Apart from travel, my next favorite topic is chocolate and at last a chance to write about my two passions together!
Sorry but I won't be discussing a day trip to Hershey, PA here. I'm talking real chocolate...that melt in the mouth European delicacy that makes you forget that you may be single on Valentine's Day, in debt, depressed or otherwise less than perfect. Dieters and calorie counters can stop reading now, because this kind of travel is about ultimate indulgence and there should be no guilt no matter what you eat!
The Belgians take their chocolate very seriously, and so they should as Belgium is recognized as the best chocolate producing country in the world. Even Belgium's official tourism site has a dedicated chocolate section at www.visitbelgium.com/chocol.htm.
You could arrive in Brussels armed with addresses and hope for the best, but the reality is that many of the chocolatiers (specialist chocolate-makers) do not, in fact, open to the public (must be something about guarding those secret recipes). Some are open only on specific days or seasonally, whilst others are remarkably small operations without the resources to accommodate visitors.
The best-known chocolatiers in Belgium include Galler, Godiva, Neuhaus, Guylian, Manon and Hans Burie. A visit to any of these factories or workshops will leave you salivating. The website mentioned above will provide a list of those chocolatiers that are open to the public, their operating hours and admission charges. It will also point you in the right direction of other chocolate indulgences like museums and chocolate shops.
There are four dedicated chocolate museums in Belgium -- the Museum Temple of Chocolate Cote D'or in Halle, the Chocolate Museum Jacques in Eupen, the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate in Brussels (www.mucc.be/UK/menu_uk.htm) and Choco Story in Bruges. Belgium is a compact country so with a car you could easily take in all of these cities in a day or two. Most importantly, all have sampling areas.
If you are more interested in sampling the exquisite merchandise than finding out how it is made, a visit to the Wittamer Café (www.wittamer.com) in Brussel's Place du Grand Sablon may be the perfect option. This 100-year old family-owned chocolate-making business is an elegant environment in which to sample some of the most intricate chocolate creations in a relaxed café setting overlooking the village square. Displays of cakes and ornately designed miniature chocolates are also sure to impress and inspire.
For a truly over the top chocolate experience, In Trend Travel (tel. 845/510-9630; www.intrend.com) is a New York based company that specializes in making your cocoa dreams a reality. They can tailor-make specific unguided chocolate travel itineraries to suit your tastes or if you can get a group (ideally of 20 or so people) together, you can embark on the ultimate seven-day "Chocolate Lovers' Paradise" tour of Belgium. These tours include six-nights' first-class accommodation; sumptuous meals (seven buffet breakfasts, four lunches, and three dinners); a special chocolate lunch; numerous chocolate desserts; chocolate gifts; a Medieval banquet; guided tours to several world-famous chocolatiers; and visits to Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp. Airfare is additional but can all be arranged through In Trend. Land prices start at $2,500 per person, depending on the season and the Euro rate of exchange. Ideally a tour in February coincides with Belgium's annual Chocolate Passion Festival -- a Valentine's Day tradition in Brussels. Add-on side trips to other chocolate inspired destinations are also available.
Not to be outdone, the Swiss also lay claim to making the world's best chocolate. Their national chocolate website, www.chocosuisse.ch/page/3_2_faq-en.html, provides facts and figures of chocolate production, quality standards, history and recipes.
Whilst in Switzerland, you should definitely take in the Schoko-Land Musée "Le monde du chocolat" -- the Chocolate Land Museum (tel. + 41/91-716-666). Unfortunately there is no website, but it is located in Lugano near the Italian border at 6987 Caslano-Lugano.
The following factories are available for tours:
Chocolat Alprose (tel. + 41-91/611-8888; www.alprose.ch) in Caslano: Operates a small chocolate museum featuring a chocolate shop and a brief tour of the factory. Visits can be arranged daily from 9 am to 6 pm. There are no factory tours on weekends.
Chocolat Frey (www.chocolatfrey.ch) in Buchs: Offers tours from Monday to Thursday for groups consisting of 15 to 60 persons (minimum age is 14). Tours have to be arranged in advance in writing.
Maestrani Schweizer Schokoladen (tel. + 41-71/228-3811; www.schoggi-land.ch) in St.Gallen: No advance arrangements are necessary for visitors to the gallery/factory shop. Monday to Friday, 2pm to 6 pm, Saturdays: 9am to 12pm. Guided tours for groups are available by advance arrangement only.
Nestlé Suisse (tel. +41-26/921-5151; www.cailler.ch) in Broc: The home of Nestlé, (the inventors of milk chocolate) not the made-under license inferior version made in the US. A film on the manufacture of chocolate is offered in lieu of a factory tour but a factory shop (with free samples) is located next door. It is recommended that groups make advance arrangements. Open April to October. Weekday hours are 9am to 11am and 1.30pm to 4pm.
Unfortunately one of the most delicious chocolate makers in Switzerland, Lindt/Spruengli (tel. +41-1/716-2233; www.lindtspruengli.com) does not offer factory tours due to very strict hygiene regulations; however, they do have a museum in Kilchberg, near Zurich. It is open Wednesday to Friday 10am to 12pm and 1pm to 4pm.
For a novel way to get to the Nestlé factory, try the Swiss Chocolate Train -- a first-class excursion train operating from Montreux every Wednesday from June to October with an additional train on Mondays in July and August. Coffee and croissants are served on the train on its way to the medieval cheese-making town of Gruyères. In Gruyères, there is a bus excursion to a cheese factory and the local castle before the train continues on to Broc with a tour of the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory. The train leaves Montreux at 9.34 am, returning at 5.40 pm. If you have a first-class Swiss Pass, Eurailpass, or Eurail Selectpass that includes Switzerland, you can travel on the Swiss Chocolate Train for free including factory admissions, except for a $22 reservation fee. Visit www.raileurope.com/us/rail/passes/chocolate_train.htm for details and booking information.
Before there were Hershey Kisses, there were Perugina Baci. The Museo Storico della Perugina (tel. + 39/75-527-6635) is located in Perugia, Umbria with its factory open Tuesday to Friday 9am to 12.30pm and 2.30 to 5.30pm and by appointment on Saturday or Sunday. Admission is free. You need to book a group factory tour.
The Museo del Cioccolato Antica Norba (www.anticanorba.com/museoing.htm) is Italy's first chocolate museum opened in 1995. Free admission includes a visit to the Antica Norba factory and a drink from the chocolate fountain (think Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka!). Hours are 9am to 1pm and 2.30 to 7pm on weekdays seasonally. The museum is located in Norma, a city in the Lazio region south of Rome. Whilst there you can visit the ancient Roman city ruins, the medieval Sermoneta castle and the gardens and ruins of Ninfa.
If you're a true chocolate lover and will be in Italy in December 2005 (actual date to be confirmed), then have we got an event for you. Eurochocolate (www.eurochocolate.com) is an annual event that features a week of chocolate exhibitions, events and demonstrations at the Mostra d'Oltremare in Naples. For a $14 entry fee, the event is open from 10am to 8pm daily. The event is also held in the city of Perugia in October each year.
Choco Travels (tel. + 39-2-733-547; www.chocotravels.com) is an Italian-based travel company that specializes in, you guessed it, chocolate tours, to destinations as diverse as Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Italy and Austria. Much of the website is in Italian but a few areas are translated. For further information in English including itineraries and pricing you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Select Italy Tours (tel. 800/877-1755; www.selectitaly.com) has a luxurious "Master Artisans of Chocolate" tour that includes five-nights' accommodation (two at the Hotel Relais dell'Orologio in Pisa, one at the Hotel Grotta Giusti in Monsummanno Terme and two at the Gallery Hotel Art in Florence), six-days of ten chocolate-related activities, two private tours, four breakfasts, three lunches, two dinners, and private transfers. The tour is scheduled for May 22, 2005, and costs $3,199 per person. For groups of more than eight people, other dates can be arranged. Airfares are additional.
An LA-based tour company with a great name, Take My Mother Please (tel. 323/737-2200; www.takemymotherplease.com), is offering two chocolate-themed vacations in 2005. Full details including pricing are not yet available, but these may be good to keep in mind for future travel options. The "Chocolate and Cashmere" tour is from May 10-18, 2005, and features eight days in Italy traveling from Turin to Tuscany. The "J'Adore Chocolat" tour is scheduled for April 30-May 5, 2005 and includes five-days of delectable delights in Paris.
I can't forget to mention the homeland of chocolate, the place where it all began -- Mexico. You won't be buying a sumptuous chocolate bar or truffles here but you may get to try the syrupy delight that they call chocolate -- liquid gold, freshly ground from the freshest cacao beans and brewed with love and tradition. A substance once thought fit only for gods and royalty (Theobroma Cacao literally translates to "drink of the gods") is now available to all, but beware, it is extremely rich so you may want to limit yourself to one cup per day.
Oaxaca is the heart of the chocolate-drinking culture of Mexico. Chicago-based company, Zapotec Tours (tel. 800/446-2922; http://oaxacainfo.com/zt.htm) runs annual chocolate study tours to Oaxaca in October. The tour is called "A Cup of Chocolate," and it is led by celebrated author and chocolatiere Elaine Gonzalez. Contact Zapotec Tours for further information and pricing.
Epiculinary Journeys (tel. 888/380-9010; www.epiculinary.com/mex_oaxaca.html) also offers a fascinating culinary expedition to the Oaxaca region that takes in chocolate, Mexican food traditions and Mezcal. Their "La Cocina de Oaxaca" tour includes six-nights accommodation, hands-on cooking classes, visits to markets and growing areas, three meals daily, excursions and transportation, taxes and service (airfares and airport transfers are not included). Departure date is March 31, 2005, and the package is priced at $1,575 per person.
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