I think the Belgians have it good:
(1) a wide range of world-famous beers (they even had Duff!),
(2) a country synonymous with waffles (the happiest breakfast ever made),
(3) the brilliant idea of serving frites (fries) with mayonnaise,
(4) and the best-est chocolates.
Okay, so it’s not all about food. But food–and the chocolates, in particular–was the main reason for our weekend trip to Brussels and Bruges. Legend has it that there are chocolatiers in the country that would put even brands like Godiva and Leonidas to shame.
What ho! I said. We’d be the judge of that.
We hopped on a Eurostar train for the 2-hour ride to Brussels Gare du Midi station. Upon arrival, we immediately started walking around. Brussels was, thankfully, a compact city so we covered a lot of ground in the space of a day.
Day 1 in Belgium: Brussels Sprouts
First stop was the Grand Place, a beautiful square that lived up to its name.
We visited early January 2011 so the Christmas tree was still up. Each of the buildings in Grand Place are former guildhouses for haberdashers, butchers, boatmen, brewers, bakers, etc. I was so awed by the beautiful Gothic design that I remember feeling, for the first time, being in the Europe I had imagined and read about as a kid.
Near the Grand Place is the Biscuiterie Dandoy, reputedly the makers of Brussels’ best biscuits. I was especially keen to try out the speculoos, a deliciously spicy biscuit that smells of Christmas.
One of my friends told me there’s also a jam version in Paris which is absolutely YUM on bread.
Walk a little further on and you’ll eventually sight the Manneken-Pis. It’s a statue of little boy peeing a jet of water and a popular tourist spot. God knows why.
We also visited the Cathédrale de Saints Michel et Gudule, the largest church in Brussels. The honey-colored church interior made quite an impression on me. At that time, the biggest church in Europe I had seen so far was the Westminster Cathedral in London–which was lovely but more serious-looking in sombre gray.
As you may have noticed by now, the Fiancé and I always visit huge, old, grand churches on our trips. I think the record to beat for our church-tripping was Rome–we must have visited around 15 or so.
We’re not especially religious. We both just like looking at the architecture of European churches and how different they are from the ones back home.
Lunch was at Chez Léon. We didn’t know that moules-frites, the restaurant’s specialty, was a special dish altogether and thought that having any moules dish–in our case, mussels with cheese–was the way to go. It would have been nice to try the mussels plain and fresh. But the meal was still quite delicious.
We had a train to Bruges to catch that evening, but still had time to see some of the sights.
We also left time to visit the three contenders for our personal Belgian Chocolate Challenge, which I dub:
Neuhaus vs. Wittamer vs. Marcolini
(It’s like the name of a bad three-way boxing match.)
The Mechanics: Buy a box of chocs from each store, eat them, and judge which was the best. It was simple enough. Not recommended for diabetics or similar.
We started chomping on them on the train to Bruges.
(1) Neuhaus’ Claim to Fame: Established 1857. Creator of the praline and the ballotin. Mr. Neuhaus created the first filled chocolates ever in 1912 (bless him) and also created a gift-wrap box to protect them from being crushed, i.e. the ballotin.
(2) Wittamer’s Claim to Fame: Creating chocolate-y goodness since 1910. Official supplier to the Court of Belgium. Chocolates fit for the royals!
(3) Pierre Marcolini’s Claim to Fame: The youngest kid of the three, born 1995. Mr. Marcolini was named the World Champion of Pastry.
The Verdict: Neuhaus’ pralines are always a winner in my book. Marcolini’s “origin” chocolates evoke delicious, exotic locations (even the Earl Grey Tea flavor was wow). And Wittamer’s rich cocoa flavors were pleasure with each bite.
So–err–I’m afraid I’m going to have to chicken out of this one and declare a three-way tie.
Day 2 in Belgium: In Bruges
Have you watched the movie In Bruges, with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes? Absolutely funny.
“If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.” Heehee. Colin Farrell’s character absolutely hates the city he’s stuck in.
Anyway I’d have to disagree, as Bruges is a lovely city. It’s sometimes called ‘The Venice of the North’ because of all the canals that intersect the cobbled streets. It was too cold to go for a boat ride though.
The Christmas Market at the Markt was still there when we arrived. It was pleasant to sit on a bench with our chocolates and a hot cup of coffee, and just people-watch.
We wanted to climb up the Belfort (as Brendan Gleeson did), for our customary bird’s eye view of the city.
There were metal grills at the top though, so Gleeson’s character couldn’t have done what he did (ehem, no spoilers).
We also strolled to the Burg, which was Bruges’ version of the Grand Place. Around the square is the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig Bloedbasiliek), which contains a very unique relic–the blood of Jesus on a very old piece of cloth; St. Basil’s Chapel, a 12th century stone basement church under the basilica; and The Missing Cathedral, a metal sculpture built on the site of a church that doesn’t exist anymore.
Still on the trail of famous churches, we also paid a visit to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), which housed Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.
Another thing I remember about Bruges: it is where I first got to taste kriek, a delicious cherry-flavored beer that changed my view of the drink in general. Absolute goodness.
It was overall an excellent weekend, and I doff my hat to Belgium and all its goodies–and to my favorite Belgian in particular: