting-famoushotels Here’s a shot I took from the Metropole website of Baez completing the painting.
More recently, in 2009, the hotel named its new restaurant Angelina after actress and guest Angelina Jolie whose son Pax was adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam. Other movers and shakers who have stayed here include Mark Zuckerberg, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel.
And me? Well, I like to eat, drink and get inspired here, especially on the gorgeous terrace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Activities and Legends of Halong Bay

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Halong Bay is around a three-hour drive northeast of Hanoi and well worth the trip. The UNESCO World Heritage Site’s name translates to “descending dragon” and the bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. Halong Bay is a center of a larger zone which includes Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast, and Cat Ba Island to the southwest. These larger zones share a similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climate, and cultural characters. The area has amazing kayaking and there are many caves to explore. BoatsCove copyMy husband and I took an overnight junk boat trip and were able to spend an afternoon paddling past the towering stone formations. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe caves were also a delight to walk through, having paths and colourful lighting.
HaLongKayaking copySearching around on the web, I found a site called HalongHub that describes some of the legends of the area. According to the tales, when the land was newly formed, the Vietnamese forefathers had to fight against fierce invaders coming from the North by sea. The gods from the heavens watched, then sent the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese people defend their country. The dragons descended upon the earth, incinerated the invaders and spat jewels of emerald and jade that upon hitting the land, turned into great islands and islets that formed invincible defensive walls that the invaders could not overcome. The enemies fled and peace finally returned to this Southeast Asian country. After the battle, the Mother Dragon and her children did not return to the heavens, but stayed in the mortal world. HBCaveKayaks copyTo this day, the dragons lay on the lands they helped protect and it is their shapes that form the bays iconic mountainous landscape. The area called Bai Tu Long literally means ‘Thanks to the Dragon children’ and their tails form the area of Bach Long Vi while the great Mother Dragon forms Halong Bay, which literally translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay.’ MoCatBaCat Ba island is the biggest island in the region. Here, during times of war (even as recently as the American War) women produced supplies such as medicines, bullets, and clothes for men fighting on the front lines. The nearby island where men often fought enemies was called Cac Ong island meaning “Island of Men.” The island where the women lived was named “Cac Ba” which eventually morphed into “Cat Ba” island which means “Island of Women.”

Truc Bach, Me and John McCain

Truc Bach Lake Lawn Chairs, HanoiWhen I lived in Hanoi, I had an apartment in the quiet enclave of Truc Bach. It is on tiny Truc Bach Lake, a diked off portion of Tay Ho Lake. I was a little shocked to learn this is where the late Senator John McCain landed when he was shot down during the Vietnam War (known here as the American War), in 1967. Searching the internet I learned that US Navy aviator John McCain was shot down by anti-aircraft missile on a mission against a Hanoi powerplant and parachuted wounded into Truc Bach Lake, nearly drowning. He was dragged out of the water and beaten by city residents who were angry at having seen the area razed by previous U.S. attacks. He was later taken away as a prisoner of war. cof Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I came upon a monument marking his downing called Tchen Sney Ma Can on the western shore of the lake. Beside the depiction of a downed airman, there’s an inscrption in Vietnamese saying, “On Oct 26, 1967, at Truc Bach Lake, the military and people of Hanoi arrested Major John Sidney McCain, a pilot of the American Navy’s air force.”DefenseSecAshCarter2015This shot (courtesy the U.S. Defense website) is of Defense Secretary Ash’s visit to Hanoi in 2015.
Apprently, when McCain made a trip to Vietnam in 1985, he returned to this spot. A lot has changed since his horrible experience. Most people in Vietnam are under the age of 30 and don’t even know who he was. Plus, the Truc Bach and Tay Ho area is now filled will posh hotels including the Sofitel, the Hanoi Club and the Sheraton. It’s a very desirable neighbourhood.OnTrucBachBridgeTrucBackNight
FAST FACTS
1) Truc Bach was separtated from Tay Ho by the construction of a dike in the 17th century, allowing inhabitants to fish. Today, it is extremely polluted although there are still lots of fishermen and nets to be seen. I would advise against eating anything caught here.
2) In the 1700s, Truc Lam Palace was constructed on the lake shore. It first served as a pleasure palace housing concubines, but was later converted in to a prison for royal concubines found guilty of crime. The silk they produced became known as ‘Bamboo Village’ Silk and was famous for its beauty. At the time, the area was known also for its crafters of bamboo blinds.
3) According to history, during the Le Dynasty (1428 – 1527), people of the 5 villages Dong Mai, Chau My, Long Thuong, Dien Tien and Dao Vien (from Hung Yen and Bac Ninh provinces), who were skillful at bronze casting, migrated to the capital to establish a casting workshop for business. They settled in the Truc Bach area and set up a new village called Ngu Xa to remember their five original villages. Afterwards they reorganized into a separate professional guild called Ngu Xa bronze-casting guild. Nowadays Ngu Xa Street is still there to the east of the Truc Bach Lake, in Ba Dinh District. There’s a really interesting article that gives more detail on the bronze casters there who are still practicing their craft by Vu Thu Ha in the Viet Nam News.

Tet Flower Power in Hanoi

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In Hanoi, the biggest holiday of the year is Tet, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Tet usually falls around late January/early February and has to be the biggest season for flower sellers, especially at Quang Ba Flower Market, in Tay Ho, near where I lived. I noticed marumi kumquat plants were in as high demand as evergreen trees at Christmas in the West. P1170842A couple of weeks before Tet, the streets are crowded with motor scooters burdened with bushy green pyramids covered in with small orange fruit. Although the fruit looks like a mandarin orange, it is sour (the peel is the sweetest part) and few people eat them. P1170832The kumquat tree symbolizes gold, wealth, unity and perfection.  So the selection on each tree purchased is not taken lightly. The marumi kumquat is a tree with five characteristics that must be considered when buying – fruit, flowers, leaves, branches and roots. Combined, they symbolize wealth and happiness for the new year. Tips for choosing a good plant? KumquatDeliverThe tree must have both ripe and green fruit, mature leaves and new buds. If it has all these, the family will enjoy wealth and luck in the new year.
Another popular item at the nursery is peach trees since its flowers blossom in spring – sometimes even during Tet holidays, but it was too cold for this during my time there. Vietnamese believe this symbolizes a strong vitality and brave heart. The colour of the flowers is important, too. In Hanoi, the dark pink blossom is favoured, showing the love and joy spread among people in this unique time of the year.

Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel

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Hectic Hanoi is full of history and while living there I found a little slice of peace on the grounds of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Bonsai plants and random buildings were scattered throughout the complex’s almost 20 hectares. Plus, I was able to examine all sorts of architectural relics that had been uncovered in the ongoing excavations. There isn’t a lot of explanation available in English onsite, so I did a bit of my own digging. According to Wikipedia, the royal enclosure was first built during the Lý dynasty (1010) and subsequently expanded by the Trần, Lê and finally the Nguyễn dynasty. It remained the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810, when the Nguyễn dynasty chose to move the capital to Huế. FrenchSoldiers 1883 DragonStairsFrench soldiers taking photos on the steps of Kinh Thien Palace during the encamping period here. (Taken by Doctor Charles – Edouard Hocquard during 1884 -1885)
The royal palaces and most of the structures in Thăng Long were in varying states of disrepair by the late 19th century with the upheaval of the French conquest of Hanoi. By the 20th century many of the remaining structures were torn down. Excavations began in the 21st century and in 2004 the site was opened to the public. The central sector of the imperial citadel was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site on July 31, 2010.
The few remaining structures within the royal compound are the Doan Mon gate, marking the southern entrance to the royal palace, the Flag Tower, the steps of Kinh Thiên Palace and the Hậu Lâu (Princess’ Palace). Thus far only a small fraction of Thăng Long has been excavated.
CitadelFramedDoorPerhaps the most iconic of the remaining structures is the Flag Tower. Rising to a height of 33.4 m (41 m with the flag), it is frequently used as a symbol of the city. Built in 1812 during the Nguyễn dynasty, the tower, unlike many other structures in Hanoi, was spared during the French colonial rule (1885–1954) as it was used as a military post.
Citadel-GradCircle copyIf you visit during graduation season, October-November, you’ll get a chance to see the students who come to have their pictures taken. I loved seeing the young women in their gorgeous traditional garb, called ao dai.CitadelGradLongshot copyI was quite intrigued with the D67 tunnel and house, built in 1967 and found north of Kinh Thien hall. From 1954 to 1975, the North Vietnamese military command (Vietnam People’s Army) under General Giap, had its underground headquarters here.
CitadelBunkerBoardTableA connecting underground tunnel allowed for emergency evacuation in case of an attack. It was eerie to wander the halls and see the furniture and communications equipment used in the fight against the South and the United States.
Hau Lau Shot copyOne of the most restful spots in the Citadel is Hau Lau, also known as the Princess’ Palace. Originally built in 1821 during the Nguyen Dynasty for the queen and princess, it was later the residence of imperial concubines.Hau Lau Roof copy It is a mish mash architectural styles, since the French rebuilt it, but I loved the Vietnamese roof with its crescent-like bladed corners. Hau Lau View copyHardly anyone comes here, so it’s a perfect place to chill and enjoy the gardens.