Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Brussels, Belgium

Chocolate, amazing beer, friendly people, and delicious waffles: Belgium was an amazing trip. We stayed with our new friends Annabel and Steve who are native Belgians and have been living in the Etterbeek neighborhood of Brussels for six months now. They helped us plan our trip around the city, recommended the best places to try chocolate, and made sure that we saw the city's wonderful gem: Manneken Pis.

All the signs in Brussels are bilingual. They are posted in both Flemish and French, so they were almost entirely unhelpful to Joe and me, who can get by with Spanish, German, and English. French is similar to Spanish, so I could decipher some of those words, then Flemish is similar to English and German, so between the two of us, we could just barely discover what the signs meant (or so we thought).

We started off the day with croissants that Annabel and Steve gave us for our journey. We enjoyed our breakfast at around 8am with a view of the Arc de Triomphe near the parc du Cinquantenaire. This is a beautiful pedestrian zone in the heart of Brussels and also happened to be the landmark we were looking for to tell us to get off the bus!

Arc de Triomphe

Standing at the base of the AdT. This monument is enormous!

A picture of Joe being hesitant after I talked him into climbing the AdT

Delivery truck

It's always funny to see something that looks like my last name since you don't see anything like it in the states.

While looking for Manneken Pis

It looks like the lion has SARS

Grote Markt - Beautiful gilded facades

Mmm! Belgian cheese!

40s of Stella Artois with plastic twist-off caps! What???

Belgian waffle (to die for)

Look at the elation in his eyes: he'd been waiting years to get his Belgian waffle with chocolate AND bananas

Piles of little chocolates in a chocolate shop

I'm not entirely comfortable saying that the hike with a backpack full of beer was worth it for Manneken Pis.

Asian tourist groups are a sight in themselves

Yes, you can buy snails on the street.

Cantillon brewery tour

This is how they bottle beer.

Trying their signature Greuze. Very bitter and acidic. They brew it like it was brewed hundreds of years ago, without pasteurization law.

Joe and his three new bottles of Cantillon.

The street our hosts live on.

Overall, an amazing trip. It would be dangerous for me to live in Brussels because of the amazing beer and chocolate, but it's now one of my favorite cities!

Sunday, February 24, 2008


We decided to visit Westvleteren, Belgium because we found a brewery at the St. Sixtus Abbey where the Trappist monks brew ales that are known to be among the absolute best in the world! The abbey only brews enough to make money for the daily operations of the monastery, so they have been perfecting their brewing process over time in small batches.

The only way to try this beer is to visit the abbey and buy it directly from the monks, so we decided we needed to! First, you have to call to find out when you are allowed to call for a reservation time. When you call to set a time to get your beer, they tell you when they are available. We set up a time to pick up the beer and went on the 6-hour journey to Westvleteren.

When you get to the abbey, you pull your car around a driveway and wait your turn to load a crate into your car (they are sold in crates of 24 bottles). We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we could buy a maximum of three crates if we wanted to! We were only planning on buying one and finally decided to buy two crates because we drove all the way to Belgium for it. :)

Signpost on our way to the abbey

We saw a line of cars waiting for their beer, so we decided to get out and stretch a bit

Joe at Westvleteren
Here's Joe at the entrance of the whole monastic campus

Waiting in line with his beer in sight...and looking more than a little psychotic.

Sweet success: 48 bottles of the "8" which is named after its percentage of alcohol.

Brewing Process in Flemish

A random play area outside the brewery. Joe poses with his Blondes

Our beer with a field of hops in the background

The abbey also has a modern cafe with relics from the abbey and brewery. Beer is seen as a very cosmopolitan drink in Belgium and it has the same prestige as a glass of wine in most other countries. I was surprised by the sight of proper older ladies drinking glasses of beer in the middle of the day! We drank the "12" while in the cafe because it wasn't available for sale by the crate. The 12 has an alcohol percentage of 12 and we could feel it. It was a great beer. We also had bread, cheese, pickles, and onions from the abbey.

This was an amazing adventure and we're hoping to go back sometime to not only return the bottles, but to have them refilled. I highly recommend trying all of the beers at Westvleteren, especially the 8 and 12.

Joe's 23rd Birthday

For Joe's 23rd birthday, we took a hike up to the very top of the mountain across the river from where we live. The views are amazing and there are really interesting sites at peak like an amphitheatre used by the Nazis and ruins of an old monastery.
Here's Joe about halfway up

Here I am, taking a scenic break

Sitting on the Nazi Amphitheater getting ready for our picnic lunc

We made it to the top!

View of the castle from the top of the mountain

The view on the Altbruecke while walking home

Happy Birthday, Joe! I love you!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Speyer Day Trip

Speyer (pronounced "Shpayeh") is known for its huge Roman Catholic cathedral. The basilica is a UNESCO world heritage site because it was built around the year 1000 by the Roman army.
Joe standing in front of the Speyer cathedral.

Joe perched on aqueduct remnants with the cathedral in the distance

I'm sitting on the edge of a fountain that was off for the weather with the cathedral behind me

Fountain in the middle of Speyer built in the WWI era. The engraved phrase says "Germany must live even if we must die for it."

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Interesting wooden sculptures painted in vibrant colors outside an art museum in downtown Schwetzingen.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Here is Joe enjoying a rare moment of direct sunlight in Germany.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

The mosque cast an interesting shadow on this pavillion in the courtyard of the mosque.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Arabic is read from the right to the left and this phrase says, "There is no God but God."

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Joe just finished his first semester toward getting his Masters in Islamic Studies, so we were interested in seeing the mosque close up.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Beautiful and random mosque in the middle of the Schwetzingen Schloss gardens.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

I'm not entirely sure what kind of bird we encountered here, but it was a lot like a duck but much more robust. They were pretty friendly and made noises like chickens.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Here I am posing on a very charming old bridge in the gardens.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

The bonsai-like trees in the Schwetzingen gardens. We were lucky enough to visit on a beautiful day with almost completely clear blue skies.

Schwetzingen Day Trip

Schwetzingen is famous for their Schloss (castle) with beautiful gardens and walking paths. They have sculptures in the gardens but they hadn't been unveiled for the year when we visited.