I'm spending a little bit of time in Belgium, so I though I might file some reports about some less-often visited locales. I'm basing out of Hasselt, a city I'm very familiar with. Run-down on Hasselt will follow later. First up, Kasteel van Horst, about a 20 minute drive into the countryside east of Leuven. The word "kasteel" is usually translated as "castle" into English, however, Dutch speakers apply the term to what we would consider castles, mansions or palaces. Kasteel van Horst, however, is definitely a medieval-style castle. It sits in a small lake, accessible by a bridge. The tour is self-guided. About as interesting as any other relatively well-preserved castle, There's also a small restaurant on the property and a couple miles of hiking trails through the Brabant country side. Don't even try to get here without a car. (cont).
Today, I drove over to West Flanders to explore Kortrijk. I had heard that the city offers much of the same sort of appeal of Brugge and Ghent. So, I thought I would check it out. The verdict? Not nearly in the same league as Brugge and Ghent, or even nearby Ieper (Ypres). Kortrijk has an moderately attractive Grote Markt with a small belfry, a medieval Stadhuis that can't really compete with those in Leuven, Ghent or Brugge, a very attractive main cathedral, two medieval towers that line one of the canals, one of the nicer preserved Begijnhofs that I've seen in the Low Countries, and the usual traffic-free traffic zone. And that's really about it. The rest of the city was rather ordinary. There wasn't even a frituur on the Grote Markt! Kortijk might be worth a very brief visit if you're returning to either Brugge or Ghent from a daytrip to Ieper and you have lots of extra time, but that's the only reason I could see to go out of your way for a visit. After the relative let-down of Kortrijk, I decided, since I was in the area, why not stop by the Holiest of Holies in the beer world? I headed for the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus, better known for the name of the beer it produces- the holy grail for beer afficionados, Westvleteren. (cont.)
I didn't really know exactly where to find the abbey, so I just entered "Westvleteren" into my GPS. It guided me into the Westhoek, past Ieper and deep into the countryside. I've visited Ieper before, so I didn't stop there today. But I have to say this- the Westhoek is one of the most ghostly areas of Europe I have seen. Other than Ieper, there's no major towns, predominantly just collection of very small hamlets separated by large tracts of agriculture, and almost no modern industry (other than a few factories around Ieper). The sun never seems to shine in this region, and because it's so close to the North Sea, the air always seems to be damp, if not flat out foggy. And then, there's the war cemeteries. They're everywhere. My mind can't even remotely fathom the absolute hell on earth this region must have resembled 100 years ago. So, deep within what seems like the most haunted corner of Belgium, the GPS guides me to the tiny village of Westvleteren. I would have thought the abbey would dominate the town, but I thought wrong. There's only one sign in the village that points you down a very narrow side road. The abbey of St. Sixtus sits far outside the village. Even though this region is mostly flat and doesn't have many trees, it's practically hidden from view until you almost drive into it. Like most abbeys, you can't regularly visit the grounds, and the brewery is strictly off limits. However, this is the only place in the world where you can purchase the legendary Westvleteren beer.(cont.)
The abbey operates a guesthouse where you can purchase meals or a six pack, but it was closed today. Which means, the only option for acquiring the beer today was the "drive through". Yes, that's right, you drive up to a loading dock, and pick up your beer. If you pre-order, you can purchase up to 24 bottles. I didn't, so I was limited to 3. The beer is chilling in the refrigerator right now, and I'm waiting for my wife to come home before we try it. Let's see if this beer lives up to its reputation...
I'm breathlessly waiting for the Westvleteren beer report. Your description of that part of Belgium is how I saw it also. Cold, foggy, even in the middle of summer.
Here's the review of Westvleteren 12° (the three pack they sold me contained one bottle of each variety the abbey brews). I don't have a special Westvleteren glass, so I substituted with a Chimay glass. The beer has a very dark brown color, almost completely opaque. It poured with a very thick head, similar to Guiness, if not as creamy. Taste? Like a more intense rendering of Chimay Blue. I don't often use wine-type language when describing beer, but I could definitely appreciate chocolate and fruit undertones. At 10.2% ABV, it went to my head rather quickly. Overall verdict? Excellent beer... but I'm convinced that it wouldn't have the same Holy Grail status if it was more widely available. It was worth getting this one time because I was in the area anyway, and now I have a story to tell. But I doubt I'll go out of my way to buy it again. Perhaps if the Colruyt super market chain sponsors another one-off sale in the future, I would go for it again. But in the meantime, Chimay, Corsendonk, Westmalle and Delerium are more than adequate substitutes. For people who don't like the heavy taste typical of abbey beers, this one will probably repel rather than convert.
Thanks, Tom. Review appreciated. The comparison to other remarkable brews is very helpful.
For today's excursion, I left my Dutch speaking comfort zone and drove into French-speaking Wallonia to visit Tournai. Like many cities in Belgium, this one has two official names, which can be a bit confusing when driving, because the signs change from "Doornik" to "Tournai". Anyway... Tournai proved to much more worth the effort than nearby Kortrijk. It has a huge Grand Place, lined with the usual restaurants, cafes, the former Hotel de Ville and old guild houses. Not quite as extravagant as in Brussels or Antwerp, but still pretty impressive. And, a nice belfry. The city is an interesting mix of late medieval Flemish and 18th-19th century French architecture. Mostly well preserved, although this being Wallonia, things tend to look a little dingier than in Flanders. If you like old churches, then Tournai has these in spades. The highlight is probably the giant, 5-spired Tornai Cathedral of Notre Dame. This thing is huge, and it's a curious hydrid of Romanesque and Gothic. Unfortunately, the church was hit hard by a severe storm several years ago, and it currently is undergoing extensive renovation. The Gothic section of the church is virtually sealed off, but if you peak through the scaffolding, you can appreciate how high the ceiling stands. I only visited one other church, the Romanesque Elgise Saint-Quentin on the Grand Place. The interior is fairly unadorned, but I was lucky enough to enter while the organist rehearsed. Tournai also has several museums, but I didn't visit any of them. It also boasts some fairly nice parks, if not particularly large. So, Tournai was quite a surprise. Although I wouldn't skip Brugge or Gent for Tournai, but if you're spending more than a few days in Belgium, I might give it consideration for a 3rd or 4th daytrip.
Finally, on the way back from Tournai, I made a quick stop at Kasteel van Beersel, a nice castle sitting in it's own moat. This is one of the best semi-ruined castles I have visited. Although currently, it is partially under scaffolding and renovation work, you can fully explore two of it's three towers. The inner keep is mostly ruined, but all three towers and the outer wall are in good shape. Add this to your list of things to see when in Brussels. If you have a car, the castle sits right off the Beersel exit of the Brussels ring. If you don't have a car, there's a commuter train station right across the street.
I sampled the 2nd bottle of Westvleteren tonight. This time, I went with the Blonde. Let's just say the only thing saving this beer from being dumped down the drain is the name on the bottle cap. It smells like a cross between urine and cut grass. Rather looks like infected urine in the glass as well, and there's some sediment floating near the bottom. I'm tasting a slight hint of lemon, and something else, quite unpleasant, that I can't quite describe. Overall, Westvleteren Blonde is one of the nastiest beers I've tried in a long time. Because the abbey sells the stuff almost as soon as the brew has matured, I don't think we can blame the taste on spoiled beer. Perhaps a bad batch? Or perhaps, sadly, just a bad recipe? If you go to the trouble of ordering and picking up a case of beer from Westvleteren, go for the 12°. Stay clear of the Blonde!
Thanks for the report Tom. We will be in Belgium in July so this will be helpful. Tournai is on my radar as well when we go.
I drank the 3rd and final bottle of Westvleren, the 8°. It tasted very similar to the 12°, but less intense. One of the better beers I've sampled in awhile, and certainly much better than the barely drinkable blonde.
Today I visited Brugge again. Yes, this isn't "lesser-known" at all, but I wanted to load up on supplies from my favorite chocolatier (Moeder Babelutte) before returning to Germany. Brugge is covered well enough elsewhere, so I won't go into too many details, but just give a few observations. I tried one of the frituurs under the belfry in a sober state for the first time, so now I can offer an assessment unclouded by a beery haze. Verdict? If you're wondering why Belgian fries have such a high reputation, these fries won't convert you. Most frituurs cook the potatoes twice, once slower at a low temperature, and then once more at a higher temperature right before serving. These were obviously only cooked once, so no different from any fries you could get in any other country. Nice view while you eat, however. If you want better fries, go to the frituur on the corner just to the north of the Grote Markt. One thing was missing today that I've seen in Brugge every other time I've visited- the Rickniks! I didn't see a single Blue Book, and usually they're on prominent display. Even in front of Dumond, no Rickniks? Where were you guys today? Much of the renovation work that was going on over the past few years has finished, including the scaffolding that covered one of main church spires. On the way back to my home base today, I drove through a little town called Adegem. Although I didn't stop, the town has a Canadian Museum and a Canadian war cemetery. This appears to be the only war cemetery in the area (unlike the Westhoek, which is packed with them). So, a question to the Canadian Helpline regulars out there, what's the connection? Was this area involved in the Battle of the Scheldt Estuary? I'm not aware of any WWI action that occurred in this area.
Other random Belgium observations. Rush hour traffic on the Brussels and Antwerp rings is some of the worst I have seen in Europe (even worse than the infamous A8 around Stuttgart). I've found that it's actually faster to drive through downtown Antwerp (if you have a good GPS) than to slog it out on the ring. The same is not true for Brussels, however. Another beer recommendation for Belgium- Zonderik. I think it may only be available in the province of Limburg, because I haven't seen it anywhere else. But definitely try it if you see it. Just don't drive afterwards... In the southeast of the Netherlands, add Valkenswaard and Weert to the list of towns that merit at least a quick visit.
Another random Brugge observation- since eating the fries with yellow curry sauce from the frituur stand under the Belfry, I've spent several hours a day on the toilet, and have barely been able to tolerate any food. You may want to try a different location for your Belgian fry fix...
Don't forget the rundown on Hasselt. Anyone have a tip on a hotel? I will be visiting Winterland this year based on the remarks I have read on this helpline!
Maybe the Ricknicks found the 'good' frites. Not double-fried? That's just not right... "Another random Brugge observation- since eating the fries with yellow curry sauce from the frituur stand under the Belfry, I've spent several hours a day on the toilet, and have barely been able to tolerate any food." Tom, that's a bummer...
I can't tolerate any fried stuff...same reaction as Tom. Nasty, nasty fried stuff! I have to stick to steamed veggies and grilled or baked meats. The fried stuff has ruined several vacations for me before I realized I can't eat it. Everybody else eats it, and they're fine; not me. Creamy, fat-ladened sauces put a whammy on my tummy too. :( Tom, have you found a remedy for your ailment yet? So sorry to hear of your stomach ache. Hope you are feeling better soon!
To be accurate, I don't think it was the fries themselves that gave me 5 days of misery. I've enjoyed Belgium's tasty deep-fried treats for years without any problems, and it's kind of hard for most pathogens to survive being dumped in boiling fat. I think more likely, the cream-based yellow curry sauce that I had with the fries wasn't properly maintained. Fortunately, a course of Flagyl seems like it's probably cleared things up. But I will NEVER order from one of those frituurs in Brugge again! OK, I promised a run-down on Hasselt, so here goes. This isn't so much a single trip report on Hasselt as an overall description of the city and surrounding area. My wife is from this area, so I've visited plenty of times in the past. Hasselt, capital of Limburg province. It roughly demarcates the border between the fertile rolling terrain of the Haspengau region to the south (known for it's fruit production) and the infertile, flat heath territory of the Hoge Kempen to the north (similar to the Pine Barrens in NJ). The historic core of the city sits within an inner ring road, and is mostly traffic-free. The larger territory inside the outer ring is more modern, and probably of less interest to a traveler. As far as I know, Hasselt mostly escaped war damage throughout it's history. However, it was never rich enough to erect the sort of magnificent public buildings that you see in Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven or Brussels, and likewise, it was never hit by the sort of economic slump that helped embalm Brugge in one period of time. Hence, you see a mixture of architecture, from late-medieval, to modern. There's a fair amount of Art Nouveau, although not as prominent (or well-publicized) as in Brussels or Antwerp. (cont.)
Brusselization is not entirely absent, but not as apparent as in the city that gives the term it's name. So, what is there to see in Hasselt? The inner ring of the city is mostly a pedestrian shopping area. Plenty of good restaurants, and if you're the type of person who likes to pay far too much money for the latest fashions, Hasselt is second only to Antwerp as a fashionista magnet in Belgium (does a €500 handbag come with money included?). The Grote Markt is relatively small for the Low Countries, but it still has some cafes and it's a good location for people watching. Like most Belgian cities, there's also Begijnhof, a few attractive churches, one of which contains the gold-encased tomb of local saint, and of course, plenty of frituurs and chocolatiers. Belgium is better known for their beer, but it also produces it's own national fire water, Jenever, which I think is better known in English as "Dutch gin". Even the flavored versions taste like rubbing alcohol to me, but if you're interested in Europe's many regional distilled spirits, Hasselt hosts the National Jenever Museum. In the summer, one of those urban "tram-trains" (like the one that takes you to the castle in St. Goar) circuits from the train station to the museum. Also within the city limits- a large Japanese-style garden, and Plopsaland, an indoor theme park based on some popular Belgian childrens' TV shows. Probably skippable for most North American families, unless your kids are among the 2-3 Americans who are fans of Kabouter Plop, Mega Mindy, or Piet Piraat.
For travelers from North America taking their once-in-a-lifetime European dream vacation, Hasselt simply isn't in the same league as many more famous cities, and it doesn't justify a visit. But, for people who made the trip over the pond several times, and want to move beyond the limited scope of the Blue Book World, there's at least two attractions that can justify a side trip. One, nearby Park Midden Limburg. Among other things, it contains a botanical garden, a "kasteel" (see above on the broader meaning this term has in Dutch than the English cognate "castle"), and one of the largest, most elaborate playgrounds I've seen anywhere. But the main reason to visit is the open-air folk museum, Bokrijk. Not necessarily the largest of it's kind that I've seen in Europe, but one of the most elaborate, most well-presented and well-maintained I've seen. They've even rebuilt a block of an old Antwerp street. Second is only a seasonal attraction. Winterland is Hasselt's annual winter carnival. It has the usual cheap merchandise that most Christmas markets sell, but much more elabortate food, drink and rides... even a fairly large roller coaster and ice rink. Someone asked about lodging recommendations- the only hotel I know of is the Radison downtown (it's one of the most prominent buildings), but there are surely other hotels.