"This may be death by chocolate, but what a way to go!" Jenna, my travel companion said with a deep and lingering sigh. We were dining at Wittamer, the renowned chocolate establishment in Brussels, Belgium and our "lunch" consisted of countless samples of chocolate in every flavor and shape, light, dark and dangerously indulgent -- a delicious way to start our Belgian tour.
During our visit we explored the vibrant city of Brussels and then we were on to Bastogne, where we visited the Ardennes and the site of the Battle of the Bulge. But before leaving Brussels we dined at some tantalizing cafes and restaurants, visited way too many chocolate shops and sampled some of its 500 (no, seriously, 500) different types of beer! Yes, we knew we'd end our trip facing our own personal battle of the bulge but hey, we were in the land of beer and chocolate and it was all too tempting to resist!
Brussels is conveniently located less than an hour and a half from Paris and just two hours from Amsterdam. Home of the European Union and NATO, Brussels had its beginnings in the 10th century, evolving from a fortress town into a metropolis of more than one million inhabitants today. The city derives its character by the coexistence of French and Flemish culture and is now home to nationalities around the world which adds to its cosmopolitan flavor. It's further enhanced by picturesque medieval streets, lively squares, cozy cafes and a vibrant cultural life.
After checking into my hotel, I made a bee-line for everyone's favorite place known as the Heart of Brussels: La Grand Place. With its sense of 17th-century power, this is one of 35 Belgian UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is a centuries-old square surrounded by the famed Guild Houses with their magnificent gables, pilasters, balustrades and ornately covered stonework. Here, also, adding to the happy atmosphere: flower markets, cafes, shops and people. Feeling somewhat jet-lagged from my journey, I spied a sidewalk vendor selling Belgian waffles. Something told me that this sumptuous concoction topped with whipped cream, chocolate and fresh strawberries would make me feel a whole lot better. It did.
Sufficiently revived from my sugar jolt, I visited the Galeries St. Hubert on La Grand Place. In this fabulous glass arcade which opened in 1847 there are luxurious shops and beautiful cafes. I spent a leisurely half hour sipping coffee at Taverne du Passage and indulging in one of my favorite pastimes, people-watching. Before returning to my hotel, I treated myself to Belgian frites, twice fried potatoes that are served in a paper cone. I took mine with a side of mayonnaise. Highly recommended.
You've Gotta Have Art
Painting is one of the glories of Belgium and in Brussels you'll find more than 80 museums to house its splendid works of art. Not to be missed: The Royal Museum containing both ancient and modern art and the Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art, famous for its exhibits of Belgium's beloved comic strip character, Tintin, and those roguish blue guys, the Smurfs. The Rene Magritte Museum is dedicated to the works of Belgium's most famous 20th-century artist. It boasts the largest collection in the world of items related to Magritte. Some of his work is whimsical, some mystical, some surrealistic and others downright playful: "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Oh yes it is!
John Coltrane (and I) Thank You
Did you know that this is the land where the saxophone was invented? No wonder jazz is an integral part of daily life here. There is the Brussels Jazz Marathon held in May, the Brussels Summer Festival in August and, outside of Brussels in Namur, the Verdur Rock Festival in June. Audi puts on a jazz festival from September to December in various Belgian cities, and for classical music lovers, there's the Festival of Wallonia from June to October held in castles, abbeys and churches in the southern region of the country.
An Invitation to Temptation
Food of champions, a lure for lovers, a drink for the gods and an indulgence for the masses. Chocolate. At last count, there were some 2,000 chocolate shops in Belgium and 172,000 tons of this dark, delightful and de-lovely stuff are produced each year. All of the great chocolatiers are here -- Marcolini, Leonidas, Neuhaus and the aforementioned Wittamer's -- and if you want some sweet, in-depth browsing, check out the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate.
Beauty Lies in the Hands of the Beer Holder
Three cheers for Belgian beers appreciated by ale enthusiasts in much the same way as fine wines. The variety of beer flavors is endless. Anyone in the mood for raspberry, chocolate, cherry, white or brown beer? You can find it here. The Belgian Beer Weekend held on La Grand Place takes place in early September, and there is the Beer Festival of Bouillion in April.
If you want to forgo beer and try a cool, crisp Chardonnay, you're in luck. Brussels is a city of pubs, the oldest being L'Imaige Nostre-Dame which beckons your way by gaslight. Its tiny interior is all warm golden glow, stained glass windows, the dark wood of its tables and chairs polished smooth by centuries of use. At Au Bon Vieux Temps, it is, just like the name says, the good old days. Their motto is: "Curiosity from the 17th century," and here you can try one of several curious and very drinkable aperitifs.
We left Brussels to spend some time in Namur, an hour drive from Brussels and the capital of Wallonia. The city is quaint, cradled by the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, its architectural heritage dominated by a 1,000-year-old citadel. My colleagues and I shared a memorable lunch at Les Tanneurs de Namur which is both a hotel and restaurant. As we walked to the restaurant down a narrow alleyway, passing superb 17th-century restored buildings, anticipation built until we were standing right in front of the hotel's old stone walls, brick ceilings and stone archways. This building is a favorite among residents and tourists alike. While we were lunching, we saw two separate wedding parties that had come to be photographed amid its ancient splendor.
A Solemn Visit
After lunch, we were off to Bastogne, a few hours' drive and close to the Luxembourg border. This is the site where thousands of soldiers died during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. By the time fighting stopped, the city was completely destroyed, and more than 25,000 people had been killed. The town is filled with stark reminders of WWII, including the American Memorial, the Ardennes American Cemetery and the Bastogne Historical Center.
We toured the Historical Center, one of the world's finest war museums with our guide, Henri Mignon, a man well-versed in this area's past, living here and following its history since he was a child. We were shown a movie which told the story of the Battle of the Bulge with some remarkable footage. There are 120 mannequins of American, English and German soldiers with their equipment and armaments, as well as uniforms donated by veterans of this most famous battle. There is also an important collection of light and heavy arms, photographic documents, personal objects and equipment found on the battlefield.
Looking at the worn and sometimes bullet-riddled clothing and other intimate artifacts of the soldiers was incredibly moving, and we filed out of the museum silent and alone in our thoughts. Before leaving Bastogne, we spent some time at the American Memorial, an ultra-modern, star-shaped building set atop a hill and affording a sweeping view of Bastogne, the Ardennes forests and the battlefield, now quiet and meadow-like.
Back in Brussels, the next morning dawned balmy and soft. I parked myself on a bench under a grand, sprawling chestnut tree in a small park and for a moment enjoyed the quiet peacefulness of this sometimes chaotic, multicultural city. But, soon enough, the pulse and tempo of swinging Brussels beckoned, and I was off to another adventure in this irresistible metropolis.
Belgians invite visitors to come and experience their country through the eyes of natives. They promise that your experience will not be that of a tourist, so don't waffle about visiting -- Belgium is ready and waiting to make you its guest.
For all information relating to this story:
Belgian Tourist Office
Follow Barbara Barton Sloane on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ofmeising