A Brief Stay in Brussels

While visiting friends in the Netherlands last November (my second trip there, or third if you want to get technical), we decided to hit the road for a brief tour of three neighboring countries. The first of these was Belgium. We headed straight for Brussels. We would be there for just two days and one night. So, from that point of view, here are the things I think you should absolutely make a point to see if you, too, have just a little time in this gorgeous city.

Entering the Kingdom of Belgium in Leigh’s Clio, I noticed signs in both French and Dutch. The three official languages in Belgium are Dutch (often called Flemish in Belgium, and considered a Dutch variant), French, and German, which is prevalent in a smaller area of the country. Many other languages are used in different parts of Belgium, too. I noticed the sugar packets and napkins in one restaurant had words on them in five languages, whereas a typical street sign in the city displayed both French and Dutch. As we entered and exited Belgium, it was more common to see one language or the other on street and highway signs. You can read a little bit more about some of these languages, and view a map of the country at the BBC’s Languages Across Europe page on Belgium.

We checked in to the Hotel van Belle, which was a good deal and not too far a walk from the city’s main attractions. Our room had a big bathroom with packets (not bottles) of body wash and shampoo. Three twin beds filled the somewhat cramped main room and a very small TV sat on top of the dresser, but we couldn’t have cared less about that. If you are looking for a less expensive hotel or hostel in a foreign city, I recommend you just keep security, cleanliness, and location in mind, in that order. You’ll save yourself a boatload of dough, and chances are you won’t even miss the “extras.” After all, you’re not planning on staying in your hotel room the whole time, are you? You may also want to research if the hotel or hostel offers any meals. What the Hotel van Belle lacked in luxurious guest rooms, it more than made up for with comfy, nicely decorated lounges and a huge free breakfast buffet. As I’ve found that most morning meals in this area of Europe are primarily bread and coffee, sometimes with meat or cheese slices, I was overjoyed to see eggs, bacon, cereal, and sausage patties included. And true to form with all of the Belgian chocolate we sampled, even the hot chocolate out of the machine was very rich. I would recommend this hotel any time for someone looking for a comfortable night’s stay.

Our room at Hotel van Belle. Another twin bed (out of frame) is to the right.

Brussels is well-revered abroad for many things, and it’s my humble opinion that you should make a point to sample all of them.

Belgian lace shops line the streets. Delicate shawls, bookmarks, and wall hangings are made in the back of each shop. I have a Belgian bookmark, but of course I can’t find it. It’s no doubt stuck in the middle of any one of thousands of books jammed in my shelves. So, I’ll provide you with this link to examples of Belgian lace at the Manufacture Belge de Dentelles instead.

Belgian waffles are carried around in your hands and can be eaten with rich toppings like chocolate syrup, Nutella, and strawberries. The Waffle Shop provides a fork with a serrated tine so that you can easily cut and eat your waffle while walking around.

Leigh, me, and Eric showing off our waffles!

The famous Belgian beer absolutely should be tasted by any beer fan who visits this city! Some restaurants offer “tasting specials” where several varieties can be sampled for a flat rate. We ate our dinner at a restaurant called Drug Opera where we drank something called Kwak. It comes in a specialty glass in a wooden holder, and makes a “quack” noise when the beer gets to a certain level and passes from the bottom to the mouth of the glass.

Kwak, a fine beer in a curious holder.

(Drug Opera offered the French sandwich Croque Monsieur, so I ordered one of those. Yes, I ordered in French.)

And, of course, Belgian chocolates! They are every bit as good as you can imagine. They are handmade in the boutiques, most of which include towering chocolate fountains in the windows. They are kept on display in refrigerated glass cases. They are so rich with butter and cream that they spoil in a couple of days if left uneaten (which I seriously doubt happens often). Trays of complimentary samples can be found in most boutiques. Pre-packaged chocolates, such as dark chocolate truffles, are also available for your flight home.

Chocopolis is one well-known store. Photo by Leigh Lenis.

Belgian-style frites … French fries, that is … are fairly well-known. I have eaten them often while in Amsterdam. They come in cones, making it easy for you to top them with condiments such as curried ketchup or mayonnaise. I didn’t eat any here, but it’s something to keep in mind if you would like to take a fast food tour of Brussels!

Speaking of food – we also saw a rare Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant in town! Chi-Chi’s was once a very popular Mexican restaurant chain in America. It filed bankruptcy and shut down following an E. Coli outbreak at a Pennsylvania franchise. (This left many abandoned Chi-Chi’s buildings dotting the landscape … check out the blog Creepy Abandoned Chi-Chis!) Chi-Chi’s still exists overseas, and as a brand of packaged foods in the U.S. We also saw a Chi-Chi’s in Luxembourg City. I would’ve loved to eat at Chi-Chi’s for the first time in many years, but with so little time to visit these countries I did not want to eat any meals that were not as reflective of the surrounding culture as possible.

I was also completely surprised to see a corner grocery store called Delhaize with the easily recognizable American Food Lion logo on the sign! I pointed it out to Eric, who worked at the Blacksburg Food Lion for several years, and he remembered that Food Lion’s parent company is Delhaize. It turns out it was founded in Belgium. We took a picture of it to send to an old coworker of his, but sadly, it was accidentally deleted 😦

What is this French fry doing? And why is he so happy about it?

If you are wondering what the fry shop sign above is all about – maybe you’re not even sure what you are looking at – here’s the explanation: Mannekin Pis!

The famous Mannequin Pis. Photo by Eric Mercado

He’s the highly treasured statue of a little boy urinating. He is usually covered up with a costume of some sort (Santa Claus for Christmas, etc.), but we caught him on a rare day that he was not. I’m kind of sad we didn’t get to see him decked out for the holidays, but on the other hand, we can say we saw him in his original form! He has been in Brussels since the 1600s, although he’s been kidnapped a few times. Imitations of this statue can be found in many other places. I was surprised to see how small he is up close. When Leigh described it to me, I somehow had an image of a statue bigger and taller than we are, yet he’s only about a foot high.

Eric and I hoping to bring home some good luck with us from Brussels! Photo by Leigh Lenis.

Not far from Manneken Pis is this statue of Everard ‘t Serclaes, who successfully drove the invading Flemish count from the city in the 14th century. He was later assassinated. It is said that visitors should touch this statue for good luck. I have to say my luck has been quite nice since I did this!

The square of the city is called Grand Place and has a rich history. It is one of those rare manmade places that is so beautiful that you may be struck dumb when you see it. I certainly was. The architecture literally took my breath away, and of course my speech for a good few minutes – a rare event, if I do say so myself.

This is the beautiful Brussels town hall at Grand Place. Photo by Leigh Lenis.

Look at the detail on this little St. Michael, over 300 feet above our heads on the spire of the town hall. Photo by Leigh Lenis.

Flower markets in the foreground of another stunning Grand Place building.

Those are my recommendations for Brussels. Have you been to Brussels or any other part of Belgium? If so, what are your stories and suggestions?

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