And Now We’re in… Belgium…

After Ireland and a one-night layover in Amsterdam, we headed over to Belgium to play tourist in Brussels and Bruges.  First up– Brussels.

Advance research told us that there was not much to see and do in Brussels, but we went anyway because we couldn’t secure “affordable accommodation” in Bruges right away.  No problem, we booked a cheap apartment-type place in Brussels just a short walk away from one of the major train stations.  We trekked around the city a bit, admiring the architecture everywhere, including the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

…and of course, the most senseless tourist site anywhere– the Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis - why is this a tourist spot again?

Manneken Pis – why is this a tourist spot again?

Ta DAH!  A little guy peeing!

Ta DAH! A little guy peeing!

…that’s right.  It’s a tiny statue of a little guy peeing into a fountain.  People travel from all over the world to take a picture in front of that thing.  We did it.  So did the huge group of Japanese tourists milling about in front of the little guy.  Apparently, they sometimes dress him up on special occasions, but he was nekkid when we were there.  Good times.

Ever since we started watching Rick Steves‘ show in Washington, we’d wondered if Belgian (“Flemish”) fries were really all they were cracked up to be.  After all, what we call “French” fries were supposedly invented in Belgium.  They are also different from the taters we know and love as they are fried not once but twice.

Our conclusion:  while good in theory, we found that the resting period after the initial cooking made the fries kinda stale.  Like refried fries.  The resting period is usually a mystery; you’re never really sure how long they were sitting there before you ordered them.  Ironically, we’d had some Flemish fries in Amsterdam and found that they were much better– probably because they were not allowed to rest for very long as the fry joints in Amsterdam were always really busy.

Brussels also happens to be the political center of the European Union, and being the political geeks we are, we were really excited to visit the EU Headquarters.  We’d heard that you could tour the facilities as well and maybe even catch a session in progress.  Yeah… well, we probably should have confirmed a few things beforehand.  We got there only to find it almost completely abandoned.  Apparently, we showed up on a holiday of some sort.  We saw more diplomatic representation in front of the Manneken Pis.  Heh.

After only two days, we were more than ready to leave Brussels.  It’s certainly a nice city– good transit, nice people, and all that.  But boring as heck.  Seriously.  So we headed to Bruges with higher hopes.

If you’ve ever seen the movie In Bruges, you already have a pretty good feel for the city.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, you should– not your average action/comedy/drama/hitman movie, for sure.  Here’s the trailer…

We saw the the film a while ago, so we had that in our heads when we arrived.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was crummy for most of our time there; kinda like the movie, actually, but with rain.

Random architecture in Bruges... and a crummy day

Random architecture in Bruges… and a crummy day

Bikes in a random Bruges square

Bikes in a random Bruges square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

Also adding to this aggravation was the fact that everything in the town center closed by 6PM– shops, grocery stores, restaurants– everything.  It was crazy.  You had to walk across town (OK, it’s not that big, but still) to get to restaurants, bars, and “night shops” that still had a pulse at 6:30PM.  It’s a good thing the hostel we stayed at had 1) a bar with a Belgian beer tasting every night and 2) a city tour based on the movie In Bruges.

The latter was definitely an interesting experience mainly due to Kai, our intrepid guide, originally from NYC.  After the tour, he was kind enough to invite all of us over to his apartment for dinner.  We all threw in some change for the groceries and proceeded to drink and talk stories with a very diverse group of people– Australians, Canadians, Americans, a Spaniard, and a Brasilian to boot.

The Belgian beer tasting:  if we take nothing else away from Belgium, we have learned this– they really do have the best beer in the world (Charity adds, “So far– I haven’t been everywhere yet” ;-)).  Supposedly, Belgium is the birthplace of beer, invented by monks.  There are still beers made by monks from centuries-old recipes called “Trappiste” beers, and according to Kai, they are the best because of all the love the monks put in.  Normally, that sort of statement would make me laugh, but then I tried some and… well, let’s put it this way:  I am not– by any stretch of the imagination– a beer drinker.  But those beers with their 8-11% alcohol-by-volume content would and did make me one for a few days.  I still think about that beer and can’t wait to find them again.  Trader Joes maybe?

Oh, and one more thing– what they say about Belgian chocolate is true, too.  Made fresh daily, Belgians buy their chocolate daily like other cultures buy their bread.  Unbelievably good stuff.

Cool canal complete with swans

Cool canal complete with swans

Sunbreak!

Sunbreak in Market Square!

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