Your Vacation in Lights: Belgium's beer, chocolates and historical sites enliven Oakton couple's vacation

In addition to visiting farmhouse breweries, Teri and Justin Housenger toured monasteries such as Westvleteren, above, where Trappists combine their religious and beermaking traditions.
In addition to visiting farmhouse breweries, Teri and Justin Housenger toured monasteries such as Westvleteren, above, where Trappists combine their religious and beermaking traditions. (Sandro Fraello)
Sunday, January 31, 2010

Teri Housenger of Oakton is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. You won't win a million dollars if your story is featured; in fact, you won't win anything but the thanks and admiration of your fellow readers. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: After nine days in Ireland, my husband, Justin, and I went to Belgium for 11 days, staying with Belgian friends at their home in Casteau.

WHEN: July 9-20, 2009

WHY: In the 1990s, I lived in Belgium for three years during my father's military tour with NATO. I wanted to go back with my husband to visit old friends and tour the breweries that I'm now old enough to enjoy.

PLANNING: We left much of our itinerary up to our Belgian hosts. However, my self-proclaimed beer aficionado/history-buff husband spent a lot of time researching the locations and operating hours of many farmhouse breweries and historical sites.

SPEAKING THE LANGUAGES: Belgium has three official languages: Flemish, which is spoken in the north (Flanders); French, in the south (Wallonia); and German, used by about 5 percent of the population.

TRAPPIST BREWERIES: We visited three of the world's seven Trappist breweries: Chimay, Orval and the epic Westvleteren. The monasteries are nestled in charmingly bucolic settings but in different corners of the country. We appreciated the willingness of our Belgian friends to drive us to all of them.

RELIGION AND BEER: Maredsous, an abbey, is steeped in religious and brewing traditions. After sampling the Maredsous 6 during lunch, we went to the gift shop to purchase beautiful ceramic crosses made by the monks. We also experienced both spirit and palate at Orval. After attending Vespers, beautifully chanted by the 15 resident monks, we sought enlightenment in a bottle of Orval at the Auberge de l'Ange-Gardien.

WITCHES' BREW: We rounded out our tasting experience at La Brasserie Ellezelloise, a delightful farmhouse brewery in Hill Country. The town of Ellezelles is known not only for its superior beer but also for its supernatural folklore. The brewery named its flagship blond ale Quintine after the town's famous witch. We learned about her at the folklore museum, then enjoyed tasting her beer at the brewery.

SOBERING UP: We had solemn experiences at the Bastogne Historical Center and the Tyne-Cot Cemetery near Passchendaele and Ypres. Nearly 12,000 graves dot the memorial and resting place for fallen World War I soldiers, most of them unnamed.

FOOD FANCY: To even out the beer tasting, we ate our way through Belgium, sampling divine chocolates such as Neuhaus and Leonidas and ordering frites with mayonnaise at every opportunity. For the first time, we tried a mitraillette, a sandwich featuring a baguette and a Belgian-style hamburger, topped with fries and a sauce of your choice.

BRUSSELS BOUND: A trip to Belgium wouldn't be complete without a visit to the capital, which doubles as the capital of the European Union. We went to Brussels twice to see such popular attractions as the ornate Grand Place and the famous Manneken Pis statue. We also stopped in at the Delirium Cafe, which offers the largest selection of beers in the world (more than 2,000). We also purchased many souvenirs here, including lace, tapestries, chocolates and Tintin books.

NEXT STOP, BRUGES: We had great weather for our day trip to Bruges, whose historical city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We enjoyed a sunny boat ride on the canals and toured De Halve Maan, the only active family brewery in the city center. After tasting the brewery's two offerings, Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik, we went to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Consisting of an austere lower chapel and a more elaborate upper chapel, the basilica is known for the venerated relic it is said to house: the blood of Christ.

LAST CALL: Often overlooked as a European vacation destination, Belgium is a treasure trove of world-renowned beer, delectable chocolates and fries, and it bristles with historical sites. To top it all off, the Belgians are the friendliest, most hospitable hosts. We raise a glass to Belgium.

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