Monday, July 5, 2010

TDF 2010 Stage 2: Brussels to Spa, Belgium

Today's post comes to us courtesy of Greg Gaughan, a cycling, beer and wine lover, a new reader here at MFWT, and a recent returnee to the Philly area after a three-year stint as an expatriate living in working in Luxembourg. Check out his site, Blogging Luxembourg, for tales of his travels in and around the Benelux countries.

Stage 1 of the 2010 Tour de France ended in Brussels and Stage 2 picks up in Brussels on the way down to Spa, Belgium. Although the Tour often passes through Belgium during the month of July due to the wonderful rolling hills of Flanders and the Ardennes, some were probably surprised when it was announced that the Tour would pass through Brussels and the surrounding area as it is almost completely flat. After watching Stage 1 pass through Belgium on Sunday and seeing the great passion that Belgians have for cycling, plus taking into consideration that Brussels is the home town of the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, it was a no-brainer to involve Brussels and the surrounding area in the Tour.

Brussels is the capital, both politically and culturally of Belgium, a country I have come to know very well and love over the past three years. My wife and I recently returned from a three-year period of living and working in Luxembourg and during this time we spent a good amount of time in Belgium and more specifically we made around a dozen trips to Brussels to soak up the culture… mainly the food and beer.

Beer is to Belgium as wine is to France and Brussels is the heart of beer culture in Belgium but it is often overlooked by travelers as some consider it too touristy and not worthy of a visit on a trip to Belgium but I could not disagree more. How can you not love a city that has as a symbol the Manneken Pis, a little statue of a boy peeing just off the Grand Place.

There are many great cafes and restaurants in Brussels at which to enjoy some typical Belgian food and to sip some of the finest ales that Belgium has to offer. If you happen to be lucky enough to be visiting Brussels during the Tour de France, or at any other time, here are some of my favorite places to enjoy while in this fine city:

Brasserie Cantillon – When it comes to Belgian beer, the oldest and most interesting style has to be lambic, a beer that is very unique in that it goes through a period of spontaneous fermentation by being exposed to the micoflora in the air at night. Many years ago there were several traditional lambic brewers within the city limits of Brussels and several more in the surrounding countryside but today Brasserie Cantillon is the only lambic brewery remaining in the city of Brussels and is a must visit for any beer lover, history lover and even some wine lovers as these beers are as close to wine as beer can get. Lambic beers are aged in old wine and spirits barrels and Cantillon has a massive amount of barrels filled with lambic aging throughout the brewery that can be seen up close on a visit.

It is often hard to visit craft breweries in Belgium without advanced notice or a large group as these breweries are often small and family run but Cantillon is open to the public 6 days a week for self guided tours and tastings. Cantillon has been run by the same family for about 110 years and is world renowned for their top notch lambics that include the addition of fruits such as raspberries, cherries, apricots and even several different varieties of red and white wine grapes.

After working up an appetite learning more about lambic at Cantillon, I often head back into the heart of Brussels for a lunch of traditional Belgian food which usually consists of pomme frites (not French fries please) and mussels (moules) or some other seafood that may be fresh at the time of year. On almost any corner of Brussels you can get a cone or little container of frites to go with a sauce of your choice, although mayo is usually the sauce of choice.

After lunch in Brussels it is always a good idea to take in the sites of the Grand Place in the center of town as it is great for people watching and there is usually something going on here like a TV show being filmed, a beer festival, a market or many other interesting events or performances. Every other year the Grand Place is turned into a huge flower carpet for a week in the month of August. My wife and I were lucky enough to be in Brussels in August 2008 when the carpet was up and got some great views of this beautiful display. The Grand Place also has a nice selection of museums that are worth a visit. Although we have not visited all of the museums, we have enjoyed the Brussels city museum for their cool collection of outfits that the Manneken Pis statue has worn over the years. There is also a cool little comic strip museum just off the Grand Place that serves beer.

To continue on in your Belgian cultural immersion, there are several bars that I would suggest visiting that are all within a 5 minute walk of the Grand Place. My favorite bar in Brussels is Chez Moeder Lambic (Fontainas). The Fontainas location of Moeder Lambic opened in October 2009 and is the second Moeder Lambic in Brussels but the easiest to get to without having to get on a Metro train. Although both Moeder Lambic locations feature a great selection of bottled and draft beers and a selection of fine cheeses, the Fontainas location has a massive setup of 40+ beers on tap which is unusual for Belgium as most bars stock a large number of bottled beers but a limited number of draft beers. Moeder Lambic Fontainas always features at least 4 traditional lambic beers on tap from Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen and other lambic producers and so many other Belgian beers on tap that anyone that wanders through the front door is sure to find something they will like. Each month they also feature a few special beers from a different country. On my visits I have been there to see Italian, Swiss and German beers featured.

Although you could spend all day at Moeder Lambic, there are many other nice bars that are worth a visit including Poechenellekelder which is right next to the Manneken Pis statue. Although the name is hard to pronounce, it is not hard to find a beer to try on their menu that lists well over 100 bottled beers and also a nice menu of snacks and light food that can help extend your stay. In the warmer weather they have a nice patio at the front of the bar that puts you in a great position to watch all the tourists snapping pictures in front of the Manneken Pis statue.

A few other bars that we enjoyed from time to time include La Becasse that features lambic beers served from ceramic jugs; Toone which has a decent selection of beers but the main drawn is the puppet theatre upstairs; and Morte Subite which has the feel of a grand Parisian café.

After a long day of visiting the best bars in Brussels, there are many great restaurants to have dinner at. You can get lost in the center of Brussels with all the restaurant options you have, many of which are geared towards tourists so they focus on low prices rather than quality. If you do just a little bit of research and don’t mind walking a few minutes out of the center of town, you will find it worth the effort. One of the best restaurants we have visited for dinner is the Bier Circus. This restaurant features a beer menu of over 200 bottled beers and a food menu that is just as impressive for its quality. Most of the food is prepared with beer and they can suggest the right beer to go with each course you order.

If you still have time left on your visit and you want to get out of the hustle and bustle of downtown Brussels, then it is worth a day trip to the area surrounding Brussels as there is much more to discover. Just a few miles outside of Brussels you will find an area referred to as the Payottenland which is home to the remaining traditional lambic brewers in Belgium.

In the town appropriately named Beersel you will find another fine lambic brewer and blender, Drie Fonteinen (the 3 fountains). Drie Fonteinen up until recently brewed their own lambics that are highly regarded but more than one year ago they had a tragic thermostat failure that ruined tens of thousands of lambic bottles that were aging in a storage facility. Today Drie Fonteinen only blends lambic they purchase from other lambic brewers in the Payottenland but they do it very well. There is also a lambic tasting café at Drie Fonteinen that is a must if you happen to be in the area on a weekend. Drie Fonteinen is also known for their restaurant that is highly regarded in Belgium as one of the best.

Another standout food and beer destination for me is De Heeren Van Liederkercke in Denderleeuw, a restaurant that would be worth a visit even if they did not serve an ounce of beer but the fact that they have one of the best vintage beer cellars in Belgium and the rest of the world makes it a must visit. De Heeren is a family run restaurant that takes pride in offering fine Belgian cuisine such as stoemp, waterzooi, Flemish beef stew, frites and several other dishes worthy of a try. My wife and I have often driven the 2 and ½ hours or so from Luxembourg just to have lunch at De Heeren before returning back home in the evening.

No visit to Brussels is complete without having a Belgian waffle to end the evening. There are two main waffle varieties: Brussels and Liege. The Brussels style remind me of Eggo waffles so I prefer to stick with the sweeter Liege waffle with no toppings but you can put nearly every topping imaginable on top of your waffle if you choose to.

In De Verzekering Tegen De Grote Dorst in Eizeringen is a little café that could only exist in Belgium. They feature lambic beers almost exclusively, including several hard to find vintage lambic and gueuze beers. Although this café is well known in the beer world for their lambic beer selection and beer festivals, I think the most unique thing is that they are only open on Sundays from about 10 am to 1pm for the church crowd and after funerals.

These are just a few of the places I have visited in Brussels but there are many more spots to have a fine Belgian ale or some traditional Belgian food. You will have to come to Brussels yourself to see how wonderful of a city it is.


Bryan Kolesar said...

Nicely done, Greg. When are you returning?! :)

Greg G. said...

Thanks Bryan. It is nice reliving the trips to Brussels. I would have loved to been on the side of the road for the last two days of the Tour, it would have been a less than 2 hour drive from home!

Scott J. said...

Wow, Greg - Fantastic post! Thanks for setting the bar sky-high for other, ahem, prospective guest bloggers. Cheers.

David McDuff said...

Thanks again for your post and pictures, Greg. Great work!

And Scott, just let me know what stage you're interested in covering. I'd be happy to have you aboard.

David McDuff said...

Thanks again for your post and pictures, Greg. Great work!

And Scott, just let me know what stage you're interested in covering. I'd be happy to have you aboard.

Kevin said...

Good Stuff!

I'm a huge Drie Fonteinen fan.

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