Monday, September 16, 2013

Brussels, Belgium

(Check for updated post with more pictures- waiting on more as my camera died in middle of trip.)

Never ever had I seen a man look so out of sorts. He looked worried, confused and frustrated all at once. He put on his backpack and was getting ready to leave our meeting spot when he saw me walk up. Relief flooded his face.

I explained to him one of my trains broke down and I had to take the slow regional one making me 45 minutes late. I asked what he thought happened.

“The train crashed and you were dead or you ditched me and didn’t come.”

My extremely rational friend Ryan is spending 8 weeks backpacking Europe. Check out his adventures HERE. After he sent me his itinerary I decided to meet him while he was in Belgium. I booked my train ticket and my trip to Brussels was born.

Once Ryan’s blood pressure returned to normal, I took out 2 mini champagne bottles and we cheersed to our Belgium adventure. Next we navigated ourselves south of the city center to Ixelles where our apartment was. Our host met us right outside.

Her name is Erga and her husband’s name is Casper. They are two of the most loveable eccentric vegans I’ve ever met. They provided us a massive room to share while they lived down the hall with their suicidal cats. They were very sweet and stayed out of our way but were available for directions and homemade tea for Ryan’s sore throat.

That night we were both exhausted from travelling all day and staying up until the wee hours watching the Broncos stomp the Ravens, so it was a low key night.

We headed to Place Flagey, which is a giant fountained square surrounded by bars and restaurants. Our first stop was Café Belgia, which had an impressive beer list. (I’m use to limited tap choices in Germany) We each chose one off the menu, Ryan fell in love briefly with the adorable bartender, and we lounged in beach chairs on their patio while exchanging oh-em-gees were in Brussels!

Place Flagey

Selfie in beach chairs at Cafe Belgia

We wrapped up with dinner and then a bottle of wine for movie night. We needed to rest up for the epic debauchery that the next day was sure to bring.

*     *     *     *    *

Belgium Beer Weekend was going on the weekend we were there. Ryan’s mom’s friend Kathy, along with her 2 sons and niece were in Brussels the same weekend. We met up with them to enjoy the beer festival together.

I cannot explain the ornate architecture surrounding the festival. It was stunning and I frequently marveled, “I cannot believe we’re at a beer festival here!” It was in Grand Place.

Beer Fest in Grand Place

[History Lesson: Grand Place is a central square in Brussels surrounded by guildhalls, city Town Hall and The Breadhouse. Historically it was a marketplace where traders and citizens sold and bought food. It’s the most visited tourist destination and most memorable. It has a very eclectic flavor with architecture from 3 different areas: Baroque, Gothic, and Louis XIV.]

Panorama of Beer Fest in Grand Place

After buying beer chips and a beer glass deposit coin, we were ready. As Ryan so eloquently put it, “This day has all the makings for a shit show!”

The whole fest was decorated with hops.
The festival had 36 Belgium brewers there each with 5-13 beers on tap or in bottles (400 different choices!). They are very particular that each beer be served in the correct logoed and shaped glass. Hence the glass deposit coin. You use that to get a sample of beer (typically 6-12oz). Once you finish one beer, you have to go back to the same brew tent to return the glass and get your deposit coin back for the next brew tent.

While it was somewhat a hassle to bring back the empty glass to the correct brew tent, it was neat to drink each beer authentically.

That day Ryan decided to wear his bright orange Bronco tee. At first I thought it was rather obnoxious, but by the end of the day I was quite thankful.

It allowed us to meet this amazing couple Ben and Sarah. They approached Ryan to congratulate him on the Bronco win. We all hit it off great and spent the rest of the day with them. They had been traveling around the world for 6 months so naturally I found them particularly interesting and spent the next 5 hours asking them questions about their lives, travels and post excursion plans.

Sarah turned out to be our own personal tripadvisor. After we drank through our tokens at the festival, she navigated us to dinner. It was one of the most phenomenal meals I’ve had in a while. Our vegan hosts would have been appalled at the smorgasbord of deceased farm animals on our plates.  

Veal, pork, steak and ham, oh my! We also had stoemp, which is potatoes mashed with vegetables- usually carrots and cabbage. Delicious!

Nest stop was Manneken Pis.

[History Lesson: Manneken Pis is a small bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. There are several legends behind the statue. You can read them all here. It’s tradition to dress him up a couple times a week. His wardrobe consists of hundreds of outfits. Sometimes, he is hooked up to a beer keg where people can fill up cups of beer flowing out of him.]

I found him to be overrated and ridiculously souvenired- most souvenirs being larger than the actual statue!

After saying our goodbyes and promising Facebook requests, we headed to Delirium Café. It’s known for it’s massive beer list with over 2,000 different brands. This is any beer connoisseur’s wet dream. It’s difficult to know where to start, so I just blindly chose one and then two, three and four- and was never disappointed.

The remainder of the night was a blurry jumble of more beer, snacks, new friends and just as Ryan predicated- all around shit showness.

*     *     *     *     *

Day 3 started out slow. That’s what happens after 15 hours of drinking 10% Belgium beers. Both of us remembered, “we were never without a beer in our hand.”

We caught the bus back to Grand Place to join a free walking tour of Brussels. Our guides name was Seena and he was a little nerdy and his jokes felt forced, plus my hangover made his goofy accent sound like nails on a chalkboard. Having no morning coffee or food, any focus or concentration I had was completely diminished and I didn’t hear most of what he said, thus didn’t learn too much about Brussels.

I did, however, learn the national dish of Brussels in Moules-frites (mussels steamed in onions and celery with fries).  We found a nearby restaurant and ordered that and a pizza to share. Ryan’s hangover was nearly gone but a cold was creeping up- so he wasn’t interested in drinking.

I on the other hand am quite obsessed with Belgium beer, particularly a beer called Kriek. It’s a lambic beer made with sour Morello cherries. I ordered it everywhere we went that day!

Feeling finally satisfied we hopped on a metro to the north of the city to check out the Atomium.

[History Lesson: the Atomium is an iconic building originally constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. It stands at 335 feet tall and has 9 stainless steal spheres connected so the whole thing forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. CNN named it Europe’s most bizarre building.]

I found it to be so very odd and quite the eyesore. We paid the 11€ to go to the very top. It took the elevator 20 seconds to shoot us to the top sphere for panoramic views of the entire city.

It was neat to see the city like that but I still couldn’t put it out of my mind how Disneyworld-esque this place was. (I mean the Atomium was right next a dinky water park and Mini Europe- an amusement type area full of tiny versions of famous landmarks around Europe. So yes… exactly how it sounds)

*     *     *     *     *

Despite not learning much about Brussels on the walking tour, I loved the city! It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been before. It’s a rather bizarre city but very friendly and it doesn’t hurt that it has the best beer in the world!

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