Loving Cocoa the Belgian Way
The main highlight of Brussels is undoubtedly its Grand Place, surrounded by its exquisite Gothic and Baroque town hall and guild halls. So while you work up an appetite swooning over the ornamentation and elegance of this space, it’s only fitting that the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate is just steps away beside the Hotel de Ville. Sure, Belgium may be the capital of Europe, waffles, and sprouts? But lucky for us, it’s also the capital of chocolate. Who knew. To find out, we step inside what is considered to be the best chocolate museum in the world to find out. Belgians consume chocolate like it’s the last truffle on Earth. And why wouldn’t you when the quality and tradition is so fabulous. The Chocolate Museum brings this to life, both in your hands and on your tongue. You learn how to make chocolate and taste the very freshest of this delicacy. It truly is a passion. In fact, the praline was introduced in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert only a few blocks away in 1912. So when you are in the Grand Place, savor the wafting scent of melting cocoa, sample the indefinite varieties, and learn the cultural significance of chocolate to this city, country, and its people.
Gare de Liège-Guillemins
Düsseldorf and Liège. These two under-rated cities bookended the 2017 Tour de France Stage 2 from Germany to Belgium and have embraced their unique heritage while charging into the future. Each with its characteristic old center, just as important, both cities are known for their wonderfully creative and iconic modern architecture that embraces the local history and interprets it in a new and soaring light. Frank Gehry’s Neuer Zollhoff in Düsseldorf symbolically morphs the adjacent Rhine’s flow into physical form and interprets the diversity that comes with trade in an assortment of colors and materials throughout the three-building complex. Meanwhile in Liège, Santiago Calatrava’s Gare de Liège-Guillemins celebrates the importance of the historic station and its role in international rail trade and travel. Believe it or not, Liège was a hub on the international scene in the mid-1800s. In 1843, the Gare Liège-Guillemins connected with nearby Aachen, Germany thereby becoming the first international railway station. Over the next 150 plus years, the station underwent new iterations with period Beaux-Arts and International Style architecture. The latest expression of the city’s progression came when renowned (not to mention controversial) Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was commissioned to design the new station. When it opened in 2009, the glistening white, largely open air arced and Calatrava’s characteristic steel, glass, and white concrete structure was a statement to Liège’s position as a global city connecting ideas and people.
The Ronquières Incline Plane
While France is famous for its spider web of interwoven canals, this network often extends into adjacent Belgium. There, the beauty and innovation of these linear features continues. If canals and engineering feats are your thing, Ronquières is a site that must be on your itinerary. Don’t believe me? Just imagine a moving tank of water holding one million gallons of water moving one or many boats one mile up 222 feet. This marvel is a relatively modern creation however – one that was completed in 1968 to replace fourteen locks over the same distance. Instead, two caissons transport boats along the canal on rails using cables and counterweights. The Ronquières Incline Plane a small but essential link along the Brussels-Charleroi Canal. This thirty-mile canal had its origins in the mid-1500s but expanded significantly to fuel the Wallonian Industrial Revolution transporting coal in the early 1800s. Of course, this canal connects with other canals, making the destinations almost limitless. About halfway between Brussels and Charleroi, the Ronquières Incline Plane sits alongside route N534 and makes for a surreal visual with its upslope concrete spire often the only marking of the incline until it finally appears above grade for the final hundred feet. The movement of shipping along the incline is an amazing process to witness, so be sure to visit the incline for an interactive tour and panoramic overlook. For an all-around experience, get tickets to the incredibly popular Ronquières Music Festival, which takes place every August under the shadow of the incline and its southern tower. With 40,000 attendees and the movement of the caisson set to the best music that Belgium has to offer, it’s a two-for-one that’s hard to beat.
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
I’ve never really been a car racing fan. Of course I’d much rather watch bike racing, but the Formula One Grand Prix circuit has always held a certain fascination for me and Spa-Francorchamps, along the 2017 Tour de France Stage 3 route is a legend and somewhere that I’ve added to my bucket list. The original track was designed in 1920 utilizing public roads. Its first race came in 1922 and the Grand Prix arriving in 1925. The course itself has evolved over time from its original 14 km. length to its current 7 km. Still, it’s the longest circuit on the F1 tour and perhaps one of its most dangerous. To date, the course overall has witnessed 52 fatal accidents, the latest occurring in 2013. Aside from the Grand Prix races, Spa-Francorchamps became famous for its unique event, the 24 Hours of Francorchamps (now Spa 24 Hours). This race among more common vehicles in the marketplace started as an elite endurance race. The 2016 champions drove a BMW M6 GT3 driven by three individuals more than 3,700 kilometers, that’s a consistent average of almost 155 km/hour. The 2017 race will be held one day after the peloton passes the circuit. What a sight to behold if the riders of the 2017 Tour de France detoured to take in one lap of this famed and iconic sporting stage. A museum dedicated to the history of Spa-Francorchamps is now housed in the nearby Abbaye de Stevelot. The 18th century sprawling complex now features three museums and is a unique environment in which to see historic photos and vehicles up close and personal.
Verviers is a textile town. Similar to America’s famed Lowell, the city takes pride in this heritage and has built on the foundation of this industry, water. Situated on the Vesdre River, Verviers claims to be Wallonia’s “Capital of Water.” Two hundred years ago it was ground zero for Belgium’s Industrial Revolution. The textile industry started here as early as the 15th century but it wasn’t until English entrepreneur William Cockerill came here in 1799 that the town really flourished. Initially depending on the river for power, the town was known to have several mills that produced good quality wool. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the industry began to fade. This past, however, can still be seen in the prominent 18th century industrial complexes that dot the city. A museum and tourist center dedicated to wool and fashion now sits in an original wool factory and the prominent Hotel Verviers occupies a stylishly renovated factory that happens to now be adjacent to a modern Outlet Mall. Perhaps things don’t change that much after all.
Just two hundred years ago, the small town of Waterloo, Belgium became instantly famous as Napoleon’s final defeat at the hands of England’s Duke of Wellington. It was a circus of sorts, the final act of one of Europe’s and the world’s notorious yet influential leaders. On a field several kilometers south of the town of Waterloo on the road to Charleroi, a European collation defeated Napoleon Bonaparte once and for all on June 18, 1815. Of course, Napoleon was one of the greatest political and military minds to ever live, literally rising through the ranks from Lieutenant to Emperor. During his ten-year reign, France’s boundary expanded to include most of Europe. Following the fall of Paris, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba, where he retained the title of “Emperor.” Yet only domination could satisfy Napoleon’s appetite for power and he made a triumphant and dramatic return to France in March 1815. It was at Waterloo where the armies of Europe addressed Napoleon. The battlefield is one of the most famous in European history and while the visual center of the landscaped exhibits is the Lion’s Mound, the more authentic focal points lie in the extant buildings and fields where some 200,000 troops clashed for the future of Europe. The 141-foot hill, while constructed in 1825 to commemorate where the Prince of Orange was wounded, it does off an excellent panoramic view of the battlefield and the surrounding areas. To the north and south, see if you can pinpoint the headquarters of Wellington and Napoleon, respectively. Other nineteenth century farm buildings remain as well. This is one of those places that you have heard about in history books and lore, but it’s also alive for you experience firsthand.