The Mussels in Brussels

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

October 12-13

As I waited on the platform in Berlin for the train to Brussels, I felt drained. A thought crept into my mind - when it's more work than magic, it's time to head home. I'd felt tired along the way before but, this was the first time my thoughts turned to the journey home. Street signs in English, decent hamburgers, people who know how to wait civilly in a queue...wait, wait, wait a minute! What are you saying? Are you nuts?! You've got like five days left of this glorious wandering. Soak it in.
From that moment the thought never returned. At least it didn't manifest itself like that ever again. It's odd though, as much fun as this whole adventure has been, there have been moments where routine, the familiar, called like a siren's song. Strange. All I wanted before embarking was to leave that all behind, to have a new experience every minute of every day. The grass really is always greener - a oddity of human nature I suppose.
We pulled into Brussels around 5:30, the lights of the city twinkling in the pre-dawn hours as the train rolled to a halt. I alighted and sorely hoped that I would be able to secure a taxi at this hour. I needed to get to my hotel and fast. The five or six hours of fitful sleep - the kind that travel on rail cars allows - was unquestionably not enough to get me functioning properly for the day's lusory activities. Luckily there was a car at the ready and I was whisked to my hotel which was in one of the newer sections of town. The area afforded more economical accommodations while was remaining within striking distance of the town center.
After a two hour nap, I was up and feeling like a champ. I was in Brussels! For one whole day! I was ready again to explore and my thoughts of the previous evening were long gone. I quickly got my bearings with help from the front desk and headed for the old town. The morning air was still crisp as I set out and it felt good to breathe it in deeply. It was the kind of signal that one is truly alive which few other simple pleasures can provide so succinctly.
Along the way, I passed by a little café and was compelled to stop. What? Am I going to come to Belgium and not have a waffle? (was thinking of you Bass) My particular gridiron-cake was covered in a perfectly sweet, dark chocolate coating. Paired with some good espresso, it made for an excellent beginning to the day - cheap, fortifying, and uniquely Belgian. Well, except for the fact that today one could decide to scoff any number of different kind of waffles around the globe. There is the American waffle, the Virginia waffle, the potato waffle from the U.K., Hong Kong style waffles, Korean style waffles and Vietnamese style waffles, to name just a few. But rest assured, the leavened version descended from 'wafers' that I was enjoying this morning was indeed, most likely...probably...maybe, invented in Belgium. Oh, who cares? It was delicious.
Properly sustained, I continued wandering through the streets in the general direction I had been before, encouraged as I progressed by their narrowing and the apparent increasing age of the buildings that lined them. I figured I must be heading in the right direction. A few minutes later I rounded a corner and stepped into an orphic scene. The main square of Brussels is lined on four sides with ornate facades absolutely plucked from a fairy tale. Known as La Grand Place, or in Dutch Grote Markt, it originally served as the central market like most other old-world center squares. Tourists flock to the spot to see the Gothic majesty of Town Hall and the Baroque ebullience of the guildhouses dating to the late seventeenth-century.
I walked to the center of the square and did a few pirouettes. It was smaller than Clock Square in Prague but had a similar feeling to it. The ornate styling and individual decoration of each edifice, stacked one next to the other, aided in this. There was an obvious sense of care and attention that had been given to the construction of each of these buildings. I made a survey of the perimeter of the square and while admiring one of the fronts in detail, noticed that it housed The History of Belgium Brewing Museum. Ok, twist my arm.
As it turned out, the "museum" consisted of three rooms. The first played host to a collection of old brewing implements curated nicely to create little scenes of what an old brew house might have looked like. The other two rooms lay on either side.
To the left and through a large brick archway, the scene gave way to a bright somewhat sterile environment all done in white tiles. There were stainless steel tanks and other accoutrements of the modern day brewing technique. What a clever juxtaposition - never even saw it coming. Here, they were showing a film on a loop. It explained, as one might assume in the History of Brewing in Belgium Museum, the history of brewing in Belgium. It was quite educational really exploring the multi-various styles of beers produced within the borders of this little country. I sat watching the film alone for a few minutes until I was joined by about a half dozen middle aged (and I'm being generous with the term here) women who filed in rather chattily and took seats on the benches next to and in front of me. I was intent, you understand, on deciphering the nuances of the Trappist and the Lambic, decoding the difference between a Dubbel and an Enkel. I wanted to understand where the Flemish Red came from and if you mixed a White with a Blonde could you make a Platinum Blond? So I was happy when the ladies settled in and decided to take their education (somewhat) seriously. When the film came around to the point where I had engaged it, I made my way back through the old-time scene's and into my favorite of the three rooms in the museum - the bar.
It was a little early in the morning, admittedly, but I didn't see any harm in having one. I watched the barman pull an ale in traditional style. He set the glass atop the copper catch that had been set beneath the tap, letting the golden nectar flow generously into the glass until it began to foam over and then, with what looks like a thin cake spatula, he quickly wiped the rim of the glass to expel the excess foam into the catch, leaving a perfect inch and a quarter head on my beer. Truly, a thing of beauty. And I have to say, as good as the beer is in Germany (especially München), they know what they're doing in Belgium too.
After finishing my libation, I popped back outside and arbitrarily picked a direction in which to walk. I strolled around the Quartier Saint-Géry for a bit and then around to the other side of Old Town. I walked past the stock exchange (stately), the opera house (imposing), and through the Galleries Saint Hubert. This last bit consists of a long corridor covered by a dramatic glass archway. Along its length were shops and cafés filled with folks dressed to the nines. Impressive stuff.
I exited the Galleries to find a street lined with restaurants. I mean, it was literally jammed with them. I think every single storefront for three blocks was nothing but restaurants. I made a circle, mentally noting contenders for dinner that evening. Most of the sandwich boards posted out front were advertising "the best mussels and frites" in town. And indeed, I saw some black cast iron pots on the tables filled with what looked like the most delectable bivalves I'd ever seen. But my morning waffle was still sustaining me so, instead of lunch, I found a nice spot by a little park square up the road to sit and have a beer and scribble a few notes.
I ordered a Guenze Lindemans which, I had learned about at the museum earlier. It is a combination of aged and young lambics which are general fruit-infused. My particular selection was peachy, with quite a sharp taste to it. A nice change of pace but, not the kind of thing you're likely to kick back with a six pack to watch the old football game.
Rested, I decided it was time to seek out the most famous fountain in town, the Manneken Pis. This, if you are not familiar, is a statue of a little boy with the water flowing from exactly where you'd think based on the title of the penis. I mean piece. Of course, I got lost looking for the most famous thing in town. I did eventually find it and was wholly under whelmed. It was smaller than I had expected and they had dressed the little fella up for some holiday or another.
From there I made my way up toward the Palace. I passed several museums on the way but I just wasn't feeling it. Call it culture overload. And so I made to the Palace which was big, as expected, and had the traditional guards posted out front even though guards at a palace these days are largely ceremonial. I mean, it's not like the Visigoths are about to storm the capital of the EU without someone noticing they're coming and scrambling the armed forces - is it now? It was nice but, again, underwhelming. I feared I was slowing once again.
The sky had clouded over and it was threatening rain but, holding off for the moment. I detoured into a lovely park directly across from the Palace grounds and lost myself in there for a bit. Much better. Though as the skies continued to darken, I grew concerned about my distance from the center and decided to head back to the Grand Place in case I would need to duck indoors.
When I arrived in the square again I found a place on one of the outdoor decks that front several of the restaurants there. I ordered myself a beer - Trappist this time - intending to do some more writing. But soon the rain did finally come. I hurriedly finished by libation and chose a different place down the way. Instantly I knew that I had chosen well. I took a seat at a long wood plank table near the stone hearth in the back, by the bar. As I perused the extensive beer list (they're all extensive in this town I was learning) my waitress suggested I try the tasting flight instead. Well, why didn't I think of that? Sold! And so it was that I passed the rest of the afternoon waiting out a light rain shower, writing and sipping wonderfully diverse styles of hand crafted Bier.
Afternoon passed to evening and at some point I realized I hadn't eaten in quite a while so, I set out to find a suitable restaurant. I walked for quite a while, stopping to look at several of the menus posted outside various establishments. I was looking for a place that served mussels in a wine and cream sauce. I'd had them in this style when in Paris a couple of years earlier and they were to die for. I was convinced then that this was the only way to prepare said mollusks. And since I was only spending one night here, I took extra care to select just the right place to dine. So I walked. And walked. And walked. Finally, I found the spot.
It was a rather elegant establishment with many little tables and booths done in pink damask - a very 19th century feel to it all. I treated myself to a glass of champagne which was followed by a near perfect onion soupe. They don't call it "French" onion soup over there, just like in China they don't call it "Chinese" food. There it's just food.
The mussels were good but, they did not live up to the memory of that perfect bowlful I'd been ruminating on - the ones for which I had asked the waiter to bring more bread to sop up the braising jus. As is almost always the case, trying to recapture a memory had fallen short. I'd stopped living in the moment. I'd missed an opportunity to create a new, unique memory. I decided then and there that I would not seek out the restaurant in Paris where I'd sampled those extraordinary mussels. Rather, on my next stop, I vowed to experience as many new things as possible. And to keep on doing just that for the rest of my life.
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