May 25 – 29
After Bruges, we headed to Brussels for four days. We took the train and arrived mid-afternoon, where it was even hotter than in Bruges. An unforeseen issue was that almost everything in Brussels is closed on Ascension Day, so we had a little bit of stress trying to find a grocery store that was open, but eventually found a little quick-e-mart type place at which we were able to scrounge together some ingredients for dinner (pasta carbonara, obviously).
We were staying in the neighborhood of Uccle, which is quite far south from the city center and all of the major sights, but it was quiet and we were right at a tram stop to take us into town. We were not the most excited about our Airbnb and the location, but we made it work.
Brussels was…fine. We only went in to the city center twice, so maybe we just didn’t give it a chance. There was some interesting architecture to look at, we went to one museum, we wandered around a couple markets, and then we drank lots of beer. But the city felt very crowded and it was very hot, and neither of us were super excited about any of the sights or activities on offer there.
We ended up using the time to get caught up on some work and laundry (and “Master of None”…). We did also have some good times!
Our highlights from Brussels:
More beer! Martin’s friend from work and her husband are beer connoisseurs and so we got their beer recommendations for Brussels. I don’t think we hit everything on their list, but all of the places we did go were recommended by them and we were not disappointed! One of the most famous sights in Brussels is the statue “Manneken Pis” (“little boy peeing”), and there are references and replicas of it all over the city. We did manage to find it, but similar to the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre it is surrounded by tourists taking pictures and selfies. So instead of trying to push our way through the throngs, we parked our butts at a cafe-bar kitty-corner to the little boy (Poechenellekelder, thanks Emily and Brad for the suggestion!) and drank beer while watching the people looking at the statue. I think it was definitely a better use of our time.
We also checked out Delirium, which has over 3,000 beers on their menu! We sipped on some beers while perusing their extensive catalog, which was a fun way to pass some time away from the heat.
Another beer-related highlight for us, also recommended by Emily and Brad, was the tour and tasting of Cantillon Brewery, a traditional family-run brewery which has been producing lambic beers since 1900. The tour was self-guided but still very informative and interesting to see how they have been using the same techniques for more than a century. Lambic beers are made using wild, air-borne yeasts from the brewing environment (as opposed to inoculating the wort directly with a specific strand of yeast to better control the outcome), and are very acidic and sour-tasting. They are also aged in wooden barrels for up to three years! The wild yeasts are hard to control so the lambics may be inconsistent from batch to batch. Thus, in order to counteract some of that uncertainty, the master brewer blends one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics; this mixture undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle and becomes gueuze. Stored properly, a gueuze beer can be kept for decades! Sometimes fresh fruit are added to the lambic to create fruit beers, which are very refreshing and not at all sweet. We got to sample several of the house lambics and gueuzes, and were tempted to buy bottles because they were so cheap (6€ or 7€ for 750ml, as opposed to $50 or $200 in the States!), but we refrained.
Seafood: We got lunch one day at Mer du Nord, which is like a fish market where you pick out what you want, they cook it for you, and then you eat it standing up around tall tables in the adjacent parklet. We picked a few things to try and enjoyed them with a refreshing glass of white wine. We got to try croquettes, a local favorite which are breaded and fried logs of shrimp mixed with bechemel: ooey, gooey, and delicious.
Magritte Museum: Despite what it may seem like, we did do some things other than eat and drink while in Brussels. We went to one museum! We spent a few hours checking out the Magritte Museum which was cool but not as nicely set up as the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Chocolate! Self-explanatory… We got some small morsels to try from the oldest chocolatier in Belgium, Neuhaus, from their original location in the Galeries Royales and they were very delicious.
Grand Place: The center of the historic part of Brussels is the Grand Place, a large market square surrounded by the old guild halls. All of the guild halls have different, ornate facades that correlate to the professions and their respective activities; most of those decorations are gilded and thus lend the square an impressive air of splendor. We weren’t quite able to enjoy the whole effect, however, because there was a large stage set up in the middle of the square for the upcoming jazz festival. We did stick around one afternoon and got to hear some of the performers: a saxophone quartet which was a little too 80s/muzak-sounding for me, but nonetheless a fun thing to check out.
All in all, I’m not sure I need to go back to Brussels any time soon. It reminded me of Cork, Ireland a little bit in that it feels like it doesn’t really have a cohesive identity. I suppose if we had planned things out more and if it hadn’t been too hot to walk around in the crowds, we might have felt differently about it. One upshot was that they speak French in Brussels which was good practice for me since, other than a few minutes trying to speak to a market vendor in Bruges, I haven’t really spoken French since college and we were about to spend a looooot more time in francophone countries…
Up next: We go in search of the best baguette in Paris! Stay tuned to see if we actually found it… (Spoiler alert, we did!)