Belgium: Beer, Chocolate, Waffles and Lace

There are 125 or so brewers in Belgium, a country the size of Maryland. Now, we know this fact because we’ve visited, oh, a good 20 or so of these establishments where the beer and ale samples run freely. It was all very righteous, we assure you, since we were touring Trappist, Cistercian, and Benedictine monasteries when we happened upon the occasional brew. Our favorite was the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, near Belgium’s border with France, where the monks produce three different beers. Each brand has a different color cap (green, blue and our favorite yellow), which also contains all the prudent information about the brew, since the bottles feature no other labeling. Clever monks.

It is, of course, the same with chocolates. Slightly less ecclesiastical in nature perhaps, but no less enjoyable. We discovered, while touring the capital city of Brussels, that the country produces 172,000 tons of chocolate, and nearly a ton of it is given away free on tours of factories and chocolate shops. Of these, we recommend the chocolate-making demos given each Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. at La Maison des Maîtres Chocolatiers Belges (Grand Place 4, 2-888-6620). How can you not love a country that gives away candy?

Another tasty bit of trivia: Belgium has more castles per square mile than any place in the world. Of the lot, our favorite is the Royal Palace (Place des Palais, 2-552-2020), the official digs of King Albert II and his Queen, Paola (though the pair actually live in a chateau on the grounds of the Royal Castle of Laeken). It is just as well, since the royals fling open the doors and allow mere mortals to haunt the halls from July 24 through September 9.

For all the hundreds of palace rooms, you would think that finding a place to stay in Belgium would be a simpler task than it is. The bed-and-breakfasts tend to fill up quickly (having only one or two rooms a piece), and the classier hotels will cost you your first-born child, or some amount that seems as pricey. Fortunately, there’s a nice middle ground in the form of the Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place(5-7 Rue Duquesnoy, 2-505-5555) where a chic room will set you back around $115.00. Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place is nestled in the heart of Brussels city center, within walking distance of the famous Grand Place, Galeries Royales, Sablon Antique Square, plus the Fuse Club (208 Rue Blaes/Blaesstraat).

Once a month, Fuse houses one of the largest international gay parties in Europe. You’ll have to hustle to make the next one on August 14, starting at 10 p.m. and running until 11 a.m. the following morning. Until the last decade or so, Belgians were conservative where gays were concerned. That all changed, of course, in 2003 when Belgium became the second country in Europe to recognize samesex marriages. It also doesn’t hurt that they have an openly gay Prime Minister, Ello Di Rupo, who was born in 1951, seven years before the Belgian Waffle was showcased at the country’s world’s fair.

In order to get the real thing in Belgium, look on the menu for a Brussels Waffle, where you find it as a dessert. Ironically, the same is true for Belgian Lace, which you’ll find locally listed as Brussels Lace. The heart of the capital’s gay community is in the area around the Grand Place, Rue du Marché au Charbon and Plattesteen. Safe, busy and they love Americans!