YearTripper is not a food blog, but Belgium begs the exception.
Where Belgium’s rivers drain into the North Sea, mussels are both plentiful and popular. Over sixty thousand tons of them are consumed annually. Most restaurants sell them by the kilo (just over two pounds).
The shellfish are steamed in Belgian ale or white wine, onions, celery, garlic, herbs, and butter. Mussels are usually served with fries, in a combo known as moules frites.
Belgians claim they, not the French, invented french fries. Thank Americans for the misnomer. Supposedly, fried potatoes were first introduced to American soldiers in Belgium during World War I. As French is one of Belgium’s three official languages, the soldiers nicknamed the dish “french fries.”
Ever since, the wrong country has been getting the credit.
Fry stands, called frituurs, are ubiquitous in Belgium. In Bruges, there is even a museum devoted to fries—the Frietmuseum.
Belgian fries are typically served state-fair style in big paper cones with dipping sauce. Belgians prefer mayonnaise. Ketchup is for kids and Americans, they say.
Waffles are another mainstay of Belgian street food, served hot from stands everywhere. The style known as Liège is dense and sweet. Pearl sugar, which does not melt in the iron, gives the waffles a crunchy texture. Tourists eat them with toppings, such as whipped cream, jam, or chocolate syrup, while locals prefer them plain.
Belgium has been brewing some of the world’s best beers since the 1100s. There are hundreds of breweries and styles, including Trappist beers, which are brewed by monks. All profits must go to the monasteries or their charities. Six Belgian monasteries meet the qualifications.
In 1857, pharmacist Jean Neuhaus dipped his medicines in chocolate to make them taste better.
In 1912, his grandson improved on the idea by replacing the medicine with tasty fillings, such as nuts, liquors, and caramel.
Thus, the Belgian praline was invented.
Belgians have been making chocolates since 1635. Among the country’s two thousand chocolatiers are big brands Neuhaus, Leonidas, and Godiva.
When I stepped from the train in Brussels, I grabbed a Liège waffle as a mid-morning snack. Later, I ate at Chez Léon, a diner famous for its moules frites since 1893. I washed the mussels down with a Belgian ale. Afterward, while strolling the square, I stopped at Neuhaus for a couple of pralines.
It was a Belgian Grand Slam—mussels, fries, a waffle, beer, and chocolates, all in one day.
In small, densely populated Belgium, eleven million residents live within twelve thousand square miles.
The country is divided into three highly autonomous and somewhat adversarial regions.
There’s Flanders in the north, Wallonia in the south, and the capital, Brussels.
Most Flemings speak Flemish Dutch and most Walloons speak French. Residents of Brussels, the French Bruxellois and the Flemish Brusselaars, go one way or the other.
The powers of Europe used Belgium as a battleground for centuries. Austria, Spain, Austria again, and France took turns subjugating the country before it earned its independence in 1830. Then, during both world wars, Germany occupied it.
Today, the battles within Belgium are political, as Brussels hosts the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union.
Recently I visited three of Belgium’s historic port cities—Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp—as well as its capital, Brussels. All are within the region of Flanders.
From the 1100s through the 1400s, Bruges served as Europe’s warehouse.
Merchants from England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal traded spices, wine, and textiles.
In 1309 the first stock exchange in the world opened in Bruges.
Ghent’s growth followed the same path, as it led the world in the manufacture of textiles. By the 1200s, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe north of the Alps.
In the 1400s, the fortunes of both cities began to decline due to Antwerp’s emergence as an even larger port. Antwerp accounted for forty percent of world trade at the beginning of the 1500s.
During the same period, Brussels developed as a principal stop on the trade route from Bruges to Cologne.
Handmade Brussels’s lace was considered among the finest in the world. European royalty demanded it.
I headed to Brussels first. When the train crossed the border into Belgium, the conductor distributed chocolates.
In Brussels, I first made my way to Grote Markt (Grand Place), voted the most beautiful square in Europe.
Grand Place is surrounded on four sides by ornate buildings from the 1400s, including the Gothic town hall, the King’s House, and several gold-trimmed guildhalls. The facades are decorated with statues of royal, religious, and mythical figures.
During the Middle Ages, the square was the venue for beheadings and stake-burnings. During my visit, Grand Place was instead jammed with tourists gawking at the architecture and posing for selfies. The chocolate, fry, and waffle shops had lines out the doors.
Belgium has introduced several comic-strip characters to the world, including, unfortunately, the Smurfs. Another is Tintin. A Tintin store near the square sells comic books and action figures.
The Adventures of Tintin first appeared in 1929 and was popular in Europe throughout the century. The comic has been published in more than seventy languages and adapted for TV, radio, theater, and film. It stars Tintin, a brave young Belgian reporter, and his dog, Snowy.
The earliest stories have been criticized for their racial stereotypes, violence, and fascist leanings. Later editions cleaned up these transgressions. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein both claimed cartoonist Georges Remi, known as Hergé, as one of their key influences.
A few blocks away from the square, a naked little boy gleefully pees in a fountain. Actually, a bronze statue of a boy pees in the fountain.
He is the famously irreverent Manneken-Pis. Due to the sculpture’s popularity, the peeing boy has become the symbol of Brussels. In a nearby alley is a squatting female version.
Shoes in the rafters
Since 1199, a weekly market takes over Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market Square) in the city of Ghent.
Nearby is a large cannon, built in the 1400s. It is called Dulle Griet (Mad Meg). In Flemish folklore, Mad Meg is the name of a spiteful woman who led an army of women into hell—in order to ransack it.
Dulle Griet is also the name of a pub in the square. It is no place for beer rookies.
I asked them to recommend a good Belgian beer and they rolled their eyes. Dulle Griet serves over five hundred brands, all locally brewed. When ordering, one is expected to know one’s kriek lambics from one’s Trappists.
Almost every brand has its own uniquely shaped glass. The glasses hang upside down over the bar, like crystal stalactites. A few of them are collectors’ items.
To prevent a patron from stealing one of the more valuable glasses, the patron may be asked to remove one of his shoes. The shoe is placed in a wire basket and hoisted to the rafters. Once the glass is returned to the bar, the bartender lowers the basket and allows the guest to retrieve his shoe.
“It’s a guarantee,” the bartender said.
Lost and found
In Ghent I found my hotel in a step-gabled guildhouse near the River Leie. A suit of armor stood in the breakfast room.
Like Bruges, Ghent is a storybook city of bridges, canals, and beautiful medieval buildings. It has nearly 250 miles of bicycle paths, more than any other city in Europe.
Ghent’s port is the second largest in Belgium. The city has a university and a population of nearly six hundred thousand. Few tourists visit Ghent, which makes it even more appealing.
Among the city’s many sights is Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and its precious painted altarpiece.
The painting, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is considered the most influential painting in history. Brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck completed it before 1432. It is crowded with iconic images, including God, Mary, John the Baptist, some angels, and a very naked Adam and Eve. The lamb is surrounded by groups of saints, sinners, priests, and soldiers.
The altarpiece has been stolen several times. Napoléon appropriated it between 1794 and 1815. In 1934, two panels went missing, one of which has never been recovered.
To this day, a police detective in Ghent remains assigned to the case.
The altarpiece was the work of art most coveted by Hitler for his planned museum in Austria. The Nazis seized it from Saint Bavo’s in 1942.
In 1945, the Monuments Men found it hidden in a complex of salt mines in Altaussee, Austria, along with 6,500 other paintings. Ghent’s altarpiece was returned to Saint Bavo’s.
The Monuments Men was a group of American and British men and women—museum curators, art historians, librarians, architects, and artists—assigned to save the cultural achievements of western civilization during World War II.
Toward the end of the war, the group and their agents tracked down valuables looted by the Nazis and hidden in caches across Europe.
Wolves and clothes horses
I arrived in Antwerp with the Wolves of Belgium. After dark, they roamed the cobbled streets in packs, hundreds of them, wearing either neon green or neon blue accessories.
The Wolves were playing Ingress, an augmented-reality mobile game. Players use GPS to locate and interact with “portals.” The portals are real-world points of interest, such as public art, historic buildings, and so on. The green team are the Enlightened; the blue team the Resistance.
During the weekend, Enlightened won, which is a good thing apparently, because now they can save humankind by harnessing the energy of the Exotic Power.
Antwerp is Europe’s second largest port and Belgium’s second largest city. Around 1.2 million Antwerpenaars live in Antwerp. It is young, artsy, and known these days for fashion, due to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and its highly regarded design program.
In the 1980s, six graduates rented a truck, loaded it with their collections, and dropped in unannounced at London’s Fashion Week. The gamble ended up putting cutting-edge Belgian fashion on the map.
Antwerp Central, the train station, makes a grand first impression. A blend of renaissance revival and art nouveau styles, the station looks like a palace. Each year, eighty-five percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the streets just outside.
Many of Antwerp’s architectural sights are currently being renovated and are hidden behind wraps and scaffolding, including the city hall, the castle, and the cathedral’s four-hundred-feet tall steeple.
Grand Place is surrounded by glittery guildhalls and cafés. In the middle of the square is a statue of a young man holding a severed hand. A wounded giant writhes in pain at his feet.
According to a Flemish folk tale, a giant named Antigoon insisted on collecting tolls along the river. He cut off the hands of anyone who refused to pay. Finally, a young hero named Brabo killed Antigoon and cut off the giant’s hand. The statue portrays Brabo tossing the bloody hand into the river.
Youngers and elders
Trade between Belgium and Italy in the 1400s and 1500s brought Belgian artists in contact with the Italian Renaissance. Belgium’s painters responded with a renaissance of their own.
Painters from the period are a confusing stew of Pieters, Jans, Elders, and Youngers. They include Pieter Bruegel the Elder from Brussels, Jan van Eyck from Bruges, and Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Jan Brueghel the Younger, all from Antwerp.
In the 1600s, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, and Anthony van Dyck solidified Antwerp’s position as the hub of Belgian painting.
Rubens spoke several languages, traveled throughout Europe, collected art, and even negotiated peace between England and Spain. He ran an art factory out of his house, producing a couple of thousand paintings for his wealthy patrons. His colleagues and students did much of the heavy lifting, but Rubens himself stepped in to apply finishing touches.
In Antwerp, I toured his home and studio.
Purchased in 1610, the manor house was renovated by Rubens to resemble an Italian palazzo, complete with a courtyard garden. He even designed the tapestries.
Chistophe Plantin was the patriarch of nine generations of printers in Antwerp.
His family home and printing plant, founded in 1548, is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On display are two of the oldest surviving printing presses in the world and ten tons of lead letters used for typesetting. The museum’s library houses some twenty-five thousand of the earliest printed books, including the world’s first atlas and the first Dutch dictionary.
In 1572 Plantin Press printed an eight-volume bible in five languages—Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Aramaic, and Syriac.
It brought international fame.
For over two hundred years, Plantin Press held a monopoly, granted by the pope, to print Catholic liturgy books.
The church issued a list of banned books. Plantin printed those as well.
In the film, In Bruges, Ralph Fiennes’s character, a coarse crime boss, says, “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?”
Good question. Bruges suffered little damage during the world wars. As a result, Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It’s a Flemish version of Venice. It’s a fairytale town.
On a sunny day, I took a boat tour through the city’s canals. The boat captain was a young woman who maneuvered us under bridges and between swans. She pointed out the hotel window from which actor Colin Farrell leapt onto a passing boat in the movie In Bruges.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t my boat he landed on,” she said wistfully.
Madonna’s world tour
Bruges is a pleasure to explore on foot. The bell tower rings over Market Square. Horse-drawn carriages queue like taxis. Swans cruise the canals.
Men and women of all ages bike past, many dangling shopping bags from their handlebars. Although Bruges has a port and a university, it feels like a small town. Its population is 250,000.
I headed northeast through quiet streets to visit the windmills along the dyke. In its heyday, Bruges had twenty-eight of them. Four are left.
Near the dyke, I stumbled upon the guildhouse of Saint Sebastian, an association of longbow archers that has been around for more than six hundred years. Its members are all male—except for the queens of Belgium and England.
Later, I visited the Church of Our Lady to see the Michelangelo sculpture, Madonna and Child, also known as Madonna of Bruges. The marble statue portrays Jesus as a toddler, taking a step away from his mom. Mary looks away sadly, perhaps disquieted by the difficulties life has in store for her child.
Madonna is the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. Wealthy merchants from Bruges bought it in 1504. The sculpture disappeared twice after its arrival.
In 1794 Napoléon relocated Madonna to Paris. It was returned after his defeat in 1815. In 1944, retreating German soldiers wrapped it in mattresses and smuggled it out of Bruges in a Red Cross truck. Once again, the Monuments Men came to the rescue and returned the sculpture to the Church of Our Lady.
I sat in the last row of the Basilica of the Holy Blood, studying the paintings over the altar. Tourists came and went. A worship service was underway.
Quietly, a young priest entered through a side door. In his hand was a mobile phone. As he crossed the choir, he was engrossed with his device, tapping the screen and scrolling.
A second or two later, he reappeared in the side chapel triumphantly holding aloft, not his mobile phone, but a phial that supposedly contains the blood of Christ.
The legend is that the relic was snagged by one Thierry of Alsace during the Second Crusade and brought to Bruges in 1150. A souvenir, of sorts. Another story is that it was stolen from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204 by Baldwin IX, a Flemish count, during the Fourth Crusade.
The relic is encased in a rock-crystal cylinder, end-capped with gold coronets. It looks like a prop from Indiana Jones.
De Halve Maan (the Half Moon) Brewery opened in 1564. Until World War II, horses and carts delivered cases of its beer to people’s homes.
The brewery produces several styles, including Brugse Zot (Fool from Bruges) and Straffe Hendrik (Strong Henry).
Tours of De Halve Maan are conducted by language—French, Flemish and English.
In order to keep up with demand, the brewery opened a new bottling plant outside of the city center. However, trucking beer through the Old Town to the plant soon became cumbersome.
Then, the owner hit upon a novel idea.
He asked tunneling experts from the oil and gas industry to install a beer pipeline under the Old Town streets. Computer-guided drills were used to minimize digging.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, what are they thinking?’” said the mayor.
Now, beer trucks no longer clog the streets of the Old Town. The brewery remains at its historic location.
Tourists stroll the cobbles, reveling in the picture-postcard setting.
And below their feet, one thousand gallons of beer, enough to fill twelve thousand bottles, flow through the mile-long pipeline every hour.
“It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it?”