This past weekend, we took a fairly long road trip to Belgium with Jeff and Kerry Peters. It was one of my favorite trips to date even though we ended up hitting a minor snag or two, which I’ll get to later. The combination of good friends, delicious chocolate, and out of this world beer made for a very memorable trip.
We left work pretty early on Friday and headed for the Channel Tunnel in Folkstone. Because we had such a good experience with the tunnel when we went to Northern France, it was a no brainer to do it again. The ferry would have been about $7 cheaper per person but would have added hours to the trip. The tunnel only takes 30 minutes and before you know it, you’re back on the solid land driving on the correct side of the road.
We had been planning this trip for a while even though we hadn’t done any real research. It was a good thing that Steve let us borrow his Rick Steves guidebook. We learned a lot on the long drive down there.
Since I’m not currently licensed to drive in the UK, I got to do all of the Rick Steves reading on the UK portion of the journey. No, I didn’t fail my driving test. The testing facility cancelled my test because of weather (twice now), even though Tara took her test the same day. Tara passed with only 2 minor violations. Nicely done. However, this leaves me as a UK passenger until I actually take my driving test.
Once we made it to France, I took over the wheel for the rest of the journey to Brussels. Most of the journey was on the highway so it was really easy. Once we got into the big city of Brussels, it became a lot more interesting. The barrage of one way streets, trams, bicycles, tunnels, French/Flemish road signs, opposite roundabouts, beer advertisements, and pedestrians made for a lot of information to process at once. All this coupled with the fact that I was driving on the right side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side was a little confusing. With the exception of a minor deviation due to my unsureness of what was actually a road and what was an alley/tramway, we got back on track and made it to our hotel. It was a big relief to park the car and call our journey a success. Time for a high five!
If you have ever read Jeff’s travel blog, you would know that Jeff has a gift for getting screwed by all things related to parking. It is really funny to sit back and read about Jeff’s parking frustrations from the comfort of my couch. This parking experience must have been payback for all the laughter I’ve had at Jeff’s expense. We got our hotel from Travelzoo, which is a deals website. Here is the description of the deal we got.
Upon arrival to the hotel, we were informed that the “Free Parking” mentioned in the travel zoo deal actually costs 22 Euros per night. This was really annoying at the time. Tara did her best to calmly explain the concept of free parking, but the hotel clerk had a different concept of free parking. He said that the free parking in the deal is subject to the rate that you pay for the hotel and also subject to availability. This was a really annoying way to start our stay in Brussels, but we didn’t let it get us down. Although, let the record show that I blame Jeff for this parking debacle. The hotel guy must have sensed his fear of pay parking and attacked.
After all that stress, it was time to venture out into the city in search of Belgium’s greatest commodity (and stress reliever): Beer. We walked around and found a nice local pub/restaurant and sampled some local beers. There was some decent food involved as well, but I definitely enjoyed the beer more.
That evening, we had a Leffe (2 different varieties , Orval (one of the 8 official Trappist beers), Hoegaarden, and a Framboise. I learned from Jeff that there are 8 official breweries that are considered Trappist Beers, which are really tasty beers brewed by monks in a monastery. 6 of the 8 monk breweries are in Belgium. The other two are from Austria and the Netherlands. Every beer we tasted was amazing. Each one had it’s own distinct flavor but they were all cold, crisp, and mouth wateringly amazing. For those keeping score at home, that is the opposite of an English Real Ale.
The next day, we used our Groupon purchased bus tour to travel out to the Atomium, which is a giant Iron atom that was constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair.
There were elevators, escalators, and stairs that took you from one ball to the next. Each ball was its own room dedicated to various things relating to Belgium architecture. I’m not that into architecture, but I thought the whole concept of this building was pretty cool.
We took the bus back to the city center. On the way, we passed by the largest Art Deco church in the world, The Basilica of the Sacred Heart. We all agreed that we didn’t need to pay to go inside another church so we just snapped a picture as we drove by. It was enormous looking though.
Next up were some more iconic Brussels landmarks. Here we are at the Grand Place. Yes it’s Grand Place, not Grand Palace.
After seeing multiple sites without any waffles, chocolate, or beer, the gang needed some refueling. Tara’s go-to pitstop location: Chocopolis
After a successful chocolate break, the next item on the agenda was the iconic Mannekin Pis statue. We had all heard from a few sources that this little peeing boy was very underwhelming so we didn’t get our hopes up. We made the short trek regardless to snap the obligatory photo.
After a thrilling viewing of Mannekin Pis, I needed a beer. And what better place to go than someplace with 2,000 beers on tap. That was an exaggeration, but this place did win a Guinness World record for most beers on tap back in 2004 and it did not disappoint.
Delirium Cafe was a really good find. They don’t serve food, but they definitely serve beer, and lots of it. Tara had a Delirium Tremens, I got a Chimay (one of the 8 Trappist brewers), and I don’t remember what the Peters had, but it all tasted heavenly. If I had easy access to this amazing nectar of the gods on a regular basis, I would be a less productive (but probably happier) individual. Since Delirium didn’t have a food menu, we decided to go with another Belgium staple as an afternoon snack: Frites.
That evening we met up with Tara’s friend from interning at Schlumberger who happens to be living in Amsterdam for 3 months. Marjo and her husband Daniel took the train over to Brussels to have dinner with us. We ended up at a local burger bar because you apparently need reservations for a party of 6 on a Saturday night. Oh well, the burger bar was low key and served some delicious beers (common theme) so everyone was happy. We sampled the Maes Pils, Blanche de Brugge, and a very tasty double that I can’t remember the name of.
The evening was very enjoyable and we had a good time meeting/catching up with Tara’s old friends.
The next morning is about where the previously mentioned snag occurred. The plan was to wake up early and drive to Brugge, explore for a few hours, and then make our way to the Westvleteren Trappist Brewery to sample the “best beer in the world” before making our way back to England.
The first part of the plan went off without a hitch. We were on the road to Brugge by 8:30 am, which is pretty impressive if you factor in all of the beer research that was done the previous day. We made it to Brugge in pretty good time. We parked the car at the train station and hopped on the bus that would drop us at the city center. As the bus was pulling away from the stop, I casually asked Tara if we remembered to grab the passports from the Brussels hotel room. That’s when I saw the look of pure terror/anger slowly begin to develop in Tara’s eyes. This look could have made the North Koreans halt their nuclear weapons testing. That’s when I knew that we had forgotten our passports in Brussels. We quickly jumped up and asked the bus driver to let us off the bus. Outside the train station, we went over our options, but knew we had to drive back. Our cellphones weren’t working in Belgium so we had no way of alerting the hotel. We just had to drive back and hope that the maid had returned them to the front desk. (for the record, I take the blame for leaving the passports in the room. I told Tara to take them out of her purse when we were going out for dinner)
We left the Peters in Brugge and made the 61 mile journey back to Brussels in about 45 minutes. Luckily I didn’t get a speeding ticket along the way. When Tara made it to the front desk, the clerk had our passports waiting. What a relief! Also waiting at the front desk was Tara’s friend Marjo and her husband Daniel who happened to be checking out of the hotel when Tara frantically ran inside. They had some time to kill before their train left town so we decided to grab some seafood with them before they headed back to Amsterdam. Not all was lost. In fact, we had some really good seafood at this little outdoor bar. It was the number one rated Trip Advisor restaurant in Brussels and it didn’t disappoint.
After we parted ways with Marjo and Daniel, we decided to pop into a few more chocolate shops and sample another waffle. When in Rome still applies right?
So while we had to make a stressful drive back to Brussels, it was nice that we got to see Marjo one last time and say goodbye. The drive back to Brugge was far less stressful than the way there. Our crisis had been solved for about 2 hours, but we had no way of communicating that to Jeff and Kerry. When we met them back at the train station, everyone was relieved that everything worked out.
By the time we got back to Brugge to pick up Jeff and Kerry, it was exactly the time we needed to leave if we wanted to make it to the brewery in time for our tunnel crossing. So sadly, Tara and I had to skip Brugge. I will probably never live it down either.
But there were blue skies ahead. We were headed to the mecca of beer; The place that arguably makes the best beer in the world: The Westvleteren Brewery. This place is incredibly selective about who gets their beer. You can only buy it at the Trappist store on site or at the on site restaurant. On top of that, there are all sorts of restrictions. You can only buy 1 case per car, and they only sell it on certain days of the week. You also have to call 3 days in advance to make your reservation. Perhaps the difficulty in attaining this beer has something to do with the fact that it is so popular. Unfortunately, we were passing through on a Sunday, which did not jive with the schedule for purchasing a case of beer so we had to settle for the restaurant. You have to drive for a good 20 minutes through farmland and tiny towns to reach the brewery. There are no signs that indicate there is a world famous brewery nearby. It was a good thing we had the GPS. After about 20 minutes of tiny roads weaving through farmland, we turned the corner and saw hundreds of cars and knew we were in the right place. It truly was like an oasis in the desert. We made our way inside and ordered one of each kind of beer. Now for the moment of truth…..
The beer was pretty darn tasty. It was well worth the journey. I’m in no position to say that it is the best beer in the world, but it was definitely one of the best beers we had in Belgium. On the whole, Belgium beer is my favorite style of beer. I enjoyed the beers in Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna too, but there’s just that added burst of crispness and flavor in these beer that really make it extra enjoyable to drink. The beers at the brewery were so delicious that we decided to use the last of our Euros to get a second round. It was once again money well spent, but this presented us with a dilema about who was the soberest of the bunch to drive home. The 3 of us had each consumed 2 beers. Jeff and I each had a beer of the 8% and 12% variety. Tara had 2 beers of the 6% variety. Since we had a couple of perfectly good breathalyzers in the trunk (French Law FYI), we figured it was an ideal opportunity to put them to good use. Especially since Tara was claiming the whole trip that she is unable to get drunk, this would be the opportunity to prove her wrong. Obviously 2 full grown men would be more sober than a woman after 2 beers. After we got to the car, we realized that there were only 2 breathalyzers. I respectfully bowed out of the race because I drove us there. That left Tara and Jeff (Kerry isn’t qualified to drive on this side of the Atlantic). The game was on:
Step 1: blow into the tube and squeeze the air out of the bag
Step 2: Look at the yellow matter in the tube. If it turns green, congratulations, you’re drunk.
And the sober winner is……
Somehow, Tara remained sober after 2 of the best beers in the world. Her prize would be to show off her new UK Driver’s License on the back roads of Belgium. Jeff had to shamefully sit in the back seat and sulk in his loss.
The rest of the journey back was pretty uneventful. All in all, this was one of my favorite European trips to date. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any Belgium beers that are available in the UK. Here’s what we picked up along the way in Belgium. One of the perks of driving is that you can actually bring stuff home with you. This beer will not last long in my refrigerator.
And what blog post would be complete without a food and beer collage.
Just a few side notes; We had a really eventful weekend before we went to Belgium. Tara and I hosted our good friends’ Brian and Jessie’s Stag and Hen do’s, or bachelor and bachelorette parties.
One last bit of information that Tara is forcing me to mention is that we met a minor celebrity at the Derbyshire Tennis Awards Banquet. For any English tennis fans out there, you may know Annabel Croft. She was very good at tennis at a young age and retired to go into TV.
That’s all for now. This was a long one. If you’ve made it this far, color me impressed.
Next up, Wales.