Nothing screams Christmas season for someone who isn’t living in a winter climate like 30-degree weather and hailing snow. My short journey to Brussels, Belgium
was a nice wakeup call for what I will be facing in just thirteen days when I am back home in Minneapolis, Minnesota
I was told Brussels was an ugly city by many people, including travelers I have met who live in Belgium and even some who live in Brussels and I can’t say that they were wrong. They were absolutely correct. In Brussels there is not a ton to see and the main reason I wanted to go was to go to their world famous Christmas Market
, if that wasn’t there I don’t think I would have gone, and I don’t think I will ever return...
We arrived late Tuesday night and were greeted by a sharp wind and dropping temperatures. It was a flashback to a normal winter that we haven't faced in Madrid, Spain
. Upon arriving at our hostel we decided to go grab a quick dinner and rest up for the fun-filled day we had planned for tomorrow.
On Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. sharp we began our search for Belgian waffles and we found a restaurant called Grandmother’s Waffles, also known as Mokata, online and on our map that was supposed to be cheap and authentic. So we set out in the freezing cold to find us some good eats. Much to our demise it began to hail, then snow, then rain and after an hour of searching for the restaurant we ducked into the nearest, most authentic looking restaurant that advertised breakfast food we could find. This was a bad decision on our part as everyone was going into the same restaurant and we ended up waiting an hour and a half for our waffles. They were OK, but not quite as warm as I was hoping they would be. The chocolate was to die for though.
Andrea with her first real Belgian waffle in Brussels, Belgium.
The result of waiting an hour for your first Belgian waffle.
After our breakfast turned lunch we headed to the Musical Instruments Museum
and learned about the evolution of each musical instrument through geographic region and era. The main reasons the majority of the group wanted to go were a.) the cost: free every first Wednesday and b.) the temperature, everyone wanted to warm up. I wanted to go because I am an Orch Dork and former Band Geek who played the alto saxophone and bassoon. It was really interesting as we had a cassette tape with us and each instrument you stepped up to synched with what would play in your ears. One thing that was very different about this museum was the fact that there were no English translations or explanations. I absolutely loved this because it reminded me of my time in Budapest, Hungary where I literally had to communicate with hand gestures. Before this trip my experience with language barriers was minimal and it was hard to adjust to the fact that there have been several language barriers but, as I said before, it is actually fun not knowing the local language because it really stretches your brain and makes you step out of your comfort zone.
Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium.
After about an hour in the museum we left and headed towards the main attraction: the Christmas Markets. The maps for Belgium are not the easiest to follow so we wandered for a bit towards the general direction and soon bumped into the delicious smell of vin chaud (hot wine), bratwurst, hot bread, and grilled onions. The smell was overwhelmingly mouth-watering. Everyone was filled with joy when we saw the Christmas decorations and the colorful lights. We don’t have the merriment in Madrid like they do in Brussels and all of us couldn’t help but become a little giddy – even the boys.
Once we became filled with the Christmas spirit we began to look for those unique gifts – the boys opted out from this for the most part. Along the first street were multiple vendors selling ornaments, winter clothes, and food. When we reached the end of the first street we were a little concerned that this was all there was going to be. We knew there was supposed to be an ice rink and Ferris wheel, but we couldn’t find it. After speaking with a vendor, who had the most gorgeous Indian ornaments, we walked a few blocks and came upon a winter wonderland. Four rows of shops lay before us and the Ferris wheel, lit up in the jolly green and red, towered over the ice rink at the very end of the streets. We took our time in making our way to the end, wanting to look at all the vendors, weigh our options, take in the sight of Christmas, and embrace the sensation of the vin chaud on our cold hands. I am proud to say I found some wonderful gifts for my family and friends at the market. They were pricey but all handmade and one-of-a-kind. Cross your fingers they like them.
After making a few purchases we splurged and went on a Ferris wheel ride. It was so incredibly cold and anyone who knows me I am fine with heights. Until I get up to the top. I was a little afraid and hand to hold on to my friends while we stopped at, wait for it, the top. The view was incredible though and we all were put into the Christmas spirit even more. After the chilly and fearful ride we ate dinner and Rachel and I, the true Minnesotans that we are, shared a ginormous bratwurst with fried onions, ketchup and another spicy sauce. It was gone within ten minutes. You could say we were a little hungry.
Rachel Arneson at the Christmas Markets in Brussels, Belgium.
Amanda, Emily, Alissa, Tor and Rachel with their vin chaud.
View of Market from Ferris wheel.
Rachel and Andrea with their joint bratwurst for dinner.
By this time we were a tad bit chilly, the only time we had inside was at the museum and lunch so we decided to head to Café Delirium,
a famous bar that is in the Guinness Book of World Records
for having the most choices of beers at a single establishment. The total number of beers they offer, you may ask? The answer is 2,004. The bar even has a syllabus that lists all of the options of beer. Emily, one of the girls who seems to have friends studying abroad everywhere, was told by a friend who studied in Brussels that the tradition is to close your eyes, open the book to a random page, point to a beer without looking, and when you open your eyes the beer your finger has landed on is the beer that you order.
Apparently this isn’t the wisest decision according to the bartender. When I went up asking for my beer he asked how I had chosen it. Little to my knowledge he said my beer was really old and had the chance of tasting bad. Instead he brought out his favorite beer, Gouden Carolus Classic
, and gave it to me. I am a big beer fan so it was an enjoyable experience.
Café Delirium, Brussels, Belgium.
Larger than life beer caps on the ceiling of Café Delirium.
Signs in the upstairs of Café Delirium.
| |Information on Gouden Carolus Classic*:
This Mechelen Emperor’s brew is a traditional beer of the fox hunting of Charles Quint but named after his golden coins, is still being brewed with dark, very well-balanced malts according to the classical infusion method. The aromatic malts and high fermentation process combines the warm roundness of wine with the light freshness of beer. Because of its high density of 19° Plato, the Gouden Carolus Classic is classified under ‘special beers’. It’s also highly appropriate for culinary purposes like stew, game and even sabayon. De-li-cious!
Type of beer: Dark special beer
Colour: Ruby red
Alcohol: 8,5% VOL
Hops: Exclusively Belgian hops
* Information from Brouwerij Het Anker
We relaxed for about an hour, sitting in the old basement of the bar with larger than life beer caps on the ceiling and gabbed about our remaining time in Europe. It is still hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we are leaving so soon. Some of us are ready, some of us aren’t. I fall within the former. I haven’t seen my family in four months and spend the whole summer away from them. It is time to be reunited.
The day took its toll on us and we decided to call it an early night and headed back to take warm showers and bundle up under the covers. The next day we repeated Wednesday due to a lack of a game plan. We headed back to the Markets, the only difference in the day is that we actually found Grandmother’s Waffles and it was delicious and cheap and went on a scavenger hunt for chocolate.
The great Grandmother's Waffles Belgian waffle.
After devouring the waffles we went on a search for inexpensive chocolate for our family and friends. Some of us chose to purchase the expensive chocolates that are more like delicacies for locals and others, such as myself, stuck to the more affordable but still good quality chocolate. It will just have to be a surprise as to whom they are for! After the hunt for the perfect chocolates ended we made our final stop at the Christmas Market and called it quits to relax at a small café where it was warm for the remaining few hours until our flight later that night.
All in all, Brussels was a great place to go for five things: waffles, chocolate, beer, the Christmas Market and a wake up call for the weather back home. I wouldn’t say it was good for anything else. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of money, that would be rather harsh, but part of me thinks that at times it kind of was. However, after talking to my father and listening to his wise words of wisdom, I realized that not every place I am going to travel to is going to tickle my fancy. Case in point: Brussels, Belgium.
Streets upon streets filled with crowds of people, multiple languages and cultures, and colorful stalls selling different products, it is all you can ask for on a Sunday morning at el Rastro
just south of the La Latina metro stop.
El Rastro de Madrid, or more commonly known as el Rastro, is one of my favorite parts of Madrid. The open air flea market is held every Sunday during the year and offers everything you could possibly need, and that is not an exaggeration. The market is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., a solid six hours for you to find what you need. A winter coat for 10 euro that would normally cost 30 to 40 in a store, is easily found during this time of year, cute clothing for males and females can be found at bargain prices, especially if you look at the two euro liquidación piles. If you're looking for handmade jewelry and original artwork, then this is the place to go. Last but not least, if you want to get your hands on authentic Spanish music then look no farther than the several vendors who blare their favorite picks and allow you to sample them before purchasing.
The first time I ever went to el Rastro was several years ago when I first came to Madrid. It was sensory overload with the number of people in the streets canned like sardines and the occasional vendors yelling their deal of the day at those who walked by. The prices were unbelievably cheap and the numerous souvenirs, house products, clothes, artwork and more were too much to choose from. I learned from that experience that you have to go in with a plan, and my plan for my trip last weekend was a warm coat or hat and a gift for my mother.
We went to el Rastro at 12:00 in the afternoon, a good time to go if you want to be behind the tourist crowd that comes along around 11:00 a.m. and the bargainers between nine and ten. The group of four and myself walked up and down, strolling to see if what we were looking for popped out at us. Some of us purchased wool socks and tights, a jump drive and winter hats and headbands, others bought gifts for family members. I purchased a knit headband and a gift for my mother, though I can't say what I bought for her since she reads this blog more than everyone combined. Sorry, folks.
While shopping and hunting down the best deals you can't help but just people watch. With all the different nationalities and languages being spoken it is hard to not whip your head back and forth in awe. I am 100 percent guilty of staring at people at el Rastro, I won't deny it. It's too fun not to do.
The best thing about open air flea markets is that you can take your time moseying through the aisles and no one will care because they are doing the same thing. The same is true at el Rastro though I do believe that this market has something over others I have been to and I wasn't sure if my observation was correct until I did some more research. Here, the aisles are broken up into categories and each street has something different to offer but the one common thread between all the streets is the fact that local antique shops open their doors for the Sunday cliental to stop in and peruse if the stalls prove to be overwhelming. Now, the antique stores weren't the observation I was talking about it is the following streets that seem to have something special to offer.
- Calle Rodas: Where lots of people, mostly young, swap trading cards. The street is known for buying and selling magazines, stamps, and trading cards. Get your Yu-Gi-Oh! on here.
- Plaza de Cascorro: Get your fashionista on here. This is known for it's fun and unique clothing and accessories.
- Calle San Cayetano: has permanent stalls that sell hand crafted paintings, drawings and of course art supplies. Also known as "street of the painters" or "Calle de los Pintores." This is a LeRoy Anderson, Jr. type of aisle.
- Collectable and rare books, magazines and other reading material can be found at vendors around calle Rodas, calle Carnero, Plaza de General Vara del Rey, and calle Carlos Arniches. If you want to brush up on your old Castilian, be my guest.
Having no rhyme or reason is difficult when you're shopping, but knowing these streets consistently offer the same items week after week is comforting.
After spending time at el Rastro it is customary to go have a beer or sangria and enjoy tapas. There are multiple places that you can go, relax and talk about all your great deals. So, by the time five o'clock comes around on a Sunday after the market you should have no reason to not be all smiles. After all, you at least got to hear lively Spanish music and look at beautiful artwork for free.