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Trip Report 10 days in Belgium plus a day in the Netherlands

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Undeterred by a recent survey on the social network site badoo.com rating it the world's "least cool" country, my husband and I have just returned from a trip to Belgium. I will try to provide a more detailed report later, but for now I thought I would explain briefly what we did so that people with questions about some of the places we visited can ask for more information.

We were based in Brussels for the whole 10 1/2 days (11 nights). We have good friends who live in Belgium and other friends who are there for business regularly and have rented an apartment. We were able to use the apartment which was very convenient. We had considered taking some overnight trips to places like Antwerp, the Hague and Cologne but we ended up taking day trips instead. We took train trips to most spots although our friends did take us on some excursions by car during the weekend. This schedule worked well for us. We saw a lot and did not have the hassle of moving from place to place or dealing with car rental logistics.

The apartment was in the Ixelles neighborhood/commune, not far from Place Fernand Coq. We really enjoyed the area which is convenient to major sites with plenty of good restaurants and stores. We could catch the metro at either the Louise or Port Namur stations on the line that connects with the Midi/Zuid train station. I saw a blurb in one of the guidebooks we used that said it was possible to rent apartments in this area for short stays. I don't have the details, but I would really recommend that anyone visiting the city for more than a few days investigate that option.

On earlier trips to Belgium years ago we had spent time in Brussels, Brugge and Ghent, and we wanted to see some new places. Our day trips this time were to Mechelen, Tevuren, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, the Villers-la-Ville abbey, Tournai, Antwerp and Leuven.

We spent about 4 days exploring Brussels and found plenty of interest to do. We would have liked at least another full day in Antwerp.

For guides, we used the Lonely Planet Guide to Belgium and Luxembourg, the Rough Guide to Brussels, Secret Brussels by Nicholas van Beek and Nathalie Capart, Brussels for Pleasure: Thirteen Walks Through the Historic City and Flemish Cities Explored; Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven, & Ostend by Derek Blyth. The last three were particularly helpful/interesting.

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    DAY 1--arrival in Brussels (Sept. 27)

    I had better get started on the detailed part of the trip report. I warn anyone reading that I tend to do these reports over quite a long period depending on what else is going on in my life. I am going to refer to our four Brussels friends by their initials (to protect their privacy)--M and D are the couple who live in the city full-time, A and R have the apartment and stay there part-time for business.

    We arrived in the early afternoon after a rather grueling trip Boston to Heathrow to Brussels. We had a fairly long layover at Heathrow and are not impressed with that airport. They are doing lots of construction now so maybe things will improve. We decided to share a traditional English breakfast and a healthy breakfast (granola, yogurt and fruit) to re-fuel.

    Our friend D very kindly met us at the airport and drove us to the apartment where we would be staying. The airport is not far from the city and has good rail connections, but it was nice to have the car rather than dealing with luggage on the train and metro.

    The weather was absolutely beautiful--warm and sunny and summer-like. D was amused to note that we were carrying light coats, but we did need those by the end of our stay. (We had almost lost them en route, forgetting to take them at the restaurant where we had a good dinner Monday night at Logan, and only remembering them when we were starting through security)

    As I mentioned earlier, the apartment is in the Ixelles commune. Our friend A was waiting for us there to help us settle in. She and R were headed back to the U.S. the next day.
    We all believe in keeping going on Day 1 to try to adjust to jet lag, so after taking showers my husband and I were ready to be introduced to the neighborhood and to take a sight seeing walk.

    We walked over to Place Fernand Cocq which is a pleasant small square surrounded by shops and restaurants and the Neoclassical Maison communale. A. showed us her favorite bakery before we headed off down the main street toward the downtown area. The Chaussée d'Ixelles is a busy shopping street with supermarket, butcher, cheese shop all available very close to the apartment. There is a very large community of African immigrants as you approach Port de Namur with many interesting-looking shops and restaurants.

    We headed down from the Port de Namur, through the historic Place Royale with its museums toward the Grand Place. When we arrived at the Place it was late afternoon and there were relatively few tourists. A. had a good guide book description of the Place describing not only the magnificent Town Hall but also the other buildings surrounding this beautiful square. It is certainly worth spending time to look at the details of the different guild halls.

    We stopped at the small arcade off the Grand Place to rub the arm of the golden statue of Everard 't Serclaes (who led citizens against the Count of Flanders in 1356) for good luck, then paid a brief visit to the near-by Mannekin Pis. The Mannekin was not wearing any of his 800 outfits, perhaps because of the warm weather. (You can see the costume collection at the Museum of the City of Brussels).

    A. took us back uphill to the Upper Town via what she called the "scenic route" through the Place du Petit Sablon and Egmont Park.
    We stopped briefly at R's office around 6:30 to see it and urge him to wrap up his work so he could join us for an early dinner. (Anything before 7:30 seems quite early in Brussels, but we were starting to show jet lag symptoms so decided to eat around 7). We had a very good Italian meal at one of A and R's favorite neighborhood restaurants, L'Angolo. The proprietor was very welcoming and treated us to not one but two rounds of Limoncello. We got to bed around 10:30, feeling that we were well on our way to adjusting to the new time zone.

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    I'm another big Belgium fan... went overnight (from Paris) in 2008 then spent a wonderful 11 nights there last fall. I want to go back and you've given me lots of ideas about where to go when I do!!

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    Ruby99--be sure to ask if you want more detail about any of the places I mention.

    Day 2--Brussels (mostly Art Nouveau)

    We got up quite early on our first full day in Brussels. The apartment didn't have much food since R and A were getting ready to leave for the US, so my husband and I headed out to the bakery to buy croissants for all of us. In VT, our house is 4 miles from the nearest Mom and Pop store, so we are always happy to be able to walk to bakeries, markets and restaurants when we are staying in cities. We took a quick circuit around the perimeter of Place Fernand Cocq to check out the other bakery option, restaurants and stores then had breakfast with R and A before they left for the airport.

    We had a few hours before we were scheduled to meet M and D (our other Brussels friends) for lunch, so we decided to get some cash from the ATM and do a little sightseeing. Unfortunately the ATM at the nearest bank on Chausee d'Ixelles did not work (Cirrus rather than Plus network) but we figured we could manage for the immediate future with the euros we had saved from our last trip and our credit cards.

    The weather was still beautiful and sunny, and we set off on one of the walking tours in the Secret Brussels guide book. This took us to a very pleasant neighborhood near the Saint-Boniface church with some beautiful Art Nouveau houses by architect Ernest Blérot before it was time for lunch. M and D also live in Ixelles, but on the side toward fashionable Avenue Louise. We had a wonderful lunch in the garden/courtyard area behind their house, soaking in the sun. (When I got back from this vacation last week several co-workers commented that I seemed quite tan for having taken a trip to northern Europe in September/October.)

    Our destination for the afternoon was the Horta House museum. It is only open for a few hours in the afternoons but is well worth making a special effort to visit. It is located in the St. Gilles commune which adjoins Ixelles. There were many intriguing stores and cafes along the route down Avenue Louise and along Rue du Bailli but we paused only to admire some especially wonderful-looking bakery and chocolate store windows. (Belgium is, of course, the home of the world's best chocolates, and there are many places to buy it.)

    The museum includes the house designed and built by Victor Horta at the turn of the 20th century and Horta's adjoining studio. It is one of the few Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels where you can still see the interior and furniture of a private residence, and it is spectacular. I did think the museum could have included a better description of the Art Nouveau movement and would advise doing some background reading before visiting. When we arrived we tried to pay with a credit card to save our dwindling supply of euros, but the man selling tickets advised against this, explaining that the credit card transactions were handled by a 90+ year old volunteer in the book shop who had some trouble with this process. As we were leaving the museum, this elderly woman, who actually seemed quite sharp, made sure we knew that there were other Art Nouveau buildings to see in the neighborhood and bemoaned the fact that road construction outside the museum seemed to be affecting the number of visitors.

    Before taking the architectural walking tour she (and our guide books) recommended, we walked over to the Wednesday market at near-by Place du Chatelain. This is a wonderful market and was especially pleasant on this sunny afternoon. In addition to selling fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, wines, etc., it has a variety of prepared foods. Many of the vendors offer small samples. It runs from early afternoon to I believe 8 p.m. and would be a great place to eat on a nice day.

    We combined suggestions from two of our guide books to sample some of the Art Nouveau buildings in the area on Avenue Louise, Rue Defacqz and Rue Faider. Rue Faider has a pleasant park area entered from an inconspicuous doorway on the street, and we stopped there to rest for a while. On our way back to M and D's house, we met M who had been to the market for some fruit for dessert.

    We had a very nice dinner with M and D and their two teenage sons. We had not seen the family for about 3 years and were amazed at how mature the boys were. They both play rugby and were quite involved in the World Cup competition, taping various matches and getting up early to watch others on the weekend. M and D had made a point of stocking up on a variety of Belgian beers for our visit and we tried Duvel and Grimbergen that evening.

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    Day 3: Mechelen

    Now that we had gotten ourselves settled in Brussels we were ready to take a day trip. As I noted earlier, we had visited Brugge and Ghent on earlier trips and wanted to try some other destinations. We started with Mechelen, a small Flemish city about half way between Brussels and Antwerp.

    We were able to get cash from an ATM near the Port Namur Metro station before we set off. We left from the Midi/Zuid train station for this and our other day trips because that station is on a direct Metro line, but all the trains went to the Gare Centrale as well. For our metro and tram trips, we bought 10 trip carnets. I considered getting a 10 trip train ticket for 74 euros as well but since we were not sure exactly what trips we would take it wasn't clear whether that would be cost-effective. As it turns out, we would have saved a little money by buying one. They are good for a year and different passengers can use the same ticket. The individual round trip excursion tickets were quite reasonable and we used them to get some (small) discounts at various tourist sites.

    The main historic center of Mechelen is about a 15 minute walk from the main train station. The city now has a population of about 80,000 and is quite ethnically diverse. From 1506 to 1530 it was the capital of the Netherlands under Margaret of Austria. In 1559 it became an archbishopric, It was famous for its wood carvings, lace and tapestry manufacture. It has a famous (in carillon circles anyway) carillon school and carillon concerts on weekends and in the summer. It is a major center for vegetable truck gardens and is especially known for asparagus in season and endives.

    Mechelen is a good city for walking with most of the major sites in a compact area. We explored the imposing Grote Markt (main market square), St. Rumboldt's cathedral, the fish market area along the Dyle River, the large beginjhof and the gardens of the Palace of Margaret. We opted not to climb the 538 steps up the cathedral tower due to time constraints. We had hoped to see the Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance but it was closed. For lunch we got some kabob sandwiches to eat outside and we stopped for ice cream in the late afternoon.
    All in all we really enjoyed our time in Mechelen and could easily have stayed another day. There are many cycling and hiking options in the area and there seemed to be nice hotels and B & B's and good restaurants.

    We didn't manage to drink any of the local beer from the Het Anker brewery, but we picked some Gouden Carolus up to take back to Brussels as we were leaving the Grote Markt area. We also wanted to take M and D some wine, so we got out at the Louise metro stop to pick some up at an upscale deli near their house.

    M had prepared the traditional Belgian Waterzooi for dinner. Waterzooi is a rich stew that can be made with chicken, rabbit or fish poached in a vegetable broth. M uses (and has given me a copy of) a cookbook called Everybody Eats Well in Belgium. For dessert we had a sinfully rich chocolate cake from a fancy neighborhood bakery. Apparently the woman who sold the cake would only let it out the door after giving D very detailed instructions on how to serve it.

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    Day 4: Tervuren and the Royal Museum for Central Africa

    The weather on Day 4 continued very warm and sunny and we wanted a location where we could be outside for much of the day. M and D suggested a trip to the nearby suburb of Tervuren with its Royal Museum for Central Africa. My husband had read King Leopold’s Ghost for his book group last year and was fascinated by the story of Belgium’s colonial past in the Congo so he was quite keen on this excursion.

    It is an easy trip by public transit from Brussels with a very pleasant tram ride connecting to the Montgomery metro stop. Tervuren is about 15 kilometers to the southeast of Brussels, and Leopold II built the imposing Tervuren Avenue to link the city with the Colonial Palace he built for the Brussels International Exhibition in 1897. Part of the tram ride goes through the outskirts of the Forêt de Soignes, and you are at the edge of a series of walking trails when you get to the tram terminus.

    The museum is a short walk from the tram. To reach it, we passed by the Colonial Palace which housed the exhibits on the Congo for a short while but which quickly ran out of space. Leopold II decided to create a mini-Versailles nearby, with the imposing new museum building and large formal gardens.

    The museum is about to undergo an extensive renovation and has an exhibit called "Uncensored" which explores the history of the museum and takes visitors down on a fascinating tour of the basement in addition to the regular exhibit areas. The whole complex will close for the renovation work in July 2012. We thought the regular exhibit rooms could do with more context/explanation and a lot more soul searching about the colonial era, but the collection is amazing. The museum also boasts a cafeteria which serves good meals like Moambe (chicken with cassava leaves). We were able to eat outside in the courtyard and soak up some more sun.

    After spending several hours in the museum, we explored the park area and and St. Hubert's Chapel and walked into the village of Tervuren. We relied heavily on the walking tour in our copy of Brussels for Pleasure for information about the history of the area. There were two different castles in Tervuren, both very elaborate. My husband has been fascinated for years by the story of Charlotte, the wife of Maximilian of Austria and briefly Emperor of Mexico. She was Leopold II's sister and spent some years in Tervuren after Maximilian's execution before the second castle burned in 1879. During this period she apparently believed she was a French army officer.

    In the village, the 14th century church is worth a visit, and the church courtyard contains a sobering reminder of Belgian colonialism. Seven Congolese who were brought to Belgium with several hundred others as part of the 1897 exhibition and who died of influenza in the inhospitable climate are buried there. They lived in straw covered huts in reconstructed "villages" along the lake in Tervuren Park.

    At the end of the afternoon we boarded the tram back to Brussels along with many students who attend an international school in Tervuren. We did a little shopping at the local supermarket for breakfast foods and beer before joining M and D and their sons for dinner. We had expressed a desire for moules et frites so M and D chose Le Chou de Bruxelles, a restaurant with no fewer than 30 different mussel dishes. We were able to eat on the outside patio due to the warm, summery weather--a real treat on the last day of September.

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    Day 5:Kröller-Müller Museum and oge Veluwe National Park

    Day 5 was the "day in the Netherlands" mentioned in the thread title. It dawned bright, warm and sunny yet again. It was Saturday, and M and D had suggested that the four of us should take a day trip by car to a place my husband and I would not be able to visit easily by public transit. They are great fans of the Kröller-Müller Museum and Hoge Veluwe National Park near Arnhem in the Netherlands and suggested going there. This turned out to be rather long for a day trip from Brussels (about 2 1/2 hours each way rather than the 2 hours they had estimated) but it was a great excursion.

    The initial part of the trip was fairly boring highway driving but the countryside near the park and museum was quite pleasant. I counted two windmills and saw several farms with miniature horses. (No one believed me when I reported the miniature horses but we did see some again on the way home so I was vindicated.)

    We arrived at the western entrance of the National Park in Otterlo and parked. It is also possible to drive in and park at the museum or visitors center, but one of the main park attractions is the network of bicycle paths. The park has about 1700 "white bicycles" which visitors can use for free, and other people bring their own bikes. By the time we arrived in the late morning, most of the bicycles were gone at our entrance, but we managed to find four and set off.

    The park is quite large and scenic in a quiet way, with woodland, heathland and inland sand dunes. It was formerly the private estate of Anton and Helene Kröller-Müller and was given to the country in the 1930's. It was fun to see people of all ages out on bicycles enjoying the beautiful day. We rode to an area past the turn-off to the museum and had a picnic lunch. M and D set off on a longer ride and my husband and I returned to the museum.

    The museum houses an extraordinary collection of paintings acquired by Helene Kröller-Müller in the early twentieth century. Helene took an art appreciation course with art historian H.P. Bremmer and decided to start collecting art--to the tune of 11,500 different works. These were donated to the state on the condition that a museum would be built on the estate/park donated by Helene and her husband. The museum has an especially impressive collection of Van Goghs but there are also works by Seurat, Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, Gris, Mondrian and others. In the 1950's the museum began collecting modern sculpture and in 1961 it opened a large sculpture garden.

    In the late afternoon we met M and D in the sculpture garden. M, D and I decided to ride to the park visitor center for some apple cake and coffee while my husband took a bike ride out to see Anton's St. Hubertus hunting lodge. This is a huge monumental brick building built in the shape of antlers, and there are guided tours which would probably be very interesting.

    We headed back to Brussels around 5, and M. whipped up a great dinner for us in short order. She sent her sons a text asking them to peel some potatoes for the meal, and I was impressed that they actually followed through on this request.

    This evening happened to be the annual October 1 Nuit Blanche, an all-night event in Brussels. Although it sounded quite interesting, we were tired after our day in the Netherlands and decided to pass on this and get some rest for another day trip the next day.

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    Day 6: Ixelles and Villers-la-Ville
    We had planned another excursion on Sunday to the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Villers-la-Ville south of Brussels. Once again the weather was warm and sunny and we all wanted to spend some time outdoors.

    Before leaving the city, we decided to visit the weekly food market on Place Flagey in Ixelles. My husband got rather carried away and purchased large quantities of olives and tapenade and several melons. From the market, we took a nice walk around the ponds of Ixelles, a pleasant park-like area and onto the grounds of the Abbaye de la Cambre. The abbey is a lovely oasis in this urban area, and if you venture a little further you reach the Bois de la Cambre with walking paths.

    D had left us shortly before we reached the abbey grounds, and he reappeared with a large box containing a Quiche Lorraine made by a local couple with a very successful business selling savory and sweet "tartes" (Les tartes de Françoise) to individuals and restaurants. We took the quiche and market purchases back to M and D's house and had a delicious lunch before setting out for Villers-la-Ville.

    The car trip to the abbey to the south of Brussels turned out to be something of a challenge because of an antique car show in Waterloo that afternoon. We got a views of the battlefield from several different angles before we were able to find a clear route past it to our destination. The ruined buildings of the abbey founded in 1142 are beautiful, and there were many families out enjoying the site on this beautiful Sunday afternoon.
    http://en.villers.be/

    On our way back to Brussels through Waterloo, we stopped at an excellent cafe/traditional bakery, Ferme du Hameau du Roy where my husband had a late afternoon beer and the rest of us had coffee. We bought some good breads and gingerbread-like cakes to take back with us. Over dinner (another good home-cooked meal) we got tips from M and D about sites to see during our next two day trips to Tournai and Antwerp.

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    After a very long break I have decided to try to add to this trip report before I forget the details of the trip. My husband and I were going over our pictures from the trip the other day. So, here's the segment on Tournai....

    Day 7: Tournai

    When we first decided to spend our vacation in Belgium, my husband and I talked about visiting Tournai on the trip. We had both taken an art history course in college and remembered the description of the cathedral with its Romanesque nave and transept and Gothic choir.

    As we talked about our plans with others, we were surprised to learn that most people thought Tournai was a somewhat unusual destination. Even our friend M who has lived in Belgium for 20 years had not been there (although D had and endorsed our choice and M did produce a recent travel article from the Guardian recommending Tournai as a possible weekend trip destination from the UK).

    When we started to plan our day trips, we learned that Tournai's museums (unlike those in other destinations) were open on Mondays, so that seemed a good day to go. Once again we woke to warm, sunny summer-like weather.

    Tournai is southwest of Brussels very near the French border and the city of Lille, and the train trip took over an hour. We went through some pretty countryside in Wallonia (the southern, predominantly French-speaking part of Belgium) on the way.

    Tournai's historic center is an easy walk from the train station. On our way to the tourist office/cathedral area, my husband stopped to take several pictures of the cathedral. The exterior, with its five towers, is very imposing and dominates the city skyline.

    There was quite a lot of information about the extensive repair/renovation work going on in the interior of the cathedral. Apparently the choir area was considered unstable for some time, and a tornado that went through the city in 1999 caused further damage. The choir has basically been closed off, with scaffolding, but the cathedral is still an impressive building, well worth visiting.

    Our next stop was the nearby Grand Place which is a lovely square. It is billed as the finest market square in Wallonia, presumably to avoid arguments about how it compares with the Grand Place in Brussels and other impressive squares in Flanders. We were only able to admire the exterior of the 12th century belfry because it was closed on Mondays. I imagine that the view from the top (a climb of 250 steps) would be spectacular.

    We were able to eat outside again, at the Taverne du Belfroi right on the square. We enjoyed a local specialty, rabbit with prunes, a local abbey style beer from the Brunehaut brewery and a huge composite salad.

    When I said that the museums in Tournai are open on Mondays, I didn't explain that there are no fewer than 7 of them scattered around the city--archeology, arms and military history, folklore, tapestry and fabric arts, history and decorative arts, natural history and vivarium and fine arts. We went to only one, the fine arts collection in an impressive building built around a courtyard and designed by Victor Horta. There are works by Manet, Monet, Seurat, Brueghel (the younger) and Van Gogh.

    I would have liked to see the archeology museum collection, too (Tournai has a 2000 year old history) but we opted to spend our remaining time outside. As we sat on the museum steps deciding where to go next, we were joined by a woman from Quebec who had been on the train from Brussels with us. We had run into her around town all day. Her guidebook recommended visiting the pilgrimage church of St. Jacques and some unusual 12th century houses, so we decided to incorporate these into our walk around the city. On the way we walked past the Town Hall, built on the site of an 11th century abbey, and into the adjoining park. Our pamphlet indicated that its Gingko Bilboa and Diospyrus trees planted around 1770 are the two "oldest trees of Tournai's vegetal heritage."

    Before leaving Tournai, we also spent some time walking along the Scheldt River. It is still a very busy waterway with some big barges going through. One of the main streets has a drawbridge crossing the river and a pedestrian walkway built higher over it.

    We got back to Brussels in the early evening and decided to pick up some take out food at a deli off Avenue Louise where we had bought wine a few days earlier. They had a range of prepared meals and we settled on chicken tika masala. We had it back at the apartment with some Leffe blonde beer purchased at one of the local markets.

    Since our next day trip was to Antwerp and we wanted to spend as much time there as possible, we went to bed early.

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    Thank you for posting a report about the "least cool" country. I just booked flights for my trip next summer which will include about a week in Belgium and the Netherlands. I was thinking about splitting my Belgium time between Ghent and Antwerp. How much time do you think is reasonable to see the main parts of those cities? Do you think it makes more sense to base in one and do the other as a day trip or spend one or two nights in each?

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    Antwerp is a much bigger city so I would allocate more time there. We spent a full day in Antwerp (to be described eventually in my trip report) and would have liked at least one other. Ghent is more doable in one day. If you are basing yourself in one I would pick Antwerp. As I am sure you know, moving has its pros and cons

    As we were exploring Antwerp, we noticed a B & B, Le patio, that is very well-located and gets good reviews on TA.

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    Hi VT, I'm glad you're continuing with your TR! I like Belgium a lot (have been several times) and I certainly won't mind another trip there to visit the lesser-known towns you described here. And it's good to know they are easy to visit by public transport.

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    yk--your trip reports were helpful to me in planning our trip so I hope I can give you some useful information in return. I will try to finish the report up soon. I did keep notes but details will get fuzzy if I don't write about what we saw.

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    Day 8: Antwerp

    Antwerp was the one day trip I really thought should be a two-day trip, and we considered getting a hotel room there for one night. However, in the end we decided to stay in our comfortable Brussels apartment and make a long day of it.

    The spectacular summer weather had broken and it was cooler, although by no means unpleasant for early October. The train trip was easy (as were all our day trips from Brussels) and we were looking forward to arriving at the Antwerp station which is truly spectacular. It is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe if not the world and my husband who is a train buff was especially interested in how it had been adapted for high speed trains. I strongly encourage anyone visiting Antwerp by other modes of transportation to see the station.

    We had first seen pictures of the Antwerp station via a YouTube segment of a rendition of Do Re Mi staged in 2009 as a promotional stunt for a Brussels TV station. We kept wondering whether people would suddenly start bursting into song and dance
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EYAUazLI9k

    Once we emerged from the station we headed off toward the Cathedral of Our Lady, an imposing building in the Brabant Gothic style. The cathedral had a large exhibit of paintings from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts combined with art work from the cathedral's collection. The cathedral is best known for its major art work by Rubens, especially the Descent from the Cross and the Raising of the Cross. The exhibit brought in major paintings by Quentin Metsijs, Maerten de Vos and others that had originally been in the church as guild altarpieces.

    We decided to eat an early lunch before setting out for several museums we planned to visit in the afternoon. We visited the Grote Markt main square briefly then headed off for de Groote Witte Arend, a restaurant recommended by M and D. The streets around the Cathedral include charming old pedestrian streets. We got some great views of the Cathedral spires from the Pelgrimsstraat and picked out a B & B (Le Patio) where we would like to stay when/if we return to Antwerp.

    Before we ordered lunch, my husband told me he was not feeling well and wanted to be careful about what he ate. Fortunately for me he often likes to have beef stew when his stomach is acting up. (I am more of a crackers and ginger ale person myself). We shared some very good carbonnade flamande and stoemp (mashed potatoes with leeks and other vegetables). The restaurant has a nice beer garden but we decided it was too cool for that and ate inside, with some classical music in the background. Other people were still eating outside despite the drop in temperature, but I think they were mostly smokers. At the waiter's suggestion, I chose a Buffalo Belgian Bitter out of the wide selection of beers. My husband only tried a few sips and I realized part way through the meal that the beer was 9% alcohol, and I was feeling no pain by the end of the lunch.

    We spent the afternoon at two wonderful museums strongly recommended by M and D, the Museum Plantin-Moretus and the Museum Mayer van den Bergh. The first is a fascinating 33-room museum showing the home and printing plant of a family who ran a major publishing house for several centuries, beginning in 1576. The second contains a large and impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, stained glass, tapestries and manuscripts amassed by an art connoisseur in the 19th century. The highlights are two works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a set of miniatures illustrating Twelve Proverbs and a major work, Dulle Griet, (referred to in English as "Mad Meg") showing a woman wearing a helmet and breastplate and carrying a sword and cooking implements, striding across a battle field.

    On our way back toward the train station, we stopped to admire the exterior of the Rubenshuis and to see the Grand Cafe Horta which is built with parts of Horta's Maison du Peuple. The Maison was a major building torn down in Brussels in 1965 despite international protests.

    Back in Brussels we stopped to pick up some chicken soup for my husband and a good stuffed pepper for me for a light evening meal.

    We very much enjoyed our day in Antwerp but felt somewhat frustrated at all we had missed--several major churches, the waterfront, the Fine Arts Museum and much more.

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    Day 9--more Brussels

    After our two fairly long day trips at the beginning of the week, we opted to spend Day 9 in Brussels. This slower pace was also good for my husband who had still not recovered completely. We figured he could easily go back to the apartment and rest if he didn't feel like touring all day.

    We started out at the Museum of Musical Instruments which has a fascinating collection of instruments housed in a spectacular Art Nouveau building designed by Paul Saintenoy. The museum includes audio headsets so you can hear what the instruments sound like. There is a cafe at the top with great views of the city but we opted to go elsewhere for lunch.

    Since it was no longer warm enough to eat outside comfortably, we headed for the Mokafe at the Galeries St. Hubert, an imposing 19th century arcade near the Grand Place. The Galeries are full of older businesses like the cafe and shops selling gloves, chocolates, books, etc. I decided I needed to try a gueze beer as our time in Belgium was running out. I had a Mort Subite Gueze while my husband drank ginger ale.

    From the Mokafe we went to the cathedral which is rather confusingly named for two saints, St-Michael and Ste-Gudule. Gudule is a popular local saint whose miracle consisted of having her lantern relit by an angel on a dark night. Rather "modest" as our friend D noted. The cathedral is impressive with some very nice renaissance and modern stained glass.

    At this point my husband decided he should go back to the apartment to rest so we headed off in different directions. I had wanted to explore the area in the Lower Town beyond the Grand Place, and I set out in that direction, loosely following some of the walking tours in my copy of Brussels for Pleasure. There are relatively few tourists as you get away from the Grand Place/Mannekin Pis.

    I explored the area around the Bourse (stock exchange) and the nearby Église St-Nicolas and walked into the ste. Catherine neighborhood with its many fish stores and restaurants. I also spent some time in Les Halles St. Gery, an old market building that has been renovated and has a cafe and exhibit space. When I was there there was a lot of information on work that is going on in historic buildings/neighborhoods throughout Brussels.

    At the end of the afternoon I took the metro back to the apartment in Ixelles. My husband was feeling much better so we both went over to M and D's for another excellent dinner.

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    Thanks for the trip report. I don't know how I missed it when it began. While working for the State Department, one of my college friends had several tours of duty in Brussels (she speaks French like a native and fluent Flemish along with 10 or 11 other languages) so I was lucky enough to visit her and to be able to explore on my own and have a great tour guide on weekends. I am remembering all the fun we had as well as all the sights I saw. Thanks for sharing! (Will you be posting any pictures?)

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    irishface--I am glad you have found the report interesting. 2 more days to go (day trip to Leuven and last day in Brussels). Unfortunately I probably won't post pictures. My husband did take some pictures but I don't have easy access to them.

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    Day 10: Leuven and an evening at the theater

    We had plans to go out to the theater on the evening of Day 10 (more explanation later) so planned a relatively short day trip to the nearby university city of Leuven. This was the only day with really bad weather. When we arrived in Leuven it was raining hard so our walk to the Grote Markt area from the train station was not very pleasant.

    On the way to the Grote Markt/cathedral, we stopped to see the university library. The original library and much of the city was heavily damaged in both World Wars and much of the library collection was lost. The library building was built in a a neo-Flemish-Renaissance style in the 1920's with donations from U.S. universities and colleges. It was rebuilt after World War II.

    At the Grote Markt we stopped to admire the exterior of the beautiful and elaborate Town Hall. Unfortunately we were a little too late for the guided tour of this building. We did tour St. Peter's cathedral with an audio guide. The building is an impressive 15th century Brabant Gothic style structure, but the cathedral is best known for its art collection. The chancel and ambulatory are a museum and visitors can view a collection of sculptures, paintings and metalwork. The two paintings by the Flemish Primitive artist, Dirk Bouts, the Last Supper (1464-1468) and the Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1465) are the highlights. My husband enjoys misericords and there were some good ones on the cathedral choir stalls. (Misericords are the small wooden shelves on the underside of a folding seat in a church and often have carvings of animals or monsters and grotesques.)

    By the time we had emerged from the cathedral, the rain had stopped and it was time for lunch. We ate at a restaurant/small brewery called Domus in the center of town. We tried their Nostra Domus and Con Domus beers and had venison and something-else-I-can't-remember. There seemed to be quite a few students eating pasta and pizza dishes.

    After lunch we walked around the Oude Markt, the university area and the large and well-preserved Groot Beginjhof. We didn't make it to the museum or the Klein Beginjhof or to some of the city's historic churches and could easily have spent more time in Leuven, but we had to get back to Brussels for an early pre-theater dinner.

    Our theater outing was a trip to the Kinepolis megaplex cinema to see a National Theater live production of The Kitchen. This is a revival of a 1950's show about the staff in a large West End restaurant. The theater is right next to the atomium so we got a chance to see that landmark up close. We had never attended any of these National Theater live performances and were intrigued by the chance to see a performance of a London show in Brussels. We plan to try to see more of these shows here in the U.S.

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    Day 11: Brussels again

    I have decided to take advantage of being snowed in today (first time all winter!) to finish this trip report with a brief description of our last day in Brussels.

    We had a relatively relaxed schedule this day because we had to do some shopping for the trip home and to re-stock some items for our friends' kitchen.

    This was a day when I actually felt I needed the coat I had brought all the way across the Atlantic (and almost forgotten in Logan Airport). It was nice fall weather, though, and certainly a pleasant temperature for walking.

    My husband wanted to visit the Musée du Jouet, a collection of old toys in an old town house near the Botanic Gardens. I am not sure why he chose this and although it was o.k. I would not go out of my way to visit it again. There was a group of children visiting and they seemed to be having lots of fun. It is nice to see kids enjoying entertainment other than computer games.

    We picked up some good sandwiches for lunch at a shop down the street from the museum and walked down the Rue Royale to the Parc de Bruxelles where we ate them on a bench in the sun.

    We had never seen the new(ish) Musée Magritte and considered going there after lunch. But we ultimately decided we would rather see the excellent collection at the Musée d'Art ancien again, so we spent the afternoon there.

    We walked over to the Place du Grand Sablon to buy some chocolates then back to the apartment. It is quite amazing that this was the first time I had entered a chocolate shop during the entire trip. I am a confirmed chocoholic and Belgian chocolates are wonderful. I am not sure how to explain it other than to note that I did have a lot of good non-candy desserts throughout our time in Belgium.

    Our last evening was spent again at M and D's house where we had an excellent dinner of roast lamb.

    One other thing I should add to this report is a link to the thread on Belgian beers that I started before the trip. Many people were kind enough to contribute with suggestions of beers to try, and Belgium is certainly a beer lover's paradise:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/looking-for-belgian-beer-recommendations.cfm

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