Ah, Belgium. The tiny country, somewhere beside, above and between France, Germany, and the Netherlands. But when measuring awesomeness, size doesn’t matter. Texas is nearly 23 times bigger than Belgium, but it ain’t got nothing on the history, food, and BEER from this quirky little place.
Divided into two distinctly different regions, Belgium feels like a mish mash of Northern France and The Netherlands. And that’s probably because it is. The southern region of Wallonia is home to adorable little French-speaking towns scattered across the hilly Ardennes with the flat plains, with the more urbanized, and Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north.
The train drops us off in Liege, where we spend our first three nights in Belgium. It’s the largest city in Wallonia, and although that only means about 200,000 people, it feels much bigger. Home to the Liege-style, deliciously doughy waffle, the city has some interesting sights. But overall, we’re unimpressed. It’s city vibes don’t feel cozy and the old town is a solid “average” on the interesting scale. A day trip to Spa, which kindly gave its name to those thermal hot baths we like to sit in, is a nice escape. Atop a small hill overlooking town is the Les Thermes de Spa, is a unique, cool, and slightly strange complex of thermal pools, saunas, and more relaxation inspired activities. After a few hours, we’re ready to roll, with Belgian beers and frites on the train back to our hotel.
At this point we’re feeling pretty disappointed in Liege, and our next stop, Brussels, certainly doesn’t promise to increase the cozy factor. We’d even been warned by the blank-faced, questioning tone of our Dutch friend in Valencia when we’d mentioned we were going to Brussels. “Hmm. Brussels?” she’d said. We’d quickly shifted the conversation to our next stop, Ghent, and she brightened up, saying, “Ghent is very nice!”. So, what to do when trip plans go awry? Switch it up.
We cancel our reservations for big, uncozy Brussels, rent a little red Fiat 500, and take off for Dinant, stopping first at Abbaye du Val Dieu.
Val Dieu claims to be the only true Abbey beer in Belgium, since they brew on-site (compared to other abbeys who apparently brew somewhere else). The abbey itself is awesome, the brasserie tour, strictly in French, not so much. Sure, it’s interesting, but it’s also freezing and we’re thirsty. Thankfully our tour guide seems to understand this and, ‘feeling the room,’ brings us to the tour’s big finale… tasting! We sip on the delicious Belgian blonde and strong brown while eating some super tasty abbey cheese (also made on-site) and chatting with a British/Maltese couple about the lack of English speaking tours in Wallonia and current sea temperatures off Malta. Tempted to spend the rest of the afternoon in the Abbey restaurant, drinking their boozy tripel and hard-to-find Grand Cru, a moment of maturity quickly takes over and we exit graciously, purchasing copious amounts of beer and Abbey cheese at the gift shop before making our way to Dinant.
Dinant is a spectacular town, set against the Meuse river and backed by steep cliffs that dangle over the Gothic Church of our Lady. It’s also the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and proud of it. Saxophone sculptures are scattered just about everywhere in this little village. In all sizes and colors, it’s… a lot. We spend only one night here, stopping by the Maison du Leffe, a museum and tasting room for the classic Belgian Leffe brewery, but skipping the tour (Ryan’s a bit snobby about Leffe, when, as he says “there are so many other, smaller, better breweries in Belgium”).
It’s now New Year’s Eve and what better place to go but the Smallest City in the World. At least that’s the self-proclaimed title Durbuy has given itself. We arrive to a little town bustling with people and *gasp/WTF!* another Christmas Market. Of course, it’s no German Christmas Market, but this, the tiniest of cities, still does a pretty good job. It even has it’s own ice skating rink! While we decide to take a raincheck on ice skating, we do venture out for NYE, seeking adventure and stumbling upon a few pretty interesting hotel parties. We dance the night away with our newly found Belgian friends as midnight strikes and the rest becomes a little blurry, proud of ourselves for uncovering our inner 20-something selves for this annual celebration.
With the new year comes our next destination, dropping off our rental car and taking the train to Ghent, a wonderful city just north of Brussels, in East Flanders. Like the massively popular tourist town of Bruges slightly further north, Ghent’s a beautiful little town straddling the Leie and Scheldt rivers. Less touristy than Bruges, Ghent benefits from a mostly pedestrian-only old town and centuries of impressive architecture. In addition to offering the Belgian classics (chocolate, frites, waffles, and beer), Ghent is vegetarian mecca. Not only do restaurants across the city offer a long list of vegetarian eats, the whole city goes veggie every Thursday in order to be healthy and save the planet (not so fun fact: animal agriculture is the world’s single biggest contributor to climate change).
We stroll the cobblestone streets of Patershol, Graslei, and Korenlei eating as many veggie burgers, waffles, chocolate, and cuberdons (delicious little nose-shaped fruit candies) we can handle. We learn more about Trappist beers, brewed by monks for centuries at their Trappist Cistercian monasteries. Six of ten in the world are located in Belgium and we happily drink to our heart’s content. Among our favorites, the Westmalle dubbel, Rochefort 10 (quad), and Westvleteren 12 (affectionately referred to as ‘Westy’), widely considered the best beer in the world. The latter of which we shared at Trollekelder, an incredible Belgian beer bar with more character than any bar we’ve ever been to and as long a beer list as we’ve ever seen. Though all of the Trappist monasteries are closed to the public, we did visit Gruut Brewery in old town Ghent. What makes Gruut so interesting is that they don’t use hops to flavor their beer, instead opting for a mix of spices (gruit). There’s some fascinating history behind this beer, so if you’re interested you should definitely read more.
We leave Belgium with a slightly better understanding of this curious little country with the friendly, flat, architecturally rich Dutch-speaking/feeling Flanders to the north and the quaint, hilly, French-speaking/feeling Wallonia in the south. It’s a history/beer/food lover’s paradise and we’ll be back for sure, but next time, in the summer.