Arriving in Brussels without reservations, we were lucky to get a hostel near the old city center. Brussels is a big sprawling city, but the area around the old square is special, with winding stone streets and one of the prettiest squares in Europe. That evening we walked into the square for a great dinner of, what else, but mussels (when in Brussels...). Now might be a good time to mention how upset the Belgians are that the world knows their greatest contribution to cuisine as “French” fries and not “Belgian.” We ate some of those too.
The highlight of the evening however, was the beer. Belgium has more beer variety than any other country in the world, with around 600 different beers in this small country. In the U.S. it is hard to find, often not fresh, and always quite expensive. At home it would be a treat for me to have any Belgian ale; here I found great selection everywhere, just one of which would have made my day at home. I dragged Kate kicking and screaming, just out of college after all, to a bar (and sometime puppet theater?) called Toome. It was heavenly. Each beer is presented in its own special glass. Alas there was only so much we could drink before bedtime. On the way home we passed a Greek restaurant where the staff were dancing traditionally. The Belgian nectar must have been working, since it took very little encouraging to convince Kate, who had spent a summer in Greece, to join in. (At some point I should mention that typical strength of Belgian ale is between 7%-12%, halfway between wine and beer.) The staff was a little surprised but happy to have her once they realized she knew her steps. Afterwards though it was time for bed.
Since Kate had only three days to spend in Belgium, we spent the next morning walking around the old part of the city before our train to Bruges. First on our list of sights was the infamous statue of a little boy peeing. It turned out to be a very little statue of a little boy peeing, only about two feet tall (60 centimeters for you metric fans out there). The statue is naked, but apparently his birthday suit was considered indecent, so someone created a whole wardrobe for him. Now he can pee clothed, which is much more forgivable. In an equal opportunity effort we then tried to find the statue of a little girl peeing. Some bright person decided that they could capitalize on the notoriety and created a friend for Mannekin. However we could not find it, and when we asked for directions people turned up their noses in distaste. We gave up eventually, though I did get a glimpse of her when I came back through Brussels again.
Having only a little time, we walked past the palace where we had a great view of the city, even spotting the Atomium in the distance (more on that later). With little time to spare we caught a glimpse of the ruins of the old city walls and poked our heads into the Cathedral. The most surprising discovery however was that the city has placed interesting art around town. Kate and I found a quaint little statue garden among other interesting pieces and some other nice modern ones in little squares around town. Speaking of art, Belgium has also contributed to the animated world, boasting Tintin and the Smurfs among others.
And then it was time for our train to Bruges, a small city about one hour from Brussels, which is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site. (Travel tip: if you are near a UNESCO site, go see it. In my experience it has always been worth the effort.) Bruges was once a strategically located center of commerce. Unfortunately when the river silted up the money dried up. The silver lining turned out to be that without money pouring in there was little construction, so the city remained the same for some centuries. Today a trip there transports you back to another era. I cannot remember seeing a modern building during my time there, though you will see cars in the cobblestone streets. Canals run through the city at the foot of the brick buildings.
After checking into the Snuffle Sleep-in hostel in the rain, we explored a bit of the city before stopping at the brewery and brewing museum. The brewery is known for making Blanche de Bruges, a famous Belgian white beer, though they make several other excellent beers as well. The museum explained how the brewing process has changed through the years as well as documented the decline of the small brewer. In the old days there were many small brewers, but as distribution improved the numbers of brewers declined. Belgium still has many great small breweries, but if this trend continues... Of course our tour ended at the bar on the top floor for tasting of their wares.
The next day we roamed around town soaking up the ambience and trying to avoid the rain. We climbed to the top of the bell tower in the town square for a view of the city and countryside, and we walked over canal bridges while window shopping for gifts Kate could take home, such as lace or . Chocolate turned out to be the gift of choice. The Belgians do make great chocolates. I say chocolates because I didn't think the chocolate itself was better than that of Switzerland, though the combinations they make with it are unrivaled--delicious fillings. I hope Kate made it home without eating all of her gifts.
Two days was barely enough, but it had to do because we left the next day for...