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Published: April 17th 2011
The temperature display in the car says -14.5°C as we are about to depart on our trip to Belgium. It's Boxing Day, and we just spent a good twenty minutes trying to free the car of snow and tenacious, solid ice. Even the inside of the windscreen was frozen, so was the door panelling, surprisingly. Mounds of snow confine the car to its parking spot, making it a bit of a task to pull out. Now I don't wanna sound like a whingy wimp, but I also don't like mincing my words: I really hate extreme cold and snow. That's one of the reasons I'll never get into winter sports. Working up a sweat in those conditions is just not for me. This winter is something else, I can tell y'all. Dropped down to the minuses in November already, and by December we was freezing our butts right off. Must be that global warming them politicians are always crapping on about.
Three hours later, we cross the border from Luxembourg to Belgium. The cold hasn't let up, but at least the heating in the car is working alright. One minor problem, though, is that the windscreen washer fluid is either
empty or frozen. I failed to check myself, as my sister's bf, the owner of the car, assured me it was full. Anyway, vision is bad, the whole windshield is smeared and smudged and caked, and the wipers don't help at all. We stop every hour to clear it, and to take a leak. Somehow, the cold manages to creep down into your bladder, forcing you to go more often. Thus we leave a lot of yellow snow behind.
Around noon, we're getting peckish, and I decide it's a better idea to stop at a village along the way than at a highway service eatery, for we might find better quality food there. We enter one after a turn a few kilometres down the road, but the village is so dead, and the snow so deep that I make a U-turn before something unpredictable happens that gets us stuck there. At the next stop off the highway, we eat our first Belgian meal, friet with frietsaus and ketchup, or make that frites, seeing that we're still in Wallonie. It's fun using French again, although the words fall off my tongue a bit too heavily, proving my absolute lack of
We arrive in Leuven just before dusk descends on town. I navigate to the place of our hosts for the night, Koen and Likke. They live on the edge of town in a concrete high-rise that doesn't look particularly appealing. I wish I could say that inside it's a different story, but I can't. The hallways are quite run-down and dirty. We meet Koen and Likke, who live in a smallish 1-bedroom-flat with a kitchenette and a bathroom inside what I thought was a cupboard. Koen is Flemish, and Likke is Chinese Indonesian, which gives us a lot of common ground already, being two mixed Euro-Asian couples whose relationships didn't start with a monetary transaction in Southeast Asia.
Likke prepares some tea for us, which we drink while munching on Indonesian sweets and home-made cheesy crackers. She moved to Belgium only half a year ago. Before that, she had been living in Germany for a long time. Already speaking Flemish almost fluently, which was probably not that hard for her having been proficient in German, she also started learning French recently. Apart from that, she speaks Indonesian, Mandarin, Javanese and, of
course, English. I can't help but be impressed. Still, she's found it hard to integrate into Belgian society, which she describes as conservative and mostly closed to outsiders.
We listen to some of their travel stories and share some of ours. They are a good team, Likke tells the story in her staccato-English, laughing extensively at the funny bits, while Koen accentuates it with a few of his laconic comments, all the while sporting a half-ironic grin on his face. Their cheerfulness is highly contagious. I ask her where her name comes from, as I find it curiously sounds like a Dutch or Flemish name. "Oh no, hahaha, it's my mum's fault! She wanted to give me a name that would make everybody like me. And she wanted it to be in English, but she didn't speak the language, so she asked somebody to write down 'like' in English, but he wrote 'likke' instead. That's how I got my name. Hahahaha!"
Later on, they take us for a stroll around town. Leuven has the country's oldest university, but what it's most famous for is probably the 15th century stadhuis, or town hall,
which looks like the wet dream of any architecture student. Built in ornate, extremely detailed Late Gothic style, its most impressive features to me are the pointy octagonal turrets as well as the 236 distinct statues of Leuven's scholars, nobles and artists, which were added in the mid-19th century.
I am intrigued and awestruck by the craftsmanship and the living history that's on display in the whole of the town centre, especially on the Grote Markt. Yet I'm glad when we take refuge from the freezing temperatures in a pub. We try our first Belgian beers upon Koen's recommendation, and, like any self-respecting tourist, I start a list of the beers I've tasted. Afterwards, we go to an Italian restaurant run by Indians, and I should have known that this is a disastrous combination to be avoided at all costs. The pizza we are served by the haughty waiter is tasteless, and the excessive cheap, low-quality cheese that covers the top renders it borderline-repulsive.
That night, at Koen and Likke's place, it's like sleeping in a sauna. I try to turn down the heater, but there is no knob, and Likke tells
me the outside-controlled heating is switched on 24/7 during the winter. I thought Belgium was one of the forerunners in eco-consciousness? I wake up with dry and fucked up sinuses and a raspy throat. Koen tells me we should have just opened the window to circulate the air. I am uncertain whether -15°C-air would have made it any better or healthier to sleep there.
We say our goodbyes, and off we are already, next stop Brussels. Only about 30 minutes later, we arrive in the capital. Our first stop is the Atomium, which is very underwhelming, to say the least. Later on, we meet our host Nico, a Wallonian, and his Russian girlfriend Nica, who is 10 years younger than him and very pretty. Again, we plan to only stay for the night, so the highspeed-getting to know each other and trying to feel comfortable and at ease with each other's company starts immediately. With them, it's equally easy as with Koen and Likke, they are a genuinely pleasant and interesting couple. They haven't travelled as extensively as we have, thus they are keen to learn more about certain countries and continents.
Towards evening, Nico suggests we go
out and meet his other guests, three girls from Greece, and visit the Christmas market together, then go to a pub. Sounds good to me. He says he will cook after coming back, which sounds a bit unrealistic to me, as it's already 8pm. We catch the tram to the city centre and slide towards the Christmas market where we are to meet the Greeks. Slide and shuffle we do as the whole of Brussels is covered with a thick layer of ice, making walking a dangerous undertaking.
The Greek girls are only 19 years old and loaded with shopping bags. Two of them are small, one blonde, one brunette, and the third one is very tall and has dark hair as well. Their names are impossible to memorize for me. They are an interesting mix of characters; the blonde wears red lipstick and is the posh one of the group, the small brunette is more alternative and hippiesque, whereas the tall one seems to be the good girl travelling for the first time without her parents.
The Christmas market is not any different from a German one, there's all the usual eating and drinking stalls as well
as hackneyed handicraft and South American woolen sweaters and beanies. Nico orders a round of Jenevers, sweet Flemish spirits in dozens of variations and flavours. Again, I'm relieved once we enter the pub. The sheer variety of Belgian beers on tab and bottled international beers (supposedly more than 2000) is mind-boggling, so is the alcohol itself, apparently. The whole pub is brimming with tipsy tourists and locals, shouting, singing and drinking, but to my own surprise I don't mind the noisy pandemonium, and I enjoy another sublimely tasty local beer.
We arrive back at Nico's place at 2:30am, and, to everybody's surprise, he starts preparing tomato soup. We all help him chopping and setting the table, and at about 3:20am we have the latest dinner ever (beat that, Spaniards!), and a great one it is - the soup is excellent and the wine that goes with it delicious.
After a night's sleep that was way too short, we get ready to go out and explore the city. We hop on the tram, get off at the Palais Royal, where we start our walk. We check out a couple of parks dotted with
classical statues, a synagogue, a WWI-memorial, several cathedrals, more statues and monuments. The closer we get to the centre, the more chocolate and souvenir shops, waffle and frites stalls and cafés and tea rooms we come across. We also dutifully pass by the Little Pisskopp and the Grand Place, where all the crazy tourist crowds flock, taking pictures of themselves taking pictures.
We go back to fetch our bags and bid farewell to Nico and Nica, and off we are to Antwerpen. That's where our jam-packed itinerary, and my budding cold, finally catch up with us. Our host Joost lives on the outskirts of the city. He lives by himself, and seems to be a very shy guy. It takes ages for us to break the ice, but we get the feeling he's never entirely comfortable with us, which makes our conversations a tad forced and awkward. His reluctance to go out for a drink or to eat puts us in a right kerfuffle: on one hand, we would love to go out and get a first look at the city, on the other hand, we feel we have an obligation to our host. We can't just go off
without him, making him feel like the operator of a free hostel. In the end, we suggest to him that we cook him dinner while he sits back and relaxes.
We whip up a quick pasta dish, and after eating and drinking some more tea, Joost seems to ease up a bit more. He even helps us finding a last-minute hostel in Brugge, going so far as to call his mum to ask her the name of that cheap hotel that she liked so much on her last stay there.
In the morning, we take the train to downtown Antwerp. We only have about three hours to check out the city, as Brugge is more of a priority for us. After having a sneak peek at the centre, dominated by the majestic Onze Liewe Vrouwekathedraal, J. goes to buy some Tin Tin-tins (sérieux!) and a calendar, while I step in dogshit taking pictures outside. We then visit the interesting Plantin-Moretus Museum, which houses the world's two oldest printing presses, an extensive library including a Gutenberg Bible, paintings and drawings by Peter Paul Rubens, as well as an exceptional collection of old typographical
material. The museum was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005.
We eat lunch in a fast food restaurant that serves typically Belgian fare, all deep-fried and dripping with fat. The number of obese kids inside is stunning, and seeing them shove greasy frites with mayo, burgers and meatballs into their mouths, washing it all down with soft drinks, serves as another reminder that fucked up people maybe shouldn't reproduce in the first place when they can't handle the result properly.
Onwards to Brugge it is then. The drive takes little more than one hour, good thing that Belgium is such a small country. In Brugge, we check into our hostel for the night and head straight to the inner city. It's past sunset, so we don't get to see too much of the famous architecture just yet. That doesn't count for the Markt, which is the central square, a sight to behold. The illuminated Flemish-style buildings and the awe-inspiring 12th-century belfry are most imposing when seen at night. We eat a nice (non-deep-fried) dinner at an Italian restaurant before heading to a cool, rustic basement pub to sample some
The following morning, we buy some sweet buns and cheese sandwiches at a nice bakery and eat on a bench outside. The locals looks at us a bit curiously, and we observe them with interest, especially the ones who enter or leave the neat row houses, for it's always fun to see where people live, and to wonder what it would be like were we to live there. Crossing a narrow stone bridge over an impossibly picturesque canal, we enter the tourist zone. It's hard to deny Brugge's charm, but is this even a real town? Everything looks just a bit too spic and span, too impeccable, too well-preserved. Where does the museum end, and where does the town start? Do people actually live here, can you 'live' inside an open-air museum? Around the Markt area, souvenir shops alternate with chocolate shops, candy shops with tea rooms, cafés with restaurants, pubs with tourist infos. Are there any locals who don't work in the tourist sector? I haven't even mentioned the horse carriages yet. There's a whole lot of them, and they always seem to be busy. Nothing screams 'tourist trap' more than a place with horse carriages,
unless that place is in rural Tajikistan or something. Oh, and canal boat trips are extremely popular as well.
We take a stroll around the 13th century Begijnhof/Béguinage. These Catholic complexes were built to house wealthy widows who didn't want to relinquish their fortunes joining a more traditional convent. The begijnhoven offered them security and self-sufficiency together with the possibility to cling to their worldly goods.
Venturing further away from the centre takes us to a nice little restaurant frequented mostly by locals. I like how local oldtimers sit around the bar and drink their beer in silence; only ocassionally does one of them utter a grumpy-sounding statement, to which the others assent with grunts. After a nice, little lunch we walk around a bit more until it's time to go on our way to Gent, our last stop on this trip, and the location where we set our minds on welcoming the New Year.
Gent is located almost exactly in the middle of Brugge and Bruxelles, and is overlooked by most. Good, that means more space for us. Our host for the last two nights is Herman, a 52-year old
Flemish man with a portly belly, a majestic Wilhelmine moustache, and an utmostly placid demeanor. He walks supported by a cane, which, as he tells us later, is thanks to an accident he had on the first day of his apprenticeship as a chimney sweep. Basically, he fell off the roof. Took him two bed-ridden years to recover, but his right leg has never properly healed. On top of that, he suffers from gout. He says when he gets an attack, the pain is so unbearable that he can't do anything but lie down and curse his fate and wait for it to pass. Maybe that's why he's such a no-nonsense straight talker. There's no bullshitting him, and he doesn't care much about small talk or the silly courteousness of the English language. For example: when I say "Thanks, I'm fine" instead of "No!", he replies with a sarcastic "Oh, that's great that you're fine". We take a liking to him immediately.
Herman prepares us a nice brunch with bread and spreads and cheese and tomatoes and tea, and he tells us that we can help ourselves to anything in the fridge and the cupboards, nothing is off-limits. He
tells us about his trip to Bulgaria, and how great it was, and when I tell him so was mine, he brings a bottle of home-made peach rakia a friend gave him as a souvenir. I take a sip and immediately regret it. You could remove 200-year old paint with that stuff. I ask him if he has something a bit less pungent, and he chooses a grappa from his liquor collection. That one has a lot less percent than the rakia, only about 50%. It's still enough to clear my throat and disinfect my gastrointestinal tract.
After this cordial reception, Herman takes us on a little tour around town in his car, all the while explaining the history of Gent in detail. You can tell that he really loves his town and that he's proud to live here. We visit the obligatory begijnhof, the 12th century castle Gravensteen, several picturesque squares, the student quarter with its countless pubs, cafés and cheap eateries, the Graslei waterfront along the canals, and the bridge from which you get the best view of the three towers of Sint-Niklaaskerk, the Belfort and Sint-Baafskathedraal.
Herman takes us to his favourite pub, a two-storey
rustic, smoky drinking den whose owner has his extensive Rock LP-collection on display behind the bar. There are even a few gold and platinum records with their covers framed on the wall. The list of beers is vast, quod erat demonstrandum, and we are happy to let Herman be our guide in those matters as well:
"OK, I'm gonna ask you three questions:
1. What colour do you want? Blonde? Dark? Red?
2. What strength would you like? Light? Strong? Or somewhere in-between?
3. What should the taste be like? Sweet? Bitter? Or in-between?
According to your answers, I'm gonna choose the right beer for you."
I start off with a red, medium-level beer, and am rather astounded to see that medium means 8,5%, while J. chooses a sweet, light one, and gets a delicious kriek, a cherry lambic beer. To make kriek, fresh sour cherries are added during the brewing process, which, in the case of lambic beer, uses a different type of fermentation. My beer's called 'Keizer Karel', which is the Flemish name of Holy Roman Emperor Charles/Karl/Carlos V., who was born in Gent. Apart from Belgian beers being great, the attention to
detail is quite intriguing. Every brand of beer is served in its own, unique and sometimes oddly-shaped glass. Mine, for example, comes inside a stone mug with three handles. When I ask Herman, he tells us the story that's behind it, which involves Keizer Karel and a ham-fisted, but resourceful waiter who welds two more handles on a mug in an ultimately failed attempt to properly hand the Emperor his beer.
We pass our beers around between each other, so everybody gets to taste them. The follow-up for me is a 12% dark beer that really packs a punch. J. gets a framboise, which is a lambic beer as well, just with raspberries this time. Being an old school-gentleman, I help her finish her beers; that is, she takes a sip and I drink the rest.
A nerdy-looking guy in a white V-neck longsleeve approaches our group to chat to Herman. He has short, blond hair, wears round, metal-rimmed glasses and has a prominent overbite. For some reason he looks at Herman in a reverential way, hanging on to every word he says while nodding enthusiastically. Herman seems to be a tad uncomfortable with him. Before he goes,
the guy hands him a flyer. Afterwards, I ask what that was all about. "That guy is the founder of a beer club in Gent. He keeps asking me if I want to join, but I don't see a reason why. I don't need a club to enjoy my beer." I can see why, he would be pretty out of place with a bunch of awkward nerds sampling beers in their fruity little club.
Beer number three for me is a Geuze/Gueuze, which is a special type of lambic beer. It tastes very sour and acidic, but I find it's refreshing in a sick sort of way. Definitely not for everybody. I can feel myself slowing down considerably while a weird permanent smile forms on my face. Beer number four is another 12%-affair. In the process of my drinking it, all of my limbs become so heavy that lifting them turns into a tremendous task. I've been kissed by the Belgian Beer-Fairy. Herman doesn't appear tipsy in the least, which is good, at least for appearances, for he drives us home after this round. Upon lying down, I fall into a deep, sweet sleep.
I spend most of the next day in bed. Contrary to popular belief, the drinking hasn't cured my cold. The coughing gets more and more metallic. I'd already coughed and sneezed through the night in Antwerp, and had had a wicked coughing attack on the Markt in Brugge.
Only in the afternoon do I manage to peel my carcass out of bed, take a shower, eat a bite, and join Herman's daytime tour of Gent. This time, we walk while he rides next to us on his bicycle. We visit Sint-Baafskathedraal, which houses the famous 20-panel 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' by Jan van Eyck. They actually ask for 5€ to see the painting, which is displayed in a separate room. I might be a stingy Philistine for saying that, but I'm sure the painting can't be that great to justify paying an extortionate fee for it, plus I've seen more than my fair share of the same old Christian mumbo-jumbo topics in the art museums of Madrid. We decide to look it up on the internet later.
Gent by day may be not as impressive as Gent by night, but it's still amazing to see
and experience. Its architecture is second to none, including Brugge's. At the danger of sounding like a broken cliché record, the first thing that comes to mind when comparing Gent with Brugge is that Gent feels more like a real city, and not like a medieval chocolate box-snow globe-theme park. Gent has a very special, bustling vibe, thanks in part to the students, and enough rough edges to keep things real.
After eating some highly calorific, snacktaculous friet with home-made, special saus tartar and fried onions, we go to a waterfront pub to help flush the fat out of our systems with alcohol. This time, I intend to complete the list of Trappist beers that I've tried. Trappist beers are brewed by monks in Trappist convents in compliance with the strict rules set forward by the International Trappist Association. One of these criteria is that the economic purpose of the beer is not toward financial profit, which appeals to any self-respecting anti-capitalist beer-aficionado, of course. There are only seven beers who can call themselves Trappist, six of which are from Belgium, and one from the Netherlands, just on the border with Belgium. I'd already tried Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel,
Rochefort and Chimay. The only ones left to try for me in this pub are Achel and Orval, for the enigmatic Westvleteren is not available in pubs, and the Dutch one is of no importance to me on this trip.
Another guest of Herman's, Céline from France, joins us at the pub. She's to be and remain rather inconspicuous, neither annoying nor remarkable, just sort of there, so there's not much to say about her.
At 7pm we go to a restaurant for a New Year's Eve multi-course dinner that Herman insisted on shouting us. He says he has this tradition of taking all of his guests out for a meal, which is almost too much considering everything he's already done for us.
The dinner starts off with champagne, which I down a bit reluctantly, as the bubbles irritate my raw sinuses. The first course is an enormous salad, after which we are already quite full. We actually think the dinner is drawing to its end when we get a lemon sorbet, but apparently it's only to clear our palates before the next course. The main course is too tempting to ignore, though. The chef has gone
all out to provide a creative dish for the vegetarians, and we get a succulent seitan-aubergine casserole that just melts in your mouth. All the while, the waitress keeps pouring more champagne. Fucking hell, there's even a blackberry floating in it. I finish the casserole and open the top button of my pants, hoping nobody will see it. After more champagne and a sweet liquor, the waitress asks if we want coffee with dessert, and we order cappuccinos, which arrive with three different biscuits on the side. Dessert is a selection of cakes, three in total, and big slices of luxuriously luscious cream-laden cakes at that. I eat one and a quarter before surrendering. How can anybody eat that much? I might have to go on a one-month detox after a week in Belgium.
We leave the restaurant at 11:30pm and make our way towards a bridge, where a sizeable crowd has already formed, to see the fireworks. At midnight the cheering starts, and we all wish each other a Happy New Year, as etiquette dictates. The fireworks goes on for more than 15 minutes, and it's actually one of the more impressive ones I've seen.
head to a pub in the student quarter for more beers. At around 2:30am we are so fed up with the electronic music and the crowd (who would dance to a Smells Like Teen Spirit techno-remix instead of bashing up the DJ?) that we head back to Herman's place to call it a night.
As a farewell gift before our drive back home, Herman gives me a bottle of Westvleteren Trappist beer, which is like the Holy Grail to beer lovers. As I mentioned before, it is the only Trappist beer that's not available in pubs, except for the pub next to the Westvleteren abbey itself, and even there, sales per capita are strictly limited. One can only get a six-pack of the beer in the abbey's souvenir shop, but there are also crates on sale. The only problem is that the monks sell just the surplus of their production, i.e. what they don't consume themselves, so merely a ridiculously low amount of the beer is available to the thirsty public. If you want to buy a crate, you have to call the abbey to reserve one, but apparently the line is always
busy. Herman says that he managed to get through just once last month, and only for the guy on the other side to tell him "We are sold out" before hanging up.
I drink the 10,2% Westvleteren 12 with awe, taking in the full-bodied, strong taste. Herman even insists I keep the glass, and we depart semi-teared eye, for we rarely had a host who looked after us so comprehensively and cared in every respect.
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