Belgian Weekend

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Tuesday, May 4, 2004

After Queen's Day (a Friday) we got up the next morning and drove to Brussels for the annual tasting event at the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels. We then drove an hour to the small town of Gent where we spent the remainder of the weekend before returning to Amsterdam.

Since 1900, Cantillon has been brewing a beer that is particular to Belgium called lambic. It is brewed using wild yeast that naturally occurs there. No yeast is directly added to the beer; instead the wort (beer before yeast) is left in open vats for the wild yeast to just find it and settle in. Because of the uncontrolled nature of this process, these beers can only be brewed during the winter months. During the warmth of summer bacteria and other nasty infections can result.

Once a year, after the brewing season ends, the brewery holds an open house where beers are paired with gourmet food and a tour of the premises. The way it's organized, you tour the brewery stopping in different rooms/areas along the way. At each stopping point you learn a bit about the brewing process, sample 2-3 beers (small samples) and taste 1-2 food items that are matched to that particular beer. It's nicely organized so that people can go through at their own pace. Some people went very quickly, but we took our time in each room - also to not drink too fast - and spent about 3 hours there.

After the tour we decided to walk downtown to the Grand Place - the main square in Brussels. It was May 1, the day that 10 new countries (mostly Eastern European) joined the European Union. To celebrate, a large stage was erected on the Plaza and the countries took turns presenting traditional folk music and dances. Around the Grand Place each of the joining countries had a booth that was handing out tourist information and, sometimes, other goodies. We were told that there were festivals and celebrations all over Brussels. It was a very exciting day for Brussels and also for the people of the joining countries, some of them from the former Soviet block.

Gent is a beautiful old city about an hour's drive from Brussels. We stayed in a B&B outside of the old center. The house that the B&B was in was built in 1913 for the World's Exhibition. It was on a peaceful boulevard 1 block from a large park and less than a 10 minute bike ride to the historic old center.

In the historic center many buildings date from the middle ages. From 1100-1400 Gent was the center of the cloth trade in Europe, so along the river are several beautiful guild halls. There are three beautiful towers belonging to Saint Nicolas' Church, the Belfry and Saint Bavo's Cathedral, all of which are visible from St Michael's bridge. We climbed the stairs to the top of the belfry for a great view of the city. Inside St. Bavo's Cathedral is an amazing painting "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, completed in 1432. The painting has amazing detail and colors and is about 30 feet wide. There is an audio tour that describes the panels of the painting and also the history of the piece itself. It's amazing that it is still intact.

Gent is also known for its spicy mustard. Turns out there are two brothers who each make their own mustard and compete with each other. We bought some of each and guess what - they taste the same! Both are really good though. Now, when Chris drives to Flanders for Westvleteren beer he'll need to stop in Gent for mustard as well!

And, of course, we found the local beer café. There are several in Gent, but the one that we found was Den Trollekelder (The Troll Cellar). It's the kind of place that could have been creepy if it wasn't so cool. Here's how it's described on "Den Trollekelder is in the square by the St. Jacobs Church. You can't miss it.... if you stand outside, and do not feel the many pairs of eyes staring at you from the Wide-Eyed Troll Puppets & Dolls, of all shapes and sizes, in the front window - you are not outside the Troll Cellar!!!. . . .Trollekelder has lots of personality, and a great bier list. This multi-level cafe is chock full of trolls, a copper bar, friendly staff, and classical music, which make for an enjoyable drink or two, or three... They have candles everywhere to add to the scary "troll" look + a neat downstairs catacomb area. . . . " They had a very interesting beer on tap that was served in a ceramic soup mug as well as their own special beer that they have made in a different brewery each year.

Because we had spent most of Saturday in Brussels, we really only had 1 day in Gent - which just wasn't enough. Will have to go back again when we need more mustard!

Best to everybody!

Chris and Melanie

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