According to the official website of the Belgium Tourist Office, Belgium is "A food lover's dream. A beer lover's heaven." And these are the exact reasons why we decided to side trip to Brussels: (1) Eat waffles, steak, mussels, and chocolate; and (2) drink beer and lots of it.
After our exciting train ride with Juliette, we hopped on the metro to our hotel located at the Grand Place. Brandon immediately knew he was in heaven because the music playing in the Brussels metro station was late 1980s American rock. His favorite genre. And we totally lucked out because our hotel was directly across from the metro and literally 50 steps away from the excitement of the Grand Place.
We dropped our backpack off at the hotel, and after getting an intro to the city from the multi-ethnic, young, hip front desk ladies, we took off towards the Grand Place with our little paper map in pocket. The front desk ladies made sure to mark two very important landmarks for us: Manneken Pis and Delirium (the best bar in Brussels).
We arrived in the middle of the Grand Place in two minutes. It was a busy town square surrounded by the most astonishing architecture from its guildhalls, the city's Town Hall, and the King's House (also known as the Breadhouse). I was a little bummed to find out that we had arrived a few days too early because it turns out that this was the year for the famous Brussels flower carpet to be installed in the Grand Place. The flower carpet is laid out only every two years, so the next time will be in August 2014. I need to plan better.
We walked around the square, taking in the sights, then decided it was time to have a meal and some beer. After all, we were standing in the middle of a foodie dream and a beer lover's heaven. So we found a cozy spot on the terrace of La Brouette.
This was the meal I had been waiting for. Granted I did eat a bowl of mussels on our first night in Paris, but what I was really looking forward to was eating "moules frites" from Brussels. The true home of mussels and fries. [Check out this article from Saveur.] And that's what I ordered. A gigantic portion of moules frites and Affligem beer to drink. By the way, Affligem beer is brewed at a monastery that was established in 1074. This is the best beer I've ever had.
Brandon went with the other national food. He ordered steak and fries and a Duvel. Very traditional of him.
I finished every last marinated mussel in the bowl. I also spooned up the broth, flavored with celery, leeks, and butter. Mmm. And I gobbled up all my frites, even dipping them in the mayonnaise, which is the traditional dipping sauce for the fries with your moules frites. Good lord, I'm getting so hungry typing this.
Following our early dinner, we took out our pocket paper map and left the Grand Place in search of Manneken Pis -- which translates to "Little Man Pee." Manneken Pis a famous fountain sculpture of a naked little boy pissing into the basin of the fountain. It was erected (ha!) in the early 1600s. Because it's such a silly statue, Manneken Pis has been stolen numerous times. So the original sculpture is in the Breadhouse, and the one that is on the street corner is a copy from the 1960s.
There's even a girl counterpart to Manneken Pis on the other side of the city called Jeanneke Pis. It's a naked little girl squatting into a fountain basin. Hilarious.
There are at least four different stories explaining why Manneken Pis is so popular. You can read about them here, as well as learn about the vast wardrobe given to Manneken Pis over the years from around the world. I think I'd like to present a gift to Manneken Pis next time. Maybe an airbrushed shirt from Gatlinburg?
After saying hello to Manneken Pis, we made a left turn at the corner to do more exploring. We passed more great architecture and couple of chocolate shops, and then to my right was a record store that was tagged by Jef Aérosol. It had Jef's signature stencils all over it. How cool! (And I found out later -- too late -- that there was a gallery in Brussels exhibiting some of Jef's work. Sad that I missed it.)
After checking out the record store, we walked further down the street. At one point, I noticed this cool alleyway with an interesting trompe l'oeil of a garden scene, which was painted on what looked like huge garage doors. I turned down the alley to get a closer look, and against one of the building walls, we spotted this neat painting of a card that said, "Bonjour. Ceci est un cadre de fond a photos. Prenez-vous devant et envoyez votre cliché a firstname.lastname@example.org. Merci! Ella Pitr." My rough translation: "Hello. This is a frame (backdrop) for photos. Stand in front of it and send your snapshot to email@example.com. Thanks! Ella Pitr."
So we stood in front of it and took our pictures. I took a snapshot of Brandon, and he took one of me. I need to remember to send these to Ella!
We continued our adventure, passing cute stores and restaurants and more chocolate shops than I've ever seen on one city block. And in addition to the stores and stores of chocolate, we passed waffle windows and waffle stands. Brussels smells like what I imagine to be the inside of Willy Wonka's factory. Sweet.
It wasn't too long before I gave in and rushed to the nearest waffle window. I could smell and see people eating waffles covered in ice cream and fruits, and I was jealous. So I found a waffle shop (I think there's at least one on every street corner), and I ordered a Liege waffle with vanilla ice cream and strawberries. It was the best dessert I have ever eaten. The strawberries were fresh and perfectly sweet and tart. The ice cream tasted homemade. So creamy. And the waffle was warms and soft with a little crispness to the edges. Plus, every bite came with a little treasure -- a pearl of sugar that added a little bit of crunch and a lot of sweet to the waffle.
What's also interesting about these waffles is that they aren't made with batter. They are dough balls that are thrown and stretched onto a waffle maker, so they're less pancake-y and more soft and buttery. Liege waffles are the best waffles I've ever had in my entire life. I don't think I could eat any other type of waffle ever again.
We walked further out to the Mont des Arts, or "Kuntsberg" in Dutch, which is a garden area in the center of Brussels. It is on a hill and from there you can see the tall spire of Brussels' City Hall in the Grand Place.
From the Kuntsberg, we walked up towards the Palais Royale, passing a street that was lined with buildings devoted to art and music. On street Coudenberg, past the "Whirling Ear" sculpture, are music stores and a museum dedicated to musical instruments. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is in a building that has "Old England" written across one of the top floors, and I later found out that it used to a department store called "Old England." The building structure is interesting as it has musical pieces -- a few bars of a piece of music -- written out underneath its windows.
Across from the MIM is the Magritte Museum. It's very surreal. (Ha!) And in front of the Magritte Museum is Place Royale, which leads to Rue Royale, which leads to the Palais Royale. Now the Belgian monarchy doesn't live in the Palais Royale, but it is used for royal receptions and meetings.
On this day while we were exploring, the entire city center (including the area in front of the Palais Royale) was being prepped for Brussels Summer Festival -- a ten-day rock 'n' roll music festival that started the day after we left. Again, poor planning on my part because I would love to have seen Iggy & The Stooges in Brussels.
I think we had walked for a few hours around most of the city by this point, so we decided to hop on the metro and head back to the hotel to get ready for a night of beer drinking.