Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!

European cheeses: holiday entertaining with the taste of travel

European cheeseI work part-time in a cheese shop, and I’m also a contributing editor at culture, a consumer cheese magazine. I can’t help noticing that, despite a still-sluggish economy, people don’t want to do without their cheese. Especially if they’ve fallen for a specific type during their (usually European) travels.

Not everyone who bellies up to the counter is a globetrotter or a cheese geek, but they’re all eager to try new things and learn about the animals and cheesemakers responsible, and what, if any, cultural role certain cheeses play in their country of origin. It got me thinking: why not show Gadling readers how to do a bit of armchair travel to Europe via their local cheese shop?

Cheese has long been associated with revelry, in part because of its cozy compatibility with beer, wine, Champagne, and certain spirits. With the holiday season upon us, I put together a list of some delicious, versatile, affordable European imports that will make any small party more festive. The best part? You don’t need to be any kind of cheese wunderkind to put together a banging cheese plate (suggestions coming up).

[Photo credit: Flickr user cwbuecheler]

European cheeseI usually allow about an ounce of each cheese per person, assuming there’s more food. If you’re throwing a big party, it may not be financially feasible to purchase certain products (and there’s nothing wrong with serving a mass-produced Gruyere or Gouda). Note that some styles of cheese are less dense than others, so depending upon price, you can get more dairy for your dollar.

If you can’t find these cheeses at your nearest grocery, Whole Foods (which have generally excellent cheese departments), or specialty shop, try online sources Murray’s Cheese, Cowgirl Creamery, Formaggio Kitchen, and Artisanal Premium Cheese. Click here for a national cheese retailer directory by zipcode.

In addition to picking some of my own favorites, I turned to one of culture’s co-founders, cheesemonger Thalassa Skinner of Napa’s Oxbow Cheese Merchant, for advice:

The Cheeses

France
Langres (cow): Traditionally served with Champagne poured over it (those decadent French!), this well-priced washed-rind is a little bit stinky, with a dense, creamy interior and tangy lactic finish. From the Langres plateau in the Champagne-Ardenne region.
European cheese
Holland
Ewephoria (sheep): Nutty, rich, with a hint of crystallization, this butterscotchy Gouda will convert even the ambivalent into cheese aficionados.

Switzerland
Appenberger (cow): This buttery Alpine-style cheese from the Schweitzer Mittelland region has a faintly grassy tang. A surefire crowd-pleaser.

Italy
Robiola due latte (a blend of cow and sheep or goat’s milk): A rich, mold-ripened number with a slightly sour, mushroomy finish, from the dairy-rich Piedmont and Lombardy regions. Top imports include those by Perolari due Latti, Robiola Bosina, and Robiola delle Langhe.

Spain
Leonora (goat): A loaf-shaped, mold-ripened cheese from the northwestern village of León. Creamy, tangy, and delightful, with a blindingly white, dense, chewy interior.

Portugal
Azeitao (cow): Yeasty, full-flavored, with a slightly bitter finish; a beer-lover’s cheese. From the village of the same name, in the Arrabida Mountains, near Lisbon.European cheese

England
Stilton (cow): Colston-Bassett makes perhaps the finest version of this historic, earthy blue cheese. It’s a classic British holiday treat, produced in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. Stichelton is the equally delicious, raw milk version; it’s a bit more fruity and crumbly. But for another British tradition, go for a robust Cheddar. Keen’s (cow) is buttery, with a horseradishy bite.

Ireland
Coolea (cow): This dense, buttery, Gouda-style from County Cork has a sharp, grassy finish. Unusual and delicious.

Belgium
Wavreumont (cow): A smooth, full-flavored, monastic-style washed rind. Trappist beer, anyone?

Cheese Plate 101

K.I.S.S.: This is a fun little acronym I learned in culinary school. It stands for, “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” A foofy, cluttered cheese plate with too many accompaniments just detracts from the headliner. You can keep sides as simple as some plain crackers or a baguette, or add toasted almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts, and some preserves, or honeycomb or dried frEuropean cheeseuit or grapes or slices of pear or apple (in summer, use stonefruit such as peaches or cherries, or berries).

You can also go the savory route with dry-cured or green olives (Picholine are my favorite) and some salumi (add grainy mustard, cornichons, and a hearty rye bread for a winter supper). Forget the sundried tomatoes, pickled onions, pepperoncini, artichoke hearts, tapenade, stuffed peppers, or whatever else the local deli has in its antipasti bar. It’s overkill.

Stick to three to four cheeses that increase in intensity of flavor. You can do whatever you want: all blues, or all goat cheeses. For a diverse, well-rounded plate, try: One creamy/mild; one semi-soft or semi-firm with some kick, or a washed-rind/ surface-ripened; one hard-aged; one blue or something really punchy (taste this last, because the stronger flavors will obscure your palate). Your cheesemonger can help you pick things out and explain these terms to you, or click here for a glossary.

When pairing cheese with beer or wine, a rule of thumb is to match the intensity of flavor of the cheese to that of the beverage. The following are some suggestions for some of the more tricky, assertive cheeses.

Goat cheese: A good rosé will almost always work, as will a light German beer like Hoegaarden.
European cheese
Big, stinky washed-rinds: Pair with sweet bubbly; the effervescence will help cleanse the palate and won’t compete with the flavor of the cheese. If you’re drinking beer, go with a light pilsner or lambic.

Blue cheeses: Go for a sweet dessert wine (not Port) or Lambic beer with fruit, such as framboise.

For additional cheese plate ideas, click here.

[Photo credits: Neal’s Yard, Flickr user foodmuse; Gouda, Flickr user manuel/MC; cow, Laurel Miller; grapes, Flickr user lakewentworth; goat, Laurel Miller]

Belgium running out of its best beer after brewery blockade

Belgium is running out of beer! The world capital of good beer is in the middle of a “beer war”. When mega-brewer (and new owner of Anheuser-Busch) InBev decided to fire 260 of its Belgian employees, the entire staff decided to shut down the breweries, and prevent any beer from being produced.

The blockade is a serious matter – large Belgian grocery store chains are now without any beer, and Belgian bars have run out of tap beer. Brands like Leffe, Jupiler, Stella Artois and Hoegaarden have been unable to deliver any new beer for several days, which even impacts Belgium’s neighbors in The Netherlands.

Belgians consumer just under 95 liters of beer a year (compared to 81 liters in the United States), they are also one the largest producers of beer – InBev brews 21% of all the beer in the world, though the Belgian brands only make up a small percentage of that.

There are no plans as of yet to break up the blockade, though if the strike really does last too long, I’m guessing thirsty Belgians may take matters into their own hands.