I was drinking a beer at a local bar the other night and as some of the regular patrons started chatting with me about things they would never remember later, we somehow started talking about Belgium. Let me rephrase that. There was Belgian ale on tap. They served it in a Bud light glass and that’s how it all got started. There are infinite segues that will get me started talking about travel and that was the only cue I needed. Belgium is like no other country I have ever been to when it comes to beer….and chocolate….and waffles…and mussels. The more I think about it, the more delicious things come to mind when I talk about Belgium. Oops! I forgot about french fries! Belgium invented them.
Bruges is one of my favorite places in Europe. The town is charming with it’s old belfry tower and square, Venicesque waterways and cute little shops. It’s a town where you can just sit, watch people go by and not get bored. When I first saw the Colin Farrel movie “In Bruges“, I knew I needed to go there. I was not disappointed. I’ve found myself going back countless times and have inspired others to add it to their travel itineraries. If you’re reading this, and you are….add it to your list. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site if you need a good reason.
Bruges is where I discovered how beer could be taken to a completely different level than anywhere else I had traveled. I had been ordering random beers at a bar in the main square of town and was surprised when each round was served in a different glass with the brand name on the glass. If you get a different type of glass while ordering beers in Texas, it’s safe to assume that the bar ran out of glasses. In Belgium, each beer is served in a glass that compliments the flavor and composition of the elixir. What does that mean exactly? A champagne type of beer (and Belgium has beers that are almost like champagne) would be fluted to keep the bubbles from escaping too quickly. A wheat beer glass is skinny in the middle and tapered to catch the yeast in the bottom. Goblets and chalices are for more heavy beers where smelling the beer is just as important as tasting it. The important thing to remember is that there won’t be a test on this. Your beer will come out in the glass that was made for it. There are a few glasses that you might have to wonder about. Kwak beer is in a long skinny goofy looking glass that looks like it came out of a theme park. It can’t even stand up by itself. It’s served with a wooden rest to hold your beer when it’s not in your hand. If you don’t like beer, don’t worry. There’s so many different varieties and permutations of ales, lagers, and things that don’t even taste like beer, anyone can find something they like. There is no country in the world that comes remotely close to perfecting and deconstructing beer like the Belgians.
I love boutique hotels or places that are unique and different. On my last visit, I was lucky enough to find a historic place right in the heart of the town square. Not only was it in an amazing spot, but it came with breakfast in a 400 year old cellar and a tandem bicycle. Riding around on a bike in Europe feels pretty “European”, but a bicycle built for 2 is so nerdy, it’s incredibly cool. The only thing missing was a French beret and scarf. As we peddled down the cobblestone streets dodging pedestrians, every turn was a postcard perfect picture. The old Dutch buildings still standing for hundreds of years were framed perfectly by the little waterways that surround the city. Eventually we had to stop to discover what the fuss is about Belgian waffles. What is so great about Belgian waffles? It’s just dough. Can they really be any better than IHOP? The answer is a resounding OMG! Yes. They are better. I don’t know why but I can tell you this. It’s perfectly acceptable to sell waffles through the to go windows anytime of the day in Bruges. The closely guarded recipes create a waffle that crispy and delicious on the outside. It’s got some sort of caramelized thingy going on that makes it taste better than any waffle I’ve ever eaten. Add ice cream and strawberries and it’s heaven.
If you love chocolate (and who doesn’t?) you might appreciate the fact that the Belgians invented pralines and the chocolate bar. In the 1600s when drinking chocolate became the rage in Europe, Belgians had an African colony in the Congo and brought lots of the coveted cacao to the country. They tinkered with all the possibilities that the bean had to offer (like they did with their beer) and came up with a lot of unexpected products that almost completely replaced the concept of drinking chocolate. To this day, there’s many chocolatiers (over 2,000) where one can sample hand crafted chocolates. Why are Belgian chocolates so good? For one, they got a good head start. For two, everything they make seems to taste good. Godiva is one of Belgium’s most famous brands. Not only is Belgian chocolate amazing, but the chocolatiers can make their chocolate look like anything. I saw what appeared to be rusty looking tools in a window. It was chocolate.
Probably the least palatable-looking chocolate you’ll find in a candy shop is a peeing naked baby. This urinating child is a famous statue in Brussels, or Bruxelles (if you want to spell it the cool way). The statue is called “Manneken Pis” which already sounds kind of dirty and has become the symbol of the city. Not only will you find chocolate manneken figures in every sweet shop, but there’s an entire museum dedicated to this unclad baby. He has hundreds of costumes from different countries, holidays and he’s had his clothes changed many more times than than a real baby since he’s been standing in the fountain for almost 400 years. You can get to Manneken Pisen by just a short walk from The Grand Place which is amazing in itself.
Next time you’re in Paris or Amsterdam, take a day or two to drive to Bruges. It’s only 3 hours from both cities and is often ignored by those who know little about it. You’ll be amazed by the town which has more innocence than Amsterdam and is much easier to get around than Paris. Don’t worry about getting there in time for breakfast though. They serve waffles all day long.