Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Travel Tuesday - Brussels, Belgium

I had a golden opportunity to visit Belgium a few years ago. My friend Olga from back home was doing an internship with the EU in Brussels and asked if I wanted to come up and visit. I was stationed in Germany at the time and jumped at the chance. I took two weeks of leave and hopped on a train eagerly anticipating the trip. I'm happy to say that I wasn't disappointed. Most of the people I knew who had been there didn't seem that impressed, but I've learned never to let anyone else sway your opinion of a place. I arrived at the station and went straight the nearest cafe to sample the local cuisine and, of course, beer. Unfortunately, I made the wrong choice with the latter - a Stella Artois. Belgium, for my money, is the best beer country in Europe. But Stella Artois is the Belgian version of Budweiser; a mass produced beer lacking of any real character. But more about that later.
I met up with Olga and we went to her place and got situated. She had to go back to work, so I spent the day walking around exploring on my own. The first place I went turned out to be one of the highlights of Europe for me, the Grand Place. The Grand Place is the main square of the city, and is surrounded on every side by the most ornately structured buildings. You just have to see it for yourself to get the full effect. I sat there in stunned silence just taking in the sight of the place. It was so impressive that I grabbed a seat at one of the outdoor cafes and had a few drinks so I could soak in the ambiance of it. Leaving there, it's a short stroll down to another of Brussel's famous landmarks, the Mannekin Pis. The Mannekin Pis is also known affectionately as the Piss Boy, as it's basically a little statue of a boy peeing. They dress him up in special costumes sometimes and even have a museum displaying some of the costumes he's worn over the years. My favorite is the Elvis one.
There aren't a lot of tourist attractions in Brussels, so that's not why I liked it there so much. For me, it was more the attitude of the city. It's really relaxed, and yet has a big city atmosphere at the same time. The nightlife was fantastic too, but that's to be expected of a city that serves as the headquarters of the European Union. We would normally start out at the Irish Pub (can't remember the name), then after a few hours, end up in one of the many discos in the downtown area. By that time, I'd be nice and liquored up and much more able to enjoy the disco scene. Then, in the wee hours, it would be time to go home, but there's one obligatory stop to make first - the frites house! Yes, the greasy treat that we Americans call french fries are known there simply as frites (which is French for "fries"...funny how that works out), they are an institution in Belgium. They have places called frites houses that serve several different kinds of fries, complete with a variety of sauces and other toppings. It was in Brussels that I got addicted to fries with mayonaise. Yes, just like Vincent Vega describes them in Pulp Fiction, they "drown 'em in that shit!". I thought it sounded disgusting and had no intention of even trying them. However, a British girl that we had hooked with that night talked me into trying them and hot damn, am I glad she did. I've been hooked on them ever since.
Speaking of fries, the national dish of Belgium is supposed to be what they call "les moules et les frites" - mussels and fries. I first had them in a Belgian restaurant in Strasbourg, France, and they're great. Other than that, Belgian food is not on the level of, say Italy. But the beer more than makes up for it. Belgium is my favorite country in the world for beer. Just the thought of a cold Hoegaarden or a malty trappist beer gets my mouth watering. And Brussels is the perfect city for beer drinking, as you can try pretty much any style Belgium has to offer. I drank plenty of Leffe and Duvel, and sampled quite a few krieks, which is a fruit style beer made famous by the Belgians.
Overall, I fell in love with Brussels and have always wanted to go back but haven't yet had an opportunity. After my trip, I even tried to get a transfer there with the Army, but ended up in Italy instead and the rest is history. I'm not sure I would recommend Brussels to a lot of people as most I've talked to hated it. But that's fine, that means it'll be less crowded next time I go...

I've got a couple pictures of the Grand Place and the Mannekin Pis on the Brussels page of the website. Here's the link:



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