"The details of my life are quite inconsequential.... Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a 15-year-old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize; he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes, he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy. The sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament... My childhood was typical: summers in Rangoon... luge lessons... In the spring, we'd make meat helmets... When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with wet reeds - pretty standard, really."
~ Dr. Evil
Before setting foot within, I didn't know much more about Belgium than that they make good waffles, great chocolate, awesome beer and that Dr. Evil used to live somewhere around Bruges. Now that I've spent a week there, I can say in all honesty, this tiny country was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip. Let me explain why.
In May, I went on a 17-day organized tour through Egypt and Jordan. There were four other brave souls the trip with me, a brother and sister from Canada, and a cool couple from Antwerp, Belgium named Marc and Mia. As we parted ways in Amman, Jordan, Marc and Mia said that if I happen to make it through Belgium later in the year, I should send them an email. I told them to make sure they meant it, because I've been known to take people up on such offers.
A month later I was in Austria, trading emails with the now infamous Fletch about a trip to Amsterdam. It was only after looking at a map that I realized how close Belgium was to The Netherlands. As I had a week or so between the trip to Amsterdam and the time I was to meet some friends in London, it seemed a visit to Belgium would work out after all. I fired a hopeful email to Marc and Mia to see if their offer was still on the table.
As luck would have it, they were indeed in town during that week, and were excited at the prospect of having me drop by. We worked out a couple details over email, and put together a loose plan. Now, I'd just like to highlight how cool this is. Two people I met less than two months ago on a tour in Egypt were now willing to have me visit them for a week at their home in Belgium. If that's not hospitality, I don't know what is. Have I mentioned I love this trip?
After another night in the crappy hostel I was staying in in Amsterdam, I found a Eurolines bus on Friday morning to Antwerp. Marc and Mia picked me up from the station as soon as they were off work. It was wonderful to see them again. Even though we only hung out for 17 days in the middle east, it was like seeing a pair of old friends. We made our way to their great house in the suburbs with two floors, a basement garage and a lovely little garden out back (that was for you, Mia).
The following week was absolutely great. My hosts went out of their way to take care of me, and make sure I saw as much as possible. In fact, they even took vacation days from work to play tour guide for me. Marc took off both Monday and Tuesday and Mia took Thursday. As if allowing me to stay in their home wasn't enough, they bailed on work for me. I didn't know what to say.
We did so much, there's no way I could write about all of it. So, I'll try to give a set of highlights for each day...
After getting settled in and having a great barbeque in the back yard, we walked over to a large park near the house. During the summer, the city of Antwerp puts on a large cultural festival which features concerts by artists from around the world. We listened to some Arabic-sounding band play for a while before sitting down at a table to enjoy a beer and some sight seeing.
After spending some time in the morning and afternoon walking around the old part of Antwerp, we ended up going to a birthday party for a friend of Marc's, named Tom. About ten or twelve really nice people sat in lawn chairs in Tom's backyard drinking copious amounts of great Belgian beer and telling stories. While the majority of the conversation was understandably in Dutch, most of the time someone would stop to give me a quick translation. It was a great time. And, the beer was excellent. Tom made sure each one of mine was different, exposing me to as many varieties as I could handle.
Marc, Mia and I went to a church service in downtown Antwerp. This particular church's services are known for the beautiful music accompanying the sermon. Nearly every seat of the beautiful old church was filled. Each week is different, and on this occasion, a choral group from the Netherlands provided the atmosphere. It was really, really nice.
While Mia had to go back to work, Marc and I took a train over to Brussels for a little sight seeing. Brussels is quite the place - a large city which serves as the "capital" of the European Union. We spent the first bit of our visit at the Atomium, the massive metal atom built for the 1958 world's fair.
I'd seen pictures before, but much like the first time you see the Eiffel Tower, you just can't understand its scale until you see it first-hand. Just to put it in perspective, each of the spheres of the atom encloses exhibitions and a restaurant. For those geeks out there who are wondering (you know who you are) - it's apparently an iron atom.
We then headed to the downtown area of Brussels, taking in the quaint old streets, the restaurants, cafes, and a few of the big churches along the way. We also wandered by what is apparently one of Belgium's treasures; a small statue of a naked boy peeing into a basin, called Manneken Pis. There was quite the throng of people around him, taking pictures and pointing. Apparently they even dress him up in different clothes and uniforms from time to time. Hmmm.
Just before we left, we wandered over to an outdoor carnival near one of the train stations. It felt just like a fair in the US. Lots of people playing games and eating fried food. They had a big Ferris wheel, and a few other rides which pretty much made me ill to watch. Marc and I did however stop to have a proper Belgian waffle. How could I not?
We jumped in Marc's car and headed over to Bruges. It is a beautiful, quaint little town with beautifully preserved old houses and buildings situated along some gorgeous canals.
It was one of those towns where every street is worthy of a picture - every house looks like it has a thousand stories to tell. Beautiful old stone churches towered above open courtyards and plazas, providing shade for the many parks and cafes lining the streets.
After a quick bite for lunch, we drove to an old World War I memorial a little west and south of Bruges. A fully restored set of trenches dug in the banks of a river have been turned into a beautiful, if not haunting memorial for a set of battles which are now famous in the minds of many Belgians. Called "The Trench of Death", the old trenches have been cleaned up and restored, in most cases concrete walls shaped to look like sandbags replacing the real thing. Walking through the trenches was pretty cool. There were several pictures located along the way, giving a feel for what it was like nearly 100 years ago.
I left with a couple thoughts. One, the guys who spent literally years inside those trenches must have been some of the toughest SOB's in the world. You would have had to have been amazingly strong physically and mentally to have survived it. Second, they must have been pretty short. I think I would have lasted about ten minutes before some sniper took me out.
We next went to a nearby town called Ieper, which houses a wonderful museum dedicated to WWI. It's actually located downtown, in an absolutely beautiful building in the city center. The museum was really great, giving a feel for what it was like for the average person during the "First Great War". The building itself was even more impressive when I saw pictures of what it looked like after the destruction of the war.
We then drove out to a huge cemetery nearby containing over 12,000 grave stones. It was one of those humbling moments - row after row of gleaming white stone - each representing a life given in the war. A pretty special place.
Wednesday was actually kind of boring, as both Marc and Mia had to go to work. I entertained myself by walking around Antwerp, taking pictures of the city, and geekily enough, going to a matinee of the new Harry Potter. I know, I know.
This time, with Marc at work, Mia played tour guide for me, and we jumped in the car and headed for Ghent. It's a lovely little town with a big university feel to it. It, like the other Belgian cities, had an immaculate downtown square, and streets lined with beautiful stone buildings. There was a huge festival going on at the time we were there, so much of the square was being used for the tents and stages, but the city was still impressive. A huge tower with long flags stood proudly above a beautiful river which cut right through the heart of the town, most of the time filled with flat-bottomed tourist boats.
That night we went to an absolutely wonderful steak house that served up a massive mixed grill which was tremendous. We finished it off by going to one of the best bars I've ever been to. It's called the Kulminator. Sounds awesome, huh? It has a staggering collection of beer, and is run by a guy with crazy white hair who looks a little like he could be a brother of Dr. Emmit Brown from Back to the Future. Anyway, they have a great atmosphere and a great selection. It was awesome.
So yeah - I saw a lot of Belgium!
As I mentioned above, Belgium is known for beer. Even more so than Germany or Ireland, or other places you might think of. Apparently Belgium is home to over 400 different labels. When in Ghent, Mia and I walked by a place which boasted having over 250 in stock. So, needless to say, I had to try a few. During my week with Marc and Mia, I ended up sampling no fewer than 15 different Belgian beers. Some were good, some were great, and some I think I'll have to figure out how to import. Bill, if you thought I was a beer snob before... Just so you have an idea, here's the list:
|Chimay Blue||De Koninck||Delirium Tremens|
|Duvel||Gulden Draak|| Jan van Gent|
|Rochefort||Verboden Frucht|| Westmalle|
So if you want to try some beer, you need to get in touch with Marc and Mia, or even Tom. He knows his stuff too.
To top it off, Marc and Mia also unwittingly changed my breakfast habits forever. They introduced me to a new way of enjoying the beauty of a simple breakfast. They are diligent about buying bread from a local bakery, and I can see why. It was really, really good. However, just a tiny bit of preparation, and it was tremendous.
The recipe is simple enough for a bachelor like me to figure out:
- Find a piece of bread
- Spread some chocolate (like Nutella) on one half of it.
- Fold it over.
It's so simple, and so good. Heaven's little half-sandwich. It may not be the healthiest thing in the world, but it's damn good. Just to add a little variety, you can switch gears and spread a little honey on it instead of chocolate.
I had a great time in Belgium, mainly because of my hosts. Marc and Mia, thank you so much for everything. I am in your debt. When you come to the States, be sure to shoot me an email. I'll have some bread from the bakery and a couple of Boulevard Wheat's and Fat Tires for you to try. They may not measure up to the Westmalle, but they're pretty good for the States.