It only takes me fifteen minutes to get to the beginning of the Christmas markets from my house sit apartment. The streets are dark, rainy, and silent. After seeing so much nothing, I start to wonder if I took a wrong turn somewhere. But as I turn a corner, I’m hit in the face with Christmas Everything! Place Sainte-Catherine is lined with wooden huts selling all kinds of trinkets, Belgian foods, mulled wine, and of course, beer. Even though it hasn’t snowed yet, the faux Christmas trees and vendor stalls are coated in a nice layer of fake snow. Christmas songs blast on the loudspeakers, groups of people huddle together with cups of steaming wine, and kids ride on a strange steampunk carousel. It is amazing.
A delicious cup of vin chaud is the first thing I try in the Christmas Market. The cups are reusable and everyone is encouraged to carry their cup with them, refilling it at the different stalls as they walk. Twinkling Christmas decorations overhead guide my way as I wander the crowded streets. The Christmas trail leads all around the downtown area of Brussels.
I pass a walk-up frites counter and have to double back. It smells so good! I’m sternly warned that they are Belgian frites, not French fries. I approach the counter and order my frites in broken French, and the guy asks me in perfect English which sauce I want. Panic! I didn’t realize I would have the monstrous responsibility of selecting a sauce for my precious frites. There are so many sauces to pick from! And some of them are so bizarrely named I have no idea what they might taste like. I know the idea is that you try frites with all the sauces over time and then eventually pick your favorite, but the pressure is building so I just say “no sauce”. What? Why? I love ketchup! Why didn’t I even get ketchup? The guy taking my order looks at me like I’ve made a major blunder and hands me a cone of plain frites. Luckily, its hard to mess up a perfect Belgian frite. Next time, I’ll do better.
A Christmas Light Show
I walk with my salty hot fries into the Grand Place and spin in a circle a few times trying to take in the massive gold-gilded buildings around me. Long ago, Brussels was a thriving market town and this Grand Place was the center of it all. Many of the streets in Brussels are still named for the markets that once existed on them. The Grand Place and much of Brussels was destroyed in 1695 by the French, and the impressive buildings were rebuilt shortly after. The dates of completion mark the top of each building. In the center of Grand Place, there is a Christmas tree and tons of tourists with selfie sticks taking pictures. I must resist the selfie urge. Instead, I take a picture of my frites.
The crowd thickens and the lights go out. Sia’s Christmas album starts blaring over the loudspeakers. The Christmas light show began and the beautiful buildings were bathed in red, blue, green, and purple light. I thought I had stumbled upon something glorious and rare. Later, I learned that this light show happens every hour during the week and every half hour on weekends.
I leave the packed Grand Place and pass a delicious smelling waffle cart. It would be wrong to pass up a Belgian waffle. I order one with Nutella and they are all out, so once again I get plain. In this case, plain is the right decision – this waffle is delicious. It isn’t just a waffle, it has little chewy sugar crystals baked into it, almost as if the syrup is on the inside. While the “tourists” load up their waffles with ice cream, chocolate, fruit, and even my sacred Nutella, true Belgians eat their waffles plain. Now I understand why.
It is getting cold and I made the mistake of wearing Toms which are now soaked through. Rookie mistake. Must find warmth. I turn down a bright side street with a few cute cafes and dip into one. I don’t even have to look at the menu because I know what my next Belgian indulgence will be. Hot chocolate. And not just any old hot chocolate made with powder and hot water. This is the real deal hot chocolate. The barista takes two thick slabs of dark chocolate and puts them in the bottom of my clear mug. She pours piping hot over milk over top and I watch as the chocolate melts along the inside of the glass. She hands me the glass with a little dish and a chocolate praline. Chocolate is served with a side of chocolate in Belgium.
If I had to live off of Christmas market food, I certainly wouldn’t complain! Is there really more to life than good chocolate, frites, and waffles?
Belgium, especially at Christmas time, is well worth a visit! Just think of all the Christmas market food you could be enjoying! If you only have a day or two to devote to this awesome country, don’t worry. Make sure to check out “How to Spend Two Days in Belgium” by Claire of Claire’s Itchy Feet to make the most of your trip!