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Quirky, Undiscovered Brussels & Belgium

From giant meatballs to Mini-Europe, offbeat adventures in Belgium.

If there is one word I’d use to describe Belgium following a ten-day trip through Brussels and Wallonia, it’s “quirky­­” –– and that’s a good thing! Not the stuffy or traditional Europe you may be imaging, Belgium is funky-cool with modern, artistic lodgings, unconventional museums and tasty food and beer. When you are consistently surprised on your travels, you’re creating memories and certainly learning something new– this was my experience in Belgium and one you, too, can recreate.

Walkable and cool Brussels.

Walkable and cool Brussels.

While I explored some of the most popular travel sites, including Waterloo, Bastogne and Brussels, I also made a point to stray from the traditional spots as much as possible, and was glad I did. Here are some of my quirkiest finds in Belgium.

Brussels

There is most certainly a lot to see and do in Brussels, the home of the European Union and a truly international city. The beautiful Grand Place and infamous Manneken Pis are must-sees, but to get a different view of the city, take a bike tour with Pro Velo. This is a great way to take in the city’s diverse architecture and chat up a local. My guide, Riet Naessens, gave me a tour focused on the city’s art deco and art nouveau architecture through burgeoning and luxurious neighborhoods I may have never reached on my own. We passed by designs by some of art nouveau’s most famous architects, Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. Stunning glasswork by artist Ernest Delune at Rue du Lac 6, often seen in art history textbooks, was a highlight, as was The Horta Museum, a World Heritage Site. Pro Velo also offers a popular Beer and Breweries tour, which I’d warn beginning bikers against for obvious reasons.

You must ingest and invest in some chocolate while touring Brussels. Laurent Gerbaud has some outstanding chocolate, including many mixed with tart and sweet dried and candied fruits. He offers interactive workshops where you can make and taste your own creations. His shop has a café, so you can sit down and enjoy the full chocolate experience. It’s close enough to do some chocolate shop hopping at Place de Grand Sablon, where many of Belgium’s top chocolatiers have their shops.

Decadent chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud.

Decadent chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud.

For another sweet and necessary Brussels fix, walk a few feet from the popular Manneken Pis to feast on a Brussels style waffle complete with chocolate, whipped cream and strawberries, if you wish it, at The Waffle Factory, one of the tastiest waffle places.

The Waffle Factory in Brussels, Belgium

The Waffle Factory in Brussels, Belgium.


Belgian Chocolate in Brussels with a Top… by TravelswithDarley
Other interesting and offbeat Brussels experiences include a trip to the Atomium, a bizarre remnant of the 1958 World’s Fair. This structure symbolizes an iron crystal expanded 165 billion times and houses exhibition space. Just nearby is another weird find, Mini Europe, where you can walk among famous European monuments in miniature, including Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. Kids may particularly like Mini-Europe and adults looking for funny photo opps.

If you’re looking to do all of this and still take a breath, you’ll want to stay in Brussels for few days. The chic Hilton Brussels Grand Place is well located to comfortably take on the city by foot.

Durbuy

One of Durbuy’s claims to fame is that it is the “smallest city in the world” or once was. I’m uncertain if it was a translation issue, but they also had “smallest town” emblazoned in several places throughout the area. How that’s defined, I’m not so sure, but it’s just another example of offbeat Belgium and this city or town’s idiosyncratic flavor.


Europe’s Quirkiest City by TravelswithDarley
Durbuy consists of charming cobblestone, medieval streets, historic sights and lovely shops. There’s a local count who still lives in a castle here, overlooking the town and the Durbuy Topiary Park. Billing itself as the “largest park in the world devoted to topiary that is accessible for the public,” there are over 250 plants, some of which are more than 120 years old. Strolling through these green sculptures, you may recognize some of the shapelier box trees, including a larger than life topiary of Pamela Anderson on the beach, the famous Manneken Pis from Brussels, jumping jockeys, ducklings, elephants and beyond.

Shop in La Vraie Confiture du Durbuy for local artisanal jams and sweets for your friends (and self) and then grab a traditional unfiltered, amber beer brew at Marckloff Brewery, where beer is produced in small batches right on site. Stay one night or more right in town at Le Sanglier des Ardennes, a modern, moderately priced hotel overlooking the Ourthe River with a fabulous breakfast.

Mons

The 2015 European Culture Capital, Mons is a university town with cool street art, museums, restaurants and European charm. In the lively Grand Place, pet the somewhat-freaky brass monkey statue for good luck before entering the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville. Climb the stairs of this 15th century structure to take in the views of the striking square with its myriad architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Neo-Classical. Inside Town Hall, admire gilded carvings and ornate tapestries, a gift to the town from Louis XIV, the King of France.

Next, climb higher past the city’s historic brick homes to Parc du Château, the city’s highest point and where the magnificent Belfry is located. The only baroque style Belfry in Belgium and set on the site of the former château, the Belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re lucky enough to have blue skies, this is an exceptional place for photos. Next, walk down to the Saint Waudru Collegiate Church to see its exquisite stained glass windows and 18th century golden carriage, used in the annual celebration of the saint.

Mons also has several museums worth seeing, including BAM, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the fascinatingly bizarre Mundaneum, which has recently been renovated. The Mundaneum houses a massive collection of photos, newspapers, posters and books from Belgian philanthropist Paul Otlet, who spent nearly half a century compiling every noteworthy piece of human thought ever published or recorded­–– a gigantic task! Called a sort of printed precursor to the Internet and social networking, the museum has a partnership with Google.

Grab a drink at La Cervoise, where there’s a dizzying array of over 150 beers from which to choose. Carnivores may stay to cook a steak on a stone, the most notable entrée at this Belgian beer hall. Others may wish to snag a table outside at Ces Belges et Vous in Grand Place to take in the ambience of this historic square, while feasting on traditional Belgian cuisine.

One of my favorite hotels from my Belgium travels is in Mons, Hotel Dream. Located in the historic center, you can walk right from the hotel to Grand Place–– key since parking can be a high commodity. Housed in a former convent and chapel, stained glass windows and high ceilings are sprinkled in amid modern designs and graffiti art.

The funky hall at Hotel Dream in Mons.

The funky hall at Hotel Dream in Mons.

Liege

Start your morning trying Liege waffles at the best place in town, Maison Massin (Rue Puits-en-sock, 6-8- 4020 Liege), where waffles are made on site. It’s where the locals get their waffles. Choose from traditional Liege waffles, a sugary, chewy waffle that’s ovular and unevenly shaped, or more embellished versions, grilled strawberry or rhubarb. Sunday is market day in Liege and if there’s something you need or want, you’ll find it at La Batte, the oldest and largest market in Belgium. Local produce, cheese, fish, clothing and books are all ripe for the picking at this riverside shopping mecca.


World’s Best Waffles by TravelswithDarley
From the market, walk to Curtius Brasserie to sample Belgian craft beers. You’ll want to snap a photo of Mount Bueren stairs, an epic 374-step staircase located just beside Brasserie C, en route. Inside Brasserie C, there’s an exciting energy. Started by young entrepreneurs, this Belgian brewery is housed in a former monastery. You can take a tour of the production area and pair cheese or meatballs with beer on the lovely outdoor terrace.

Mount Bueren stairs in Liege.

Mount Bueren stairs in Liege.

Cheese paired with beer at Curtius Brasserie.

Cheese paired with beer at Curtius Brasserie.

The Cite Miroir is an unusual cultural venue, perfect for lovers of avant-garde, modern art. Exhibitions are held in a 1930’s building, which once housed public baths and swimming pool, the remnants of which still remain—modern works of art in themselves. Locals may tell you they learned to swim in what’s now the Cite Miroir, adding another layer of intrigue to this unusual cultural site.

For dinner in Liege, you have to try boulet, a traditional beef and pork meatball that’s highly popular in the region. One of the best places to eat boulet is Amon Nanesse, where large meatballs are served up in sweet sauce consisting of a mixture of pears and apple syrup, wine, onions and peket, a local spirit. Of course, boulet is a complimented with a heaping helping of crispy fries. I had a boulet connoisseur introduce me to this filling, savory and sweet dish. Sebastien Laviolette from la Confrerie de Gay Boulet, is part of a guild of folks that make it their mission to secretly taste test meatballs at restaurants throughout the region and rate the best.

Le boulet, giant meatballs, in Liege. Yum!

Le boulet, giant meatballs, in Liege. Yum!

You can walk to a lot of these Liege attractions, including La Batte from the historical center and boutique Hotel Neuvice, where ten contemporary rooms surround an open air patio and range from 99€ to 150€ per night.

Dinant

There are lots of fun and unusual things to see and do in Dinant, whose fairytale-like setting is marked by a grand 13th century church set along the banks Meuse River and backed by an imposing high cliff atop which rests the imposing Citadel. To take in nature, go kayaking on the nearby Lesse River with Olivier Pitance of Dinant Adventures. Small rapids intersperse with quiet currents as you paddle and float by rock outcroppings, lush forests and medieval castles.

In town, don’t miss the House of Pataphony, Maison de la Pataphonie, where you can expand your mind making music with everyday objects ranging from a chandelier made of cutlery to antique keys. This wildly inventive museum dreamed up by instrument maker Max Vandervorst is a true trip for adults and kids. It also makes sense that it’s located in Dinant, the home of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. You can visit his home, now a small, interactive museum that’s worth a stop. Stay nearby in a castle at la Saisonneraie, a former chateau in Falaën that welcomes guests with exceptional croissants for breakfast to complete your Belgium tour.

Stay in a chateau in Falaën, La Saisonneraie.

Stay in a chateau in Falaën, La Saisonneraie.

There are many more exciting places to visit in Belgium, including abbey breweries and beyond. Check out our itinerary from our travels there and watch our Belgium episodes of “Travels with Darley” on PBS, Create TV and online at AOL.

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