Brugge, Brussels, Bier, and other Belgian things

Friday, August 28, 2015

Over the last couple of years, I've been making endless lists of places around the world I wanted to visit, pinning image after image to my Wanderlust Pinterest board, dreaming about the day when I would be able to step into the places in the photos and explore some of these exotic scenes myself. Between working full-time, grad school, limited vacation, limited funds, and a number of other obstacles, I thought it would be years before I would actually be able to make some of these travel dreams come true. Then after our trip to Costa Rica for December had to be cancelled, I was more discouraged than ever.

But, by some radical twist of fate, I landed a brand new job only to find out on the first day that we would be traveling to Belgium just a few weeks later. I could barely contain my excitement when my boss told me to book my ticket!

The last time I had been to Europe was back in 1992 when my family went to visit my grandparents who were living in Germany at the time. I have not a single memory from our trip. There are a few pictures of me to prove that I was there but I can't actually recall anything.

Just a 3-year-old enjoying a beer and a pretzel that's roughly half her body weight... 
Welcome to Deutschland. 
(Just kidding about the beer.)

So needless to say, I was long overdue for a trip to Europe. Mike and I have been planning trips to Italy, France, and the UK for quite some time, but I had never even thought about making time to check out Belgium. When I started doing research on this beautiful country, however, I was a little bit upset at myself for blindly excluding it before. It truly is a hidden gem. For those that need a little convincing, here is a list of all of the wonderful things I got to see and do in Belgium that will hopefully encourage you to book a ticket.

The B's of Belgium

1. Brussels

After we landed on Sunday morning, I expected to be completely exhausted after barely getting any sleep on the nearly 8 hour plane ride. But somehow, the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt totally energized. One of my co-workers and I decided to take advantage of the time we had off before work started on Monday to explore Brussels.

We hopped on the train and less than half an hour later we were standing in the center of the Grote Markt (also called Grand Place) with vendors, cafes, and people buzzing all around us.

It was beautiful beyond words. We stood in the middle of the square, with majestic, gold-filigreed buildings towering above us on all four sides. The place was filled with people relaxing at outdoor cafes, artists painting beautiful portraits of the scenery around them, and vendors selling fresh suiker wafels (sugar waffles).

My co-worker and I had heard that the waffles in Belgium were very different from the "Belgian waffles" we get in America and this could not have been more true. The waffles here are made with a giant ball of dough that they press into a waffle iron instead of the batter we use in the States. This makes them much more dense, and in my opinion, much more delicious! They also aren't considered a breakfast food but more of a snack that can be served with all types of toppings like Nutella, whipped cream, fruit, chocolate, and even savory options. I chose a normal sugar waffle with strawberries and cream and it was heavenly. 

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the streets and doing some shopping for our friends and family members back home. It was a beautiful first day in Belgium and a great way to kick off our trip.

2. Bier

One of the best things about Belgium, hands down, is the beer. Since we were there for a week, we tried to sample a different Belgian beer each time we sat down to dinner.

From Leffe and Trappist to Duvel and Stella Artois we tried them all. Okay maybe not all, but we definitely made a good effort. My favorite by far was the Trappistes Rochefort 10.

Before our trip, I had never even heard of Trappist beer or thought that it was possible for me to like a darker beer, but I quickly learned all about the Trappist monks and the story behind their beer and knew I had to try it. The Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy, located in Rochefort, Belgium, is an active monastery that was founded in 1230 and famously began brewing beer in 1595. The brewery is one of only eleven Trappist breweries in the world. I learned from some of the locals that there are three main requirements for beer to be classified as a "Trappist." First, the beer must be brewed within a Trappist monastery either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. Second, the brewing must be of secondary importance to the functions of the monastery, and third, any profit made from the beer sales beyond the cost of normal living expenses must be donated to charity.

I was fortunate enough to try all three of the beers made by the Trappist monks in Rochefort, but my favorite (with its whopping 11.3% alcohol) was the Rochefort 10. I even found some of the Rochefort 6 which is only brewed once a year at the monastery to bring back for Mike and my dad!

We even got to tour the Stella Artois brewery and enjoy a free glass of their finest. It was really neat to see behind the scenes and what it takes to brew such a large amount of Belgian beer. I thought it was cool too how carefully the bartender prepared each glass (just like you see in the commercials - ha!)

3. Beauty

While I haven't visited a lot of countries in Europe (yet) and I'm sure they all have their own unique beauty, Belgium is one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid eyes on. The architecture alone was stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen before. I really should just let the pictures speak for themselves on this one.

We also stayed at one of the most amazing hotels in Leuven called Martin's Klooster. The hotel was once an old monastery built in 1531. While the grounds were steeped in history, the rooms and common areas were perfectly sleek and modern which made our stay feel positively luxurious. Leuven has so much small-town charm with the sweetest cobblestone streets, pop-up markets every Friday morning in the square by the University, another square filled with restaurants, cafes, and all of the night life, and some of the kindest locals who take pity on Americans struggling to learn Dutch. (aka: this girl)

4. Brugge

On our last day in Belgium, we explored the city of Bruges. We went with a larger group this time since there were several of us that had never before been to that part of the country. We arrived just around lunch time since we had taken the morning to explore the outdoor market in Leuven. Our first stop was the Market Square for lunch. We dined on Tongerlo Blond, escargot, mussels, and frites with mayo. If only all of my lunches could be this delicious!

The wait staff was sarcastic and hilarious. Since they clearly knew we were tourists they enjoyed taking advantage of our credulousness and played a few tricks on us. When I asked our waiter to take a picture of our table (meaning the group of us sitting together), he quickly agreed, grabbed my phone from my hand, pointed the camera down at the surface of our table, snapped a photo, set the phone down, and walked away. I know, I was asking for that one. But I kept the blurry picture of my spoon and napkin as a souvenir ;)

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, snapping pictures, sampling chocolate, riding through the canals, soaking up the sunshine, and visiting one last brewery before heading home.

The city was as beautiful as ever. Plenty of hustle and bustle at the center square but peaceful and quiet out along the canals. One of my favorite pictures from the trip was this old yellow lab we found resting on top of his pillow in a window overlooking the canal.

It was the perfect ending to our trip. I feel so incredibly lucky to have spent an entire week in this beautiful country. Although the trip was for work, our bosses made sure that each day we had the opportunity to explore Belgium as much as we could. With group dinners at different restaurants in different parts of town each night, the brewery tours, barbecues on the lake, and free days for traveling, we all had the most wonderful time. I am so excited to be a part of this group that now feels like family and I have never been so energized to get started a project! I look forward to heading back to Belgium again to see what else is in store!