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Trip Report Bardo in Belgium - Easter 2011

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DAY 0 – Easter Sunday 2011

Our United nonstop flight from Dulles International to Brussels was scheduled for 5:50 p.m., but we sat on the tarmac until 8:20 to wait out thunderstorms flashing around us. Once in the air, we made up an hour of that time, touching down in Brussels at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning. We had a comfortable flight in Economy Plus.

DAY 1 – Brussels to Brugge

At the Brussels Airport, we bought our train ticket to Brugge, which required a transfer at Bruxelles Nord station. The train schedules were in holiday mode because it was the day after Easter, which is a national holiday. Our train was packed with school kids, families and couples taking day trips from the city. We both dozed some during the 75-minute ride. At the Brugge train station, we had a cup of coffee and called the VRBO apartment’s housekeeper to meet us.

A five-minute cab ride into the city center brought us to the Brugestheloft apartment, our home for the next three nights. The building on 13 Zilverstraat, a couple of blocks from the Markt, was brutally modern and nondescript, especially compared to the beautiful architecture of every other house on the street and most of the other center city buildings. However, the apartment itself was gorgeous, and very comfortable, with two bedrooms, one and a half baths, full kitchen, dining room, living room, gas fireplace, and terrace. The refrigerator was stocked with bread, butter, jam, meat, cheese, eggs, juice, and champagne, and there was also 4 bottles of wine, exquisite chocolates and coffee – it didn’t leave much shopping for us to do! The apartment was €125/night.

By now it was noon, and we had a late breakfast of toast and jam, then DW rested for a couple of hours while I went exploring. Many stores were closed for the holiday, but the streets were full of tourists. I walked through the shady Simon Stevenplein (Steven’s statue in the square looked “explorer-ish”, with a globe and sextant in hand …. perhaps Steven was a Flemish Magellan?), and through the busy Markt, with the famous medieval bell tower dating from the 13th century. The Markt square was set up for the holiday with children’s carnival rides, and tourists lined up across the cobblestones for horse and carriage rides. I walked on to the other historic square, the Burg, with the ornate City Hall and the dark and diminutive Basilica of the Holy Blood.

It was 2 p.m. by now, and I had happened to come to the Basilica at exactly the right time. The famous relic of the church is a crystal vial said to contain Christ’s blood, which had been gathered by Joseph of Arimathea and was given to a Flemish soldier by the patriarch of Jerusalem during the Second Crusade in 1150, as thanks for rescuing the city from the Muslims. The Holy Blood vial was on display starting at 2 p.m., probably because it was a holiday and during Easter. (It is usually brought out only on Fridays and also for the Holy Blood Procession on Ascension Day.) It was very moving to be able to participate in the veneration. A priest greeted each worshiper, who could touch, kiss, and pray over the vial. He then gave us each a prayer card and reverently wiped down the vial for the next person. The Church’s interior belied its dark outer walls. It was light-filled and beautifully painted in jewel tones with gorgeous stained glass windows. The church’s Lower Chapel was heavy Romanesque, very plain after the lush Upper Chapel.

I returned at 3:00 and woke DW. We made a sandwich for our late lunch, then got out of the apartment to explore together.

I had to show DW the Basilica first, though the relic was no longer on display, then we wandered further afield, crossing the inner canal ring into the eastern Sint-Anna quarter. This neighborhood, full of small, tidy houses, was a very poor area for hundreds of years, but is now a quiet, residential area where we were able to shake off the tourists and be among the Bruggians enjoying their holiday. The Sint-Anna’s Church was opulent in dark, ornately carved wood, copper, and enormous paintings, but suffered by comparison to the beautiful Holy Blood Basilica. We walked down to the outer canal ring, where four 18th century windmills remain on what were once the outer ramparts of the city. The long, narrow park along the canal was full of sunbathers, running children, and dogs. After visiting two of the windmills, we returned to the apartment.

We had earned a beer by now, and walked literally around the corner from the apartment to the venerable ‘t Brugs Beertje, with more than 300 Belgian beers available, each in its specialized glass. I had a dark, hoppy Moinette Brune, at 8.5% alcohol, DW had the smooth and sexy amber Dikke Mathile, at 6%.

We stepped across the street to the restaurant The Hobbit, recommended by both our guidebooks (should have been a tip-off), for dinner. What a strange meal! The Hobbit specializes in barbequed ribs, served completely dry. When we asked for BBQ sauce, we got Chinese sweet and sour sauce. My meal also included Japanese spice nuts, paprika soup, and an absurd bright-pink sweet cocktail. Oh, and the breadbasket came with a choice of garlic butter or tartar sauce. A weird and disappointing dinner but the beer was good – Orval for me, and Westmalle Doppel for DW. The Hobbit is NOT RECOMMENDED. In retrospect, I wished we had left the tourist zone for dinner and trekked back to the Sint-Anna neighborhood which was full of inviting looking local dining places with better food and better prices.

After dinner it was back across the street to ‘t Brugs Beertje, which was increasingly loud and convivial. We sat at a common table with two other couples, talking travel stories, and tried two more beers. DW went with the Brugge-brewed De Halve Maan Zot Dubbel (at 7.5%), and I enjoyed the oak-aged Special Reserve De Dalle Brouwers, a 2009 beer weighing in at a whopping 13%. I was ready to stay for hours, but DW was fading, so we bid a goodnight to our new beer hall friends, and walked the mercifully short block home to bed by 10:30 p.m. What a terrific first day in beautiful Brugge!

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    We never understood the appeal of the Hobbit either. One quick look and we went elsewhere (we usually eat at restaurants fairly far down on the other side of 't Zand'

    Agree with you it's best avoided.

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    DAY 2 – Exploring Brugge

    We slept in until 8:30 and had a leisurely breakfast at the apartment, and I spent awhile journaling our first day’s adventures. Then we hit the road, walking to the southern edge of the old town on the outside canal ring, to Minnewaterpark. The rectangular reservoir and adjacent canals are home to swans, ducks, and even some chickens and roosters. The swans have been in the Brugge canals since 1488, when the city leaders imprisoned and executed Maximilian of Austria’s close advisor and friend Pieter Lanchals (which means “long neck”). Emperor Maximilian ordered Brugge to expiate its crime by keeping swans in the canals forever – and there they remain.

    We visited the 13th Century Begijnhof, a cluster of whitewashed houses and a church surrounding a green lawn that looked weedy, due to the thousands of clumps of spent daffodils. Though the Begijnhof now houses a group of Benedictine nuns, for 600 years the Beguines were girls and widows who lived in a spiritual community devoting themselves to charity, but did not take holy vows. Large groups of schoolchildren were visiting while we were there, detracting from the Begijnhof’s famous serenity.

    From there, we walked north to the Memling Museum in St. Jan’s Hospital, an unusual mixture of art museum and medieval charitable hospital. Patients arrived at Oude Sint Janshospitaal by sedan chair and had cubicle beds that lined the large Gothic hall. The most striking piece of art was a triptych by Hans Memling (1430-1494), with Mary and the infant Jesus being admired by various saints in the center panel, the beheading of John the Baptist in the left panel, and on the right, St. John the Evangelist’s vision of the Apocalypse, with John sitting on a rocky outcrop on the island of Patmos, observing Jesus riding triumphantly in the sky in a psychedelic rainbow bubble, while below, the four dread horsemen rode, amid fire and explosions. Pretty wild stuff, but painted in a pretty, luminous Flemish Primitive style.

    It was past 1:00 by then, time to rest our feet and have some lunch. Luckily, we were right across the street from the Gruuthusehof Restaurant, which was reviewed very favorably on TripAdvisor. It was probably the busiest, noisiest corner in Brugge – horse carriages, buses, trucks, cars and bike traffic passed us from three directions, along with a never- ending parade of people. Yet our lunch was relaxing and delicious, a very satisfying break.

    Rested and well-fed, we ambled across the road to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), a 13th century Gothic church that rivals the Belfort as Brugge’s symbol. At 381 feet, it is the tallest brick construction in the world, and it is full of imposing art, including an early Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. The ornate sarcophagi of the last rulers of Brugge, Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary of Burgandy, recline in silver splendor, and gorgeous stained glass windows, including St. George and St. Michael slaying their respective beasts, cast flickers of colored light through the church.

    Behind the church is the Gruuthusemuseum, a 15th century mansion of a wealthy Brugge merchant displaying period furniture, tapestries, coins, liturgical art, and musical instruments. The Gruuts had a convenient private chapel on the second floor with windows looking down onto the great altar of Our Lady Church – they could go to church in their dressing gowns if they felt like it. The house also has a 15th century guillotine, but we assumed that wasn’t a family heirloom.

    From the Gruuthuse, it was mere steps to one of Brugge’s five canal boat landings, and we queued up for a 30-minute, tri-lingual tour of the city from the water. It was a lovely and relaxing way to finish our day’s touring.

    We got back to the apartment at 5:00 for a quick rest, then popped out to a small grocery store two blocks away on Noordzandstraat, Delhaize Proxy. The store logo looks like Food Lion’s – perhaps an international chain?

    At about 7:30, we had a light dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches, pate on Melba toast, wine, strawberries, and waffle cookies dipped in chocolate. The town grew quiet, except for the bells ringing the quarter hours. At 9:30, we deemed it dark enough to go to the Markt and Burg to see the buildings lit up by spotlights. We walked for an hour or so, looking at window displays of chocolate, lace, and tapestry, and returned home at 11:00 to bed.

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    DAY 3 – Day trip to Ieper

    We slept in, almost until 9:00, and hurriedly dressed and went to the Markt to catch a cab to the northern outskirts of Brugge, to the Europcar rental office on Sint Pieterskaai. It took a surprisingly long time for a cab to come to the taxi stand in front of the Belfort, but we could watch the shoppers at the outdoor “Wednesday Market” while we waited.

    The car, a VW compact with manual transmission, did not come with a GPS unit, and they had no more portable units available. Oh, well – we had maps, and most people speak English in Belgium – we figured we would be OK. By the time we hit the road, it was 10:30, and had only driven about 20 minutes when we decided it was time to stop somewhere for breakfast. So we blindly took the next highway exit, to a town called Torhout, a pleasant, mid-sized town that was also holding its own Wednesday Market. Thus, there was no street parking anywhere. We doubled back a few blocks from the town center and parked at the grocery store (Delhaize again), then walked around looking for a late breakfast. Which no one seemed to be serving at 11:00 ... there was a coffee shop with no food served until 11:30, just coffee. And there was a smokey bar, doing a very brisk morning beer business ... but no food! We then turned down a quiet side street and found a friendly breakfast/lunch café called Pompernikkel.

    Soon, we were tucking into a huge breakfast of espresso, fresh-squeezed orange juice, yogurt, home-made rolls, organic farm butter, homemade jam, ham, cheeses, home-made deviled ham spread, hearty brown bread, exquisite croissants, pound cake and chocolate for dessert. Now that’s what I call breakfast. With no English on the menu and the staff having only a few words, we simply chose #2 from the four special breakfasts offered (#1 being the smallest/cheapest and #4 being the largest) - so glad we didn't go bigger!

    We walked back to the car and continued south to Ieper, a bustling market town 20 miles from the French border that was a pivotal and iconic symbol of World War I. In the second of three major battles at Ieper, the Germans first used poison gas as a weapon. At the third battle of Ieper (which actually took place at nearby Passendale), more than 300,000 Allied troops – British, Australian, and New Zealanders – were killed, gaining only a few kilometers of ground.

    In the enormous Cloth Hall in Ieper, the world’s largest non-ecclesiastical Gothic structure, a very fine WWI Museum called “In Flanders Field Museum” is housed. The museum features powerful interactive displays, sound effects, scale models, songs, written testimonies, period films, all in French, English and Flemish – and all focused on the years 1914-1918 around the Flanders region.

    We left the museum at 2:00, got a map from the kind Ieper Info Center lady to lead us to our next stop: Westvleteren’s (pronounced west-VLEE-tren as we discovered in beer chats in pubs throughout Belgium) St. Sixtus Abbey, home of the best beer in the world! The abbey has been brewing “trappist” beer for centuries, but severely limits production and does not ship the beer anywhere. Beer lovers from around the world make the pilgrimage to drink and buy Westvleteren beer at the source. The spacious, comfortable In de Vrede café serves the three types of Westie: 6% blond, 8% brown, and 12% brown. We settled in at the café for a sampling of beers, some abbey-produced pate and bread (heavenly!), and then coffees. Then we bought two six-packs (#8 & #12) to go - there is a 6 bottle limit per person. We knew it would be challenging to schlep to our next destinations and then home, but what a great opportunity! It's already more than 1/2 gone :-(

    Thus fortified, we got back in the car and made our way along the back roads to Zonnebeke, a few miles east of Ieper, to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Unidentified soldiers exhumed from surrounding battlefields and soldiers who died at the bloody battle of Passendale are buried there – 12,000 dead altogether, of whom 70 percent are “known only to God”.

    It was 5 p.m. by this time, and we wanted to get back to central Brugge before dark. We were safely parked at an underground parking garage a few hundred feet from the apartment by 6:15. We got cleaned up and headed straight out for dinner, hoping to wander and find a good, but not too expensive, restaurant. Near a lovely bend in the canal by the Vismarkt (Fish Market), we stopped at Bistro ‘t Lammetje. More beers – a blond Brugse Zot (Fool of Brugge) for DW, and a hoppy Duvel (available at EVERY establishment) for me. The food was very good, though not stellar. We also had some excellent Jenever, a digestif made of juniper berries that is popular in the Netherlands and Belgium. Then home again, to pack our suitcases and get ready to explore a new city tomorrow.

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    Thursday, April 28th – Ghent and Antwerp

    We awoke early to be ready when apartment manager came to pick up the key at 9:00. Our suitcases weighed down with Westvleteren beer, we walked the short block to our parking garage and very handily felt our way out of Brugge to the A-41 highway toward Ghent and Antwerp.

    At a gas station outside Ghent, we stopped to buy detailed maps of both cities. We weren’t going in unprepared! And it paid off – no problems directly to the center of Ghent and to St. Bavo’s Cathedral where we found legal street parking. The weather was drab and lightly raining, not a great day for a big walking tour. But what we had come to see was inside the Cathedral, the world’s most important religious painting, Jan Van Eyck’s polyptych altarpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. It really is an amazingly complex and symbolic painting, and incredibly beautiful. We listened to an explanatory mobile device that commented on each of the 12 panels. All together, we looked at that painting for at least an hour – it was a fantastic experience.

    The rest of the Cathedral was pretty nice, too, including a crazy Baroque oak and marble pulpit, and our first Peter Paul Rubens painting of the trip, “The Conversion of St. Bavo.” Which left us wondering …. Who was St. Bavo, anyway?

    After the Cathedral, we walked up to St. Michael’s Bridge for a lovely view of the spires of St. Bavo’s, St. Nicholas’s, and Ghent’s Belfry. Also, the Ghent Post Office, directly in front of the bridge, is the most impressive postal facility I have ever seen!

    Across the street was a cute chain restaurant called Exki, with fresh sandwiches, soup and quiche, self-serve cafeteria style. We ate upstairs, with a beautiful view of Ghent’s main square. After lunch, we retried the car with 5 minutes to spare on the parking meter, and smoothly navigated out of the city back to the highway. Goodbye Ghent – we’re on to Antwerp!

    Antwerp is the second-largest city in Belgium, and is intimidating to drive in, especially because there are streetcars everywhere. In fact, I almost got creamed by a streetcar making a turn! We quickly arrived at Antwerp’s Central Station to return the rental car, but then we circled the station for an hour, looking for the correct parking entrance for the drop-off! We asked a taxi driver and a parking lot janitor (at the Astridplein lot, wrong end of the station). Finally, we found the Central lot, parked the car, returned the key, and gratefully sank into a taxi for the ride to Hotel Rubens, a block off the Grote Markt in the center of old Antwerp.

    When we checked in, the desk clerk offered us a choice of a glass of port or sherry – a much-appreciated welcome gesture that helped calm our frazzled nerves. Hotel Rubens is lovely and comfortable, and had everything we look for in a hotel – central location, refrigerator, clean, nice linens and comfortable bed, and very helpful, friendly staff.

    We dropped off our bags and walked to the Grote Markt for a coffee. The impressive square (really more of a triangle) is lined with gold-topped guild houses, dominated by the huge Town Hall and the gorgeous Brabo fountain.

    The fountain embodies the Roman soldier Silvius Brabo, who killed a giant who terrorized locals by demanding a toll to cross the river and cut off their hands if they failed to pay. After killing the giant, Brabo cut off the giant’s hand and threw it in the river. Antwerp literally translates in Flemish as Hant (“hand”) plus Werp (“throw”).

    From the Grote Markt, we went to the Cathedral of Our Lady. This was an amazing church, and had not less than five large-scale Peter Paul Rubens paintings, all triptychs. We followed the suggested self-tour of 13 major works, marveling as much at what didn’t make the cut (including a few Rubens) as “major” art as we did at the amazing beauty of what were seeing.

    That was it – time for a nap. We returned to the hotel at 5:15, and rested for an hour and a half, until it was time to go to dinner. I had made reservations for Neuze Neuze, a Michelin-recommended French restaurant a few blocks from the hotel.

    We each had the four-course chef’s choice menu, with matching wines for each dish. Here was our menu:
    - Amuse bouche – duck terrine with apricot sauce
    - Champagne with crème peche
    - Salmon tartare wrapped in smoked salmon with yogurt-basil sauce
    - Asparagus-celery soup
    - Suckling pig, potato cake, roasted vegetables with broccoli sauce
    - Dark chocolate mousse (eaten with Pocky stick cookies), strawberry sorbet, pineapple carpaccio topped with (surprise!) asparagus mousse
    - Coffee with assortment of chocolates and cookies

    Boy, was it good! We rolled out at about 9:30 (2 1/2 hour dinner), very happy with our one truly fancy dinner for the vacation. And back to the hotel to rest up for our next day’s touring.

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    DAY 5 – Antwerp

    We had a very nice breakfast at Hotel Rubens at 9:30, then walked down to the Rubens House, about a 15-minute walk from the Grote Markt. Rubens designed this palatial town house when he was in his 30s, and lived there during the height of his international fame, while he was the official court painter to Archduke Albrecht. The house was amazingly rich, full of gorgeous art, furniture, and Rubens’ “oil sketches”, unfinished paintings used to sell a concept to a potential customer. Rubens considered himself a gentleman, not a painter. And he did many other things besides paint – for instance, he conducted delicate peace negotiations in London on behalf of Philip IV of Spain, and was knighted by Charles I of Great Britain. There were actually very few Rubens paintings in the house, because when he died, his young widow promptly sold off 300 paintings.

    We then walked to the Maagdenhuis, or Girls’ Orphanage. The orphanage was open from 1550-1850, and some of the furniture and daily objects from that period, like the girls’ porridge bowls, were displayed. There were 150 paintings and art objects, including one Rubens portrait. It was hard to imagine the rooms filled with 100 little girls in uniform, learning their lessons and needlework, and eating their porridge.

    It was time for lunch so we stopped at an ultra-modern breakfast/lunch café called XO: a prosciutto, goat cheese, and apple panini for DW, and an enormous salad with apple chunks, grilled goat cheese and a POUND of bacon lardons, for me. We returned to the hotel for a rest and to catch up on royal wedding news, just in time to see the wedding party ride from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace in those beautiful carriages.

    At about 2:00, I left DW to rest a bit and went exploring, seeing the 1,000 year-old Steen, or fortress, on the River Scheldt. I also wandered down a cobblestone alleyway from the 15th century, untouched by time, called Vlaeykensgang, and bought some Antwerp chocolate “hands” at Elisa Pralines. Then, it was back to the hotel to rest and fit in one more museum, the Museum Mayer Van den Bergh, with an impressive collection of Bruegel paintings (both Pieter the Elder and his son, who spelled his last name “Brueghel” to differentiate).


    One enigmatic and frankly disturbing picture, known as Dulle Griet, or “Mad Meg”, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, couldn’t have been more different than the painter’s usual idyllic villages for which he is known. In fact, it was somewhat like a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare world. There were 10 rooms of amazing paintings, marble and ivory statues, and other art, but very little English language descriptive text.


    We closed down the museum at 5:00, and walked to the Bierhaus Kulminator, a Mecca for beer lovers worldwide. But it was CLOSED – no explanation – until May 4. Bitterly disappointed, we walked back to the Grote Markt neighborhood, to a Jenever bar called Da Vagant. Jenever is a smooth Dutch or Belgian gin made from juniper berries that is sold in traditional stone bottles. We stuck to beer – a Corsendonk blond for DW and a Grimbergen brown for me. A strong thunderstorm blew in while we were sitting at the outdoor tables, so we made a run for it back to the hotel.

    We rested for an hour or so, then headed out at 7:30 for dinner. I had noticed a promising restaurant across the street from Da Vagant that promised 80 different Belgian beers. Thinking it would help make up for the blow of the Kulminator being closed, we went to de Groote Witte Arend, a restaurant housed in a former monastery. Our waiter was a real character, and helped us choose terrific beers that suited our tastes and complemented our dinners. I had a St. Bernardus abt 12, weighing in at 10.5%, but smooth and delicious. DW had the Tripel Karmeliet, 8% alcohol, in a beautiful curvy glass. My second beer, a summery Saison Dupont, was enjoyed with a large salad filled with prawns, smoked salmon and tiny North Sea shrimp. DW had a Trappist Westmalle Dubbel with braised rabbit cooked in a sauce made with the same beer. The meal and beers were terrific, well priced, and the restaurant was a great find.

    de Groote Witte Arend is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    Then it was back to the hotel at about 10:00 to watch the wedding re-broadcast and rest up for our last city – Brussels!

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    DAY 6 – Antwerp to Brussels

    We slept in until 8:30, then packed and came down for the Hotel Rubens breakfast. The front desk clerk called us a taxi, and we were driven to the incredibly fantastic neo-Baroque Antwerp Centraal Station, one of the great train stations of Europe.

    There were trains to Brussels every 20 minutes or so, and we had a relaxing 40-minute ride to the Brussels Central Station. Once in Brussels, everything was in French, as compared to Brugge and Antwerp, where the official language was Flemish (Dutch). But everyone still spoke English as well.

    Our hotel, Floris Arlequin Grand Place, was a 10-minute walk from the station, a few blocks behind the ornate and theatrical central square. We arrived at 11:30, too early to check in, so we dropped off our luggage and went to an outdoor café, Le Roy d’Espagne, on the Grand Place. DW had a small Kriek (cherry flavored) beer, and I had an Orval. We were getting so comfortable sitting in the sunshine, people watching on the Grand Place, that we went on and ordered lunch: Quiche Lorraine for DW, and a cold meat and cheese assortment for me, plus two more beers to wash down our lunches, Leffe brune and blonde.

    The time passed very pleasantly, as we chatted with our neighbors at the next table, two accountants from Antwerp. We talked about restaurants, favorite bars and pubs, and places we have traveled. I stepped inside to check out the amusing men’s room, with large photo murals of girls with cameras (pointed downward) above the urinals.

    Our drinking buds helpfully marked up our map of Brussels with places to eat, drink, and visit, so we had a personalized itinerary.

    We started with the Maison du Roi, a small museum on the Grand Place in the City Hall building, with some fine paintings, tapestries, and most importantly, an extravagant wardrobe of costumes donated for the little Manneken Pis statue, the mascot of the city. Then we visited the little fellow himself. He was very underwhelming, really tiny, though he was wearing a snappy Bolivian cowboy outfit and looked sharp. By then, it was 3:00, and we were able to check in to our hotel. Our room was small but comfortable, high up on the 7th floor.

    DW settled in to watch an old movie on TV, Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, while I headed back out for some more sightseeing. I walked through the market area, then up dozens of steps to the “Upper Town” to visit the Museum of Musical Instruments. This was lots of fun – I was issued headphones at the door, and each floor of the museum had dozens of listening stations in front of historic instruments, which played excerpts of what that instrument sounds like. The museum building itself is a beautiful Art Nouveau treasure – Brussels is full of gorgeous Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, mixed in with the 17th and 18th century gabled row houses.

    I made my way back, stopping for a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce and coffee. After a brief rest, we were ready to set out to the accountant-recommended brasserie A la Mort Subite, established in 1908 and run by the same family for over 100 years. DW had a Framboise beer (raspberry), made by the Mort Subite brewery – she was really enjoying the Belgian fruit-flavored beers. I had a Ciney Brune. From the pub, we walked to the historic fish market neighborhood, St. Catherine’s, where a canal had previously brought the catch directly to market. Now the canal is filled in, and the long green park in front of St. Catherine’s Church is full of seafood restaurants. We settled on L’Huitriere (The Oyster), and had a great meal: a dozen fresh oysters, turbot and asparagus in hollandaise sauce for me, and a rich fish stew and mixed grill of fresh fish for DW. We walked back to the apartment, settling in by 10:00 p.m., ready to rest up for our last day of vacation.

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    bardo, I am very much enjoying your report and love the details!

    We are headed to Belgium in November and need to choose between Antwerp and Belgium for a couple of nights at the end of our trip.

    Overall, for a first time, would you have a preference? It will be the last stop of a 12 night trip and we will be coming in from Brugge. We have a morning flight from BRU back home and really will be mostly interested in walking some interesting neighborhoods, having a nice meal and a great bottle of wine and ending our trip on a high note.

    Thanks!

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    Hello bardo1 :)

    How wonderful for you to take part in the veneration at Holy Blood Basilica. I love it when the timing works out perfectly for events such as this.

    I'll be in Belgium for almost a week this summer. Your thorough reporting is very helpful.

    Now I'm off to check out Ghent's Exki and Antwerp's de Groote Witte Arend. Each sounds delightful!

    Well done. ((y))

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    A terrific trip report, bardo1!

    It's been about 20 years since my last trip to Belgium and you covered a lot of the same ground I did (Ghent, Brugge, Bruxelles), so I enjoyed the memories. Your report makes me wish I had spent more than an afternoon day trip from Bruxelles in both Ghent and Brugge.

    I know Brussels often gets mixed reviews, but I personally couldn't get enough of the city (I had a friend living in Stockel, a charming area at the end of the metro line: where I stayed for 5 days two different years in my late teens)... what a treat to stay right on the Grand'Place! The "A la Mort Subite" (to Sudden Death) recommendation reminds me of a late night out at a place called "le Cercueil" (the Coffin) with my friend (where we ordered two beers (strong for North Americans!) served in a glass in a giant pedestal, then proceeded to hang out/make out with some random Belgian 18-19-year olds in general drunken ignominy, the type of evening you don't tell your parents about, LOL). Anyhow, what's with these morbid names of brasseries in Brussels? ;)

    Enjoyed the beer tips too! Best wishes, Daniel

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    kfusto,

    Assuming you meant a choice of your last couple (3?) nights in Antwerp or Brussels. That's a tough one - we loved both! Very different cities, though I can't say one is "better" than the other. I suggest you read up on both and decide - you can't go wrong either way.

    Daniel,

    So glad you are enjoying this - it means a lot to me coming from someone whose trip reports I just adore. I found info on the bar's name from their website, here:

    http://alamortsubite.com/ENG/history.html

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    DAY 7/8 - Brussels (our last day!) - and departure

    We awoke at 8:30 and went to breakfast at the Arlequin Floris 7th floor breakfast room, which had lovely views to the Grand Place and across the Brussels skyline, but the food was just so-so (Canned fruit cocktail, anyone?). After breakfast, we walked to the nearby DeBrouckere Metro station, and bought one-day passes for €4.50, then went six stops to the Louise station, in the Ixelles neighborhood, south of the city center, to go to church at the only English language Church of England in Brussels.

    We were running early, so we stopped for a good cup of coffee around the corner of the church, then went to the 10:30 Holy Communion service at Holy Trinity Church of England. The service was comfortable and familiar, though the parish was not overly warm or friendly to visitors. I guess they’re a pretty insular group of British (mostly) and American expats. After church, we walked to Rue St. Boniface, about 10 minutes away, to a very traditional Belgian restaurant Au Vieux Bruxelles (est. 1882). I had an enormous plate of asparagus in a buttery sauce, and DW had Waterzooi, a creamy chicken soup popular in the Flanders region.

    We walked a little way along Avenue Louise, the very chi-chi shopping “main street” of Ixelles. But everything was closed, either because it was Sunday, or because of the May 1st national holiday. We got back on the Metro and went to the Botanique Gardens, a lovely oasis in the city. The gardens were mite rundown, but peaceful and beautiful all the same. The gardens spread east to west, narrowing to a point and moving downhill all the way.

    At the end, we got back on the Metro at Rogier, and rode south to Porte de Namur station, the closest station to the elegant Grand Sablon Place. At least the stores of Grand Sablon are very elegant, though the Place itself is basically a parking lot. Along the way, we visited the tiny gem of a park called Petit Sablon, and a flamboyant Gothic church, Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon, with tall, pointed stained glass windows reminiscent (better than?) of St. Chappelle in Paris. Upon reaching Grand Sablon Place, we stopped at an incredibly fancy pastry and tea shop called Wittamer. I had an assorted plate of five macarons, which were delicate and delicious (though not "quite" as good as the macarons at Pierre Hermes in Paris). DW had an intensely chocolate mini-cake that looked like a tiny, fancy hatbox, and a Viennese coffee with whipped cream.

    From there, we walked back to the Grand Place, stopping to buy some chocolate eggs at Galler, a recommendation from a work acquaintance who is a Brussels native. Each of the 50 or so pieces were a unique flavor. It was almost 5:00 by now, we’d had a full and fun day. After a brief rest at the hotel, it was out once again for a souvenir, which turned out to be a small tapestry from Gobelin’s Art, very high-quality traditional Flemish tapestry in a William Morris “tree of life” design.

    We also stopped by the Café Delirium and got back about 6:15, read and rested until it was time to head out for a final dinner.

    We had a list of recommended restaurants from the same work friend, and list in hand, we set out to find our dinner. Unfortunately, the first three out of five restaurants were closed – we were batting zero! Now I was suspecting the May 1 holiday instead of it just being a Sunday. But on restaurant recommendation number 4, very close to our hotel, we struck gold. Restaurant Vincent is right around the corner from the tourist trap alleyway full of restaurants called Rue de Bouchers, where maitre d’s literally pull you in off the street for expensive, not very good, meals. But Vincent’s was a real French restaurant, specializing in seafood and grilled meats. I had oysters and champagne for a first course, and DW had chicken terrine with white and red pickled onions. Then as our main courses, I had amazing grilled lamb chops and green beans, and DW had roasted duck breast in peppercorn sauce with elegant tater tots on the side. A smooth Spanish wine, Vega Pasion, rounded out our dinner, and as a sweet finish, we split a perfect crème brulee. It was a great meal, and a wonderful way to end our vacation. Then it was back to the hotel and bed, to get packed up and out to the airport in the morning.

    DAY 8 – A mishap

    We packed and had breakfast at the Floris Arlequin, then went down and asked the desk clerk to call us a taxi. As we waited in front of the hotel, suitcases at our sides, a young man walked up and started asking directions in French. We explained in our best French that we didn’t speak French, but then he switched to English and asked the way to the Grand Place. And as we were obligingly pointing the way, an unnoticed accomplice stole our backpack right off my suitcase. It held no money, documents, or gifts, but did have our toiletries, jewelry, and prescription medicines. So we had to go to the pharmacy – there’s a full-service one at the Brussels airport – to buy what we needed to get us home. That sort of left a bad taste in our mouths, but it was mostly the taste of embarrassment. We think of ourselves as savvy travelers, and that was a pretty basic con to be fooled by. But we didn’t let it spoil our day.

    We had to check our bags at the airport, which was unusual for us – we’re carry-on travelers! But we had all that Westvletern beer! The flight home was half-empty and very comfortable, and we were home by 5 p.m. Belgium is a great place to visit, with all of the great food, art and architecture of France, but a little more friendly and outgoing. And English is spoken everywhere (as much as in the Netherlands), making it easy and stress-free.

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