Europe, Features

Belgium – Home of Chocolate, Waffles… And Beer

Leffe Beer,

When we decided to go to Belgium and Germany this year – first and foremost on our to-do list was to sample real authentic Belgian Chocolate – not the store-bought stuff, it HAD to be from a chocolatier. Second on the list was to try the beer and hopefully get a tour as well. Hoegaarden is one of the best beers you can buy, so drinking that while in Belgium would be a slam-dunk – right? Wrong, more on that later.

Google is a wonderful thing because Belgian Tourism (country, town or region) has a long way to go when it comes to marketing to tourists – they don’t even have a Twitter account!! Every time we found something interesting and thought about finding more information, it was a dead-end as far as any tourism office website was involved. Thankfully Google and TripAdvisor filled in the requisite information satisfactorily and made it a wonderful trip.

Let’s start off with a confession… we didn’t try the Belgian Waffles. We know, we know… that’s just not right! But in our defence we didn’t find any place readily selling them. We looked long and hard but never found any. The closest we got was a vendor in the Spa racetrack, but they looked just like the ones we make at home, so why bother? We’re told we seriously missed out, but Gail can’t eat them anyway, so we’ll pretend that they wouldn’t have been worth it.

There are apparently more than 2,000 Belgian chocolatiers, so finding a chocolatier should be easy… yes if you’re in a major city (Anderlecht, Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp or Liege) it’s very easy, but we never do easy. No, we had no intention of visiting a large city to get our “fix” so that should make things interesting and problematic…especially with the lack of help from the tourism sites.

We started our Belgian visit at the Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps (some say the most beautiful track in the world), and other than 4 days at the track, we only had 2 ½ days to visit as much as possible. We were pretty much limited to the Ardennes region – located on the far east of the country, close to the German border.

How many chocolatiers are in that little pocket of Belgium? I found four, but only three were within a reasonable distance between Spa and our eventual destination, Dinant.

One eliminated himself immediately because the only information – on a tourism website – was a phone number. Really? It’s 2016, can you not put a little effort into it… maybe – Facebook? The remaining two were right on our planned route to Dinant so that was perfect. The reviews left on TripAdvisor were a major selling feature for us and based only on our time limitation we singled out one chocolatier. We chose (drum roll) Chocolatier Defroidmont and were not disappointed, plus we didn’t have to leave the main road except to drive up a little country lane.
*NOTE: All of the Chocolatiers that we found were closed on Mondays and some were closed on Tuesday as well. Also many of the other attractions in Belgium are also closed on Monday – so plan accordingly.

Chocolatier Defroidmont is time well spent learning about the origins of chocolate and the world of truffles, pralines, chocolate bars as well as the use of various spices that make each chocolatier unique. The museum tour was worth it and was far more interesting than we initially thought it would be. Living in Ontario wine country, we’re used to the skimpy “samples” or “tastings” that wineries offer people, thankfully the rest of the world is a lot more generous, but we were quite surprised to find a Belgian chocolatier being so frugal with samplings of their product. Tastings only happened after parting with €4 each for a ‘tour’ of the museum. We got to choose one chocolate before entering and one chocolate upon leaving – that’s it (though since there were so few people in the store we got a little special treatment and also got a very very fresh truffle as well).

The 40-minute tour itself was quite clever and nicely set up using a pre-recorded presentation using pictures, props, lighting and videos to give you a comprehensive background on the family business dating back to pre-WWII, right up to present day – it’s definitely worth taking the time to learn about the intricacies of chocolate harvesting, manufacturing and packaging.

The hand-made chocolate comes in two varieties: Pralines and Truffles. Pralines are made with a chocolate shell and a wide range of creamy fillings, while Truffles have soft crumbly chocolate shells filled with buttercream.

After the tour the toughest decision was how much chocolate we weren’t going to buy!! The praline-filled chocolate is to-die-for and the Truffles are by far the best we’ve ever tasted. Naturally, we had to buy some to take home with us, but we had the weight and warm weather to consider. In the end, we got about a kilo of incredibly tasty chocolate to share with our friends and family… oh and some for us too. As we were paying we got the opportunity to meet the owner and chocolatier Philippe Defroidmont – he suggested we take “The Bees Journey” tour before we left. Off we went eager to find something interesting because it was obviously quite new. In reality, it’s only about 5% done. In the future – 2 or 3 years from now it might be something to see, but right now it’s nothing more than a rocky path around a couple of fields… and two lonely bee houses. We actually took a picture of a bee house/hotel and didn’t realize what it was.. [picture] We probably spent 90 minutes or so in total at the Chocolatier Defroidmont and highly recommend a visit – even if it’s a bit out of your way.

Chocolatier Defroidmont – Website:
Address: Briscol 19a, 6997 Érezée, Belgium
Cost: €4

Next stop: Beer!!

Being right next to Germany, you’d think beer would be great in Belgium. If you’ve ever tried Hoegaarden (mentioned earlier) you’d know right away it’s without doubt, one of the best beers in the world. After a stop at the Leffe Museum (pronounced: Leff-ah) in Dinant you’d certainly leave expecting as much… but you’d be wrong.

Having already tested two traditional Belgian beers in the past 6 days or so, it was with great trepidation we entered the Maison Leffe museum (a former monastery) for a tour and taste of their beer – especially since one of the beers I’d tried – Leffe Blond was not very impressive – at best it was a 5/10. The other was a local beer called Jupiler (sold everywhere) was even worse – at best I’d give it a 3/10.

After parting with €8 each (and receiving 2 tokens each) we entered the museum… At first glance it’s pretty bare and unimpressive, but once you get involved it’s actually well done and very interactive. You get a very detailed explanation of the history of beer as well as a much better understanding of how different beers are made and why they taste as they do. Each station also has ‘smelling’ sensory stations which was cool, but after a couple of them they all smelled the same. The self-guided tour does get a little repetitive as you move from one display to another, with the urge to skip ahead became overwhelming. We learned a lot and would have missed a lot if we’d jumped too far ahead.

Note: After all you’ve learned and looked at, decide on the beer you want to taste before leaving the museum –  and proceed into the tasting area across the hall (each beers is displayed along with its tasting notes before you exit). The tasting area is a large bar/lounge type room with large comfy seats and a bar with stools. You can sit there or just retrieve your free glass of beer (in exchange for one of the tokens) and go sit in the sofa/chairs. We actually thought we’d be sampling a variety of the beers in small glasses, but instead we each got one full glass of our choice.

Now the moment of truth… is the beer any good? Well there are plenty to choose from, both bottled and draught – naturally draught is the beer of choice because bottled just doesn’t cut it for a true beer drinker. Gail chose Leffe Ruby (refined red fruit notes and rosewood) and I chose Leffe Nectar (a blond, honey-flavoured, orange-coloured beer). Both were phenomenal, although I felt the Ruby was a bit too sweet – definitely a woman’s beer with its lots of berry-flavours. Gail loved it and declared she’d be a beer drinker if this was available to her all the time. As for the Nectar, Wow – it was just as I’d expected Belgian beer to taste like with lots of flavour, along with a nice smooth finish. An interesting side-note – Hoegaarden beer is brewed by the same company that owns Leffe.

Outside is a nice beer garden where you can relax and purchase… beer. It’s in a great spot where you get a nice view overlooking the Meuse River and the town of Dinant. As you leave, you redeem the second token you’d received upon paying for your tour – in exchange for a “special gift.” We were thinking it would be something tacky and cheap but nope it was a very nice full-size beer glass! Bonus!

A full glass of beer to drink and an authentic Leffe beer glass to take home with you – all for only €8… sweet. That would be worthwhile just coming in, paying for the tour and going straight to the tasting bar… if you lived in the neighbourhood. Now we had to figure a way to get them home without breaking them. By the way, after coming home we discovered that there is a discount of €2 if you also visit the Grotte la Merveilleuse (caves) just up the road (which we did but knew nothing of the discount – great Belgian tourism marketing once again!) If you’re in the Dinant area make sure you visit the Maison Leffe (and Grotte la Merveilleuse) even if you’re not a beer drinker (Gail isn’t) it’s well worth it.

Maison Leffe – Website:
Address: Charreau des Capucins 23, Dinant 5500, Belgium
Cost: €8

[NOTE: Apparently (according to people on TripAdvisor) there is a €2 discount for a ticket to Grotte la Merveilleuse [just down the street] AND a river cruise in combination with the Maison Leffe ticket PLUS if you visit the Citadel you can also get a €2 discount there too – nice. Sadly their co-branding/marketing is one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets and we missed out on the discounts!!

Belgium isn’t all food and drink, it’s a beautiful country with plenty of scenery and quaint little towns. In our next article Belgium – Part Deux. Airbnb, Towning, Waterfalls And Motor Racing we’ll cover a few towns, caves and a trip to the world-famous Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps (SPA) race track…

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