I really had no plans for Belgium except to get my greedy hands on: moules-frites, chocolates, and waffles. The food there was amazing, but I’ll get back to that! First…
We stayed in the city of Ghent and visited both Bruges and Brussels for a day.
Ghent is a cobble stoned city with three large cathedrals at its center, one twelfth century castle, intersected by wide canals. There is a busy mix of locals (speaking Dutch, French and Flemish) and buses of tourists during the day, but by evening the cobbled streets are quiet. We happened to be there during a classical music festival, so the city and cathedrals were in the process of being decorated with gigantic posters and flowers.
We also saw several weddings take place while we were wandering the city (one after another out of the City Hall) complete with amazing vintage cars, big white gowns, and heart shaped confetti. It all added to the festive atmosphere around town.
Now that that’s out of the way, lets get back to the food!
Fries and beer were unavoidable. Almost all dishes came with a side of fries instead of bread or potatoes, and they were good. There’s a double frying technique that’s the secret to the crispiness without sogginess. Belgians also take their beer seriously. Every beer comes in a specific glass made for that beer. I also learned a little belatedly why they weren’t served in pints sizes: they’ve got a 7 – 11% alcohol content, vs your typical Canadian beer at around 4-5%. After one small glass on an empty stomach I was wondering why I felt so funny. One of the most popular beers was Kriek (Cheery Beer). It was bubbly and refreshingly fruity rather than beer-like.
Like in other places in Europe there’s a cafe culture. In the afternoons the plazas fill up with tables manned by very few waiters (one or two) so service can be slow. People sit around to drink beers or coffee or pop. Mostly it’s just to hang out. Coffees and teas usually came with a little cookie or chocolate which was nice. El reminisced about his days as a waiter in Greece while we enjoyed a little late summer sunshine.
We also visited a genever (a type of Dutch gin) bar that had a list of 200 flavors. There were odd flavors like chili and apple. Some were premade, and others were soaking up flavors right behind the bar in gallon sized bottles. I tried pear and mandarin. If you’ve ever tried Soju, genever tastes very similar. El stuck to the plain genevers.
The food is a mix of Dutch and French cuisines. I did get my moules-frites (mussles with fries) and I was not disappointed. I ordered one and it came in a gigantic bucket that was good enough for four people. Somehow I finished that bad boy. Ghent has a local dish called waterzooi, which is a fish stew with potatoes and carrots, but is sometimes its made with chicken too. El will always remember his vol-au-vent (chicken in puff pastry). Everything we ate was so good. It wasn’t cheap, but it was good.
In Belgium the trains are discounted on the weekends so we went to Bruges for a day. After the relative quiet of Ghent, it was shocking to be back to touristville! There are busses of people and horse drawn carriage tours gallop all over the city. Bruges is the most beautiful place to take photos. Everywhere you look is postcard perfect. There are huge towers and old buildings, and windmills, and canals.
Every other shop is a chocolate shop. Bruges is the Chocolate capital of Belgium. We walked into one at random and picked out different chocolates from the counter, paid by the weight, and ate our way down the street. It was amazing chocolate. I say that and I’m not really a chocolate fan.
And there were the ubiquitous fry or waffle windows that dotted the streets. Waffles are not breakfast food, but a sweet afternoon snack. You can get them topped with chocolate and whipped cream, or fruit, right out of a window and eat while you walk.
Brussels was a huge city, and again, a shock after the small cities and towns we’d been to all trip long. We didn’t have much time there but saw the government buildings, and wandered around the historical center for a little while. Most of the people spoke French, and we observed a very large immigrant population.
I couldn’t pin down a style in Belgium really. The people dressed very casually. If anything it seemed like older women were fond of colorful pants (bright orange, bright green, red). The younger kids liked washed out skinny denim, and converse.
From Brussels we took the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. El had been wanting to do that forever. Amazingly, it took only 20 minutes to pass under the English Channel, and we were in London 2 hours after leaving Brussels. Such a speedy trip. More on London town next week!
The full set of Belgian photos is here on Flickr.