memory lane tour: belgium

There was a time about a week before Christmas when our household was in complete disrepair.

It was in that moment—when the cookies weren’t baked, the to-do list was ever-growing, the cards weren’t in the mail, and the presents under the tree were nonexistent—that I was so thankful for our memory lane tour through Belgium, for it allowed us to kick off our holiday season with the most acute jolt of cheer imaginable.

From the warm greeting of old host families to the fairytale charms of medieval city centers lined in sparking lights and wooden stalls serving copious amount of glühwein, it’s an experience we would gladly recreate again and again. Sure, we may have avoided some essential advent and familial obligations of the season, but the memories we brought back with us exceeded any guilt that may have arisen otherwise.

Spanning France, Belgium, and Germany, our route was a bit unconventional. We didn’t visit any of the large metropolitan centers, opting instead for the quainter towns where Jason held his favorite memories and whose festivities felt much more authentic. The itinerary went something like this:

Lille, France

Our original plan involved traveling to Brussels for a few days of brewery and Christmas market diversions. But given that the city was still technically on lockdown immediately before our departure, we opted to play it safe and divert to Lille in northeastern France instead.

Lille is one of those unassuming yet impressive cities—bigger than you might imagine, but still retaining much of its foundational charm. Our accommodations at L’Hermitage Gantois were certainly some of the finest in the city. The cloister atmosphere was alive and well, enhanced by ancient tapestries, wood beam ceilings, and an attached chapel. We weren’t able to take advantage of the complimentary Hammam and swimming pool, but we were able to feel a bit of indulgence during our quick overnight stay. It also placed us within a quick seven-minute walk to the city center, the ominous “Sword in the Stone” cathedral, and the  Marché de Noël .

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Lille’s Marché de Noël is the definition of a Christmas dreamscape. It may have been dark and dreary when we arrived, but the merriment was undeniable: wooden chalets circumvented a massive Ferris Wheel and 18-meter high conical Christmas tree in the main square, while window displays of animatronic scenes of polar bears and penguins danced outside the Opera House. The Gallic flavor was in full force here, with mulled wine complementing stalls of nosh and nostalgia. Our favorite of them all had to be the sausage stall, where we tried every variation of cured deliciousness, from mushroom to Roquefort, from the gracious (and infinitely patient) Giupetto-like sausage monger.

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The highlight of our time in Lille was most certainly my dinner: a Belgian waffle smothered in Speculoos. This was my first true Belgian waffle experience, and I kid you not—I had to actually sit down after taking my first bite. It was that momentous. There aren’t adequate words to describe how perfectly sweet and satisfying this waffle was. All I can say in full honesty is that at that moment, my entire waffle worldview underwent a seismic shift. I am truly forever changed and now completely understand Jason’s ravings.

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Immediately before the seismic shift

Montzen, Belgium

The next morning, we woke up as bright and early as humanly possible and ran to the Furet du Nord bookstore for a requested souvenir and stopped at no less than two patisseries for a sampling of Lille’s Ristretto and pan du chocolat and croissant offerings. [Note: Jason will never turn down pastries.]

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We then booked it back to the train station to pick up our rental car, our chariot during our time in Belgium. [Among all of Jason’s talents, navigating through foreign countries via rental car is one of his most impressive.]

It was quite the gray, rainy day, but two and a half hours later, we had safely arrived on the other side of Belgium in Montzen. [Yes, Belgium is that small.] There was a time during his stay in Belgium when Jason would spend almost every weekend in Montzen with his friend Simon [ “Sim”] and his family, drinking in their garage and eating all of their cold, leftover pasta. Sim has since relocated to Australia, but his mom, Josiane, was anxiously looking forward to seeing Jason again and reminiscing about his time there.

Josiane is one of those cool-to-the-bone moms who keeps her hair short with red streaks, draws comic illustrations, and speaks spitfire French. I understood very little of what she said, but I knew immediately that she was a kindred spirit in her creativity and congeniality.

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We arrived at her modern efficient home, which she had decked out in funky Santa Claus décor, and were immediately greeted with champagne, foie gras, and roasted chestnuts [note: home-roasted chestnuts are the way to go]. She also cooked up some of her famous pasta just for old time’s sake. We toured the entire house, laughing about old riotous stories, tasting everything she put in front of us, and smiling just because we were there. It had been 11 years since his last visit, but it was as if Jason had never left.

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Aachen, Germany

Next, it was off to the bus station for our quick, 15-minute bus ride across the Belgium-Germany border to Aachen [or Aix la Chapelle for French speakers]. This is the home of Josiane’s go-to Christmas market and her excitement surrounding the venture was beyond infectious.

As we disembarked, I don’t think she could have been more pleased by my reaction of unadulterated joy at the sight of Aachen’s Weihnachts Markt. See joy-face below:

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This is the stuff of fairytales, folks. It was perhaps the most idyllic and charming Christmas market in existence, so much so that we felt compelled to purchase almost everything in sight simply to remember it by. Fortunately, Josiane was of a similar mindset and bought everything that warranted bringing home, from nougat that comes in wheels as big as Parmesan cheese and glühwein most perfectly spiced, to candied peanuts, gummy candies, and most importantly, Printen, Aachen’s most famous holiday biscuit.

 

Printen serves as the symbol of the Aachen’s Weihnachts Markt and is akin to gingerbread in both its texture and adorable window display. Served either hard or soft, this delicate, anise-infused specialty a “must try” souvenir and a little taste of Christmas in bite-size form.

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Liège, Belgium

Following a fun-filled afternoon in Aachen, an unexpected trudging through the pouring rain, and a cozy sipping of Brice blond ale from the local Grain d’orge Brasserie, it was time to bid farewell to Josiane and depart for Liège for a late night dinner with Gaëtan, Jason’s family’s former exchange student. Gaëtan is one of those warm, genuine people who doesn’t mind making the 40-minute drive for a late dinner with someone he hasn’t seen in close to a decade, even if it’s on the last day of his vacation and it means having to leave his pregnant wife and two little ones at home to do so. Needless to say, our salads and conversation were a true treat—so much so that we completely forgot to take a picture together!

The remainder of our time in Liège was dedicated to seeing Jason’s side of it. Liège was once Jason’s party town and retains for him memories of visiting a local bar in the center of town and stumbling next door to the fry shop with its 20+ sauce offerings. None of his old haunts were open, but that didn’t stop us from peeking inside and rectifying the situation with plenteous Liège waffle side-by-side tastings and a lovely lunch featuring our first legitimate moules frites and vol au vent alongside the local Jupiler and Leffe beer offerings.

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Afterward, it was time to take to Liège’s Christmas market. Given that Liège is Belgium’s eclectic college town, it is no surprise that its annual Village de Noël Christmas Market is a perfect representation of the city’s inherently indulgent culture. The largest and oldest Christmas Market in the country, this multi-square concentration of enchantment attracts more than two million visitors per year… and for good reason. Surrounding the central ice rink full of uniformed school children on their post-school day outings are approximately 200 wooden chalets offering everything from culinary specialties to kitschy souvenirs. Mounds of candy? Check. Waffles galore? Double check. Row upon row of festive bars? Triple check.

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This is one city always ready for a feast, and its amaretto-spiked mulled wine and signature shots of Peket ensured that the Christmas spirit was full of just that: spirits.

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Tellin, Belgium

The pinnacle of our time in Belgium was without a doubt Tellin, a small farm town where Jason spent the majority of his time during his year on exchange. I was nervous about meeting his old host family, acting as if I was about to meet some of his long lost relatives. I had no idea what to expect, but as we pulled up to their giant typically Belgian greystone house occupying the corner spot of a long row of adjoining homes, I was transported to another time.

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We knocked nervously on the door and were greeted with the a warmth reserved for family and a slew of yet more unintelligible [on my part] French. Fortunately, Jean and his wife Anne are both teachers and showed me infinite patience as I attempted to navigate my way through their conversations and my attempts at piecing together full sentences.

Thank goodness too, because given the 11 year gap between their last communication, Jason, Jean, and Anne had plenty to catch up on. Our entire two-day stay was a blur of delicious home-cooked meals and long involved conversations discussing everything from the ridiculousness of SAE measurements to the perfection of Trappiste beer, or as Jean preferred to call it: “the Rolls Royce of Beer” and “the pee of little baby Jesus.”

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Over the course of our time with them, it became increasingly apparently that our new life goal was to be just like them. They live on a small homestead with rabbits and chickens and enough rainwater and solar panels to be 80% self-sustained. Anne might be retired and Jean might still be working full time, but that doesn’t stop them from volunteering to teach French to the displaced refugees. Plus, they are just a hoot to be around.

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When we weren’t practicing our French with them and their children—who drove in one evening for a reunion dinner—we were exploring the vicinity. We stopped by Jason’s old school, walked into his church [he thinks], wandered the grounds of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy, home of the legendary Rochefort Trappist beers, hiked through the hills of Les Ardennes, purchased all of the souvenir chocolate our trunk could hold, and lunched at Snack Le Rodem, Jason’s favorite restaurant in Rochefort.

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The owners Meryem and Atilla were stunned to see Jason and gladly treated him to his former go-to Durum wrap and fries. It was yet another testament to the way that despite time and distance, some of the most surprising and generous reunions are sometimes just around the corner.

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Brugge, Belgium

It was almost impossible to tear ourselves away from the people and pleasures of Tellin, but December 3rd had arrived and it was time to celebrate Jason’s birthday up north in Brugge, the final destination on our itinerary. And upon reflection, there is no doubt that we saved the most enchanting destination for last.

Medieval Brugge is a unique, ancient Flemish city with adoringly preserved architecture and lovely cobblestone streets where the only traffic comes in the form of feet and bicycles. As soon as we arrived, we fell in love.

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From our hotel adjacent to the Jan van Eyck statue, we we discovered that one could spend days simply meandering the streets,  and popping into the vast array of artisanal chocolate shops, fascinating museums, and lace storefronts. Which is exactly what we did, much to Jason’s delight.

The Christmas Market, too, was one of the most impressive of our tour. It is certainly one of the most renowned in the country and featured stalls on both the main Market Square and Simon Stevinplein nearby. Ice rinks lined in white light trees and cozy carriages pulled by strong timber horses only added to the picturesque atmosphere known for its excellent moules frites menus, upstairs tearooms, and did we mention chocolate?

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Indeed, the amount of moules frite, waffles, mulled wine, chocolate, and beer we consumed in Brugge was perhaps a bit excessive, but when it’s your birthday in Belgium, you go big or you go home.

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In our case, we went big and then went home, because before we knew it, it was time to start making our way slowly back to London and, eventually, the U.S.

It’s been a whole month since our adventures in Belgium, but it’s a trip that we have no doubt will feel like yesterday for the rest of our lives. There’s something at once fulfilling and festive about allowing people to dictate your course—to follow the lead of the locals, humble yourself to their traditions and cuisine, and maybe, if you’re lucky, stumble upon a few Christmas markets while you are at it.

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