the capital of chocolate, beer, waffles, and Europe: Brussels!

Let me just take a moment, once again, to marvel at the accessibility of other cities and countries in Europe. From the Hague, here’s a random sampling of train times to other cities: Amsterdam = 1 hour, Brussels = 2.25 hours, Paris = 3 hours. You can literally take a day trip to another COUNTRY, which is exactly what I meant to do on Saturday by going to Brussels.

Brussels has kind of a mixed reputation that borders on negative, mostly because it’s rumored to be boring. That makes a certain amount of sense: after all, it’s the capital of the EU; it’s the seat of European government and bureaucracy! At the same time, Brussels is arguably THE place to get chocolate, beer, waffles, and fries. (I had three out of those four and chose to save mussels for another visit when they’re in season.)

I did a bit more research for this trip than I did for my previous trips this summer and arrived in Brussels with a list of things to see and do. After meandering through an outdoor market that reminded me of Eastern Market in DC, I arrived in Grand Place, which is the central square of the city center. It’s flanked on all four sides by beautiful, stately buildings like these:

There are also chocolate shops everywhere in this area. Godiva’s main store is right in the corner of Grand Place, but there are plenty of others with names unfamiliar to us in America but still quite famous in their own right. I bought some from this store, which is right next to Godiva:

All of these stores have chocolate of all shapes, sizes, flavors, textures, and color. I bought about $10 worth from two stores and have only tried two pieces so far (must savor it, Charlie Bucket style!). If you are a chocolate addict, Brussels would be the perfect pilgrimage.

After admiring the grandeur of Grand Place for a few minutes, I walked south in search of Mannekin Pis. This little statue has become the symbol of Brussels, and unlike the statue of the angry little boy that symbolizes Oslo, this guy is totally adorable, for a number of reasons. First of all, and most important in terms of making him famous, he’s peeing (he’s a fountain). Second of all, people have taken to dressing him up. I was not at all upset to find him wearing clothes rather than being naked. How cute is this?!

I spent the next hour and a half strolling through the busy shopping streets north of Grand Place and enjoyed reacquainting myself with French. (I got into a nice little linguistics discussion with the owner of one store, and I loved walking around and realizing that I still know quite a bit of French even if I don’t speak it very well anymore.) I eventually bought a waffle from one of the many vendors and sat down to eat it in the Place des Martyrs, a smaller version of Grand Place with a big statue in the middle.

From there, I set off in search of Delirium: the bar that holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of beers available in one place: 2,004 in total! (It also includes a tequilería with 500 types of tequila.) I got there around 2, so there weren’t many people. I sat down at the bar and asked the bartender (in French, obviously) which of the beers on tap was his favorite. He wasn’t terribly friendly at first, but eventually he answered that it depended on the type of day, and have gave me a sample of Monk Stout, which is a bit darker than I normally drink but was still really good, so I got a glass of that and had a chat with a Spanish woman who was buying a bunch of beers for her group. (More about Delirium in a bit – I went back and stayed much longer!)

After my little rest at the bar, I pointed myself east and started wandering in the general direction of the main EU buildings. On the way, I passed through and hung out in the Parc de Bruxelles – a huge park containing lots of art honoring the things Brussels is most known for: beer, chocolate, fries, mussels, and one I hadn’t remembered: Brussels sprouts! Like the animal statues project that lots of different cities in the US have (where different business all decorate their own), these sculptures were all the same shape but with different decorations. Here are my three favorites:

(Note that this is Mannekin Pis on top of the Brussels sprout):

This says “reach the unreachable”:

After passing through the park and reading for a few minutes on a bench (across from two guys sunbathing, hehe), I continued walking east, away from the touristy area, and eventually wound up across from the European Parliament building… which was not nearly as exciting as I expected it to be. I figured I might as well head north to see the European Commission even if I wouldn’t be impressed; what followed was another hour of walking around without a particularly good idea of where I was. I passed through some less-than-cute areas but did stumble upon another, smaller park which is ranks as #2 on my list of most romantic spots in Europe (#1 is in the Parque del Retiro in Madrid):

Here’s what that cave-type thing in the back looks like closer up: it has waterfalls!

After wandering around for another couple of hours, I met up with my friend/coworker Arthur (Brussels was a popular destination among ICTY employees this weekend) and went back to Delirium. By this time it was after 6, so it was significantly busier.

Disclaimer: No, I did not drink solely Belgian beer at Delirium. That may or may not be a wasted opportunity depending on your perspective; from mine, it was an opportunity to do a little traveling vicariously through drinking.

I started with the Floris Cactus, which actually contains some cactus extract and some “green lemons”; it was fruity and refreshing:

We drank our first beer on the main floor but then headed down to the basement, which is where they keep all of the bottled beer. The “menu” looks more like a catalog – it’s easily 40 pages long – and we spent some time looking through. I started with a Cruzcampo in honor of Spain’s impending Euro 2012 final against Italy (which was last night), then when we learned that they were out of the Croatian beer Karlovačko (so disappointing!), I ordered a Cuban beer, since I figured that’s not something I can drink in the United States:

Eventually, because we’d had enough beer and I still had a train to catch, we left Delirium and sat down for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Delirium is right off this little street that’s crowded with restaurants (not unlike some streets in Dubrovnik), and it’s utterly European and charming.

So, the verdict on Brussels: GO! I think it’d be a fun place to spend a few days – aside from the beer and chocolate, there’s a lot of stuff to see! I plan to go back sometime when mussels are in season and see a lot more.

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