I came to Belgium in the middle of completely hot summer, out of curiosity. I rarely travel in that part of Europe so it is even more interesting to visit a country commonly associated with beers and chocolates.
We drive my yellow bus from the Luxembourg side and arrive to Rochefort, a random town on a map. It turns out that today the town is hosting street car racing. I presume that the organizers have split different participants into different classes, because among their machines there are quite modern racing vehicles and all kinds of different hand-made garage inventions and experiments. My favorite one is an old-school Einstein-looking guy in his time machine resembling a rocket on wheels.
One visiting Rochefort should also drop in on the cave called Grotte de Lorette. Not only for the relief offered by the 10 degree cool off compared to what is happening on the surface, nor because of plenty of interesting formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Our highlight is a French-speaking guide who also “speaks English”. We join a group, it turns out, as the only two persons who don’t speak French. Our guide lights a lamp, walks a bit, makes a stop every several meters, tries to explain something, builds up a longer explanation for several minutes in his monologue then at some point, for unknown reason, he inflates balloon with hot air and lets it go, then again points to something, talks and once he reflects that it is been a while he spoke anything to us, he comes up with an essential summary of his last monologue, such as pointing to a stalagmite and saying: “The red water makes this, okay?”.
This region is famous for the Trappist beer brewed by monks. Belgium has as many as six out of eleven monasteries around the world that brew Trappiste Beer in accordance with traditional values. The main focus goes on self-sufficiency and non-profit approach. The sale revenues are used exclusively to maintain the monastery and its residents. Any surplus is donated for charity. Moreover, the beer must be brewed by the monks themselves or at least with their direct supervision. And – strangely enough – it’s not the beer that is most important, but the manner of brewing and lifestyle of the monks that need to follow the traditions of the monastery.
Most popular Trappist beer is Chimay, Orval and Rochefort.
In the course of a few days in Belgium we try different masterpieces of local breweries. Most Belgian beers are very specific. Majority is dominated by heavy, full-bodied, dark and hearty type of texture with distinctive taste. There are variations among them, some being slightly sweet, with a delicate hint of bitterness and dominant touch of herbal spices or forest fruits. One of more interesting beers is Belle-Vue Kriek, a very sour one, is also one of a few beers in the world that are brewed from cherries!
Time for Dinant
It was thanks to a random picture that I saw some time ago that led us to Dinant. An unusual sight of the river, the cathedral and a citadel built on a steep rocky slope attracted my attention. Our walking tour begins with a stroll along the river Meuse. We pass the boulevard densely filled with lively bars and restaurants. Some spots are occupied by people who came here on their barges. Some of them seem like they are in no rush and perhaps are likely to settle here.
Passing the bridge I notice some saxophone-shaped decorations. I decided to investigate on that one and I found that actually the saxophone was invented around 1841 by a man named Adolph Sax, instrument builder, who was born in Dinant.
The following morning we visit the citadel, naturally, by running up the stairs, even though the elevator is included in the ticket price. Warming up by ascending 408 stairs is just right. The fortifications of the citadel rise above the vertical cliff. It has been a strategic place since the eleventh century. Those who were in charge here, could have controlled the Meuse valley. On-site we get to know the history of the city, we also find out that it was completely destroyed during the First World War and that reconstruction was performed in a very careful manner to match the original shape.
The trail towards Brussels
As we are getting deeper into Belgium, at some point we found ourselves at the outskirts of Brussels. It’s a great chance to meet Guy, a seventy year old traveler who spent five years traveling through South America in his Iveco bus. My parents met him some time ago in Chile, then a few years later traveled with him in Colombia. Now is high time to meet in Europe. Guy lives in Zaventem, a town just outside Brussels. As soon as we arrive here, Guy suggests little trip to Brussels so our appointment for coffee turns into 24 hours of intense sightseeing.
At the beginning we visit the Palace of Justice. A one piece of a giant building with monstrous columns. It happens to be the world’s largest courthouse.
A short walk takes us to panoramic views over Brussels. We continue strolling and proceed from the administrative part (as we all know, the bureaucracy in Brussels is pretty big thing) to the historical part of the city.
There is a park with famous people, scientists, researchers and precursors. Many of them are worth mentioning but my particular attention goes to Mercator for whom we shall be grateful for his merits in cartography and Vesalius, who is often considered the founder of modern human anatomy. He had to creep into the graves to steal the dead bodies to be able to examine and describe anatomy.
As we wander the narrow streets, Guy finds one specific place where we are going to eat mussels. It is Leon restaurant, the one Guy has been visiting once in a while for past 40 years. He also mentions one sandwich shop that he has been visiting since he was a chile. He even knows one waitress that has been working there for over 45 years!
Another interesting fact is that starting from last weekend, the Brussels city center is officially closed to car traffic. People play table tennis in the middle of the street, someone has set up some benches and a barbecue. It is a warm summer Monday evening and the city is bustling.
Coming morning Guy takes us on a history lesson to Waterloo. We are listening to his lecture and reconstruction of the historic battle of 1815 with details. It is a sunny, extremely hot day with not a single cloud in the sky. Allegedly 200 years ago it was the rain that was the main cause of Napoleon’s defeat. Who knows, perhaps that rain changed the course of history?
We move to the northern suburbs of Brussels to see the Atomium. It is a representation of an iron particle that was enlarged 165 billion times and built in the form of a 102 meter high model on the occasion of Expo 1958. An interesting fact is that the original design was to construct it without the “supporting legs” for most remote atoms but they dropped the idea as it would have doubled the construction cost.
In that area we also come to see the Japanese tower and the Chinese house, both also built specially of Expo’58.
The next day, while going for a run at the border town Peruwelz we unwillingly cross the Franco-Belgian border. It’s another hot night, even though at this point we do not yet realize that the hottest days are still to come.
In the end, here comes something for architecture enthusiasts.