Travel Journal: Belgium Buildings and Vegan Beers
It’s been a long time since I’ve written on NikOfThyme and I wanted to come back with something that makes my heart soar.
I’m going to be uploading a series of travel meditation journals (starting with this one). They aren’t guides exactly but highlight the information and places I saw that most stood out to me. Within that personal inspiration you will certainly find how I traveled and perhaps that in itself is a recommendation. Really these post are for the wanderlust and imagination, not necessarily the trip itinerary planning.
We were actually only one full day in Belgium, the other two we were either flying in or flying out. We planned it and were able to arrive very early and leave late, because of this it worked out that we got what felt like 3 days out of what was really only a stop over point.
Belgium is joked to smell like waffles, but honestly what is even more prominent are the fries. I would not be exaggerating to say there is a place to buy fries on every corner of their city centers, and at least one in all train stations, making them very easy to find.
What is more evident that the food culture however is the architecture and sculpture preserved throughout the country. They call Belgium the Heart of Europe (mostly for political and geographical reasons) but you can find the best preserved medieval city within the country’s modest borders. This stop over point quickly became a destination I was fascinated to learn more about and several walking tours brought me much closer to the history of this wealthy country.
I can’t call this a travel guide, because I wasn’t on the ground long enough to get to know more than the main attractions. This is also not a chronical travel plan, I’ve put all the things out of order, because I’m writing my impressions, inspirations and memories.
The best preserved medieval city in Europe.
What I took from our walking tour is that Bruges is a city built on beer and strategic location. The canals still exist but now much more modest than before. This small city, now a Unesco World Heritage site, was once called the Venice of the North. The Vikings were the first who founded Bruges and used it as a helpful settlement during their desired inward expansion of Europe. It continued to be a commercial port for the spice trade and later wool and textiles. When the canals dried up and filled with silt, so did most of the trade businesses and today Bruges relies mostly on tourism, chocolate and beer.
During the Middle Ages, beer became more popular than water. Although the canals into the city were plentify they were also polluted and beer was processed just enough to make the water drinkable again. In those days beer was a much lighter and much less alcoholic beverage and I was told they even gave it to children. Belgium beer has grown up a lot since then and most are pretty powerful but there are still some brews available with lower than 2% alcohol and the locals lovingly call them water. If you take one of the free walking tours you will hear story after story about how families became powerful because of beer and built the various buildings, churches and castles around town.
The Heart of Europe, The capital of Belgium is unlike Bruges and Ghent. It is clear how the destruction of WWII and previous conflicts came to Brussels. For starters, the streets are wider and you have to walk a lot longer to get from one historic building to the next. The modernity of Brussels does not take away from it’s charm and there is still plenty to enjoy in the busy streets of the city center. The Grand Place is the most memorable part of Brussels and is also an Unesco World Heritage Site. It’s surprising that is building remains at all because in 1695 the French overran the city and leveled most everything during their take over. The guilds and artesians trying to hold power in the city all rebuilt their buildings and thus you see the clashing of styles and centuries all present in one square.
I wasn’t ready for the beauty or size of Ghent. It gave me my first taste of Belgium as we stepped off the local commuter train and saw hundreds of bicycles parked on all sides of the station. They looked like they were stacked on top of each other, so close together it felt like you would have to wait for the first ones to take theirs before you could get to the middle. I wasn’t there when the commuters returned to collect their bikes, maybe it is chaotic but I like to imagine it is orderly. The bikes alone were a beautiful ordered chaos and I saw not only the love of bike culture but the collective organization around it. The gentle acceptance and the dedicated space. More than once that first day I found myself on bike paths sometimes jumping out of the way as the riders lightly but persistently dinged their bells in my ears.
I barely touched down in the hotel room long enough to do more than brush my teeth, when my sister in law was pulling us onward towards Ghent. I hadn’t done any research about the city, I didn’t even know I was going there. It was one of those delightful travel surprises as the wide paved street slowly narrowed and turned into cobblestone. The buildings become less glass and flash and were more subdued stone faces. I nearly cried from joy as we stepped into the central plaza and the christmas market. It was already late afternoon and I filled my belly with oatly based hot chocolate, chestnuts and soup in a bread bowl. We didn’t even scratch the surface of old Ghent and its architecture and river as we wandered the streets with no aim or sim cards to guide us. It’s only now that I am home with the aid of google do I see how much more there was waiting for me. Ignorance is bliss and I enjoyed sipping my gluhwein and listening to the church bells play in the winter dusk.
There is no limit to the variety of beer waiting for you in Belgium. From brands to styles there is more than enough to keep your vacation merry even at the airport. I had only one Belgium beer love before my trip, Leffe Brun. Although my wish list continues to outpace me, I can now give you a slightly more detailed recommendation.
Leffe is a easy to find staple, and probably you can get it in your own country.
I drank a dark amber from Tongerlo and really enjoyed it’s profile.
Delirium is a fun brand because their styles and flavors seem endless and it’s easy to recognize their small pink elephant. Not all their brews are vegan, but many are, you can check Barnivore for more details.
One of the guids suggested Duvel and showed us a hand signal used to order it. It was a light beer and clearly Belgium pale ale in style. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t my favorite.
Chimay also has a Belgium pale ale and I liked it better. I also tried and enjoyed their red.
The last new beer I tried was by, Westmalle which is a trappist beer originally made by monks. Now the brewery is staffed and the monk don’t make beer they only oversee it but apparently they donate a portion of revenue made by the beer each year to charities and social projects.
I highly encourage you to try any (vegan) beer that come across your path.
Try new names and find flavors you enjoy, don’t dwell too long on the ones you don’t.
In Brussels, there is a vegan (and gluten free) waffle place I really wanted to try, but I was there on Christmas Day and it was closed. I ate a number of veggie burgers, power bars and soups from the Christmas market. I found it rather easy to get by as a vegan, but it took planning and forethought (and a little luck). There are also a few vegan chocolate bars and a pralines you can try. Happy Cow is a great guide to help you find vegan options, I wouldn’t have survived without it.
If you have any specific vegan recommendations comment below. Someday I will go back to this country and explore it better. I think I’ll go during bike weather and take a meandering country tour.