Belgium

The band was scheduled to travel to Belgium in mid-October to perform at some international events – alongside musicians and dancers from a variety of countries. Our friend Michelle and I decided that it would be fun to follow the guys and do some of our own sight-seeing before joining up with them at the end. Michelle had been to Belgium in undergrad to perform there for a couple weeks and had stayed with a host family. She has kept in touch with the family and when they heard she’d be in the area they invited us to come stay at their house. This made for a really fun trip!

 

DAY ONE

On the first day we drove to Oostende, all the way on the far side of Belgium (about a five hour drive). It is a little resort city on the coast of the North Sea. This was the location of the band’s first performance and we’d made it part of our trip so we could see them, but it wound up being sold out. We already had the hotel reservation, though, so we still went there – and I’m glad we did! Like many of the hotels in Oostende, ours was just across the street from the beach. After checking in, we wanted to walk to the performance venue to meet up with the guys for dinner. Happily, we were able to walk down the beach to get there. The beach is very long; our walk was about 2 km, but the beach stretched farther in both directions. It was a cool day – we were wearing coats and scarves and I had on my duck boots – but it was a really nice walk on a really nice beach. I know that it gets very crowded in the summer, but since it was no longer “beach season” it was empty, aside from the few of us walking along it. It was nice to see this scenic location so peaceful and beautiful. And there were all kinds of shells washed up on the sand. In one spot the shells were so dense you couldn’t even see the sand at all. While we were walking, Michelle commented how relaxed she felt walking along the beach, and I have to agree.

 

Eventually, we had to leave the beach and then the venue was just a block away. While we were waiting for their rehearsal to finish we wandered into the grocery store next door. Sometimes it’s fun going into grocery stores when you travel, because they’re always a little different every place you go. It was pretty standard, but the one thing that surprised me was that they had sparkling wine samples – at a self-serve table! It was just sitting there: a table with full-size glasses and a chilling bottle of sparkling wine (from California, ironically). I didn’t realize it was self-serve until some people came over and casually poured themselves a glass then walked off to drink it while shopping. It never ceases to amaze me how chill Europeans are with alcohol. Or rather, I’ve become even more aware of how ridiculous and uptight Americans are about it. Yes, I’m talking about you, Massachusetts – making me show my ID just to get a piddly little wine sample in a doll-sized cup. Even a 3-year-old couldn’t get drunk off that. Americans could really stand to take a page (or 50…) from the Europeans’ book – regarding alcohol and a lot of other things.

We wound up having dinner with Randolph and Colby at a little place along the boardwalk and then got some Belgian fries from a food truck. We said goodbye til we would meet up again a few days later and went back to our hotel for the night.

 

DAY TWO

Before checking out of the hotel, we had a nice little breakfast in their pretty dining area. I’m learning that at European hotels “breakfast included” is far better than the Holiday Inn-style powdered eggs I’m used to expecting.

Our first stop of the day was Brugge. Brugge and Gent (which we visited in February) are similar little cities. In online travel forums I’ve seen some people get pretty defensive about which city is better, which one tourist like better, I’m more of an expert than you on this, blah, blah, blah… the usual online forum stuff. Brugge is the more touristy one, so generally people are more likely to have visited that city. I think both cities are very nice (especially when you’re traveling outside of peak season), but yes – Brugge definitely felt more touristy. For some people that might be a good thing, although I tend to disagree. At any rate, I think both cities are worth a visit and enjoyable to walk around.

Before we even hit the center of the touristy area, we found a beautiful pastry shop. We had to pop inside to look at the goods and snap a picture of their stunning chandelier. We returned later on our way back to the car to buy some meringue pastries for Randolph and Colby.

 

 

We started our sight-seeing at the Grote Markt (the central square). The buildings around it are very beautiful and very Belgian/Dutch looking in their architectural style, many with the typical crow-stepped gables. We continued along to three different churches.

 

 

the Grote Markt

 

 

 

the Stadhuis (City Hall)

 

The first, Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed (Basilica of the Holy Blood), we were able to go inside. It was quite small for being so close to the main square, but it was also very colorful compared to most churches!

The outside of the church

 

 

 

the Oude Civiele Griffie (Old Civic Registry)

 

To get to the next church we walked along the canal (so picturesque!), which it where we stumbled across an awesome little market. There were probably about a dozen stands of varying sizes set up in a little park along the canal and they were all selling cool antiques! There were plenty of things I would’ve LOVED to buy, since that’s totally my sort of thing, but I restrained myself from buying up the whole place. What I did find to buy, though, were really cool vintage postcards. One stand had several boxes of very old postcards from Belgium and France. I wound up buying five different ones from various cities around Belgium. Some of them had been sent, some not. One is from 1910, another from 1938! They are definitely very cool and unique souvenirs. I’m planning to frame some to hang in our house.

We continued on along the picturesque canal to Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Brugge (Our Lady of Bruges), which we were not able to go into. It looked like they were doing some serious renovations. We walked around a bit in a quiet little walled-in neighborhood next to the church, where we saw a cute little place advertising over 100 Belgian beers on tap. Had Randolph and Colby been with us, I suspect we would have stopped there. But Michelle and I just peeked in.

So then we continued on to the next church, Sint-Salvatorskathedral. This one was doing some restorations, but was still open. The church was founded in the 10th century and the oldest surviving parts of the church date to 1127. The coolest thing about it was that right when you walk in they’ve uncovered some of the very old parts of the building, under the floor. The original painting decorating the stones is still visible, and they’ve put glass above it on the floor so that you can look down onto it. I wasn’t able to get any pictures of it, but it was pretty cool.

 

 

the beautiful organ

 

We were starting to get hungry, so we scoped out places that had dairy-free options for Michelle. We wound up at Le Pain Quotidien. It’s a chain that exists across Europe and there are some in Manhattan, but I had never been to one. It turned out to be great, despite being a chain! This particular location was in a very charming little brick building, and it also had an awesome courtyard patio. We chose to sit out there to take advantage of the sunshine and fresh air. We both had veggie food and coffee, and it all really hit the spot. Especially my big ol’ bowl of coffee.

 

Coffee in bowl form = awesome

 

After lunch, we make some quick stops in some stores, got some Belgian fries in front of the Belfry tower, and bought the little meringue pastries from the shop we discovered in the morning.

 

 

This wasn’t a fancy building or anything special, I just thought it was pretty

 

Then, it was off to Puurs, to the home of Michelle’s host family!

Marlene and Igor graciously welcomed us into their beautiful home (and so did Ozzy, their very loving dog). They had let us know ahead of time that Igor’s cycling club was holding an Oktoberfest event that night and encouraged us to bring our dirndls, so we did. It turned out that we were the only ones in Oktoberfest gear aside from the cycling club people running the event in their Halloween costume lederhosen and dirndls. But that was OK! There was live music and everyone was clearly having a great time dancing around the room. Some of the cycling club guys were absolutely hilarious! The Flemish singer noticed me (I’m sure the conspicuous dirndl played a part in that) and started paying a lot of attention to me. Apparently he was trying to get me to sing along with him – until one of Marlene’s kind friends informed him that I’m American and don’t speak Flemish and had nooooo idea what he was singing/saying to me. So, he stopped trying to get me to sing along, but he was still giving me a bit too much attention for the rest of the night. It was kind of awkward. But memorable, I guess? I tried to be a good sport about it. Michelle and I also got pulled into a couple conga lines by many happy, friendly Belgians – that part was fun, for sure. It was definitely a fun evening and I loved seeing the genuinely happy spirit of partying Belgians!

 

DAY THREE

Michelle and I had originally been planning to spend Sunday in Antwerp, but then Marlene and Igor invited us to join them for a day with Igor’s other club – a culinary group. How could we say no?

The first stop was Kasteel van Beersel (Beersel Castle). It was first constructed in the early 1300s, although it has been through various renovations and restorations since then, most recently in 2003. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I hear about a historic building being restored in current times. I feel like so often that is not a priority, even though preserving history should absolutely be a priority. Usually, building are either left to continue crumbling or are torn down. Good for Belgium for restoring and maintaining its beautiful old buildings!

 

The castle is pretty rustic (open to nature and nothing inside), but it has many stairways and rooms to explore, and is surrounded by a moat (re-digging the moat was part of the modern restorations). You can walk your way all through the castle, up and down many precarious stairways. There is even a little tiny tower at the top of one of the buildings. I went about halfway up the final staircase, but then it got really narrow and since the ladder continuing up was a little iffy and it was completely dark up there…I didn’t go all the way up.

 

 

I went up to the top of the brick part of the tower, but not up the little black spire

 

 

 

Stop #2 was a really great restaurant serving hearty traditional food. Sadly, most everything had meat. But I did find a salad topped with fresh, local seafood, and some delicious veggie soup. And I got to try my first taste of geuze beer.

Gueze (aka gueuze) is a type of lambic beer. Before this trip I had done a bit of research on Belgian beers and found lambic to be fascinating. Although I had heard of it before, I didn’t really know anything about it. What’s really amazing is that lambic can only be made in a very small region around Brussels because it’s made through spontaneous fermentation from the wild yeast and bacteria in the air there. How cool is that??

And on a related note… Stop #3 was Oud Beersel Brewery, a maker of gueze and kriek (a sour cherry lambic). The group had a private tour of the brewery. We started out with a taste of gueze in one of their barrel rooms, and then walked through the brewery. Since the tour was in Flemish, Marlene kindly did some translating for us. Unlike any brewery you’ll visit in the US, this one wasn’t pristinely clean. But in this case, cleanliness is relative to function. Other breweries carefully clean because they don’t want any extraneous bacteria and yeast getting into their beers and ruining it. But at a lambic brewery that is exactly what they want to happen, since it’s how their beers are fermented.

Lambic is a tart beer, which makes it a very refreshing summer drink in all of its varied forms. Kriek is made by dissolving sour cherries (yes, dissolving…pits and all) in lambic beer. Oud Beersel’s kriek contains 400 grams of cherries per liter (that’s nearly a pound,  i.e. a lot!). Geuze is made by blending old and young lambics into bottles, where it under goes a second fermentation, similar to champagne. Like champagne, this makes it fizzy. I’ll be honest – it smells really crazy. As in, it smells like a dog kennel that needs to be cleaned. But that’s not how it tastes. It’s pleasantly tart. I will say, however, that I was only tasting “young” geuzes. They get waaaaay funkier as they get older. And I’m really not sure I would be able to handle that. But young geuzes? Refreshing.

 

 

It looks small, but the facility is much bigger inside

 

I really loved this little window nook

 

Big barrel, little Michelle

 

We ended in a tasting room where we tried Bersalis Tripel (one of their “regular” blonde beers), Bersalis Kadet (another “regular” blonde beer), Oude Geuze, Oude Kriek, and Framboise (lambic made with raspberries). I wound up buying a pack of 3 big [champagne-sized] bottles: Bersalis Tripel, Oude Geuze, and Oude Kriek. I look forward to popping open the geuze and kriek on hot summer days.

 

 

Some nice, bright red kriek

 

Our final stop of the day was for a little nature hike through the woods. Upon getting out of the car Michelle and I saw a couple horses happily running over to the edge of their pasture to greet us, so we gave them some pets before heading off on the walk. It was a short walk, but a very nice, relaxing end to a wonderful day.

I’m so grateful to Marlene and Igor for taking us in on a weekend that they had such a full schedule and inviting us along with them. We got a “real” Belgian experience for the weekend that we would never have had otherwise. It was awesome!

 

DAY FOUR

We got up bright and early to head off to pick up Randolph and Colby in Mol. They were all done with their performances and the band bus was heading back that morning, but we were still going to hang out one more day in Belgium with them.

We spent a good portion of the day in Antwerp. After some much needed caffeine, we walked across the city to the train station, which is known for its beautiful architecture. Then we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring.

 

 

Antwerp Central Train Station

 

Antwerp’s Grote Markt

 

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal Antwerpen (Our Lady of Antwerp)

 

Hetsteen

 

Vleeshuis

 

In the early afternoon we headed back to Puurs since Michelle had wanted Marlene to meet Colby. She and I had also arranged a little surprise for Randolph. After a little while of hanging out and chatting (and Ozzy pouring all of his doggy love onto the guys), it was time for the surprise: the chicken! When Michelle had stayed with Marlene and Igor originally they had six chickens. They only have one now, but Marlene was very happy to let Randolph meet her. It was another bucket list item checked off for him!

 

Colby getting some Ozzy love. Instant BFFs

Covered in dog fur and holding a chicken – not a bad day for him

 

I guess Randolph’s epic happiness over holding a chicken was a pretty good end to a fun weekend in Belgium.

 

NEXT UP

I’m a little behind, so I already have a couple more posts to make. Stay tuned!

 

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