As soon as I boarded the train from Amsterdam destined for Brussels, I should have taken note of the solitary gray color that the sky had taken on, as this was simply a forwarning that my time spent in Belgium would be a wet and rainy one. There has been a constant and steady drizzle for virtually the entire three days that I’ve spent here so far, but being that Brussels is one of the best beer cities in the world (and has a few delicious culinary options, as well), there hasn’t been a lack of indoor options to which I could turn. So much like the lonely, gray sky did for me, I’ll forwarn you that this post will be a beer-and-food heavy one.
Before diving into that, however, I was able to squeeze out a few of the key sights to see inbetween the rain drops. There also aren’t too many scenary shots around the city besides the couple provided below, as upon opening the map that the hostel provided for me (luckily, most do), the first sentence giving advice on city stated “Brussels is ugly, and we love it.” I might not go so far as to call the city ugly, but it doesn’t quite have that physical personality or character of a few of the past cities I’ve been lucky enough to visit — unless you count the juxtaposition of run-down apartment complexes placed directly next to beautiful cathedrals and museums, that is.
Now on to the food and beer. One phrase that I’ve heard a few times around Brussels is “ne fond leggen,” which means to “lay the base.” For a country of beer drinkers, this refers to filling your stomache with a base of food before turning to the golden elixer, so we’ll do the same here. Much like the cuisine in Amsterdam, the majority of the food was skewed towards the doughy and gooey or the fried side of things (aside from the mussels).
Now on to the fun part. Some have casually refered to Belgium as the Disneyworld of beer (at least for the ale-lovers, lager-lovers may tend towards Germany). Judging by the number and quality of operating breweries, as well as the availability and selection at any given store or bar, I’d say that the sentiment isn’t too far off. Another benefit of having to spend some time in the rain in Brussels is the presence of the Delirium Cafe. This place holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the largest beer selection on the planet. They must maintain at least 2,004 beers available at all times, but when I visited, that number was probably 100-200 higher. It can be a bit intimidating to see the menu (which is basically a thick phone book), but it is great fun, regardless.
If you remember back to my “Food and Drink” post in Copenhagen, there was 1 particular beer that I was on a quest to taste by a brewery called Cantillon. Well, it just so happens that that particular brewery is located in Brussels (and they allow you to wander around the brewhouse freely – yay!).
At this point I should note that whereas the caramely trappiste ales folks typically think of when thinking about Beglium do exist, the majority of the local beers are dominated by sours. These are beers that are spontaneously fermented (as opposed to using a cultured yeast strain), which gives the beer a somewhat grassy, acidic, and sour quality. For some nomenclature, a beer brewed in this manner may be refered to as a lambic; if 3 different years of lambic are blended together, it can be refered to as a geuze; and finally, if various fruits are added, it can take on names such as Kriek (cherries), Framboise (Raspberries), or Blabaer (Blueberries). The Cantillon brewery is one of the last remaining breweries that utilized the tradition methods of brewing said beer, and their special edition ales can be very rare and quite valuable.
Besides just bar-hopping around Brussels, another excellent option is to take a day trip to the quaint city of Brugges, about an hour’s train ride away. Some have described Brugges as evoking images from a fairytale, whereas others have said they find it dreary and depressing. Either way, this formerly-walled-city has enough narrow, winding alleys, streets, passages, and canals to get lost in for hours (a great way to explore the city, actually). It is, however, a bit of a tourist town, so some of the scenary and atmosphere can take on a bit of a manufactured feel. I still found it to be quite a beautiful place to spend an afternoon:
Another fun thing to do in Brugges: just off a busy street connecting two of the main squares…
And I’ll end on a story about trying to eat while in a foreign country. Usually, I always try to find restaurants or food stalls off the beaten path that aren’t solely catering to tourists. This can be a bit challenging and intimidating, but I think the rewards more than justify the extra effort.
For example, while I was in Brugges, I was hunting for a nice local joint where I could sit down and have lunch. But being that there are more tourists than locals at any given time in Brugges (it is quite a tourist hot-spot for being so small), this was no easy task. After wandering around for about an hour, I finally found myself in a part of town with no knick-knack shops or street touts to be seen. I found the nearest local-looking restaurant and walked in. Almost immediately, every single table paused their conversations to turn and look at me with the “I can’t believe he just walked in here” look on their face — it was like I walked into a re-enactment of a scene from a movie in which the music screaches to a halt and a lonely tumbleweed drifts by. Even despite the embarassing entrance, I knew I had at least found the type of place I was looking for, no matter how intimidating it may seem. The immediate thought is to slink away and find another, easier spot to check out, but I stuck it out. Luckily, on of the kind waitresses shuffled me over to a table and began to take care of me.
Being that I was in Belgium, the primary language spoken was French, and my primarly (and virtually only) language is English. This added for a bit of back and forth with the waittress, but I was finally able to settle on the “Soup du jour” and the “Plate du jour” — the special of the day with a bowl of soup. Of course I had no idea what I was getting as I didn’t understand a word of the french desciption, but I was excited anyway. Lo and behold, the food came out and everything was as wonderfully simple and delicious as I could have hoped. The wasn’t a shred of pretentiousness to either of the dishes — in fact, they reminded me of what I thought a rustic, home-cooked meal would be in a typical Belgium household (and for about 1/3 of the price, too). I left quite satisfied that I got a chance to see a slightly deeper slice of the cultural pie, for which I am grateful.
I’m writing this post after just arriving in Barcelona, Spain after a marathon travel day that included 4 trains, 3 subway systems, 3 countries, 7 stations, and roughly 13 hours of travel time. Needless to say, I’m a bit worn out. I’ll be hitting the town tomorrow after a good night’s sleep, so I should have another post coming out in the next few days in regards to my experiences in Spain. Salut!