Posts Tagged ‘Brussels’

Brussels’ Hidden Gems 1

ImageEveryone knows that in Brussels you visit the Grote Markt (Grand Place), look for the Manneke Pis, and maybe stop by the Atomium, but if you have more than a day, here are a few things you really should try. First and foremost, enjoy the food! Belgium is well-known for chocolates (believe me, the more expensive ones are usually worth it; we loved some of the artisanal chocolateries in the center of town, but we also liked to get pralines and truffles from our local bakery–and don’t miss the pastries, cakes, pies, and other delicacies).

Fresh bread, rolls called ‘pistolets,’ and chocoladebroodjes (pain au chocolat) can be found at any corner bakery, and there are usually several to choose from within walking distance. We bought ours at Allemeersch a little boulangerie off the Place Jourdan, since that was near our apartments. There was also an open air market on the weekends, where we could get good cheese, butter, strawberries, etc. And of course, the grocery store supplied us with strong coffee, jam, and Nutella. Breakfasts on our little veranda were a joy when the weather was nice, which we were lucky to have for the first week or so before it turned cold and rainy again for awhile. You never know in Belgium! But most of our time in June was warm and nice, and we were glad to have jackets and umbrellas for the other days.

Of course, the other food you must try in Brussels are the frites. Fries eaten from a paper cone on the street (or take them home) with spicy mayonnaise sauce are hard to beat, especially while they’re hot. And the food is cheap, even at restaurants, if you get away from the touristy areas. We loved the fries on Place Flagey, though Antoine’s on Place Jourdan was also excellent and may have a little more old-fashioned ambiance, especially if you take your fries and sit at one of the many cafes that allow you to bring them in and buy a drink.

Once you’ve had your breakfast or lunch, though, you may be hankering for some Belgian beer. In Brussels, the traditional brew is Lambiek, a beer that is traditionally brewed using a natural fermentation process. We took our group of students to the Cantillon Brewery, which is operated as a museum. There we could see the shallow vats, where the beer is exposed to the bacteria in the air (found only in this valley of Brabant) that causes the fermentation to start, giving this beer a sour taste like sourdough bread.

We also learned how they age the beer in oak barrels and then mix differently aged lambieks to make Geuze or mix lambiek with whole fruit to create Kriek (cherry), Frambois (raspberry), Pêche (peach), or other flavored beers that are quite tart, yet very refreshing. Lambieks are an acquired taste, and not all of our students liked them, but some who weren’t beer drinkers normally found they liked these flavors more than other beers they had sampled. If you don’t have time for a brewery tour, you can still get traditional lambiek beers at several cafés in the city center, including brown cafés like Toon, A la Becasse, and Au Bon Vieux Temps. You might walk right by these, since they are literally a hole in the wall that leads down a narrow alleyway to the bar behind a store front.

Brussels Study Trip

ImageThis summer we had the good fortune to return to Belgium for 33 days, as I organized a study abroad trip with the MUW Honors College. For Kim, Aidan, and I, it was a chance to relive some of our experiences from 2006, when we lived in Leuven for a semester. This time, our apartment was in Brussels, and the experience was a little different. As a Fulbright Scholar in 2006, I taught classes at the Catholic University in Leuven (and Lessius Institute in Antwerp). This time, I was also teaching classes, and leading the group of 16 students and one other professor on excursions. The complexities of traveling with a group made me admire tour guides much, much more! But we had a good time visiting Bruges, Amsterdam, The Hague, Ypres, and Ghent with the group.

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Belgium is a great place to travel. We were able to get very affordable group rates on the trains — it did help to be able to communicate in Dutch or French, since group reservations can’t be made in English. Since we had a big enough group, we got 70% off on most of our train rides, and sometimes a ticket to a museum could be included. Most cities have guide associations that offer guided walking tours in English (or any number of languages). In Ypres, we found a great mini-van tour of the WWI battlefields of the Ypres Salient. Flanders Battlefield Tours took us to sites associated with some of the war poets, and they showed us British, French, German, and American graveyards as well as a private museum at the Hoog Crater, where soldiers tunneled under the trenches and then exploded dynamite to drive a wedge in the lines.

Besides introducing students to the history and culture of Belgium, I taught a class on Modernist European Poetry and Art. We studied primarily Belgian poets (French- and Dutch-language) and went to several museums in Brussels and on our travels. We had a lot of fun, and students were introduced to movements in art that most hadn’t seen before (though a few had seen them in art appreciation or history classes). The students also tried their hands at translating, and though they made some translation errors (none had studied either French or Dutch), they learned a lot about the process of translation and came away with a better appreciation for the poems.

My colleague taught a Political Science class on the European Union. Since our apartments were in the heart of the European district, students had ready access to the EU library and institutions for research. They also learned a lot by living in a multi-cultural neighborhood, going to street markets, eating fries from stands on the street, and walking around the city full of great architecture, from Art Nouveau to the contemporary EU buildings. All in all, it was a great experience.