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Vive La Belgique!

February 24, 2011

On Monday, I left for Belgium at 7 AM with my two friends Megan and Sharon. We took the train to Oslo, another train to Rygge, and finally a shuttle bus to the airport where we waited for the next seven hours to catch our flight on the sketchiest “low fares” airline in Europe: RyanAir (It cost about $8 per person to fly round trip to an airport 50 km outside of Brussels). It was snowing in Norway, so after a quick deicing of the plane, we were on our way to Belgium.

When we arrived at the airport, we bought tickets to take the shuttle bus to the city. We landed at 22:00 and arrived in Bruxelles at the Gare Midi (south metro station) around 23:30. The train station was completely empty, with just a few security guards sparsely placed in various corners. Our hostel directions instructed us to take the tram to Place Brouckère and walk to the hostel from there. I asked about three people how to get to the tram since all of the signs that led to the train platforms were ambiguous. There was not a clear distinction between the tram and the metro, so we ended up taking a random metro in the general direction that we needed to go. When we arrived at yet another train station, we wandered around downtown Bruxelles. We were lost in the middle of the night in one of Europe’s largest cities. There were very few people around, and we were carrying large, heavy backpacks. No one spoke much English, and the roads, maps, and street signs were almost impossible to read/follow. Although I was somewhat afraid of being mugged or harassed, there were three of us, and we pretended to walk purposefully.

FInally, after about 45 minutes to an hour of walking around with no clear direction, we found our hostel! For anyone who plans to visit Bruxelles, we stayed in the 2Go4 “Quality” Hostel. Our keycard was in a lockbox outside, and we successfully gained access to the building and our room. There weren’t enough beds in the dorm rooms, so we got upgraded to a private room with its own bathroom. This was a welcomed surprise since we were all exhausted and didn’t feel like tiptoeing around other sleeping travelers. We went straight to bed, woke up early, showered, and went to explore the city.

In the morning, we enjoyed a great breakfast at a place called Iit where I ate delicious pain au chocolat. This has always been my trademark French food since I made it for every French party and French Club event in high school. It is a croissant with chocolate baked inside. So yummy! After breakfast, we wandered down the street in search of Grand Place, well known as being Europe’s most beautiful square. Along the way, we found a street with some shops. I bought some clothes and accessories, and I didn’t have to feel extremely guilty about spending the money because Belgium is cheaper than Norway. It is peculiar because most people would assume Bruxelles is an expensive city. It is the capital of Europe, and home to the European Union and NATO. However, the prices of goods in Belgium are still much cheaper compared to those in Norway.

After shopping, we enjoyed our first Belgian waffle. There are two types of waffles, or gaufres, in Belgium. There are the Gaufres de Bruxelles and the Gaufres de Liege. Here is a description of each.

Brussels Style Waffles (Gaufres de Bruxelles)

Brussels waffles are prepared with a yeast-leavened batter, rendering them light, a bit thicker, and more crispy when compared to other waffle variations. They are rectangular in shape with smooth edges, and usually eaten with a fork. Lightly dusted with powdered sugar or topped with whipped cream and strawberries, they are typically served for dessert or a snack.

Brussels waffles actually paved the way for the development of the American style Belgian waffles. Introduced at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair by restaurateur, Maurice Vermersch, Brussels waffles were sold as “Bel-Gem Waffles”. Although the concept of waffles had been introduced to America back in the 1600’s by settlers from Holland, Belgian style waffles really caught on after the World’s Fair.

One of the big differences with the American style waffles involves the use of baking powder instead of yeast in the batter. American waffles also tend to be more thin and much more dense than Brussels style waffles.

Liege Style Waffles (Gaufres de Liege)

Liege waffles are the most common waffles found throughout Belgium, often available from street vendors and usually eaten by hand. Originally developed in the eastern Belgium city of Liege by the Prince-Bishop’s chef back in the 18th century, Liege waffles are believed to be an adaptation of brioche style dough. The Prince-Bishop’s chef was experimenting in the kitchen while cooking buns and ultimately developed this tasty treat.

In comparison to Brussels waffles, Liege waffles have uneven edges, are more dense, sweeter, and tend to be chewier. Instead of a typical waffle batter, it is more like a bread dough. The signature element in Liege style waffles is the caramelized pearl sugar, which comes from sugar beets. When baked, the sugar caramelizes on the outside of the waffle, making a sweet, crispy exterior.

Traditionally, these waffles are served plain, or topped with vanilla and/or cinnamon, but a number of bakeries serve the Liege style waffles with decadent toppings like strawberries, chocolate, bananas, and even whipped cream.

Description from here

We had two Liege waffles that day. They are so amazing, there aren’t even words to describe the deliciousness. The sugar that caramelizes on the outside gives it such an amazing taste and texture. They are decadent, affordable, and a true gastronomic delight.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Grand Place and the winding, cobblestone streets surrounding it. As we walked through the city, we passed by numerous chocolate shops, lace boutiques, and waffle vendors which created a sugary sweet, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aroma in the air. We strolled along the roads, greeted by waiters at the several street-side cafes, and we mingled with the other tourists at the Mannekin Pis Fontaine, an iconic, famous Bruxelles landmark.

We stopped at a grocery store to compare prices and complain about the high cost of living in Norway, but we also bought some pita bread and hummus, an unknown dish to most Norwegians (it’s not available in the grocery stores here). We rested a bit at the hostel where we met a new friend who was also from America. After having our first Belgian beer and a snack at the hostel, we went to grab some dinner at a cafe near Grand Place. After dinner, we headed to the Délirium Café, a pub that sets the Guinness World Record for most beers commercially available (2,004). I tried three different, unique brews from the extensive menu: chocolate beer, Kriek (fermented from cherries), and a grapefruit flavored beer called Pink Killer (it really was pink!). We chatted with some locals, some other Americans who were studying in Geneva, and a man from England. Our conversations were interesting and memorable to say the least.

Finally, we left the pub and went to sample Belgium’s national dish: frites. Frites are fries served in a paper cone with a sauce like ketchup or mayonnaise on top. Belgium is known for having amazing fries, and they were especially delicious at 1 AM. After our “midnight” snack, we went back to the hostel. That night, we had to sleep in the dorm room that we had initially booked. There were four beds and an ensuite shower, so there was a random guy who slept (and snored) in our room. He was asleep when we arrived, so we quietly followed suit.

The next morning, we packed up, checked out, and started walking to the train station to take our shuttle bus back to the airport. We spent a couple of hours in the train station where we enjoyed a lovely lunch at Suely’s Corner, a cute French-style sandwich shop. Afterwards, we had an amazing hot chocolate at a café, and then we boarded our bus for the airport.

The flight home was bumpy, to say the least. I felt rather airsick, but I was glad to finally land at Oslo Rygge. From there, we had about four hours of train travel back to Bø. When we had a transfer at Oslo Sentralstasjon, we ran into Laura, a fellow international student. We chatted and made quick time of the train ride back to Bø. When we arrived, we were greeted by several inches of fresh snow. Bruxelles was a nice break from the cold winter in Norway. There was no snow, and there were even some flowers and grass planted in the city. It made me anxious for spring! Nevertheless, it was good to be back in my own bed and “home” in Norway.

I was extremely excited to visit Bruxelles. I have taken French courses for eight years, and I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the language and francophone culture. The last French-speaking place I visited was Québec Canada, and I absolutely loved it. However, that was four years ago, and my language skills have improved immensely since then. I have always wanted to visit Belgium for their amazing food and unique hybrid culture (it is a bilingual French and Flemish [Dutch] country). Visiting Bruxelles awakened my love of the French language. I was excited and proud that I could speak and understand the language relatively well. It did, however, bring about some regret that I didn’t choose to study abroad in a French-speaking country. Oh well, c’est la vie. I will be visiting Paris and Nice in April. Although, this trip did help validate my many years studying and learning French. I realize now that I have continued with my French up to this point because I truly do love the language. Now I am back in Norway, and I have to substitue my “au revoir’s” with “ha det bra’s.”

Belgium lived up to all of its expectations, and I’m happy to say that my first experience staying in a hostel was quite pleasant. Aside from the poor directions we were given, the hostel was clean, quiet, and cozy.

I apologize for this long “diary style” entry. I wrote this detailed post mostly for my memory so that I can look back on this several years from now and remember my experiences in Europe.

In two days, I have spoken three languages. My mind is exhausted, but I am loving every minute of it.

Now enjoy some videos and photos of the trip:

Au revoir!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim McGrath permalink
    February 24, 2011 10:23 pm

    Hi, Lisa. Just wanted to let you know I love your blog. I look forward to every post. Stop eating so much choclate!!

    I love you,

    Uncle Jim

  2. Mom permalink
    February 25, 2011 2:34 am

    Wow, looks like you had a great time and saw so much. What an amazing city!’ Your pictures of all the buildings are stunning. Thanks for sharing. You must have been in heaven with those waffles. Looks like they were for sale everywhere. They looked de-lish! And those beers, chocolate and pink? Were they sweet tasting. Can’t imagine!Was that a street of all taverns? The city square looked awesome. How ’bout the guy that shared your dorm???!!! No creeper pic of him? So glad you girls had fun!

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