Monday 16 July 2012


'Next time you're feeling blue just let a smile begin, Happy things will come to you...' – The Smurfs.
Belgium, world famous for its chocolate, waffles, lace, diamonds, smurfs, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Eddy Merckx, Dr. Evil, the Mannekin Pis, Tintin, the EU Parliament Centre and, its BEER!
Historically, Belgium the Netherlands and Luxembourg were known as the Low Countries, which used to cover a somewhat larger area than the current Benelux group of states. Many conflicts between European powers have been fought in Belgium too; include in this both World Wars.

Today, Belgium has its own uniqueness, inhabitants of the country use one of two languages in everyday life, either Dutch or French, though there is a small group of German-speakers but, most folk are bilingual. And it were also a good job they understood English with the rabble I made the short trip by the big iron bird, across the North Sea recently, with.

Brussels was the destination for nigh on 40 of us on a four day jaunt: Culturally the architecture in Brussels is profoundly heterogeneous, with old and new buildings and landmarks sitting side-by-side. From the medieval constructions like the Grand Place, to the postmodern buildings of the EU institutions, they all give Brussels an non-cliche façade. And making your way to the centre of the city and our hotel by taxi, at breakneck speeds, you pass in the distance the weird, but wonderful, Atomium. The Atomium is a symbolic 103-metre (338 ft) tall structure that was built for the 1958 World’s Fair.

It consists of nine steel spheres connected by tubes, and forms a model of an iron crystal. Nowadays it’s the most popular tourist attraction in Brussels, and the symbol of Europe’s capital. It’s very impressive indeed. Once in the epicentre of the city, apart from the aforementioned, the wee Manneken Pis takes pride of place down a cobbled side street.

The Manneken Pis is a fountain containing a bronze sculpture of a urinating youth! The statue is also dressed in costume several times each week and, is repeatedly stolen with the current statue being a copy. The original is kept at the Maison du Roi/Broodhuis on the Grand Place. And if you’re lucky enough while passing, or more like staggering by, the Manneken Pis, on the odd occasion the statue is sometimes hooked up to a keg of beer with cups filled from the fountains contents and handed out – nice touch that.

Talking of ale, the main haunts and activities of our visit, other than a spot of sightseeing, were to be the splendid bars in this vibrant, cosmopolitan city.
The wealth of bars in Brussels stock Trappist and Abbey beers, which are usually to be found bottled - t’CC 'Cool Hand' bottle opener coming in ‘swift’ handy for these. Whereas on draft you’ll find a near infinity of beer styles: Amber ales, pale ales, blonde/golden ale, brown ale, champagne beer, dubble, Flemish red, fruit beers, hop-accentuated beers, lambic beer, saison, Scotch ale, stout, strong ale, table beer - less than 1.5% - triple, white/wheat beer and winter ale... to name but a few.
The bars: The three Délirium’s - the Café, the Taphouse and the Little Café - all received the pleasure of our company during our sojourn; The Délirium Café is known for its long list beers; in 2004 it was reputed to have stocked 2,400 different brands of beers, making it a record breaker and was entered into the The Guinness Book of Records. On offer are beers from over 60 countries, including many Belgian beers with the bar's name coming from the beer Delirium Tremens that’s on sale and, whose pink elephant symbol also decorates the café's entrance and its brother and sister gaffs too. The Délirium Taphouse has 27 ever changing beers on tap, and the Délirium Little Café as 30. All three are open until 4am, at least. The lads ploughed through the extensive list of beers, putting in valiant effort to drink the bars dry but, understandable, to no avail. So, on leaving these establishments; sideways, three steps forward, two back and some needing assistance, we soldiered on full of Bulldog spirit because, England expects, and all that bollocks!

Apart from the Délirium’s my top three traditional bar recommendations are: À la Becasse, "In the Snipe", is a well hidden away bar at the end of a narrow passage, near the Grand Place. Apart from a small neon light pointing you down the alleyway to À la Becasse, the only other giveaway telltale signs are a bronze outline of a snipe, a jug and two tankards in the granite set pavement at the bars entrance. The bar is famous for its jeune lambic blanche, a refreshing white beer served in a stone jug - which me and a mate sampled, along with other beers on offer - poured by waiters wearing monastic-style uniforms in pleasant surroundings. Lambic is the oldest style of beer in the world, dating back to the Mesopotamia of 4000 BC and contains an airborne yeast for its spontaneous, fermentation.
Next up is Le Cirio: the interior takes you right back in time with is dark wood panelling, ornate chandeliers and brass pillars. The relaxed atmosphere was only spoiled when I asked for a Silly Scotch beer in my best Scottish accent-not. The waiter could neither understand me in my ‘normal’ Northern dialect too - I resorted to pointing. Silly Scotch is a 7.5% golden ale introduced to Belgian breweries by the Scots during The Great War, and I can also voucher that Silly Scotch a fine wee drop of ale. They also had a grand display of medals for brewing and the beer they serve. The bar also gets a thumbs up from me.

And last, but not least, À la Mort Subite: Nothing has changed for a century in this historic bar that bears the name of the brewery, "Sudden Death", that supplies its beer. The prices are chalked up on huge mirrors, the walls yellowed with smoke, and waitresses bustle between the tables serving a hundred different beers accompanied by hearty plates of cheese and sausages. Folklore is that the name “Sudden Death” comes from a drinking game that locals played when they nipped in for lunch. It would rude not to partake in such a game, so I opted for a large glass of tackle, which is 14% and, a very acquired taste, to say the least. You feel the percentage too when hitting fresh air and the midday sun when vacating the institute.
Over our stay I made sure I dined well on decent local fodder and still had my five-a-day in the form of, a Bloody Mary with a lump of celery to accompany my continental breakfast, plus a cherry, raspberry and strawberry beer during the daylong session – I got a real liking for the cherry beer. Making a mad dash before leaving for home I purchased my better-halve a lovely, hand-selected box of Belgium, dark chocolates. Well, you’ve gotta keep in the good books for the next away trip with the lads, haven’t you?

I could harp on for an age about while we were on the pis in Brussels but, my advice is, get over there and experience, see and drink for yourself in one of the most underrated city's in Europe. Bill.

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