Belgium was never a country that stood out to me and screamed “come visit” all I have to offer. Truth be told, I did not know what she had to offer other than gastronomic delight. I first encountered this quietly hidden mischievous country while in community college in the early 1990s. While visiting England, as part of a cultural foreign exchange program, a few of us decided to wonder astray to further explore mainland Europe. Oddly enough, Belgium was only chosen as one in our group was a chef from a big casino in Atlantic City, whose employer was picking up the tab on all food and drink bills as part of a foreign taste discovery tour. Dave was a wild cat who liked to party; lockstep, we all followed his lead.
We had not arrived in Brussels ten minutes before Dave began watering at the mouth over the thought of all the beers and foods he was about to try, and others he had yet to discover. As large casinos are always on the hunt to increase the food variety they offer at their restaurants, twice a year, all expenses paid, they fly selected chefs anywhere in the world to eat and drink, on their dime. As Dave was already there because of a program the casinos increased his expense account. That is where we came in; the casino was only meant to pay “his” dining costs. Well, I can assure you, it was not eleven minutes before Dave was buying the first round of Trappist beers. It was my first taste of Belgium beer – unforgettable.
For the next three days our motley crew of misfits wreaked havoc on Brussels and our stomachs. I was introduced to a whole new world of food that, until that time, I did not know even existed. A few years earlier my eyes were opened up to the world through international travel, writing one’s own page of history, and now my horizons were being spread even further in a new direction: the refined world of a culinary and oenophile palate. Dave was a true connoisseur, especially all things French. He introduced us to a whole new world – and took us along for the ride, first class. Though we may have been unsure some items he ordered, we tried them all. Not one complaint registered, but plenty of memories did.
My first trip to Belgium was memorable but did not leave me with the immediate desire to return soon without reservation. Fast forward twenty-seven years and I am now spending my summers living in Amsterdam, Holland. A close friend from Philadelphia, Joe, decided to visit me in Europe. What started out as a one week trip turned into two, then into five, before finally settling on an auspicious seven. We decided we would take a few local side trips within Western Europe to visit some fun places. Spain was a bit too long in an auto for my injury so we flew there, deciding driving to Cologne, Germany and Bruges, Belgium. First stop on our adventure was Bruges – a city visited long before with some fellow comrades.
With all activity of prior nights’ raucous debauchery, those of young ‘innocent’ teens running amok in Europe, long forgotten, it was time for diverging roads and new indelible memories – Bruges awaited. Joe had never been to Europe – it was his first time. As almost always is the case I travel the world solo, so it was super helpful having someone along for the ride. And also someone to relieve me of driving responsibility, which can be quite taxing on my body as it continues to heal and progress further toward walking again. In life, it is only through Doing the Dirty Dishes that one can hope to change or grow as a person. One must get their hands dirty in life, becoming bold, vulnerable, choosing the path less chosen.
Long ago on my first visit to Belgium, a side-trip while on a cultural exchange program in England, we only swiftly visited Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. We were students on the hunt for anything non-academic and everything fun. My trip this time is a bit different as now I travel in a wheelchair. In my recent book: Unbreakable Mind – written for those facing an insurmountable obstacle or struggle in life, or those looking for a great story of motivation and inspiration – I speak on the need of continually broadening and expanding the horizons in your life; when the story ends life begins, and to travel the world is to remove prejudice through cultural understanding. Plan a trip in 2020 ~ hence this blog!
Since we only had a few days to visit we decided to pick one town, reserve a hotel and explore all the popular local sites. We chose Bruges. It is my favorite city in Belgium to visit. Located in the northwest, the capital of West Flanders, it is most well known for its picturesque canals, cobblestone streets and remarkable buildings from the medieval time period. In previous years, with its huge canal network and access to international seas, the city was known for fishing and extensive European trade. The most distinguished part of town is city center, home to fine Burg Square, where the 14th-century City Hall (Stadhuis) is located, and nearby Markt Square, with its 13th-century Belfry and 83m tower with a view.
We chose to stay in the most central location, a hotel only fifty meters from Markt Square. Knowing the streets would not be forgiving on a manual wheelchair, it was important to be closer to the action. To claim access to the hotel in a wheelchair was difficult would be the understatement of the year; making the hotel clerk’s message to me a few months earlier on the ease of access the overstatement of 2019. Without Joe’s help I would have had a very hard time even getting in the front entrance. There were two hard doors to navigate before entering a one-man elevator with only a hair to spare for the wheelchair. The halls were carpeted, curvy and hilly – all nightmares for a wheelchair. Joe was an angel with wings.
As we had arrived mid-evening, there was no time to waste – local treats awaited arrival to our bellies. What would we try first? Joe was seduced by my description of the best waffles in the world. Well, there was no shops close-by who sold such warm goodness. Joe spotted a fry stand. After polishing off two orders of twice-cooked fries (Dutch are cooked once only) with obligatory mayonnaise (Andalouse), we decided on a drink. As we were already on Markt Square, there was no lack of outside restaurants to sit and enjoy the local delectable eats while enjoying the sun, conversation and amazing people watching. Six hours and three outdoor cafes later, while chatting with Nepalese staff, we closed down the plaza.
In Holland, their neighbor to the north, they prefer to call them Flemish fries (Vlaamse frites). They take their fries seriously in this part of the world, and so that ‘label’ ensures them a guarantee of the highest quality. Belgian fries are best known for being freshly cut, irregularly shaped, thick, distinct potato taste – and, twice-fried, served in a paper cone, they are crispy on the outside and super light on the inside. Flemish refers to Vlaanderen, which is the northern section of Belgium that is Dutch speaking. The Dutch relate well to this part of the country because they share the same language and history. Once upon a time they were the same country. The southern part of Belgium speaks French and is closer to France.
Over the next few days we would explore the city residents simply consider a village. A cosmopolitan yet nostalgic town at heart, with roots in medieval Europe, home to the regions’ most talented artists, an assortment of fine dining, it is an international city of tourists that maintains a small-town heartbeat. The realm of eats spans from inexpensive street foods to expensive Michelin-star dining establishments. My five all-time delicious items to consume when in Belgium: Trappist monk beers, mussels, waffles, fries and chocolate. There are fourteen Trappist monasteries, six of which are located in Belgium. The city offers all types settings, from street to casual to modern. There is something for everyone to relish.
As you walk through the narrow cobbled streets, past astonishing medieval architecture and buildings such as the Belfry and Rose Hat Quay, exploring the quaint canals – possessing their own special energy, finding hidden off-the-beaten-path gems, feeling the song of this seductive mistress being sung unto your soul. The easiest way to see the city’s extensive network of canals is by boat tour. The city’s past is affluent and influential, once home to the Hof Bladelin, a part of the Medici banking system. Float by the Jan Van Eyckplein and Burgher’s Lodge, at one time where you could find the city’s famous and elite. The Groeningemuseum displays art of the ‘Flemish Primitives,’ such as Hans Memling and Jan Van Eyck.
The city is best explored on foot – getting out into the streets and seeing what aesthetic pleasures await your discovery. The historic core of Bruges is an UNESCO world heritage protected site. Once you get beyond city limits there is an extensive network of abbeys and castles, known as Brugse Ommeland. Visit the squares, climb the tower and see the cityscape views, eat some of the endless street foods, go to a fancy restaurant, take a bike ride through Loppem Castle – a garden labyrinth built for noble offspring dated to the 19th-century, take a canal boat tour, go to a museum or enjoy the summer sun with friends – savor life. Americans do not pale in comparison – Europeans focus more on enjoying life to its fullest.
Most cities in Europe I visit require navigating public transportation systems, whereas Bruges, village-like and historic, with only tapered canals and cobbled roads to navigate, nonetheless still a daunting task in a wheelchair, is manageable. Regardless, the number of worries never changes. Bruges, with its small doorways and untold stairs, is not for the novice injured traveler. With a bit of meticulous planning, you could have a spectacular trip. And when things do not go as planned, which is often in my case, trust that the universe will see you through it. Otherwise, start with fries and mussels (Moules frites), with a Westmalle Dubbel on tap, followed by a warm waffle with chocolate, strawberries and cream as dessert.
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