Beautiful Belgium

1 Jun

Happy Monday, everybody! Well, it’s June 1 and our forecast here is 100% rain and in the 60s. Not cool. Although 60s is better than 50s, which is what we had- along with a good bit of rain with the exception of Saturday afternoon- this past weekend in Belgium. But you know what? Even with the less-than-ideal weather, we still had a terrific time during our first visit there and can’t say enough good things about it, especially Bruges. More about that in a sec…

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Keeping It Real: I knew days ago that this would be my KIR for today. Paying to use public restrooms. DRIVES ME CRAZY. Not even so much the actual paying part, but the, without fail, getting all the way to the bathroom (that in Europe, is inevitably down three flights of stairs in the basement and then a 1/4 mile walk) and having forgotten your .50-€1. And there’s no getting around it- there’s a turnstyle at the entrance AND a worker there monitoring (and cleaning the stalls in between uses- I’ll give them credit that their bathrooms are very clean). And then I never know the rules about little kids. Do they pay, too? So I need to pay €2 for Neve and I to use the bathroom? Crazy. I decided weeks ago, no, with my rationale being that we only use one stall. Apparently my logic was flawed as one of the toilet monitors pointed out to me this weekend when we both walked through with just my one payment. Alas, there was a language barrier and I played dumb to her yelling as we made our way into the stall. I also ignored her scowls and carrying on as we exited. Oh well.

Just hunt for the greens!

Just hunt for the greens!

And one little mini-KIR just because we found it such a fantastic invention. Take a look at the parking garage above. I know it’s kinda tough to see, but notice the lights above the cars. Most are red, but some are green. Get it? The greens show you where there’s a vacant spot! How genius is that?! No driving around hunting for spots- just follow the reds until you get to a green! We need this in the States! And as a side note- I swear that all parking garages in Europe have floors so shiny and clean you could eat off them. John and I can only come up with that most are underground and therefore not exposed to the elements?

5+ hours, two ways, just about every weekend...Makes for a pretty darn good road tripper!

5+ hours, two ways, just about every weekend…Makes for a pretty darn good road tripper!

So Belgium. Actually one of our closer road trips. We left first thing Friday morning and made it to Brussels by lunchtime. Spent the afternoon exploring, then drove the final hour to Bruges for a late dinner. Worked out perfectly. Really going to miss being able to make such awesome time on road trips because of this:

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Brussels, another huge city (started in the 10th century by Charlemagne’s descendants) with a population of over 1.2 million, is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union, as well as the headquarters for NATO. It’s bilingual as it sits right on the boundary between the country’s language communities (French in the south, Dutch in the north), although English is definitely utilized extensively as the lingua facta- we didn’t encounter one single person who didn’t speak English. Bazinga!

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Brussels has a very ‘working city’ type of feel going on. And it should! Heck, it’s a capital (not only of the country but of the whole EU), a financial center, an educational center, a political center…Skyscrapers, people in suits, the worst traffic we’ve seen in a European city (!)…It does have a charming Old Town at the heart of it all, which is just lovely. Now, I know some of you won’t agree with us on this, but Brussels just wasn’t our favorite city. Don’t get me wrong- we’re definitely glad we were finally able to see it as it’s been on our short list for some time now and we definitely enjoyed our afternoon there- but overall with regards to what we like most about destinations and how likely it is for us to return, it just didn’t make the mark for us.

The Grand Place, constructed in the 10th century, is the central square of Brussels and contains Town Hall, the Belgium Museum, the Breadhouse and lots of restaurants…Very regal with some breathtaking architecture. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage sight.

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Town Hall

Town Hall

Belgium Museum

Belgium Museum

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From here, we branched out onto all the little side streets with no plan in mind- just seeing what we saw. First stop- lunch. Since we knew our time was limited, we didn’t want to take too much of it by sitting down at a restaurant, so we opted for the two street foods we were seeing the most of- French fries (actually invented in Belgium and a national food there) and waffles (also invented in Belgium- more on this later…).

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Lunch of Champions!

Lunch of Champions!

Belgium is considered to be a birthplace of comics and they have a distinct subgroup in comic history. They are integral to Belgian culture, from the early 1900s through today. Neat tidbit: there are more comic artists per square mile in Brussels than anywhere else in the world combined. How cool!! Two notable comics out of Belgium are Rin Tin Tin (an unoffical city symbol) and The Smurfs. One of our favorite parts of downtown Brussels was all the comic art/graffiti snuck in everywhere you turn- like a little element of surprise.

Wonderful 'graffiti' all over the city...

Wonderful ‘graffiti’ all over the city…

Rin Tin Tin originated in Brussels. Much of the graffiti has him added in somewhere. It's like a 'Where's Waldo...'

Rin Tin Tin originated in Brussels. Much of the graffiti has him added in somewhere. It’s like a ‘Where’s Waldo…’

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The week before we came, I happened to stumble across an article, ‘Top 10 Chocolatiers in the World.’ Three of them happen to be in Brussels! No big surprise, I suppose, as the country is known for this sweet, but still! Yes, we stopped in all of them. And yes, our resident ChocoDiva was in (expensive) Heaven! Pralines, truffles, bars…

One of the Top 5 Chocolatiers in the world...We also hit 2 others on the list. All within a mile of each other in Brussels.

One of the Top 5 Chocolatiers in the world…We also hit 2 others on the list. All within a mile of each other in Brussels.

Other notables from our walk: Mannequin Pis (aka Little Man Pee, the tiny landmark bonze statue of Brussels peeing into a basin), The Cycliste (the most expensive sculpture ordered by a city in modern times at €100,000!) and Delirium Cafe (the place with the world’s largest beer selection).

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Delirium Cafe. 2400+ beers to choose from...

Delirium Cafe. 2400+ beers to choose from…See the Top 100 list on the door?

thumb_IMG_3982_1024It poured on us the entire drive to Bruges, so by the time we got there, we looked like cold, wet rats. And hungry rats. God was definitely looking out for us as the first restaurant we passed as we set out on foot was exactly what we didn’t even know we were looking for. FONDUE. Warm, delicious comfort food at its finest. A quick check of online reviews (because we are nerds who don’t waste time eating at places with crummy reviews) and we were seated at the last available table. Definitely a cozy, quirky restaurant we will remember- love those kinds…

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Did you know that the sun doesn’t set over here until nearly 11p? Yeah, the longer we’re in Europe, the later it’s getting each night. Can’t decide if we like it or not- regardless, it definitely messes with your head! By the time we finished dinner, it was after 9p and we knew we were tired from our full day of walking, but it seemed so much earlier so we just carried on…Retiring for the night when it’s bright outside is just strange! Ha! Here’s our view walking back to the hotel from dinner…Yep, just past 9p!

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Our hotel...

Our hotel…

Back in our room, watching the sunset from our window about 10p...

Back in our room, watching the sunset from our window about 10p…

We woke up Saturday morning to dark clouds and the smell of rain, but what are you gonna do? You’ve got a day to see this awesome city and you’re not gonna let two little things like rain and cold keep you from it! So out we went!

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Gorgeous, right?! Alright, let’s talk about Bruges (pronounced Brooj, rhyming with the sport ‘luge’) for a minute. Bruges, situated in northwest Belgium on the sea, is considered to be the most well-preserved Medieval city in the world. It’s also called a ‘Venice of the North’ because of its canals (no, not as many as Amsterdam and no houseboats). The current walls and canals were built in 1128AD.

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The first Roman (they were everywhere back then, weren’t they?!) fortifications in Bruges were built in the first century BC as protection against pirates. The Franks took over the region in the 4th century AD and when the Vikings began assaults in the 9th century, the original fortifications were reinforced, bringing about successful trade with England and Scotland. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Bruges had what is considered to be its Golden Era. Its port thrived and the city became a main player in the fabric trade, primarily lace and wool. (Lace shops are still all over the city today, btw.) Because of this, weavers, spinners and artists from all over the region were attracted to Bruges, making it among the wealthiest, most influential cities of the time. In fact, it was considered the “chief commercial city” of the world.

WOW. Someone handmade this map out of lace.

WOW. Someone handmade this map out of lace.

After 1500, gradual silting of the main inlet had caused Bruges to lose direct access to the sea and thus its status as the economic flagship of the area- a status that would now belong to Antwerp, a larger city just northward. Despite attempts over the years to reclaim its prosperity, Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance, it’s population dwindling from 200,000 to less than 50,000. By the late 1800s, however, its star began to rise again as wealthy French and British tourists took notice of its beauty and charm. Over the next century, the influx of visitors- and thus, money- brought Bruges back to life. Today, the population is about 125,000 (300,000 if you count the whole metro area) and attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. And once again, its port has become one of the most important in Europe.  Its Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sight. “Rise, fall and resurrection make up the life story of Bruges, a city that glittered in Northern Europe with as much panache as Venice did in the Mediterranean World.”

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I'll admit I'm a bit skeptical (John is not, bless his heart)...A vial of Jesus' blood lay inside...It's inside a larger silver display piece, so can't be seen...

I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical (John is not, bless his heart)…A vial of Jesus’ blood lay inside this church…It’s inside a larger silver display piece, so can’t be seen…

We spent the latter part of the morning touring De Halve Maan Brewery. Bruges is a city where beer is taken very seriously. Bars stock up to 300 Belgian varieties and many visitors aim to sample as many of them as possible. (We certainly didn’t attempt this, but yes, the beer scene was one that John was excited to experience.) But it is the beer made at the only working brewery within the city walls that is considered the finest.

Translates to 'Half Moon'

Translates to ‘Half Moon’

Halve Maan was started in 1856 by Henry Maes and it still family-owned and operating on the same small site within the Old Town. Our guide took us up steep steps into the attic and onto the roof, back down to the main level to see the new kettle room (installed just a couple years ago), and then down into the basement. We’ve done lots of brewery tours over the years, but this one was especially neat because, rather than being a massively huge operation with lots of bells and whistles (like Heineken, for example) it looked at the history- at how things were done ‘in the olden days’ and how many of those practices are still being used today.

Those are hops hanging from the rafters...

Those are hops hanging from the rafters…

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From the top of the Brewery...Looking across Bruges toward the sea...

From the top of the Brewery…Looking across Bruges toward the sea…

For every pint produced, about 300 pints of water are used to make it and, with restrictions on local water usage, De Halve Maan imports truckloads from a nearby well. In the early days, draymen were given seven bottles a day as part of their wages and often got a free drink in each bar they delivered to. The horses became so fed up with waiting for their drunken drivers that they often made their own way back to the brewery. When the horses were requisitioned during the First World War, Belgian shepherd dogs were used to deliver smaller barrels. Now barrels are in short supply because of a shortage of coopers – apprenticeships are no longer available. At De Halve Maan, it takes two elderly coopers two days to repair a single barrel. Replacements now come from French vineyards and Scottish distilleries.

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Bottling happens offsite at a warehouse 3 miles away in the industrial zone. Currently, trucks transport the beer to the warehouse from the brewery, but that’s only until the underground pipe system, currently under construction, is completed next year. At that point, the beer will flow directly to the warehouse. Cool, huh?

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There is an impressive collection of glasses on display at De Halve Maan – each of the 1,300 Belgian beers has its own design. When a new beer is invented, the right shaped glass must be found so that drinkers can appreciate fully its flavour and aroma.

Who knew that ridged glasses were designed to keep the warmth of your hands away from the beer?

Who knew that ridged glasses were designed to keep the warmth of your hands away from the beer?

The tour ended with glasses of their blonde brew- Bruges Zot. They also brew a Dubbel, a Tripel, a Quadruple and an alternating seasonal. Yes we tried all of them at some point during the weekend. I really like the Zot and the Dubbel. The Quadruple was one step away from liquor to my tastebuds, but John adored it, as well as their current seasonal, Wild.

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So the verdict for Belgian vs. German beer? Much tougher decision than last weekend’s when comparing British brews. This is a close race. By law, Germany can not include herbs or fruits in their beer, which means that you get way less variety than in Belgium, where the sky’s the limit (coriander is the most-used herb in brewing). So I guess Belgium may win this one. But John will tell you, German beer is amazing and among the best you will ever taste. Plus, beer in Germany is just about always less than €1 for a pint, but it’s back to being expensive in Belgium, so that’s definitely a downer.

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Next stop, lunch on Market Square. The main square of any town is always the most overpriced and it’s rarely the best food, but darn if they don’t always make for the best people watching and that feeling that you’re part of the hustle and bustle! We opted for fries. Again. Don’t judge. Side note: Did you know that you have to pay extra for ketchup (or any sauce) in Europe? Sheesh.

My lunchtime view :)

My lunchtime view 🙂

We had a lunch of fries and more fries at the place to the far right. Had the first table to the left as you walk through the little fence...

We had a lunch of fries and more fries at the place to the far right. Had the first table to the left as you walk through the little fence…

Once refueled, we made our way to the nearest canal to catch a boat. What better way to see Bruges than from the water? It turned out to be a great idea (thanks, John!) as we got to see several parts of the city that would’ve been too far to walk to, we got some interesting commentary along the way and Neve loved it!

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Dulcie and Meg would LOVE to watch all the boats passing by in the canals below!

Dulcie and Meg would LOVE to watch all the boats passing by in the canals below!

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Tight squeeze! Lowest bridge in the city!

Tight squeeze! Lowest bridge in the city!

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As pretty as the pictures are, they really don’t do it justice. Bruges is just so pretty- just begging to be on postcards! Ha! John put it a good way by comparing it to Rothenburg, the little German medieval city we fell in love with our first weekend here. They’re both so picturesque and so inviting, but Bruges goes that extra mile by maintaining the ‘real’ feel. Not that Rothenburg isn’t real, but Bruges is more than just its visitors. It’s a working, living, large-ish city. No replicas, no re-enactments…Just as you see it. And with canals. Everything is awesome when you add canals 🙂

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We found ourselves back at Market Square by mid-afternoon, so what better time and place to rest our weary feet?

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Lambic Beer- a Belgian fruit beer (tasted alot like wine to me...)

Lambic Beer- a Belgian fruit beer (tasted alot like wine to me…)

Since we didn’t have authentic Belgian food Friday night, we knew we had to find it now and that we only had one chance to get it right. And once again, we lucked up! We found a restaurant online that got 5 stars out of 100+ reviews. Darn it, we thought- should’ve made reservations last week. We called just to make sure. Low and behold, they’d just had a cancellation and we could have a table in an hour if we wanted it! Heck yes! The two national dishes- mussels with fries and Flemish Stew- were our goals. Mission accomplished! Both were very good. The mussels are different than what we get at home. No broth really- just some seasoning and the mussels standing for themselves (which says alot- usually stuff drowning in sauce is covering up something lackluster!). The stew, also served with fries (told you!) and salad, is very similar to beef stew, but done with dark beer (instead of red wine) and is pretty sweet. I wouldn’t order it again, but it made for a very good dinner. Not gonna lie, both of our favorite part was the cheese croquette appetizer. Belgian cheese is delish!

Belgian comfort food. We always love croquettes.

Belgian comfort food. We always love croquettes.

National dish- Mussels and Fries...

National dish- Mussels and Fries…

National Dish- Similar to beef stew, but made with dark beer...

National Dish- Similar to beef stew, but made with dark beer…

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One of our favorite things about Europe, and I’ve said this before, is the walking. We especially love walking after dinner- something about it just makes you feel good and helps with digestion. This is true at home in Charleston, too- our favorite date nights are always dinner downtown, then walking around until we find ourselves at Kaminsky’s for cake. 🙂 Anyhoo…Great after dinner walk. The sun continued to peak through the off-and-on rain clouds. The boats had been covered for the night, so the canals were glassy and quiet. The Square was alive with music- bands had been playing on a center stage all day long.

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A concert on our way home from dinner

A concert on our way home from dinner

My goodness, I love my girl...She's the perfect personality for me.

My goodness, I love my girl…She’s the perfect personality for me.

OK, I’ve been saving the best for last. You know it’s gotta be food-related. What can I say, we’re foodies through and through! Let’s talk about waffles. I’m a waffle lover from way back- I consider them among the best foods ever invented. We will never, ever, EVER look at waffles the same way now that we’ve had Belgium’s Liege waffles. I now know for a fact that they ARE the best food invented. Actually, because we’ve been doling out that title alot lately, we’ve started subcategorizing. Last weekend’s sticky toffee pudding gets ‘Best Dessert Ever Invented.’ Liege Waffles get ‘Best Street Food Ever Invented.’ Like what we did there? 😉 In Belgium, waffles are eaten any time of day (they must’ve gotten the memo from neighboring Netherlands and their pancakes)- breakfast, quick snack, dessert…God, it’s a perfect situation.

If you look closely, you can see the sugar pearls within the dough. Just plop a dough ball onto the iron...

If you look closely, you can see the white sugar pearls within the dough. Just plop a dough ball onto the iron…

Did you know that there are actually two kinds of waffles that originated in Belgium and the one that we call a ‘Belgian Waffle’ (the big square with crunchy outside and airy inside) is actually a ‘Brussels Waffle?’ An true Belgian Waffle is actually a ‘Liege Waffle’ and deserving of a Nobel prize. And an Olympic medal. Lord. Liege waffles are made with brioche dough (hi, Dad!) filled with sugar pearls that caramelize within as they cook. So what you end up with is this buttery, rich, denser than what you’re used to waffle with tiny moist sugar bits throughout. They’re served hot off the iron (yes, there’s a special 45 lb. liege grill that’s necessary to get the exact temperature needed to straddle the fine line between perfect caramelization and burnt), plain or topped with fruit, chocolate or cream. Disclaimer: Not all liege waffles are created equally. Fortunately, we found the BEST shop in time to stop by more than once. What? You’ve never had 3 waffles in one day?

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Neve preferred her waffles plain. I liked caramel with a bit of cream. John liked bananas and chocolate. We all also liked the speculoos (Trader Joe fans, you know what I’m talking about- the cookie butter!) Who knew Biscoff was invented in Belgium! And on top of a waffle? Ahhhh…

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waffle

Last quick breakfast in Bruges before hitting the road back to Germany...

Last quick breakfast in Bruges before hitting the road back to Germany…

I know, I know…Another ridiculously long post, but these countries we visit just don’t give me any choice! They’re so unique and so gorgeous and with so much history. And from what I can tell when I’ve heard from you guys is that you like to hear the ‘stories’ of a place as much as I do. Afterall, what’s the point of a picture if you don’t know what you’re really looking at? Thanks for sticking with me. 🙂

It’s another rainy Monday here in Wiesbaden, which means that Neve and I are boycotting getting dressed, instead opting for Mary Poppins and Horton Hears a Who cuddled on the couch under a blanket. 🙂 If the forecast is right, though, we have some sunshine and warmer temperatures (maybe in the 80s!) coming our way, so hopefully we’ll get into some good stuff over the next few days. We did learn that our current apartment is unavailable for next week (the one we had to extend), so Thursday we will actually be moving to a new apartment. Kinda bittersweet as we’ve grown to feel pretty at home here. Definitely not ideal having to pack up twice (once to move less than a mile away and again next week to come home), but there are perks- like an even better location over a department store in the heart of Old Town and lightning speed internet (hallelujah!). It’ll also probably make next week’s final pack go smoother as much of the ‘purging’ will happen before this week’s move. See, always looking for the bright side! Heehee. The brightest side will actually be our final adventure coming up this weekend- the Alps of Switzerland. Probably our favorite destination ever and now we will get to share it with Neve…Stay tuned 🙂

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3 Responses to “Beautiful Belgium”

  1. Belinda Knox June 1, 2015 at 11:25 PM #

    Feels like I’m there.

  2. Eleanor June 1, 2015 at 2:47 PM #

    Wonderful and interesting. Hope Neve can remember some of the things she has experienced. Love all the pictures and explanation of foods, etc. Two more weeks and we will then know which was your favorite place to explore. Have fun each day, make memories and stay dry and warm.

  3. Robin June 1, 2015 at 2:45 PM #

    Love Neve’s little red European boots – great walking shoes for her – keeps her feet warm and dry. Belgium looks amazing – you make us feel like we are there. Thanks for taking so much time with your blogs!!

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