CAUTION: This post may cause snacking.
Chocolate, Beer, Canals, Waffles, Spires, Frites, and Smurfs! All of these are excellent reasons to go see Belgium. Add to that a sale on airfare, and an almost-off-season discount on our hotel, and we were sold. Making our first out-of-italy excursion last week a 3 day damp weekend in Brussels and Bruges, and we loved it!
To keep this post less than novel length, I decided to post about Brussels first, and give Bruges its own post. In my initial research I was surprised to find that so many people recommended skipping Brussels or just doing a two-hour stop-over to see Grand Place and Mannequin Pis. This is a mistake. While my initial impression/panic when entering the city was “this kind of looks like Baltimore,” we found that compared to its neighbors – Paris, London, and Amsterdam – Brussels is kind of a wallflower at first glance. But don’t be fooled, with a small bit of effort the city reveals itself to be a quirky, gorgeous, friendly and delicious.
That being said, is it touristy? Yes, but so are most large cities worth seeing. There are bursts now and then of almost comical gaudiness meant to attract tourists, just walk past them, they pass, and then you find yourself back in baroque clad winding alleys and over-the-top decadent squares.
For both nights, we stayed at Le Meridien right at Centraal Station, and next to Grand Place. I don’t usually rave about our hotel rooms, I’m happy as long as they’re clean, comfortable, and in a good location. But the bed, the BED! Maybe it’s because we’ve been sleeping on prison style temporary furniture for the past few weeks, or maybe it’s because the pillows it came with are two inches thick, and probably made out of recycled bottles, but this bed made up for all of our suffering. It felt like sleeping on a layer of angel feathers piled on a cloud, wrapped in sateen – not exaggerating. I don’t even think I dreamed, just passed out in the kind of heavy slumber so deep that it took me a moment to remember where I was and how long I’d been there the next morning. I wanted to get tips from the maid.
The show stopper in Brussels is Grand Place. (pronounced grond plass or Grote Markt in dutch) I dare you to stand in this square and be under-whelmed or jaded by this place, the scale and detail dedicated here compel many to call it the most beautiful in Europe. At this point, I can’t say I disagree. Surrounded by the town hall and ornate guild halls, the square has been the focus of the city for 800 years. Today it is the museum and cultural center and something you can’t help but slow down and marvel at. We took every opportunity to cross the square, snapped hundreds of pictures, and every time we saw something new. I especially recommend taking a night stroll through the area, even if it’s raining like it was for us. By then, the 2-hour tourists have left, the square is softly lit and it feels like you have it to yourself.
Follow the tiny streets along Grand Place and it will take you many different directions. One street, several blocks away will take you to Manneken Pis. Oddly, this tiny nude sculpture is the other “must-see” destination in Brussels. I’ll admit, he is kind of cute. No more than two feet tall, he balances at least seven feet up, urinating into a small fountain. There are several legends about lost boys being found urinating into ponds and grateful parents dedicating statues in honor of the found child, and two year old dukes relieving themselves on their troops before battle. But the most entertaining one is of a boy spying a foreign power placing explosives at the city walls, when the soldiers went to take cover, the boy urinated on the fuses, thus saving the city. There are many more legends and a thorough history of the statue being stolen and retrieved multiple times over its nearly 400 year old history. But in typical European fashion, most of the crowds are there to see what he’s wearing today. That’s right, for hundreds of years, he’s dressed up at least 3 times a week to much fanfare and even brass band music. He has over 300 outfits, there’s a committee that votes on what he wears, and what his new outfits will be. I have no idea what he was wearing when we saw him, some sort of black cap, with a white jacket and sash in Belgian colors.
Continue down other streets from Grand Place and you’re sure to run into Passage Saint-Hubert. A covered gallery of shops and hundred year old theaters and cinemas, it’s an excellent place to escape the wind and rain that often plagues most of Belgium, sit in at a café and people watch. But one of the best reasons to visit is the chocolate! (this is where the snacking part begins, I warned you.)
I would say every 3rd shop in Brussels is chocolate oriented. They are so prevalent in the city center that the streets actually smell of cocoa and butter, really. I love chocolate, and I’ll admit that my sweet tooth is shameful, but with at least fifty or so chocolate shops within a quarter mile radius, not even I can sample that much chocolate. So we had to be picky. We had to be prepared. After an intensive google search, it was decided that we would only visit Pierre Marcolini, Wittamer, Neuhaus, Mary, and Galler. Willy Wonka has nothing on these guys. Just walking into the shops is an experience, with macarons of every color, truffles and tablets, crème cups and cordials, stacks of pralines, rows of ganache, it was borderline overwhelming. The air contained calories, it was pure sin. We must have over-estimated our prowess because we only made it to two of these. We got the Praline sampler at Pierre Marcolini that was just as beautiful as it was delicious, and the international selection from Neuhaus (I still think about the smoky caramel flavor from Shang Hai, and the praline with pop rocks from Madrid, infact, all nine flavors are amazing, go get one.) Check out their websites, I highly recommend anything from any of them.
Sometimes I plan trips without a hitch, sometimes there are many hitches. Since we were in town Saturday through Monday, with museums closed Monday, and our Bruges trip on Sunday, we only had a few precious hours to spend in one of the many unique museums in Brussels. I really wanted to see the Magritte Museum, and the lovely home of famed architect Victor Horta, but what we really had to see while in Brussels was the The Belgian Comic Strip Center. Proudly the producers of household names like The Smurfs and Tin-Tin, comics are to Brussels as Disney is to Orlando. To make the decision even easier, the museum is held in one of the finest and earliest examples of Art Nouveau architecture. Win.
This museum is not really geared towards children (though kids like it), but rather adults who appreciate comics not only for their nostalgia but their artistic appeal. I thought we would spend about thirty minutes to an hour doing a walk-through, maybe buy a souvenir in the gift shop and then go about our day. But we shut the place down. The museum is curated and staged very well, you don’t feel crowded or over-whelmed, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. We liked this place. I would recommend it to anyone.
However, you don’t have to go to the Comic Strip Museum to experience comic art in Brussels, it’s everywhere! Street signs are manipulated to look like Tin-Tin, ten foot Smurfs sit outside Centraal Station, and there are giant cartoonish murals and statues every few blocks. You can’t help but admire the sense of humor, and the color they bring to an otherwise grey day. We even saw a man who at first glance we thought was a strange man in black face. When we got closer, we realized he was in full costume, dressed as a black Smurf, with a sign in French around his neck. (That’s right, this Belgian was protesting in fancy dress. I will forever regret not taking his picture so I could find out what the sign said.) We asked one of the museum employees what the story was behind the black Smurf, and he replied “Don’t worry, it’s Brussels, he’s just crazy.”
Our last day, the museums were closed and we had about six hours to kill before we had to board the bus to the airport. So we checked our bags at the concierge and went in search of the perfect Belgian waffle.
Almost as widespread as the chocolate shops; waffles stands, waffle shops, waffle cookies, and waffle irons are everywhere. It’s another element that makes Brussels smell like cake, but it also makes it hard to distinguish between who is using bisquick and who is making genuine Belgian waffles. There is also added confusion because there are two types of waffles, there are Brussels and Liege waffles. Brussels waffles are made from a thin batter and bake-up very light, Liege waffles are made from a dough with sugar that caramelizes when it’s baked, making it sweet and more solid.
I’d like to say that we’re cool enough to stumble upon an icon as esteemed and understated as Maison Dandoy, but the truth is I had lots of pointers from tripadvisor and just about every other Brussels travel reference saying that this is one of the best places for waffles, with hands down the best atmosphere. We only had one shot at this so we went with their advice. We crossed Grand Place and found ourselves in the second story of the adorable Maison Dandoy, looking down upon neat displays of Speculoos (think if gingerbread and shortbread had a superior child) and shortbread on the first floor. I ordered a simple cappuccino and was surprised to be served a coffee confection complete with whip cream and chocolate shavings. It was good, just not what I was expecting. For waffles I went with the “Natural” Brussels waffle with a side of whip cream. My husband chose the Brussels waffle, with cherries, ice cream, and whip cream on the side. Both were amazing. The waffle itself was feather light on the inside, lightly flakey on the outside, cakey but not sweet. Even my whip cream was inspired, with a touch of fresh vanilla bean, something I will always do in the future. If you come to Brussels, you must sit where I sat at Maison Dandoy and eat a Brussels waffle, you must.
Our waffle excursion took maybe an hour. So we continued doing what we had been doing for most of trip, but I haven’t mentioned until now. Sampling what Belgium is best at: Beer.
My husband is the beer connoisseur, not me. I was scarred in high school and college by Natty Lite and Pabst Blue Ribbon. So I drank my trashcan punch at parties, tolerated Bud Light, and acquired my taste for wine. It wasn’t until sometime later that my husband introduced me to Belgian style beers. They were smooth, complex, fruity, and strong. I was impressed. Drinking Belgian beer was also one of the main reasons we booked this trip to begin with. And drink beer we did.
We had the staples, like Duvel, Delirium, and Maredsous, all of them different and so good. We also had selections made by the Trappist monks like Chimay and Rochefort, which were dark, sweet and strong. We tried Gueuze, unique to the Brussels region, which was dry and almost metallic, I wasn’t sure I could drink it, but it grew on me. And we tried Lambic fruit beers, like Kriek and Framboise. As I said before, I’m not a beer person, so I didn’t know that Belgian fruit beers existed. This was obviously a disservice to my taste buds and sadly I didn’t discover it until Monday afternoon. So I tried to make up for it by drinking strawberry (aardbei), raspberry (framboise), and sour cherry (kreik). Basically I drank pink beer for the rest of the day, and life was good. There were other excellent beers at restaurants and cafes, but I wasn’t taking notes. (No, I did not have over 9 beers in one afternoon, we did this over 3 days, and often just a sip of one another’s glass. Belgian beer is stronger than American beer, so keep that in mind.)
Even if you aren’t a beer drinker, order something else and enjoy the ambiance. Many of these bars/pubs are lovely. Our favorite was A La Mort Subite (translates to “The Sudden Death”, a game that was popular at the time it was established.) Owned by the same family for about 90 years, it’s a place where business men, college students, and little old ladies hang out. It still has the original décor from the 1920s. Our stout waiter was very friendly and with his rolled up sleeves, bow tie, bald head, and guttural French, he fit his surroundings perfectly. In a way it reminded me of Paris, but it was still uniquely Brussels. I could have spent all day in there with my Framboise.
Tipsy, damp from near constant rain, poorer from last minute chocolate and lace purchases, and satisfied that we did what could in two and half days in Belgium, we headed for the bus that would take us to the airport. A little confused as to where to buy tickets for the bus, we asked a shuttle driver. Overhearing, one of his passengers handed us valid unused tickets for free that they weren’t going to use. Then the shuttle salesman snatched them from us and told us to use the shuttle not the bus, and wouldn’t give us back our free tickets, even the driver thought this was uncalled for. We decided that the universe would reward him in its own way, obviously we didn’t buy shuttle tickets, and went to get bus tickets. We made a plan to buy tickets directly from the bus driver if possible, meanwhile the shuttle salesman, whose job it is to flip bus travelers into shuttle travelers, asked us when our flight was and grudgingly handed us back our stolen tickets. So in the end we saved 34 euro with our free tickets, thank you, British strangers who gave them to us.
In summary, we loved our time in Brussels. We want to go back and do the things we didn’t have time to do. Like the Art Nouveau Walk, The Comic Strip Walk, tour the antiques and chocolate shops of the Sablon, sample more Frites, try more hardy Belgian food, see the Magritte Museum, see the Palace, find Westvletteren (a beer I really wanted to try), get a look at the European Union, etc. Again, we would like to thank our lucky stars for allowing us the opportunity to see places like this so easily. If you have the opportunity, please go, and don’t be a two-hour tourist, walk around and enjoy it!
The Bruges post is coming soon.
Where should we go next?