Belgium: Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

Belgium is famous for its chocolate tradition, which dates back to the 17th Century. Of course, they import their cocoa beans, but chocolates are a big, big part of their culture and economy, and the quality standards for chocolate production are higher than in the rest of Europe.

In Belgium there’s a chocolate shop in every corner, and although I’d have loved to try them all, I had to settle for window shopping and trying just a few of them. Here’s a list of the ones I liked the most.

In Brussels

Neuhaus

Address: 25 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Bruxelles

Neuhaus is one of the most important chocolate shops in Belgium, not only because it’s one of the oldest, but also because it’s where the Belgian praline was born in 1912.

The first one I saw was inside the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, which is full of different chocolate shops.

Pierre Marcolini

Address: 5 Galerie du Roi, 1000 Bruxelles

Here’s where I found out that chocolates can totally be sold as if they were jewelry. Its boutiques are well lit and spacious, the chocolates are well protected behind glass and presented in pretty boxes that resemble accessories or makeup boxes.

La Belgique Gourmande

Address: 17 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Brussels

La Belgique Gourmande has some sort of carnivalesque thing going on. It is completely decorated with masks, colorful rings and harlequins hanging from the walls. I didn’t buy anything there, but just looking at the windows was quite fun.

Galler

Address: 44 rue au Beurre, 1000 Bruxelles

The cool thing about Galler is that they have a lot of beautifully colored chocolate eggs and chocolate bars, all with different flavors and presentations. Their orange chocolate bags and boxes reminded me of Hermès, and I’m guessing they chose that color palette on purpose to make it look fancier.

Elisabeth

Address: 43 rue au Beurre 1000 Bruxelles

There were about four different Elisabeth Chocolatiers in different streets and each one of them had different sweets. While some had huge meringues, others had biscuits or chocolates on display, and they all looked gorgeous. Here’s where I discovered that happiness has a name: Mellow Cake.

Mellow cake is a super soft, super spongy marshmallow on a cookie covered with dark chocolate. I have tried other versions of chocolate marshmallow before, but never like this. This is a whole different kind of mellow cake. The first day I bought one just to try it; the next day I returned for a box.

In Brugges

In Brugges, I visited the Choco-Story Museum, a building from 1480 that originally was a wine tavern.

Address: 2 Wijnzakstraat, 8000 Bruges

A big section of the museum is dedicated to the origin and history of chocolate, which is nothing new for those of us who come from the same part of the world as cocoa beans. However, it is a quick and fun museum. The coolest part were the trash bins, which are shaped like cocoa fruits.

Besides the history of Belgian chocolate, the museum includes a little geography and botany, plus some recipes and even a presentation where they show you how they make pralines.

And they have a giant chocolate egg at the entrance.

Le Comptoir de Mathilde

The last chocolate shop I went to is where I tried hot choco-spoons for the first time.

A hot choco-spoon is basically a cube of chocolate on a wooden spoon that you put into a glass of hot milk. There were over twenty different flavors and it took me about five minutes to choose.

I chose dark chocolate with chili.

The trip was short. I would have loved to stay a few more days to see more, but still, I did a bit of everything. There were museums, galleries, books and lots of chocolate. Especially because, besides the box of mellow cakes, I bought a giant marshmallow covered with chocolate and walnuts. But whenever I feel like I’ve eaten too much chocolate, I remember German chemist Justus von Liebig’s words of wisdom:

Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power… it is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.

Belgium: Books and Monuments

Brussels

The last day in Brussels we had breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, a restaurant-bakery founded in Brussels in 1990 by Alain Coumont, a chef who, upon realizing that he didn’t like the bread available for his restaurant, decided to make his own. He opened a small place in the rue Dansaert, and that small shop is now an international business.

We went to the one that’s inside the Galeries Royales St. Hubert without knowing what it was or what it had. It was probably one of the best decisions of the whole trip. The coffee was great, the food was fresh and the bread was amazing.

From there, were walked to one of the most recommended book shops in Brussels: Tropismes.

The place isn’t too big, but the charming thing about it is that they managed to put books in every single space they had. Between the furniture, on top of other books, under the stairs, you name it.

As always, I searched for the Latin American Literature shelves and I soon found Julio, Carlos and Gabriel, among others, standing next to one another in a bottom shelf.

Bruges

That same day we went to Bruges and let me tell you that the train station was chaotic. Every single train (and I mean literally every single train) was at least 30 minutes late and nobody knew what was going on or what to do. They say you don’t appreciate what you have until you lose it; well I am never complaining about German trains again. Yes, they’re always late, especially during the winter, but at least you know why and how long they’ll take.

Bruges is Brugge in Dutch, which derives from Old Dutch and means ‘bridges’. The earliest accounts of the name are from around the year 840 and include the variants Bruggas y Brvggas. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, historical document that I was able to study this semester, mentions the city under the names of Bricge in the year 1037, and Brycge in the years 1049 and 1052.

Fun fact: in Spanish, it’s called “Brujas” which literally translates to “Witches”. It’s a rather unfortunate name, but if you ask my dad, he calls it ‘the most beautiful city in the world’.

We arrived in Bruges and the first thing we did (apart from eating and leaving the luggage at the apartment) was look for the Church of Our Lady, which is the place where the Madonna of Bruges is. I was looking forward to seeing her because of the movie The Monuments Men, which is one of my favorite movies.

The Madonna of Bruges is a marble sculpture made by Michelangelo in 1504, and it’s only 1.23 m tall. It has only left Belgium in two occasions: when it was taken to France in 1794 and when it was taken to Germany in 1944.

We found her beautiful and sitting in her chapel, as she always should be.

Afterwards we went to the museum-gallery of Salvador Dalí, but first we stopped by a book shop I had seen on the way to the Madonna.

It was a pretty place, small too, but full of books and other literature-related objects. One thing I love doing whenever I travel is going to local book stores. I love to see what books they sell, how they arrange them, what languages are they in. I always try to buy something small, a book store souvenir if you will, but I don’t always purchase books because I don’t always understand the language.

Museum Gallery Xpo Salvador Dali

The museum-gallery isn’t big either, but it’s well located (in the Central Square), and it has some of Dali’s less known works.

It is just one room, which is why you don’t spend a lot of time in there. For those who are like me, who love galleries bur really dislike Dali, the size is ideal.

Hanging from one of the walls, I found this version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I would have loved to see the whole edition.

Brussels: of Writers, Squares, and Cathedrals

My friend and I have just returned from our little trip. We spent four days in Belgium, two in Brussels and two in Bruges, and let me tell you that, although Brussels is not that big of a city, two days is not nearly enough time to see everything. If you ask me, I would’ve stayed five days to visit all the museums, galleries, book shops and embassies that I had planned. Another time, perhaps.

However, we did manage to see some of the most popular places of the city, and, if you look close enough, somewhere between the people, the chocolate shops and the alleys, you might see literary shadows.

Shadows of Victor Hugo

The Grand Place, for example, is the place where Victor Hugo spent the first year of his exile after the coup d’état of 1851 in France, when Napoleon III became emperor. Hugo always said he had a personal problem with Napoleon III, and what had started as an imposed exile, soon became his own way of opposing the reign of Napoleon, “the little.”

“The most beautiful square in the world”, Victor Hugo called it. They say that he also described the Grand Place as “a fantasy dreamed up by a poet, and realized by an architect.”

I don’t know if it was dreamed up by a poet or just by an architect with great taste, but boy was it beautiful. Sadly we only had gray, rainy days in Brussels, and thus I couldn’t get a more colorful picture.

Writers always have something to say, and not having someone as influential as Victor Hugo on your side, can be somewhat problematic. Especially if you’re the Emperor of France. It was in Brussels that Hugo wrote “Napoleón, le petit” and “Histoire d’un Crime”, a pamphlet and an essay (respectively) that condemned Napoleon’s actions.

Victor Hugo was a huge fan of Gothic style. He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Cathedral in the center of the narrative just to raise awareness and avoid its demolition. Well, during his exile in Brussels, he frequented the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which reminded him of his beloved Notre Dame.

We also enjoyed walking around the cathedral, which, despite being a beauty built from 1226 to 1500, wasn’t a cathedral during Hugo’s time. So, Hugo visited a non-cathedral that reminded him of a cathedral, and that wouldn’t be one until 1962. Still, it is absolutely stunning, with all its statues, its stained-glass windows and its seventeenth century’s pulpit.

I must say, Victor Hugo had a great taste.

“It’s a good idea to have your books with you in a strange place.”

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

A strange place such as the fountain of the Place de l’Agora, where one can appreciate Charles Buls (or Karel Buls), mayor of Brussels from 1881 to 1889. Buls protected many of the old parts of the city during the time of King Leopold II, who wanted to demolish and rebuild. Buls was also an author, and he wrote about education, arts and about his trips abroad.

A few blocks away, we found the Manneken Pis, the naked little boy who pees on a fountain in the corner of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. The statue dates back to 1618, but the different legends that surround it are much older. The best part about this little boy is that every week he’s dressed in a different way. Sometimes he’s a sailor, sometimes a judoka (judo player), sometimes he’s the mayor.

When we arrived to see him, he was busy doing his business, dressed with paper clothes, and carrying a book. Definitely a strange place to have a book with you.

The Manneken Pis has replicas all around the world, but my favorite is the one in the movie The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks.

Parlamentarium

The last place we went to that day was the Parlamentarium, which is the Visitors’ Center of the European Parliament. It’s located in the Rue Wiertz 60/ Wiertzstraat, 60 B-1047. Finding it took us a while, not because it was too far away or too hidden, but because our map-reading abilities aren’t fully developed yet.

This is basically an interactive museum where one can learn about what the Parliament is and does in a fun and very, very colorful way.

The visit is free of charge, the media guide can be configured in any of the 24 official languages of the European Union, and there are even tours for children. No, we didn’t book a tour for children.

We did ask for the Spanish version of the media guide, but I guess the lady at the front desk decided it would be lazy of us to listen to everything in our native tongue, because she configured it in English.

Besides explaining what the institution does, is, and how it came to be, the museum has sections that introduce an artist or an intellectual whose ideas influenced on the creation of a unified Europe. Of course there were a lot of them, but since our focus is on literature, here are some of the authors we found.

By the way, bumping into James Joyce is always fun.

Next Stop: Belgium

How are you today?

It’s 19th of February and I finally have a few free days before going back to locking myself in the library. Last week I couldn’t write here on the blog because I had an exam coming. It is now behind me and I can write in peace.

I hadn’t thought about going to Belgium anytime soon, but, as always, a friend called me one day and told me she wanted to go and it would be a great idea if we went together. Over a year passed before we could actually plan our trip, but we finally did it and tomorrow we leave for Brussels and Bruges. We’re just going for a couple of days, but we’ll try to see as much as possible.

Literary Cities: Brussels

You know? Travelling teaches us how much we truly ignore. I can my spend days reading, studying and learning new things, but as soon as I leave my home I realize that I know nothing.

This time it was no different. We said Belgium and I realized that I have no idea of what’s been going on in the Belgian literary world. I suppose that upon hearing the name of the country, we think of waffles, chips and chocolates, but we don’t think of Hugo Claus, whom by the way I haven’t read.

A couple of minutes on the internet and I found out some cool things:

1. Brussels was the city where many writers spent their exile.

Victor Hugo, Karl Marx and Multaluti were just some of the intellectuals that exiled themselves in Brussels during the 1800s. Nowadays, the city has complete programs dedicated to helping writers that come from difficult situations.

2. Belgian literature is not studied simply as Belgian.

That is on the first level. Mexican literature can be studied as Mexican, but firstly it is Spanish, just because it is written in Spanish. Australian literature is English, Austrian literature is German, Belgian literature is bilingual. It is studied with both French and Netherlands literature because Belgian authors write in French or in Flemish.

3. Belgium has a Literature Nobel Prize Winner

Maurice Maeterlinck, born in 1862 and died in 1949, was an essayist, poet and playwright from the symbolism movement. He was awarded with the Nobel Prize in 1911.

The following I did not have to look up on Google:

4. Brussels is the city where Julio Cortázar was born.

He always said he had been born there by accident. That accident was inside the Argentinian embassy, where there’s a bust and a plaque in honor of the Cronopio.

And me?

As always, I’ll be taking pictures, eating a lot and trying my best not to buy books in languages I can’t read.