Brussels was originally intended to serve a couple of key purposes on our trip. 1) As a halfway point during about two months of travel, where we’d have an apartment to ourselves for a week to rest, regroup, etc. 2) Beer.
It served both of those purposes very well.
Alesha and I arrived in Brussels on Oct. 2 via train to Brussels Central Station. We headed straight to our new home base for the week, since we were meeting the host to get our key. Our host, Benoît, showed us around the apartment and recommended some good places to eat/drink. It was a cozy spot with a lofted bedroom and steep ladder (with hand holds on the wall) to climb up.
After doing about a week’s worth of laundry (basically all our clothes), we headed to a swanky beer bar called “Moeder Lambic” on the other side of town. We indulged in a few Belgian strong and sour ales.
Since we spent our daily money allotment on beer, we stopped at the grocery store to get pasta and cooked at home.
First mission of the day: see the Grand Place! This is the central square of Brussels, and considered by many to be the crown jewel of the Brussels Region. The area around the square is pretty tourist-y, and packed with restaurants, bars, chocolate shops, waffle stands, and burger/frite windows. It’s the perfect place to be if you’re hungry and want to indulge.
The Grand Place itself is pretty stunning: you’re surrounded by huge, opulent buildings with amazing architecture and golden detailing.
We explored the narrow, winding streets for several hours. Many of the restaurants downtown have a host posted outside trying to get you in the door. If he/she catches you looking at the menu board, they’ll start talking you up and you’ll feel they’re selling you a car… not fun. After a few hours of walking, Alesha decided she REALLY wanted some mussels so eventually we caved and accepted one host’s offer for lunch.
With full bellies, we had one more item on the docket for the day. This is something I’ve been looking forward to for a LONG time: touring the Cantillon Brewery. This small family-owned operation is now the only operating brewery in Brussels (all the others have moved out of the city), and they brew a very special style of beer known as the lambic. This type of beer can ONLY be brewed in two regions in Belgium: downtown Brussels being one of them. This isn’t due to a regional law or anything; the beer is actually fermented by pouring the unfinished beer (wort) into a giant copper tub in an open-air room to expose it to the wild yeasts and bacteria from the outside environment. This process is known as “spontaneous fermentation”. The bacteria necessary for this process to occur only exist in these two regions.
This is also very unusual for beer. Nearly all other beer in the world is fermented by adding specific yeasts to a batch of beer in a controlled, sterile environment and allowing it to ferment.
Once the exposure to the open air is complete, the beer is siphoned into wooden barrels and aged. From there, they might add fruit (cherries, raspberries, grapes, etc.) to put a spin on the basic flavor. They also mix different ages of the lambic together for different flavors (for example, a mix of 1, 2, and 3 year old lambics).
The end result is dry, sour, and occupies this weird space between a beer and a wine. It’s a unique beverage and being able to see the process first-hand was exciting.
We paid for a self-guided tour of the whole brewery, which was basically just numbered signs guiding you through the process, and a booklet to read the details. This tour was so cool because it was the ACTUAL equipment and the actual people who make it (they were actually bottling beer while we were there).
I would highly recommend this tour for any beer nerd. It was very informative, there was some beer tastings included in the price, and most importantly, the beer is delicious.
On our third day in Brussels, I woke up thinking “I really want to see some dinosaur bones today”. This is something I often think when I’m in a big city with museums.
Luckily, Brussels has a great Natural Sciences museum, so Alesha and I trekked a few miles across town to find it. Oh and it was free admission on the first Wednesday of the month, so that was cool.
I also decided to photograph all the turtle fossils I could find, because I love turtles.
On our walk back home, we stumbled onto an awesome bottle shop called “Beer Mania”, where we opened a few bottles of Belgian beer, and brought a few more home.
One of our take-home bottles worth a mention is really famous and was known as the “best beer in the world” for a while (Trappist Westvleteren 12). Its brewed in small quantities by a group of monks in a remote abbey in Belgium, using an age-old recipe. It is crazy expensive in the US, but wasn’t too bad here. Overall it wasn’t our favorite beer ever, but cool to say we’ve had it.