Beer and Chocolate: A Great First Day in Belgium

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Crossroads' associate editor Judy Koutsky departed for a press tour of Belgium on June 4. Armed with a laptop and digital camera, she is chronicling her experiences for close-to-real-time publication on the Web site. Following is her first installment:

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- If nothing else, visitors to Belgium soon will realize that Belgians do not take their consumption lightly. It's only the end of our first day here, and I already feel the need to steer clear of the bathroom scale.

We started the day walking around the Grand-Place, which is the town center. Here, the enormous, gothic Hotel de Ville (town hall) looms over the gilded facades of the adjacent buildings, which are decorated in an ornate, baroque fashion. Posh shops and outdoor cafes complete the picture and draw both tourists and Belgians to its core. This is where we stopped for lunch to take in the architecture and plan our afternoon. (These cafes are also great for a coffee or beer break any time of day.)

The first stop after lunch was the Musee d'Art Ancien (Museum of Ancient Art), where an impressive collection of Bruegels and Rubens reside. Just down the street sits the Musee d'Art Moderne, which has eight subterranean levels; clients should not expect to get through them in a day. Both of these museums are worth a visit.

the bartenderAfter the museum, we walked along the quaint cobblestone streets past charming storefronts back to the Grand-Place, where we visited the Brewery Museum. Belgium does not have a climate conducive to winemaking, but the country makes up for it with its beers. With over 350 to chose from, it's impossible not to find one that's appealing to even the most finicky palate.

Walking into the cellar, we were transformed to a 18th century pub complete with dark wooden booths and a friendly, talkative bartender. After touring the museum, which contained interactive computers that explained the beer-making process from antiquity to present, the bartender gives visitors complimentary tastes of that day's brew. The Brewery Museum changes the type of beer it serves every three days so different brews get exposure. Not a bad reason to keep coming back here.

Planete ChocolatFrom there, we headed to the chocolate shops. Belgium, home of Godiva, is world renowned for it's chocolate, and it's not hard to taste why. We went into several shops sampling different qualities and flavors before heading to Planete Chocolat. This storefront shop, which has been around for only two years, hand-designs each of its chocolate, creating what it calls "pieces of art." The owner gave us a demonstration of the intricate process and tried to explain how deep-seeded chocolate is in Belgian society. We watched, listened, sipped our hot chocolate and ate our miniature masterpieces, understanding his point.

kids by the fountainA little more walking offered a chance to burn off some of those delicious calories and to take in more of the cities' many sites, including the famous Manneken-Pis Fountain.

Brussels is often the first stop in Belgium for tourists, and it's not a bad idea to take it easy the first day. Visiting a few museums, walking around the Grand-Place, sampling cheese, chocolates and beer was the perfect way to acclimate ourselves to this sometimes overlooked European capital city.

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