brussels and bruges

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When we discovered several months ago that some friends of ours were moving to Belgium, we knew right away that there was no question that we would be visiting them as soon as possible. We allowed them just barely enough time to move in and unpack before showing up at their doorstep in a hungry, jet lagged stupor. Between the fries, chocolate, waffles, mussels, and beer that Belgium has to offer, I was pretty much ready to move in before we even arrived. The food lived up to my every expectation and I reveled in the frite and waffle stands dotting about every other square foot of the city, a beer selection that left me speechless, fresh, sweet mussels the size of strawberries, and chocolate shops so luxurious and decadent that I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

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My biggest problem with Belgium was time because there is frankly not enough time in the world to eat all of the fries, waffles, chocolate, and Belgian beer that I wanted. Nonetheless, our few days in Brussels and Bruges were a wonderful introduction to the wonderful cuisine and we did our part to familiarize ourselves as much as possible with the gastronomic delights.

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The biggest highlight for me was without a doubt getting to try the mythical Westvleteren 12. This beer is supposedly only available for distribution directly from the monks who brew it at the monastery a few hours outside of Brussels and by appointment only. It’s so difficult to get that it sells in the States on the black market for hundreds of dollars (there’s even currently a Westvleteren bottle cap for sale on ebay with a starting bid of only $31 and yes you read that right: a bottle cap – the little metal thing that closes the bottle - starting at $31). I desperately wanted to go, but the logistics were simply too much and besides, my wonderful husband found a bar in Brussels that sells it by the bottle for a mere 10 euros. Joseph suggested that we split the beer and I told him under no uncertain terms that if he wanted more than a sip, he would need to get his own. It’s a once in a lifetime experience after all, right?

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While we weren’t able to make it to any of the trappist breweries, we did make it to Cantillon in Brussels and de Halve Maan in Bruges. Cantillon, founded over a hundred years ago, brews what are apparently very traditional guezes and lambics. While the brewery and its self-guided tour were very interesting, it seems that I just don’t like the traditional gueze and lambics, at least from Cantillon, which are very, very sour. If you can drink it without puckering your lips and having your eyes bulge out, power to you. De Halve Maan in Bruges, on the other hand, brews Brugse Zot, which, thanks to my sister and brother-in-law, I already knew I really liked. What I didn’t know about was Staffe Hendrik, a tripel with luscious caramel malts which I quickly fell in love with.

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I also fell in love with the mussels cooked in Brugse Zot and cream at de Koetse. Possibly the best mussels I’ve ever had, they were enormously plump but still sweet, tender, with just the right hint of brine. Joseph opted for a more adventurous dish and ordered eel, which was interesting and squishy, but perhaps better served as an appetizer. What can I say, I was happy with my mussels, but that’s coming from the girl who ordered mussels pretty much every chance she got while in Belgium.

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We also decided to check out the chocolate museum in Bruges which would have to be the most crowded and most poorly designed museum I’ve ever stepped foot it. Whose idea was it to put display placards along the crowded staircases? The canal tour, which involves no food or drink at all but plenty of beautiful architecture and idyllic bridges, was a much better bet. We were tempted by the frite museum, but when we saw that our guide book recommended it as lowly as it recommended the chocolate museum, we decided to pass and just get some frites in the main square instead. Likewise, I would suggest skipping the chocolate museum unless you’re there in the dead of winter and instead just peruse the chocolate shops. We found the staff at Dumon to be especially welcoming and friendly and the chocolate was smooth and creamy perfection.

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One thing we quickly learned is that Belgians definitely do not eat dinner when Americans do. Of course we knew that Europeans typically eat later than we do, but we were unprepared for the number of restaurants that didn’t even open until 7:00. And if you decide to eat at 7:00 you can pretty much depend on being alone in the restaurant save another group or two of American tourists. This was certainly the case when we went to De Bottelier, which is refreshingly off the main tourist drag. Despite arriving after 7:30, we were only the third table there, with the second (other Americans) coming in just in front of us. De Bottelier is both quirky and romantic with a myriad of clocks decorating the restaurant in addition to a strange mannequin tucked into a little alcove, apparently on the phone. As strange as that may sound, it really is quite lovely and I enjoyed the lighting, the music, and especially the duck and lasagna that we ordered. The food here was priced a little lower than many of the other restaurants that we passed by, which is part of what drew us to it in the first place.

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Last but not least, my favorite bar of our entire trip would have to be Staminee De Garre. Tucked away in a tiny little alleyway, this quiet little bar serves ups great beer and atmosphere. We went both nights that we stayed in Bruges and I might have gone there every night of our trip if only I could have brought it with me. It’s also the only bar where you can get de Garre, a very tasty smooth, malty tripel that they serve with a little bowl of cheese (bonus!!). They also serve Gulden Draak on tap, which made Joseph even happier than the little bowl of cheese made me.

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Next up, Amesterdam and Paris!

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