Nigel Farage once said that Belgium is a bit of a non-country. Inspired to seek the truth about this little known landmass, I decided on a post-Christmas getaway to the land of waffles, beer, chocolate and a lack of perceivable government.
Whilst some tourists may be dismayed by the grey skies, seasonal closure of every museum ever constructed and the often surly faced residents we encountered, a constant flow of free chocolates and spectacularly cheap fruit flavoured beer ensured that the trip was one to remember… or in the case of too much Kriek, one to forget.
Wandering through the silent streets of Bruges the evening we arrived, unable to walk in the shadows for fear of some monster jumping out, was not unlike the opening to a Doctor Who episode. Yet with the bright light of day (one of the least grey on the spectrum) and a few refreshing gasps of the surprisingly crisp morning air, Bruges was found to be a charming, quaint town composed of cobbled alleyways and canals to discover. Naturally, just like the chocolate museum, the fries museum, the lace museum… (the list could go on) the canal tours weren’t running yet. But located only a stroll away from the Market and Burg area, they are easily negotiable on foot with chocolate shops always within a minutes walk to stave off any hunger pains. Feeling that I needed the obligatory post-holiday Facebook profile photo change and fuelled by speculoos truffles, we continued to stroll along the winding lanes, stopping for snaps, until we reached the Sint Salvators Cathedral. Although not quite the same as our own Sallies, it had a great charm and added a little culture to a seemingly culinary minded visit.
With the Belgian offerings of rabbit, stew and stewed rabbits failing to excite our taste buds, we opted for a trusty touristy Italian facing onto the Market square where our blatant Britishness earned us free Kriek and Frambroise from the overenthusiastic waiter. Flirty barman banter aside, the food was a little lacklustre with my lasagne seeming to float in a sea of grease, whilst I realised that there is such a thing as having too much bread.
Boozy Bruges explored, we progressed onto Bruxelles on a bustling commuter train the next morning. Our bubble was well and truly burst upon arrival at the giant, frenzied train station of Bruxelles-Midi complete with toddlers desperately launching themselves on the bumbag (Fannypack for the Americans) wearing tourists. We quickly made our connections and were relieved to find our hotel only steps from the metro. This cheap and cheerful throwback to the 60s turned out to be a haven of warmth and solace at times when the pressures of the big, noisy city became too much.
We strolled around the Grand Place, littered with yet more chocolate shops, waffle enterprises and tourist meccas of souvenir shops. A little detour took us off to Mannekin Pis, where, aside from the infamous tiny bronze statue, my favourite discovery of the trip was a €1 take away waffle stop. For only €3.50 I succeeded in eating away my fear of Bruxelles with the help of nutella, strawberries and bananas.
Frozen fingers and a chocolate covered face later we made the most of the Belgian laissez-faire spirit by strolling along Galeries Royales Saint Hubert where upmarket (you guessed it) chocolate shops, brasseries and luxury outlets are to be found. After a wander in the direction of the EU institutions (large, office-like, closed), we left Belgium feeling cultured, accomplished and full.
As for our friend Nigel, any nation prioritising the daily consumption of beer and chocolate and with some of the most impressive architecture in Europe, is well and truly a country to me, pal.
Image coutesy of Sardanna Henke.