The brochure from the Belgian Tourist Office tells me the country has 28 castles. Appeals to my childhood fantasies. 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. That sounds educational and fun. 500 types of beer (each with its own glass). I’m getting thirsty. And over 2,000 chocolate shops. Alright, when is the next flight?
All this and much more in a compact country where Brussels is somewhat central and most everything is accessible by Belgian rail. Ah, the romance of rail travel, which in Europe is so easy, enjoyable and reliable.
Might I mention this is a country of mussels, Magritte, and many famous cartoon characters, like the Smurfs? And which will celebrate 2012 as the Year of Gastronomy?
With so much to do in a place that is often overlooked in European travel, here are just a few ideas for a memorable trip to Belgium, where we stamp this week’s Passport to Pleasure—a hedonistic quest for great food and good times for two, from nibbles to naughtiness.
You’ll land at Brussels Airport, just northeast of the city. If it’s late, it’s convenient to stay at the Sheraton Brussels Airport Hotel just steps from the airport entrance. If it’s incredibly early and you can afford the luxury, the Sheraton is a great place to get a rest and get refreshed.
It’s a quick train ride to the city, and when you step outside Central Station, prepare to be blown away by the historic Grand Place. This is the site of the May Jazz Marathon and the August Tapis de Fleurs (when it becomes a huge canvas for flowers), and it’s one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
You can spend a lot of time admiring the splendor of the Grand Place, but lunch beckons. If you’re meat-loving carnivores, make your first meal Viva M’Boma. It’s a short walk away, though the fish market eateries at Saint Catherine Square just might distract you. At the restaurant, ask for an English menu, or try your hand at the ubiquitous cursive handwriting in French on the blackboard menu. Located in an old triperie, you’ll want to eat offal here. It’s a wonderful place for a first meal in Belgium. Viva M’Boma…long live the grandmother, indeed:
Calf’s brain “meuniere”
Mix of veal kidneys and sweetbreads (served with French fries)
Pot-au-feu with veal cheeks, oxtail, and marrow
Satiated, you can stroll the city without succumbing to the temptations of the street food and snack shops. Then again, it’s vacation, so sample away. You’ll find the famous frites (with a wide variety of sauces, going way beyond ketchup), waffles (Brussels style and Liege style), speculoos (gingerbread-like cookies made in wooden molds, given to well-behaved children during the celebration of Saint-Nicolas on December 6), and more.
But there are other temptations as well. For example, not far from the Manneken Pis, but far more interesting, is Lady Paname—a boutique that sells “Sex Life Accessories.” Here they say that every day is Valentines Day. Inside is a classy salon-like atmosphere with erotic art and photography, sexy clothes, books, and all kinds of sex toys and paraphernalia. (I laughed when I saw collectible figurines of characters from the Pirates adult video, which I recently “reviewed.”) With a sensual smell of something seductive in the air, Lady Paname offers a sensual feast for the nose, eyes, and other senses.
Speaking of seduction and sensuality, you can’t walk the streets of Brussels (or most anywhere in Belgium, it seems) without noticing all the chocolate shops. Explore without feeling a need to eat, for you’ll have endless opportunities. The Valrhona store has lots of interesting information, so you can use education as an excuse to visit this export of France without offending the Belgians around you. But be sure to visit the stunning Pierre Marcolini shop in Le Sablon (the antiques district) for a jewelry store-like experience. Most of the small shops sell various-sized boxes of mix-and-match filled pralines; if you’re looking for pure chocolate, you might also want to go to a grocery store to buy solid bars from makers like Cote d’Or.
When you’re in the mood for sensuality of the surrealist type, head over to the Magritte Museum. You’ll want to budget ample time to learn the history of what may be Belgium’s most intriguing artist and to enjoy the vast display of his art. Here are over 200 of his works, making this the largest collection of his paintings (and some sculptures) in the world. The man had quite the imagination, and his work will likely inspire your imaginations as well.
Orphyse Chaussette in Le Sablon is an ideal place for dinner to experience a bistro atmosphere. Be sure to climb the spiral staircase to the funky bathroom for a birds-eye view of all the knickknacks scattered about the restaurant. Your meal might vary from mackerel to foie gras with passion fruit to a chicken leg stuffed with pork and veal (along with chorizo and mushrooms). Pictured is white asparagus with wild asparagus:
Make friends with Hotel Amigo as a perfect (and perfectly exquisite) place to overnight in Brussels. Just around the corner from the Grand Place, it’s central and convenient to transportation and sightseeing options. Rooms are contemporary with classic touches, with Belgian comic characters (including Hergé’s Tintin) in the spacious, marbled bathrooms. Inside the rooms and out is art from the surrealistic to the classic, and outside your windows the view says historic, urban Europe. With any and all amenities available, Hotel Amigo is a most comfortable and classy place to stay.
WEST TO FLANDERS
From Brussels, it’s quite easy (and fast) to hit some favorite spots in Flanders—the Dutch part of Belgium.
Bruges is like a fairytale setting that’s come to life, and perfect for a pleasant daytrip. A World Heritage City with medieval architecture and many waterways, it’s a romantic town for strolling or taking a canal cruise. And if you find yourself in the narrowest street in town (Stoofstraat), note that this was part of the former red light district (and that you can find remnants of red light districts in Belgium’s larger cities):
Bruges is bursting with chocolate shops. Some sell sexually suggestive chocolates right in the window. Dumon Chocolates is in a striking little building that seems to be in miniature from afar. There’s even a chocolate museum that is quite educational.
Most intriguing is the Chocolate Line, where shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone and his crew play with chocolate, pushing the boundaries of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. Persoone has worked with some of the finest chefs in Europe; perhaps more relevant to the “Passport to Pleasure” theme, he has also painted bodies in chocolate for Spencer Tunick’s nude art photography.
You can enjoy similar play with chocolate lipstick and body paint available at the store. Or, if you prefer to consume your chocolate the more traditional way, try some of Persoone’s classic pieces, or some of the “his way” creations (high quality chocolates using fine ingredients), such as Atlanta (ganache, almond praline, Coca-Cola, pop rocks), Green Tokyo (bitter ganache, marzipan, Japanese wasabi), and Monkey’s Favorite (caramel of coriander and a peanut-salted praline). A sampling of Chocolate Line’s treats (the Margarita involves a lick of salt and a shot of tequila:
Ghent is a delightful city, well worth a stay. It’s bigger than Bruges, and while not as large as Brussels, it’s a collegetown and a cultural center. Many days there’s an outdoor market to be found (the Sunday market has some of the best roast chicken to be found anywhere), and chances are there’s a festival or two in town. Like Bruges, there are waterways and winding roads that make for good strolling, as well as a medieval core. Here you’ll find Gravensteen, a 12th century stone castle that just might appeal to the S&M sides of you, for inside you’ll find a torture museum.
Ghent has just about everything you can want: outdoor cafes, chocolate shops (check out Daskalides for some of the best eating and drinking chocolates in town, and Yuzu for some Japanese-influenced treats), “noses of Ghent” (also called cuberdons, these are cone-shaped candies that are gummy), an historic mustard shop (Tierenteyn-Verlent), charcuterie shops, cheese shops, pubs with endless varieties of Belgian beer, etc.—and that’s just food.
Near Vier Tafels (a Flemish restaurant that serves unique meats like kangaroo and even giraffe—once), check out a cute shop called ANINA Soap Creatories. Shopowner and artist Karien Vandekerkhove learned soap rolling from a Master Savonnier in Melbourne and a few years ago launched “AdorAballs,” handmade soaps with 100% extra virgin olive oil, pure spring water, and organic essential oils. The store has tables with artistically arranged balls and blocks of soap with combinations like Thai lemongrass and Corsican lemon, French lavender and lavender seeds, and even Belgian Chocolate and Japanese Mint.
Most fascinating is a natural history museum called De Wereld van Kina. Targeting young schoolchildren with interactive exhibits of birds and the like, the museum also has a permanent sex education exhibit that’s quite progressive by our standards, and worth a look regardless of age. Through hands-on and multi-media exhibits, here you learn about sexual hygiene, consent, healthy relationships, condom use, and so much more. The red-light district and educational peep show booths are particularly exciting. It’s playful and positive and fun for the kids, who learn about sex in a perfectly natural way. (The exhibit also contains a Scandinavian sex education video that I show to university students in America, many of whom are skittish to watch it and then shocked to find out it’s intended for middle school students.)
There are so many places in Ghent and throughout Flanders to get a spectacular meal. Pictured above is the traditional Belgian dish witloof (chicory in bechamel sauce with cheese) as prepared at the café in Vooruit—the performing arts/social(ist) center in Ghent. And below is filet Americain (steak tartare), served with frites at Café Parti.
If you want to see greatness in the making, get to Boury restaurant in Roeselare. In a mansion on the main street, young chef Tim Boury (with too much talent under the age of thirty) opened his own place less than a year ago. The style is contemporary and the cuisine is classic, updated. Even lunch is an elegant affair, and touches like towels scented with eucalyptus and geranium are terrific. Be sure to note the sleek bathrooms at the entry, as they’re well-disguised. Part of the experience:
An opening drink
Watercress mousse with eel
Bulgur with shrimp and tzatziki ice cream
Halibut with langoustine paste, langoustine sauce, mashed potatoes, sea spinach and white asparagus
Strawberries with lemon ice cream pannacotta discs
A look inside the restaurant
EAST (AND SOUTH) TO WALLONIA (AND THE ARDENNES)
Head in the opposite direction from Brussels and you’re in Wallonia—the French part of Belgium.
There are lots of activities in the Ardennes, the hilly terrain providing texture to the land. Some of the sites are a little more remote, perhaps requiring a bus or taxi from the train if you don’t have a rental car. Go to the Wepion region at the right time and you’ll enjoy ripe strawberries that are some of the sweetest in the world. There’s even a strawberry museum to explore if you’re so swept up by the fruit.
Speaking of unconventional museums, L’Abbaye de Stavelot, founded circa 650, plays host to various exhibitions—most recently an Andy Warhol affair that offered great contrast between colorful pop art and an historic old building. Of course, you’re more likely to find beer brewing than art hanging in a typical Belgian abbey. It’s possible to visit and sample beer at some locations, while others are closed to the public. For example, you can knock a few down at Maredsous, whereas you’ll need to sample your Rochefort brews at one of the pubs in town such as La Gazette Gourmande, which has quite the comic book style menu.
With a population of about 400, Durbuy bills itself as “the smallest city in the world.” The setting is picturesque, and you’ll enjoy the array of historical buildings. But just as you think you’ve gone completely back in time, a stop at the Osez Jozefine store will enable you to buy some provocative sex aprons and other novel items.
Up the hill is Confiturerie Saint-Amour, a traditional jam factory with copper preserving pans that makes jams and jellies of wildflowers and fruits—think dandelion and elderberry—and even massage oils. Stroll around and you’ll see a charcuterie shop and a brewery and some pleasant eateries. For example, the Victoria grill restaurant serves up a simple but intriguing “poulet Victoria” that puts a whole new spin on grilled chicken. (You can learn more and get an adapted recipe here.)
Highly recommended for lunch is Lemonnier in Lavaux-Saint-Anne. You’ll feel like you’re dining in a contemporary art gallery; feel free to walk around and see the entire space. Service is appropriately attentive and the food is fabulous with occasional flourishes of whimsy. And there are nine bedrooms above the restaurant if you feel like making this an overnight stay. Samples of the food:
An amuse bouche trio: local ham with melon, crab with fennel, and a fun little version of moules frites
A basket of breads
White asparagus with eggs, butter, and parsley
Red point trout with green peas, morels, and lettuce
Meringue with chocolate and passion fruit coulis, along with passion fruit and banana ice cream
You shouldn’t travel to the Ardennes without a visit to Spa. It’s not just the place where a company produces mineral water of the same name; it’s a famed location for healing hot springs and the reason “spa” is used for such health and wellness retreats today. Spa is the site of old Roman bathhouses (people starting come to this area for healthy restoration in the 14th century), but the jewel is the newly renovated Thermes de Spa. High up and accessible only by a hillside funicular, it features numerous saunas and hydrotherapy pools in a stunning indoor/outdoor setting. You can also sign up for various wellness treatments and packages.
Since you’re living it up in Spa, why not stay at the RadissonBlu Palace Hotel? Privileges include discounted entry to Thermes de Spa, as well as a dedicated funicular so that you can walk out of your room in your bathrobe and head right to the spa.
Round out your first-class stay with a real treat: dinner at a castle. Manoir de Lebioles is in the middle of an Ardennes forest; getting here feels like living in a fairytale. (You can also choose to stay in one of Manoir de Lebioles 16 luxurious rooms and suites, and enjoy a spa treatment, too.) The gourmet restaurant may be one of the most impressive places you’ll ever eat, with both the setting and the service spectacular. And the food is great, too. Feast your eyes:
Scallops, peas, mashed potatoes, and Iberian ham
Lamb with candied aubergines
Perhaps the most memorable meal you can enjoy in Wallonia would be a dining experience at Li Cwerneu in Huy. Arabelle Meirlaen is the country’s only female chef with a Michelin star. Li Cwerneu means “town crier;” you’ll find one among the whimsical but tasteful and contemporary art pieces in this intimate, 20-seat restaurant. When the dishes come out from the kitchen, you’ll notice that the art has moved to your plates, maybe too pretty to eat at first, but take a bite, and the flavors are as good as the looks:
Amuse bouche called “garden of herbs and wildflowers,” with country cheese, deactivated charcoal, almonds, carrot, radish, and a snail
“Gold ingot foie gras with nuggets and dust”—mousse of foie gras, nuggets of roasted almonds, gold, maple syrup, and balsamic caramel
Brittany fresh prawns marinated with beetroot and ginger
Veal (“cute calf”) with citrus, celery and turnip
Assorted cheeses (the center is a special “house” cheese)
Passion fruit cake, rhubarb, cotton candy, and dandelion sorbet
Note: Grand Place and Hotel Amigo photos courtesy of Hotel Amigo. Thanks also to the Sheraton Brussels Airport Hotel and Thermes de Spa for their photos.