It's always interesting to compare your experience travelling in a country to your impressions before coming. So I’ll do that for Belgium too.
Before coming to Belgium:
3) Capital of European Union
And that was about it. Does anyone really have any impressions about Belgium in the first place? It's so tiny (yeah, I know, it's still bigger than Singapore...) and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the news about it except for the name of its capital in front of any story about the European Union. It always goes like this “BRUSSELS – Ministers from the European Union met to discuss…”. So my impression was, Belgium = Brussels = European Union.
The World Meets Here
The European Union does indeed have a significant influence on Brussels. From the interactive exhibits at the excellent tourism office, I learned that Brussels now has more ugly office buildings thanks to its status as headquarters of the EU. But Brussels has also become an important city for conventions and meetings. It is also the capital of NATO, and it's home to many foreign companies as well. Business tourism is an important component of the economy in Belgium. Also, the second-highest number of lobbyists in the world are based in Brussels, after Washington, D.C. And as I found out from the Belvue Museum, a very tiny museum on the country’s history, Societe Generale, the multinational company that sounds French, is actually from Belgium. So is Stella Artois and a lot of good chocolate. Belgium has the sixth-highest standard of living in the world. A country of just 11 million - roughly the same number of people as Portugal, but with much greater economic, political and cultural influence. Oh, and did I mention Belgium gave the world french fries? Yes, they are not from France, but Belgium (several conflicting explanations regarding this). I’ve been eating so much fries here in their country for origin; they are relatively cheap for Western European standards, and are the freshest and tastiest frites I’ve ever had in my life. Can’t imagine going back to McDonalds fries anymore. I’ve particularly enjoyed fries from a shop next to Bourse that opens till 1am everyday. The portions are huge, the prices reasonable (2.50 euros for a large serving with sauce, 1.80 euros without sauce) and the fries just the way I like it – sufficiently soft and not too hard, oozing with goodness. The fries at a random kebab place near plaza Flagey were great too, proving that even the cheap night-time fast-food takeaway places have decent standards too.
Tons of people from all over in Brussels. Brussels is definitely international in its outlook, and more so than Paris. Because Belgium is a small country, it has no choice but to embrace the world, while France sometimes seems to resist it. Brussels has one of the largest African neighbourhoods in Europe. I explored a little of the African quarter, and saw grocery shops with produce from the continent, travel agencies advertising flights to Africa, and lots of shops selling international calling cards.
It's hard to find a typically Belgian restaurant in Brussels, because there are just too many Chinese restaurants, African eateries and Greek/Turkish kebab/pita/falafel fast food places. Turkish kebab places are where everyone goes after a night out in town. Hearty, greasy food, perfect after all that alcohol. And they taste good too. Mmmmm. I’m a little addicted to them, I confess.
Bar Culture in Belgium
Belgium is one of the countries with a great beer tradition. Germany too, of course. But Germany is so much bigger, and Belgium is so small, yet you have such a strong tradition of brewing independent beers. There are thousands of beers from Belgium alone. My first couchsurfing host, Mathijs, comes from a city of 50,000 people and they brew their own beer there as well, a cherry-flavoured one.
Belgium is dotted with tons of bars. Mathijs estimated that his hometown alone has at least a couple hundred of them. That’s for a population of 50,000. Does Singapore, with its population now hovering at 5 million, have even twice that number of bars? Now it becomes evident why Belgium is considered one of the great beer countries.
The beer is good in Belgium, and so are the bars. I’ve been to an American-style live jazz bar, a bar with over 2,000 beers, a rock music bar, and walked past countless more I wish I had the time and money to try. Modern bars, old-fashioned bars, bars resembling cafes, cafes resembling bars, a bar beneath a railway station with funky graffiti design, gay bars, straight bars, bars where people listen to free live music with no cover charge, bars where people talk, bars where they don't play music, bars in the middle of parks, bars in the basement of buildings, bars with ample terrace seating and bars with beer you can get nowhere else in the world.
An example of the latter was drinking a Mort Subite Lambic in the Mort Subite, one of Brussels’ famous old bars. It's beautifully old-fashioned on the inside, a throwback to an earlier era of romance, and the beer is delicious. Really. Delicious. I hardly ever say that about beers, but this one, brewed especially for this monument of a bar, is great. It's not exactly very strong and has a unique slightly lemon-influenced taste. OK, I admit I do not know how to describe beers. Just take my word for it: it's good. If I had more money, I would go bar-hopping in Brussels (and Antwerp after that), soak up as much atmosphere and try as many beers as possible.
Anything But Boring
Brussels is anything but boring. I know it brings to mind brussel sprouts and the European Union, both of which couldn’t interest a three-year old, but Brussels is definitely happening. Besides the thousands of bars, you have lots of hip clubs as well as the usual gamut of Irish pubs that seem to be found everywhere. Good graffiti on the streets, but not too much that its overpowering. And best of all, a vibrant street life.
On the first of May, I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert at a small plaza near the heart of the city. A half-black, half-white group was playing some tribal-rock African music, and half the crowd was going crazy. Beer was flowing like there’s no tomorrow, and people were dancing, throwing their hands in the air, waving around shirts, clapping along, shouting and hugging. The atmosphere was good, and best of all, it was free.
Brussels is amazing, but most travellers don’t actually spend much time in this city. They concentrate on cities with far more to offer the tourist, like Antwerp and Bruges, both of which I took side trips to.
Antwerp is a favourite of mine. It's prosperous and expensive. Very prosperous, in fact. Although the sidewalks are not clean, there are tons of upscale shops around. It is the capital of fashion in Belgium, and there were many small, independent boutiques selling designer clothes at unachievable and unbelievable prices. Many high street chain shops too, for the common-folk who don’t want to spend S$70 and above on a T-shirt.
Antwerp definitely has more nice, old buildings than Brussels. But one thing I like about both cities is that they aren’t overly gentrified and touristy. Sure, they are touristy no doubt, but they’re still very much vibrant, living, breathing cities. Relics from the past stand side-by-side with modern concrete buildings. Small shopping malls and luxurious old-fashioned galleries alike dot the city centres. Bars and cafes full of character, packed with locals and some tourists.
Bruges is not my favourite. Its Disneyland Belgium. This city is beautiful, with its canals and medieval buildings. But its too touristy. Every shop seems to be selling postcards or chocolates. Every restaurant seems to be selling tourist-oriented overpriced food. Every bar seems to be purpose-built for one of those ‘Belgian beer tours’. And Bruges reminded me a lot of the UK. The architecture is very, very similar.
[to be continued]