Before arriving in Belgium, I set my expectations pretty low, as not to be disappointed. My first time in this small country was during a stop on my way to Amsterdam a couple years ago. At the time, I was aware it was known for its chocolate and beer but caught off-guard by the refugee situation around Brussels. For me, Brussels was just a dirty European city, and I vowed never to return again.
This time I spent just shy of a week traveling around, stopping in Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels. Although it was a short time, it was enough for me to change my original opinion. To my surprise, Belgium and its people wiggled their way into my heart and became one of my favorite countries to date.
There are several reasons for my change of heart, too many to list (mainly because it would be too much to read), but I’ll give you the highlights.
For The Love Of Truck Stops!
My journey to Belgium started after leaving Luxembourg City. For this leg of the trip, I had a rental car, so I got to see a good deal of the country as I drove. I’m glad I decided on a car because I don’t think I would have experienced as much if I had flown or taken the train. It gave me the chance to stop at a couple truck stops and check out their parking garages. I know this doesn’t sound glamorous by American standards, but just wait ‘til you hear why these two things were highlights.
First, if you’ve ever been on a road trip through Europe, you will understand why I’m about to rave about truck stops. In the States, most of our truck stops are dirty, filled with unhealthy food, and just downright scary most of the time; they are not places I would stop any longer than the time it takes to fill my car with gas and grab a soda. Then, you come to Europe and experience the glory that is the truck stop! Most of the time they are incredibly clean, stocked to the brim with healthy, delicious food, and in no way scary (there are always exceptions to the rule, though). To add to the experience, they still let you pump your gas first, and then pay. This made it easy to get gas and food in one transaction, without having to play the guessing game of how much gas I needed, or incur more than one foreign transaction fee.
The downside: you’re required to pay for the toilets. The cost isn’t much, and they are cleaner than some hotels I’ve stayed at, so I don’t mind shelling out 0,50€ – 1€.
Parking Garage Heaven
Moving on from the lovely truck stops to the parking garage situation, Bruges wins my award for “Best Parking Garage.” Bruges makes it easy to find a nearby garage by placing digital signs around the city, with the number of available spots prominently displayed. When you drive into the garage, you will see similar signs directing you to the aisles with opens spots. If that wasn’t enough awesomeness, there are blinking yellow lights above the car-less slots in each row.
Bruges has taken the guesswork out of parking in a large, multi-level garage. My hat’s off to them. But, like I said earlier, those are just two of the highlights on the list of reasons I think Belgium rocks. I saved the best for last: chocolate and beer.
Let Us Indulge!
I knew these were not to be missed throughout my journey, and I did not. In fact, I may have indulged a bit (don’t judge). I set out on a mission to find a couple of good breweries, and taste as much chocolate as my stomach would allow. Some of my stops came from Trip Advisor, others just from wandering around the city.
At each stop, I would sample their offerings. Some were great, some good, none bad. I didn’t meet a beer or piece of chocolate anything I didn’t like. In Ghent, I stopped by the Gruut City Brewery for a taste. This brewery is owned by a woman, which earned it extra cool points on account of my being a woman and liking to see other women making a splash in a male-dominated world.
In Bruges, I explored more Belgian beers at the Bruges Beer Museum in the city center. I had a wonderful bartender who helped me pick the right styles for my taste buds. He then helped me pair cheese with each selection, while teaching me how to eat cheese like a local. “How hard is it to eat cheese?” you must be thinking. “Why does she need to be taught?” It isn’t a complete departure from how you would normally eat cheese. There is just one twist: they dip the cheese in celery salt. I was a bit unsure at first, but low and behold, he was right: it was tasty.
After leaving the Beer Museum that day, I stepped into a chocolate shop down the street. I emerged a few minutes later with a slice of heaven on a stick. I was in the possession of a waffle – on a stick – covered in dark chocolate and strawberry pearls. As I sit here and write, I’m thinking of hopping a train for an encore.
A couple of days later, my boyfriend joined me, and I insisted he sees Bruges before we headed to Brussels for Beer Weekend. I wanted him to see the beauty, and admittedly, I wanted to show him the parking garage situation. He thought I was exaggerating until we pulled in. His reaction was all the “sorry I didn’t believe you” that I needed.
After a walk around the city and a delicious dinner at Pieter Pourbus, we headed back to Brussels. Once there, about an hour and a half drive from Bruges, we settled into a lovely room at Hotel Orts. This hotel was another great decision on my part – I was on a roll. It was close to the Grand Palace, the site of Beer Weekend. With this location, there was no need to move the car, or even use public transit.
Go Ahead, Eat a Half Kilo Of Chocolate Before Breakfast
Since the beer tents didn’t open until later on Saturday, we decided to fill our morning with the chocolate tour to rival the rest. Our guide was a treat!
He was full of knowledge, and a love for both chocolate and his native Brussels. Eating half a kilo of premium Belgian chocolate before breakfast is something I recommend putting on your bucket list. Then, wash it down with a sampling of Belgian-brewed beers, and you’ve got a Saturday for the memory book. Just make sure to stop and eat some nutritious food at some point. You can’t live on chocolate and beer for long. Feel free to try to prove me wrong, but it’s ill-advised. I’m just saying.
We started by learning about why Belgian chocolate is the cream of the crop. Our guide gave us the history of its introduction, its subsequent rise to glory, along with a couple of tips for how to buy the best chocolate. He even educated us on Godiva, the chocolate house beloved by many Americans today. To the Belgians, Godiva is, as our guide put it, the “McDonald’s” of chocolate. My boyfriend and I chuckled, and under my breath, I said, “We shall never eat chocolate like peasants again.”
We sampled an assortment of chocolate at five different chocolatiers in total. We ended up purchasing from Mary and Frederic Blondeel. There were three other stops on the tour, but these were our favorites.
Did Someone Say Beer?
By the time we finished eating the city out of chocolate, the beer tents were open, spilling over with locals and visitors as far as someone as short as me could see. I was so excited; I couldn’t wait to try something yummy. We walked around for a few minutes, looking for our first stop.
Finally, I said, “Let’s just pick one and see what happens.” That’s when we got smacked in the face by rule one: “You can’t have a beer if you don’t have any tickets.” Euros are not accepted at the tents (insert the scowl of an unhappy girl). “Ok. No problem. We will just get tickets,” I thought. Little did we know, everyone else was getting tickets too. The line was so long, so we decided to go back to the room for a siesta. We figured we would drink some of the beer I bought in Ghent and Bruges, then return later to close out the night in the beer tents.
Sadly, our siesta stretched longer than planned, and we woke up just as the tents were closing for the night. No worries. We grabbed dinner and walked around the city drinking beer as the festival crowd poured out onto the streets. Ironically, we didn’t get to take part in Beer Weekend, but we still drank our fair share of Belgian beer. And – bonus – ate loads of chocolate.
As I drove out of Brussels, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. I had judged the city, and the country of Belgium, too quickly before. How had I gotten it so wrong? It didn’t matter now. I had given it another shot, and now I was hooked. The people and places of Belgium wiggled their way into my soul when I wasn’t looking, and I wasn’t mad at them for it. I had judged them harshly in the past, and they sought redemption. Mission successful!
What experiences have you had in Belgium? What is your favorite Chocolatier?
Don’t be shy, share your thoughts below!