Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part travel series on European lessons on living the good life.
Belgium is famous for many things: artists, the diamond trade, amazing lace, high fashion, beer, chocolate and fries. My previous visits to my Flemish friend Ramona's country had also already shown me how similar the Belgians are to the French when it comes to their love of everyday pleasures. Wine is to the French what beer is to the Belgians, and as pastries are to the French, waffles and fries are to the Belgians. Sitting at a traditional Belgian cafe on my second of four days in Antwerp, I watched the bartender meticulously pour another round of famous Belgian beers for us. That's when I realized what the Belgians are especially good at: Savoring time and taking the simple pleasures in life, such as drinking beer, enjoying chocolate and eating fries, and turning each of these activities into an extraordinary, time-consuming process of love and tradition. From the basic black bicycles that are the slow-but-popular mode of transport around town to the cafe culture that is an integral part of most Belgian lives, the city of Antwerp is a lesson in slowing down to enjoy each moment, meal, drink and activity, even if it means missing one activity, such as visiting the home of famous Belgian artist Peter Paul Rubens in order to fully enjoy another activity, such as drinking another six Belgian beers.
The city of Antwerp itself is, like many European towns and cities, a beautiful mix of Old World history and New World style and modernism. The city's famous 850-year-old Roman cathedral, Cathedral of Our Lady, sits near the town square surrounded by 100-year-old cafes serving traditional Belgium beer, while down the street, high-end Belgian fashion and design stores mix with modern chic restaurants and Middle Eastern eateries.
I arrived on the fast train from Paris in the morning and was immediately swept into the Belgian relaxation culture, starting with glass of Cava and an espresso at a trendy, upscale cafe. Then it was off to meet up with Ramona's father at a riverside Belgian cafe and immerse myself in Belgian beer culture straightaway.
Belgium beer, already world renowned for its history, style and overall deliciousness, was made more so with the rise in popularity overseas of Belgium's most popular beer, Stella Artois, which comes with its own stylized glassware and a specific method of pouring and serving. However, to drink Belgian beer in Belgium is to put a whole new spin on this tradition. First, every beer, not just Stella, has its own stylized glass, and each glass is designed to specifically enhance the beer's flavor. Then there is the art of pouring the beer. First, the glass is rinsed in clean, cold water to get rid of any residue in the glass that may taint the flavor. Then it is poured into the glass and left with a distinct two fingers of head. The top bubbles of the beer are then scraped off the head, leaving only perfectly uniform foam bubbles at the top of the glass. Finally, the outside of the glass is dunked in cold water to clean off any beer residue and it is served. In a country where people consume a massive amount of beer, this service tradition remains intact in spite of the volume served.
Not being a beer drinker myself (which is unusual, almost unpatriotic for a New Zealander), I put aside my beer reservations to fully experience the culture. Lucky for me, the Belgians pride themselves on not only brewing traditional styles of beer exceptionally well but all kinds, including a variety of fruit beers such as cherry and peach. Suddenly, I found myself, less than 12 hours into my visit, five cherry beers deep and drinking them like they were just another flavor of Mike's Hard Lemonade (except with hundreds more years of tradition and finesse) while I snacked on cheeses and croquets. My beer-drinking pace would continue throughout the duration of my visit, giving me a whole new appreciation for beer, as well as an unusual sense of national pride.
A visit to Belgium seems incomplete without experiencing the country's fine chocolate, which, like the beer, is world renowned. Belgian chocolatier, Jean Neuhaus invented praline (a hard chocolate shell filled with a soft filling) in 1912, forever securing Belgium's place on the world stage of chocolate. So when we saw the famous Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone's shop, The Chocolate Line, in downtown Antwerp, we took the opportunity to indulge. The store is a chocolate store in front and chocolate workshop in back, where skilled chocolatiers patiently produced and sculpted the highest quality chocolate 10 feet away from us, giving us a whole new appreciation for chocolate both as food and art form. Life-sized chocolate animal characters sat alongside piles of chocolate poo and a couture chocolate dress worn by Miss Belgium at the opening of the chocolate festival "Choco Late." We gawked at the sweet creations while considering whether to eat the ornate desserts or just laugh and admire them.
As with beer and chocolate, visiting Belgium without eating fries would be a travesty. Belgium, not France, is in fact believed to be where fries were born. The tradition of Belgian fries dates back at least 200 years. So as with beer, ordering fries is a process steeped in tradition.
First, we needed to pick the best "frit kot" shop based on how they cook the fries. The perfect fries are fried twice but must be properly cooled before the second dunk in the deep fryer. Next, we picked our sauces. There are about 15 different sauces to choose from, ranging from mayo to meat sauce, and a variety of curry-flavored condiments. Mayonnaise is to the Belgians what ketchup is to Americans, and while there is regular mayo, there are also several other flavors, including curry, my personal favorite. We opted for a mayonnaise, a curry sauce and a meat sauce and then proceeded to try to finish our massive order, to no avail.
My night out with Ramona and her Belgian friends confirmed my theory about Belgians and their appreciation for life's simplest pleasures. Instead of hitting up one of the trendy European clubs, which I had previously experienced, we headed to one of Ramona's favorite traditional Belgian cafes near the main Antwerp Square. It was a Sunday night, the weekly jive-dance night. A middle-aged local DJ played everything from greatest hits to traditional Belgian sing-along music to a crowd ranging in age from 10 to 75, and everyone was keen to cut a rug. The only real rule at the dance party is if you are asked to dance, you must oblige for at least one dance.
So here we found ourselves, maybe three beers deep, being asked to dance by a cheeky 70-something gentleman with few teeth but a huge grin. My Belgian friends politely declined for the moment. Ten o'clock became midnight, and I noticed our toothless friend was still sitting on the bench, waiting for his dance. At this point - now six or seven beers in - I felt some liquid courage building in me, so I approached the man to see if he would like to dance. Beaming from ear to ear, he threw me around the dance floor like I was a rag-doll on Red Bull. After two songs, I was quite out of breath, so I managed to pass him off to Ramona for a while. Age, it seems, was no excuse for going to bed early nor getting out to dance all night long. As if to prove this to be the norm rather than the exception, Ramona's boyfriend, Christian, being the gentlemanly type, had a similar experience around 1 a.m. when he invited a 75-year-old lady to dance with him, which she accepted with glee. After spinning her around until she was gasping and clutching her heart, we wondered if she was going to make it. However less than half an hour later, she was beckoning him in for another round. Her neighbor, who escorted her out, explained she loved to dance and would usually last until around 1:30 a.m. Seeing as it was 2 a.m., we'd kept her moving past
Clearly, the Belgians are determined to savor every moment for as long as possible. Time, it seems, is less a money-making commodity than something to truly value.
Check back next week for the next stop - Amsterdam.
Vail Daily Photo Editor Dominique Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.