Say what you want about the tenants of the Dutch, at least it’s an ethos. That is more than can be said for Belgium which only can be called a nation in the most technical of senses. It’s got borders and (sort of) a government, but generally, like lots of Africa, it was created by taking groups of people who don’t belong together and forcing them into a tight space. As far as I can tell, it means nothing to be Belgian. These people can’t even agree upon a language – French is spoken in the south (Wallonia) and Dutch in the north (Flanders).
So when Americans think of Belgium, what crosses our minds? Waffles, obviously. Beer, for sure. Maybe chocolate? MAYBE French fries (The Dutch and Belgians have a longstanding rivalry over who first invented the concept of dunking sliced potatoes in boiling oil. I argue that just PERHAPS it’s not so innovative a concept that possibly they both come up with the idea concurrently.)
In yet another attempt to escape the infuriating blandness of the Netherlands, Kat and I boarded several trains on our way to Antwerp, a city in the Dutch speaking part of the “country.” Antwerp is a visually interesting city. First off, the train station is unbelievably gorgeous. A modern edifice built entirely around the grand old 19th century station. Truly one of the most stunning train stations in all of Europe. The city’s architecture is also somewhat interesting – basically imagine French shopfronts shaped in the tall, narrow Amsterdam style, clearly demonstrating Belgium’s Dutch-French schizophrenia.
I had been to Antwerp a few years before and I remembered enjoying my time there. It’s the easiest Belgian city to get to from Nijmegen, so that is why we chose it. I’d have loved to visit Medieval Brugges, but it would have taken, like, 5 hours to get there – too far for a day trip.
So what does one DO in Antwerp? There’s some museums, I guess? We’re not huge museum fans generally, so we just walked around all day. Antwerp is a major center for Europe’s diamond trade, and where there are diamonds you’ll find Hasidic Jews. So every so often we’d see a Hasid and Kat would poke me and whisper through clenched teeth “Look! There’s one!” There’s a river in the city and you can walk in a pedestrian-only tunnel underneath it. Now, there’s nothing of note on the other side. It’s just….a thing to do. The tunnel is quite old – the escalators were made of wood! The tunnel is actually sort of neat. Imagine a hallway that is completely and totally straight that goes on for about a kilometer. Kat and I took turns closing our eyes and trying to walk in perfectly straight lines. We didn’t make it far before getting off course and slamming our faces into the walls. So we walked down this tunnel, poked our heads at the other side (there’s a tiny park and a traffic circle) and then walked back.
Of course, we did eat waffles as well. The place we went to is, allegedly, quite famous. Their gimmick is that they’ve been using the same waffle irons for, like, a century or something. The irons DID look old. The waffles were, to be fair, really tasty. Light, crunchy, fluffy. But, you know, it’s a waffle. Hard to lose your mind over.
We had lunch at a sandwich shop cafeteria sort of deal. It was cheap (relatively) and the food was decidedly mediocre. What made it noteworthy was the fact that even though we were paying customers, we STILL had to pay 50 eurocents to use the bathroom. Even the cheap, cheap Dutch aren’t THAT cheap. For this, Belgium, you can suck it.
I know I’ve been pretty harsh on Belgium so far, but it is impossible to deny that the country (specifically the Trappist Monks) make some of the best beers in the world. If you like beer, even a little bit, and you come to Antwerp, you MUST go to De Kulminator. This is, without exaggeration, one of the best beer bars in the entire world. This is not just my opinion. Go ahead and Google it and see what beer nerds the world over have to say about it. For me, De Kulminator is THE reason to visit Antwerp. The entire bar can seat maybe 15 people total. It looks like you’ve walked into your grandfather’s living room. There’s a table that takes up most of the room piled high with junk. The whole damn room is cluttered with junk, in fact. Old magazines, bills, papers, some books. The old man that owns the bar is typically there — he always wears a cardigan and has long scraggly white hair and a permanent scowl on his face. You really feel as if you HAVE stumbled accidently into his parlor and he’s tolerating your presence, but barely. Both times I have been there he’s been doing a crossword puzzle. His wife, meanwhile, scurries around taking orders and delivering drinks.
Now – why is this place so special? De Kulminator specializes in aged beers. Now, I won’t bore you with beer science stuff, but let’s just say that an aged bottle of Chimay will, like wine, take on different characteristics as it ages (whereas a can of Miller Lite will not). I ordered a Wesvleteren 12, a difficult enough beer to find as it is (they don’t distribute it – you literally have to GO to the monastery to get it) – except that this bottle was bottled in 1979. This beer was bottled when Jimmy Carter was President, Iran still had a Shah, and a full THREE YEARS before I was born. It came covered in cobwebs and dust, the bottlecap oxidized. I have no words for the velvety complexity of this beer. I dream about it to this day. Truly, without a doubt, the most amazing beer I have ever had. And, somehow, it only cost 9 euro (about $13). It would have been a bargain at twice the price and I even felt a bit guilty as if they didn’t know they should be charging much, much more.
We sat in the warm, cluttered but comfortable confines of De Kulminator, had a couple of other beers (A 15 year old Chimay Blue for Kat, a 10 year old Rochefort for me), killing time with idle chatter until it was time to catch our train back to Nijmegen. Maybe Belgium isn’t so bad after all.