Belgium is a tiny little country full of unexpected delights, delicious food, and possibly the most confusing system of government we’ve ever seen. It is also the home to the European Union. We spent a month here, and we are so glad we got to experience this gem of a country.
(Many thanks to our new friend Swapnil for showing us this hilarious – and spot on – video about Belgium. If you can’t see it above, click here)
Some fun facts about Belgium:
- There has been no official government for 400+ days…but everything is working fine. The government is being essentially run by a caretaker group due to a breakdown in negotiations between the parties since none of them have a majority. We find this especially interesting since Brussels, Belgium is the headquarters of the European Union.
- Belgian waffles are more like cookies than breakfast. The Liege waffles have chunks of pearl sugar on the outside that caramelize as they cook, and they are denser and sweeter, almost like a cookie. Better than a cookie, in fact. This is something that exceeds its reputation.
- Food is delicious in Belgium – diversity, quality, freshness of ingredients. We have had some of the best food of our entire trip in this tiny country, and we think the cuisine is a hidden gem: Lebanese, Moroccan, Italian, French, Belgian, Turkish, and even a fantastic hamburger at an Irish pub. Really, no complaints at all on the diversity or quality of food here, either in the restaurants or the markets and grocery stores.
- Belgium has 3 official languages: Flemish, French, and German. The north of the country is Flemish, the south of the country is mostly French, and there are a few pockets of German. Brussels is midway, so most things are in Flemish and French, including street signs and products at the grocery store. You can see how confusing this can be when trying to read a map or buy the ingredients for a recipe.
- Belgian frites are called French Fries everywhere else because when foreign soldiers came to Belgium they saw French-speaking people eating them and named them. The secret method is that they are quickly fried twice in beef fat instead of oil, which gives them a distinctive flavor, and yes, you eat them with mayo. It is an international crime that the Belgians do not get credit for creating such a popular dish.
- The beer is strong, much stronger than you expect, and flavorful. There are hundreds of types of beer in Belgium, including 6 of the world’s 7 Trappist beers, and every beer has a distinctively shaped glass to enhance the flavor best – or just to distinguish it in a marketing ploy, we can’t tell. (Smartest business in Belgium: glass manufacturer.) Brussels is also known as the only area where “spontaneous fermentation” can occur. The beer is exposed to the yeasts and bacteria that naturally occur in the air here, and the result is a beer type called lambic. It feels slightly odd to know the air we are breathing is potent enough to make beer, but it also explains why we sleep so much more here.
- Yes, they make a lot of good chocolate. Some of the chocolate shops actually resemble high-end jewelry stores in both display and price. The trick is in the old-style techniques, high quality of ingredients and small batches. I read that Belgians eat on average 11 kilos of chocolate per year. Once you taste one, you’ll wonder why the figure is so low.
- The first railway in continental Europe was from Brussels to nearby Mechelen in 1835. We were told the king was the first passenger, and he was taken off the train as it crossed the bridge and then put back on it afterward. No sense in testing a bridge for the first time with a king on it! The ride is about 20 minutes on this line today, and we spent a very enjoyable day in Mechelen with reader Bart and his wife Evelien learning all about Belgian history and beer.
- The European Union is headquartered in Brussels. It is comprised of 27 member nations and there are 23 official languages. We toured the Hemicycle, the debating chamber of the EU, and learned about how all the 160+ political parties are arranged in 7 basic groups, how laws are proposed and passed, and how each member is allowed to address the EU in his or her native language (there are a LOT of translators there!). The tour of the EU is free, and if you get a chance to see it you really should.
- We spent almost 5 weeks in Brussels and never once saw, tasted, or were even offered a sprout. Interestingly enough, the largest producers of Brussels sprouts in continental Europe are The Netherlands and Germany. Go figure.
Many thanks to our homeowners, Alison and Andrew of Cheeseweb, who trusted us with their kitties and their home while they vacationed. A shout out to Bart and Evelien from Mechelen, who gave us the most fun history lesson we’ve ever had along with a great meal and a few beers. We loved meeting Jenn and Swapnil via Facebook around a table of one of the most delicious Indian food we’ve ever had, and we were lucky to see A and J again in Brussels after meeting originally in Scotland.
We did not get to see everything we wanted in Belgium, believe it or not, and of course we want to spend more time with Alison and Andrew, so never fear…we will be back!
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