What other people have in mind when they visit Belgium is their own business, but I expected to see waffles, mussels, and with some luck, Jean Claude Van Damme. The first two we had in spades while visiting Brussels, the oh so cosmopolitan yet unofficial seat of the EU. Because Brussels is effectively located in Flanders, the language doubles to French and Flemish (local Dutch dialect) and there is a different vibe too. Flanders is generally more wealthy than Wallonie, the tourism industry is more firmly embedded, and people will automatically start talking to you in English before any other language.
Brussels has a beautiful historic centre that is surrounded farther out by a mishmash of glass and steel buildings and crumbly ornate facades. We stood in the Grand Place and turned around in a circle, getting the architectural equivalent of a sampler platter of Gothic and Baroque styles. The city has been very intentional about conserving this landmark square, and even with reconstruction of one of the buildings the overall effect is very harmonious. Every chance he could get, Bill indulged his sweet tooth on the Belgian waffles, or gaufres. We went to a crowded multilevel restaurant on a narrow street and had some lunch. I ordered the moules provençale and was kicking myself for it afterwards, because it took a perfectly good plate of mussels and turned it into nachos by dumping cheese and tomatoes on it. We only needed to follow the gawking tourists to locate the Mannekin Pis, which is a charming little statue of a cherubic boy eternally urinating. Check it out for yourself if you must, just remember that it is no special thing in Europe to see someone peeing in public. I could have easily spent a week wandering around Brussels and sitting in brasseries drinking famous Belgian beers. But the show must go on...
We drove straight from the Ardennes on January 1st to Bruges, where I had reserved a quad (what was I thinking?) in a tiny hotel on the edge of town. First we went to an ice sculpture exhibit (Bill's expression sums it up for me) and had a major pileup on the ice slide. Then we walked into the town. Because of the numerous canals that wind in and out of the buildings, Bruges has earned the moniker Venice Of The North - but it also has to share that illustrious title with St Petersburg, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and a slew of other watery burghs. I will admit that Bruges is beautiful and the city has immaculately preserved the medieval charm that it (probably) held at its zenith, but keep in mind that everyone else knows that too. Souvenir shops and trendy, overpriced restaurants abound on those cobbled streets. Every few minutes a horse drawn carriage went clattering by with a chilly looking British couple remembering the comforts of automobile travel. In the afternoon we jumped into a minibus where we put on headphones and listened to a prerecorded tour guide talk about nuns and guilds. We spent an hour driving past all of the sites that we had previously walked through and everyone fell asleep except for me. The driver collected the fee as we got out of the minibus and it ended up costing about 70 US dollars for 4 people. Such is Bruges.
The coast of the North Sea is a twenty minute drive west of Bruges. We drove out there in the evening and walked along the boardwalk in Oostende. Elderly women in fur coats walking their dogs were out en masse and children barely old enough to walk were careening in and out of the crowds in their various rented pedalcarts. All of the waterfront property was limited to a continuous wall of condominiums that had all the charm of a Soviet office building. When we walked out onto the beach and stood by the calm water, I half expected to see the cliffs of Dover, but instead there was fog and a few dimly lit ships in the distance bobbing up and down.
[As a sort-of footnote, I am happy to report that my opinion of Belgian beer has much improved. I previously thought of the Belgian varieties as tasting too mouthy and sometimes cloying. The golden ales have excellent flavors and are surprisingly refreshing, as are the pilsners. A Trappist dubbel really got me questioning my unbridled allegiance to pale ales. Sadly I did not try any of the lambic beers, but that is for next time. Also, the Belgian beers pair really well with local cuisine, like the Flemish beef stew. What would you expect from a culture that takes their beer brewing as seriously as the French do their winemaking?]