Trappist Monks, Art Nouveau & Madonna on the Rocks

Trip Start Feb 12, 2008
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Monday, March 24, 2008

It has been a while since our last update though that is not from lack of want. Over the Easter holiday break T and I hopped on the Eurostar to Brussels and spent 3+ days in the heart of Belgium. When we mentioned to co-workers and new friends our intentions to head to Brussels, we were met with sinicism - people claiming we were headed to the most boring/dreary/uneventful city in all of Europe. Personally, we didn't see it as being such a bad choice. After all, Brussels is the capital of Flanders, Belgium and all of Europe. How bad could it be? Actually... not bad at all.

For the next update we figured we would try something different. I will author the first entry, providing my three favorites of our trip to Belgium and Tamara will follow with her own. So in no particular order:

1) Beer: During our long weekend visit, T and I managed to taste a total of 33 different beers (and brought home another half-dozen yet to be tried). We did not set out to set any sort of record, but from the moment we sat down to lunch and opened the menu to find the beer list longer than the food list, we felt compelled to try as many as we could fit in. Some beers were familiar such as Chimay Bleue, others were rarer like Augustijn Grand Cru and others were different just for the sake of being different like the grapefruit infused Pink Killer. (Don't laugh - the Pink Killer still contained 8% alcohol by volume - twice that of a Bud Light. The Pink Killer lived up to its name for Tamara.) We didn't just drink the beers though; we documented them and rated them on a 100-point scale. So I give you my Top Five Belgian Beers:

* Cantillon Faro - 85 - One late morning we decided to take a tour of the Cantillon Brewery in a non-descript, rather run down area of Brussels. Along the self guided tour you learn about the Belgian Lambic beer making process - which generally takes three years to produce the beer, utilizing a unique airborne yeast found only in Belgium. Cantillon is one of only five remaining breweries in the world still making true Lambic, the quintessential Belgian beer. Faro creates a subtle sweetness to counter the bitterness of the beer thanks to being infused with sugar.

* Hoegaarden Grand Cru - 87 - Grand Cru is the name a brewery seems to give their highest quality brew. This was definitely worthy of the title.

* Trappist Rochefort 10 - 93 - Possibly the most well known of the Belgian beers is the Trappist. With only 8 remaining Trappist monasteries still producing beer (six in Belgium) it is always in demand. Chimay is likely the most well known though I came to Belgium in search of the evasive Westvleteren. Officially, Westvleteren is only sound out a window at the monastery whenever the monks feel like selling it. It has also been declared the greatest beer in the world. Unfortunately I was unable to track down a bottle of the rare brew, but I did have an opportunity to try beer from the other five Trappist breweries - in my opinion none better than the Rochefort 10 (with 11.5% alcohol).
 
* Gulden Draak - 95 - Granted when we had this beer, we were already three sheets to the wind thanks to camping out at the bar of the Delerium Cafe (always stocked with no less than 2,004 beers at any given time - a Guinness Record) but this dark beer was delicious from start to finish.

* Delerium Nocturnum - 97 - The entire reason we came to the cafe was so that I could find this beer. It did not disappoint, proving to be among the very best. A dark beer that is so smooth you could drink it all day long (if not for the 10.5% alcohol content). 

2) Cafes: A second favorite of Belgium were the many terrific cafes. The majority of the time we found ourselves having a huge lunch and leaving very little for dinner (which Tamara will touch on). This was partly because the weather was cold and wet the entire time and the cozy feel of cafes became all too inviting. From chowing on Carbonnades Flamandes (Flemish stew) in the Art Nouveau Le Falstaff, to Chez Leon's famous moules-frittes, to the fireside rabbit at 't Kelderke and watching the snowstorm in the Grande Place over beers at Le Roy d'Espagne (A famous watering hole in the old bakers' guild house)... the cafe culture never disappointed and never got old.

3) Da Vinci: Out of sheer coincidence, our time in Brussels nicely overlapped the opening of the world's largest Leonardo Da Vinci expo. The exhibit was held in the mammoth Basilica Koekelberg and was not only extensive but also extremely fascinating. Items shown started with his earliest known works and took you on a journey (along with an English speaking ear piece) first chronologically through his life, then his art and finally his inventions. There were additional works on display by Rafael and Michelangelo - including a Rafael copy of the Mona Lisa. Of course no Da Vinci exhibit would be complete without some of his famous works and there were many to go along with his numerous drawings and sketches - including his self portrait, Madonna on the Rocks, Marie Madeline and Vetruvian Man.

Throw this incredible expo in along with the food, beer and cafe lifestyle and Brussels came out as being better than expected and a far cry from the most boring city in Europe. Or maybe it is. Which makes the prospects for future city breaks all the better.
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