Breakfast in Brussels
We started our morning in Brussels by making our way to the first of many Boulangerie & Patisserie restaurants (basically bakeries). They offer a good selection of baked breads, muffins, croissants, and desserts. Many offer coffee drinks as well, making them excellent places to start off the morning with a light breakfast.
After that we walked over to the nearby St. Michael’s cathedral to explore the inside and take pictures. This was very impressive: a huge, ancient, and beautiful interior space that has been maintained well. The pulpit and pipe organ were particularly remarkable, as were the stained glass windows.
This was probably the most impressive of all the cathedrals we visited on this trip. It was in excellent shape and was gigantic, which is to be expected given its location in the capital city. What struck me as we traveled throughout the country, however, was how even the smallest of towns had a significant church. That the culture has sunk such a significant amount of its resources into these structures (including both construction and maintenance) underscores the importance they have played to the community.
Upon departing Brussels I began to realize that Brussels did not match well with the type of tourist that I am. The Grand Place area is basically a big production for tourists and outsiders. In contrast to cities we would visit later on, I do not think that real Belgians go to the restaurants there or visit those shops. So while it may a great destination for those with a one-day itinerary just looking for a taste of the country, it really doesn’t fairly represent what one can find outside that city.
Our departure from Brussels was also plagued by a bit of traffic confusion, but we were able to find our way to Grimbergen without too much difficulty. This is just a few miles north of the city and is a relatively small hamlet dominated by a big abbey that brews beer.
The church was well kept up inside; so well that they were shooting a television show there! We stepped inside to snap a few pictures and then walked down to the excellent café that they have on site.
We didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but this was an abbey that was very tourism-friendly. The café served all the abbey’s beers and had a decent selection of sandwiches and light plates from which to choose.
The beer and food quality were both excellent. I tried the special release “Bruno Optimo”, a stronger version of their Brune. The parmesan Creme Brule was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It was cold, which was odd at first, but had a rich parmesan flavor.
In contrast to the abbey itself, the cafe was decorated in a modern-minimalist style. I thought this was strange at the time, but turned out to be something we experienced several times again in the Flanders provinces. There is an interesting mixing of the historic and modern that gives rise to how one experiences the country.
A Failed Visit to Het Anker
After leaving Grimbergen we headed north to Mechelen, home of one of my favorite breweries Het Anker. I’m a big fan of their Gouden Carolus (“Golden Charles”) Blue Grand Cru of the Emperor. Personally, I think more beers should reference emperors. However, our stop was in vain since the brewpub was closed. It was not clear if this was a permanent thing or just for that day—I suspect permanent since it was not mentioned anywhere on the building. Looking at the website now I believe it’s just for 2009, but my Dutch isn’t that great.
So instead of trying my favorite beer we circumnavigated the brewery buildings, snapped a few pictures, and headed off to Antwerp.
Even though Antwerp is the second biggest city in Belgium (after Brussels), it had a very different feel from the start. The Grote Markt was just as big as Brussels’, but somehow less touristy. The shops lining the streets seemed like locals might actually visit them. Here it felt like we were starting to get a taste of more authentic Belgium life.
We walked out to the river running next ot the town and around a fortification there that was closed for renovation (the start of another theme). The houses along the river had some interesting architecture: similar to the Grimbergen Abbey there was this mix of the medieval and modern. Brick houses lived next to modern designs that still incorporated some of the ancient materials.
The Antwerp convention center was impressive with its glass and metal swooped roofs mixed with wooden accents.
For dinner we decided to take the plunge and go with the Belgian café lifestyle: we dined on the Grote Markt. Belgians have an interesting way of live that differs from that of the U.S. a bit. It seems like after work they flock to the cafes along the streets in town and sit outside to drink, talk, and smoke. Then, when they are ready for dinner, they either move inside or to another café altogether. They differentiate between people who are at the establishment solely for this “pre-dinner drinking” phase and those who are truly there for dinner. Often the seating is entirely different, albeit unmarked. Anyway we sat outside in spite of the rapidly decreasing temperature and began to warm ourselves with beer.
Both the Westmalle and Rochefort were delicous, rich, and satisfying–everything I remember from having them in the U.S. Of course we also ordered food. I could not resist the steak and fries, and Amanda selected a whole fish.
For our second round of beers Amanda chose a Kriek. We had feared the worst: a sour undrinkable Belgian beer. However it was just the opposite; it tasted like cough syrup! I had never had a kriek before, apparently, but they are fairly common in Belgium as low-alcohol and sweeter alternatives to your standard beer. You can think of it as the Belgian equivalent of Smirnoff Ice.
My second round was a Kaizer Karel / Charles Quint (depending on which language you speak). This brune-style was not really anywhere near the trappist beers we had just finished, but it was new to me so worth a shot. The advice I offer is this: beware of beers that are commercialized enough to sponsor the awnings at your dining establishment.
Our hotel in Antwerp was actually a small one-bedroom apartment called Bristelei. We had our own mini-kitchen, bedroom, living room, and bathroom. Overkill for one night but charming nevertheless and also decorated in this minimalist-modern style.
Overall I ended up liking Antwerp a lot. It has a lot of the big-city infrastructure that Brussels has in terms of the museums, transportation, and restaurants. But it is far less touristy and confusing, cleaner, more modern, and more interesting ultimately to walk around.
Today I tasted:
- Grimbergen Bruno Optimo
- Grimberen Tripel
- Westmalle Brune
- Rochefort 10
- Charles Quint / Kaizer Karel
- Mystik Kriek
Total to date: 11 beers