Belgium - May 2016

Belgium – May 2016

Still traveling in Europe, we’re now in Berlin, Germany and enjoying the unseasonable cool weather this summer. It has been good to have almost a week in every city we’ve visited so far and it gives us plenty of time to explore at our leisure and to enjoy our “vacation” from work and travel in the US.

While in Belgium we made our base in Antwerp and took a couple daytrips to Ghent and Brussels during our week-long visit. We really, really enjoyed our stay and it’s tied with the Netherlands as our favorite all-around country in Europe. Along with some snapshots from Belgium, we wanted to share some random observations based on our (limited) perspective after a week in the country. Here they are thoughts in no order:

1. We received a great deal of kindness from strangers while in Belgium. People went out of their way to help us with navigating, and would apologize (to us!) when they realized that we didn’t speak Dutch or French. This was even true among the service employees in more menial jobs, where one might usually expect a bit of grumpiness.

2. Within the cities we visited in country, we saw quite a bit of diversity. We love places with a mix of food, language and people (especially the food!)

We had some legit Szechuan food in Antwerp.

Lebanese wrap with goat cheese, olives and honey in a buttery, light wrap.

DIY falafel bowl.

Turkish mixed plate.. way more meat than we are used to eating. We loved all the different sauces provided.

3. 84% of the rough diamonds sold in the world transit via Antwerp – and just one little neighborhood – for grading.

4. More than 80% of the employees in the Antwerp diamond industry are Hassidic Jews, and Yiddish is the main language of the diamond trade centered in a neighborhood just west of the main train station.

5. Situated on the North Sea coast and laced with canals and various waterways, it’s not a surprise that seafood is everywhere. We’re jealous of all the fresh and cheap fish everywhere in Belgium, and tried to get our fill.

Moules and frites are a classic Belgian dish and usually a great value compared to mussels elsewhere. This big pot was less than $20 and probably had 100+ mussels in a light and bright white wine and cream sauce.

6. The stereotype of Belgium frites (or French fries) being everywhere is true, and they are not just for tourists. They are just as common as a side dish at a fancy restaurant as they are in a humble street fair. We personally didn’t find them all that special after trying multiple times to see the light (McDonalds is better!).

Belgian fries. The sauces are unique even if the fries aren’t. Here is mustard/mayonnaise and a pickle sauce.

7. Bikes are everywhere and something like 50% of the population own and regularly ride bikes. It takes some getting used to being a pedestrian in Belgium since you have to watch out for more than just car traffic.

8. Belgium is near the top of the world list for average % of personal income tax, which is approximately 55%. There was plenty of joie de vivre among the population, which might correlate..

9. We rode the bus every day from the Crowne Plaza just outside of the downtown (which we booked for only 5k/night on the recent IHG pointsbreak list). Strangely, as far as we could tell apart from us and the other tourists, almost no one paid to ride it. The best transit deal we could find was a rechargeable card but it required swiping in each time you got on the bus. Maybe the locals have access to something we didn’t, but we almost never saw people tagging in and there was never a check to see if everyone had tickets.

10. There are actual two main types of Belgian waffles – “Liege” or thick and kinda chewy ones, and then the “Brussels” which, when done correctly, are very crisp on the outside yet airy and light on the inside.

Brussels waffle

Dessert for breakfast in the Belgian waffle. They call this particular kind the “tourist waffle” since it comes with all the toppings. The locals eat them straight up with maybe a little powdered sugar.

11. Albert Heinen grocery store rocks! A good chunk of the store is prepared dinners, salads and snacks in individual serving sizes which is absolutely ideal for weary travelers like us looking for a snack. There were a couple dozen different salads alone, which was nice change of pace from the all the fried food we had been eating in Spain.

Fresh squeezed orange juice at Albert Heinen!

12. Public toilets are plentiful and even marked usually marked on the tourist maps. This might seem like a small thing, but it is easy to appreciate as a tourist.

Open air public pissers and the bomb!

This picture would be entitled “heeding the call of nature.”

13. Beer culture is big. Like.. Portland, Oregon big. There are plenty of European cities which have delightfully relaxing and quaint street cafes, but nowhere else do the majority of café tables have a goblet of hearty abbey brewed beer on them. It’s heaven for Mayne. Interestingly, the Belgians are starting to venture into the realm of IPAs which until recently was only a British niche beer and (overdone) American craft brewery thing.

De Konick is the local brew of Antwerp. Each brewery distributes their own glass to pair with the beer, and all decent pubs make sure to match the glass with the beer.

Here are some random pictures leftover:

The grand place in Brussels has four “walls” of tall, skinny buildings each more impressive than the next. They were each created by individual guild halls back in the day in sort of a competition to be the best.

Some more guild halls.

And yet more.

Not to be left behind, Antwerp has its own great place with guild halls…

..and a neat fountain in the middle.

One of the top tourist attractions in Brussels is the Manniken Pis, which is a 1 foot tall statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. This just goes to show that one shouldn’t always follow the crowd in determining what to do with your vacation time. The crowd is included for scale and absurdity.

Brussels has some great art nouveau styled buildings.

Another neat building in Brussels.

Us in Brussels on an especially nice day.

Mayne getting a delicious Caipirinha and Mojito in Brussels. Almost all the eating establishments we visited in Belgium were of good quality.

We visited one of the only traditional Gueuze/Lambic breweries left at Cantillon brewery in Brussels. The unique part of the brewing process is that during fermentation the windows are left open for yeast in the air to naturally inoculate the wort. Here is the hop storage room with stacks and stacks of Hallertauer hops (some of the most expensive aromatic hops available).

The attic of the brewery with the copper fermenting tray where the raw wort is moved to and the windows opened to allow yeast in the air to do their thing.

Elisa down in the basement with the aging beer. Some of the lambics at bottle-conditioned for three years before sale.

Belgian chocolate stores are everywhere, in varying degrees of quality. One of our favorites is “The Chocolate Line”.

Some creative chocolate creations.

Strawberries are in season in Northern Europe and they are cheap and delicious. This latte had fresh-crushed strawberry syrup.

I heard that sandal tans are coming back, so I am working hard on mine.

The fantastic pannekouken, which is a sweet crepe with various toppings – this one with apples and crusty sugar glaze. Mayne’s favorite.

A third waffle is the “stroopwaffel” which is pressed with caramel sauce inside. Elisa’s favorite.

On an unfortunately rainy day we took a field trip to Ghent, which we found to be very quaint and less touristy than either Antwerp or Brussels. These tree-lined canals would be beautiful when leafy and green.

Ghent canals would have been perfect for a boat ride in better weather.

Elisa in front of a bottle shop display. Like Pokemon, we want to collect them all!

Perfect Medieval castle in Ghent which was closed due to labor strikes.

Ghent is postcard perfect in the medieval quarter and has a bridge guarded by cathedrals and spires reminiscent of the more famous Charles bridge in Prague.

Neat light fixtures we wished we could have brought home for Marcus!

Brussels is largely devoid of graffiti and “street art,” but there is one street which seems to have been devoted to it.

Walls of color.

Elisa has her own store!

Chill coffee spot in Antwerp – perfect on a dreary day. We got the impression that a lot of people like to read in Belgium since we often saw people relaxing at cafes or on a balcony with their nose in a book.

Possibly the coolest thing ever – a trash bin that plays pop songs when you utilize it.

It’s been hard to keep on schedule here – this is the sky at 9:47 PM..