Belgium has three tourist highlights in radiant abundance: City squares so charming that you get sort of exasperated just looking at them; snacks designed to violently clog your arteries; and beer.
It was this last one that we emphasized — although we did spend a lot of time wandering around with paper bags full of fries, catching sight of adorable town squares and exclaiming about the quaintness of it all, before taking another bite of our fries.
About Belgian beer: I realize Stella Artois has come to be known as the dominant Belgian offering around these parts, but please, do not rave about Stella Artois at me. I do not care for it; further, I do not understand its popularity. So while it is Belgian beer, I find it insipid (you heard me! Insipid!) and don’t drink it.
(at this point I should add, “but hey man, if you love Stella, sure. I will not judge you for it, as long as you guys don’t judge me for listening to Fall Out Boy and genuinely loving Domino’s pizza. We all like what we like.)
I prefer my Belgian beers in the proper forms: dobbels and tripels, or strong, malty blonds, spicy pale ales, and the occasional interesting sour. The best-known brands in America are Chimay, Delirium and Leffe, and these are all delicious, but only the beginning of this national bounty of beers. You can get a lot of these brews stateside these days — blessedly so — but there’s something much, much more satisfying about walking into some little hole-in-the-wall bar (where the wall is actually Medieval), selecting from dozens of local beers, and having it served up in its individualized glass (uniquely shaped to best convey the beer’s flavor).
Or, drinking it outside on a mild summer’s day while looking out at the old town, which will slay you with its quaintness. I mean, it’s just silly:
Both images from Bruges
This one’s from Ghent.
I should admit that, while I’m coming off like an enormous beer snob here, I am actually a pretty ignorant one. In Boston, beer snobbery is a game among the local gents, where they can tell you all about brewing processes, and why the glass must be shaped this way, and why you’re wrong for not liking cask ales, and why anyone who expresses a love of Narragansett beer is an appalling person who is not worth your time.
I am not on that level. But my boyfriend is, so he viewed Belgium’s beers with a more practiced eye. We drank well, while eating many, many paper bags filled with fries, and waffles, and chocolates, and candy … if you are dieting, Belgium is a rough scene.
We went to Bruges — setting of the amazing movie "In Bruges," which you should watch — and Ghent, before heading onto a last day in Brussels. These towns are all easily seen in a day, and all connected to one another via rail, so we were able to town-hop as we pleased.
Bruges and Ghent are both terribly romantic places, full of canals and fine old houses, stonework with pretty flourishes everywhere. Both became wealthy as trade and shipping centers, and both have fun little museums and convents and interesting corners. You can take a canal tour in either of them, which we found worthwhile.
Bruges had windmills, which ring the old town:
But Ghent is, if anything, even more picturesque — with a castle, and a more open, stunning view along its central waterway, and its people have a knack for kickass street art:
Ghent also has the "Ghent nose" candy, which is a purple jelly confection of more subtle, complex sweetness than our spazzed-out candies in the U.S. Sour Patch Kids, these are not.
After the little towns, we made our way to Brussels — we’d heard it didn’t have much to offer casual tourist types like us, and that turned out to be largely true. Its central square is quite a sight, though, with soaring steeples and fantastically intricate statues and scrollwork on buildings (both church and state), and its main cafe drag is fun but packed. We were tired…. so I snapped some pictures and then we had another beer. Cheers to that.