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Trip Report Belgium, August/September 2012

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We started on a sour note. United was to fly us from Cleveland to Chicago, then Chicago to Amsterdam, and we would take a train to Bruges. I wanted to ride the Thalys train, so bought tickets to leave Schipol three hours after our flight was to arrive, and go to Bruges via Antwerp.

United had unspecified difficulties in getting our flight off in Cleveland. When the estimated departure time was changed to exceed three hours after the scheduled time. I went to the service center and asked if we would be able to make our connection in Chicago. The agent said it was very iffy, so I asked what could be done other than spending a night in Chicago. I said since our ultimate destination was Bruges, landing in either Amsterdam or Brussels was good with me. She checked and said she had put an alternative plan to fly to London, then Brussels, in the system. Our flight out of Cleveland was hours late, and when I got to Chicago they were offering vouchers for a room, a meal, and a flight the next day. I declined the offer and said the agent at Cleveland had made alternative arrangements. After much discussion, the agent in Chicago was able to find seats on the flight to London, but insisted that the only connection available from there was to Amsterdam. Seeing no problem, other than missing my train, I agreed, and we flew to London. The connecting flight turned out to be on British Air, and I had to wait in a long line to pick up the boarding pass. When we got to the front of the line, they expedited us, and even checked that our luggage was there (we check our luggage, carrying only necessities like medicine and money). Since we had been flying business class, United had given us some kind of comfort pack; I didn’t even open it, just threw it in my carry on, as did my wife. Unfortunately, when we went through expedited security, something in my bag disturbed them (perhaps the comfort pack, although that had never set them off before, and my wife’s didn’t set them off, and I was subjected to the most thorough and slow screening I have ever experienced. As I waited for the screener to do his job, I told my wife to go to the gate and tell them I was a prisoner in security, but would be at the gate as soon as possible. British Air sent a gate agent with my wife back to security just as I got out, and we ran to the gate and make the plane, as they had held it. Unfortunately, our luggage was returned to Chicago when the departure time arrived, as we had not yet boarded. On arrival at Amsterdam, I filed a report with British Air, and to their credit, they had our luggage in Bruges by the evening, one day after we arrived.

I’ve been a patron of Continental for some years, and enjoyed good service. Since the merger with United, I have experienced almost constant ineptitude, and I think they are no longer a reliable airline. If you have a train or ship to connect with, I cannot advise you to rely on United. This puts you in a quandry, because often the best train tickets, for example, are affordable only when purchased well in advance, and if you can’t rely on your airline, you are out of luck.

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    Anyway, we arrived in Bruges in the evening and our landlords met us at the delightful old house we had rented. http://www.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p249511. I cannot praise this house and the owners enough. It is ancient, but well preserved with modern amenities. It is a few hundred meters outside the tourist area, so you can participate in touristic activities, but retreat to a quiet place. The owner has created a house book, telling where local amenities, including good restaurants, are. The home is extremely well decorated and maintained; I wish my house were as nice. The owners are extremely pleasant and helpful; they loaned us some clothes when our luggage was delayed, and brought our luggage when the airline delivered it to them (the airline was apparently more comfortable with a European telephone number than my US number). We’ve had some very good experience with rentals, but none matched this. The Dumon chocolates shop is right on the way from the home to the Markt, so we always enjoyed the walk. There are many chocolate shops in Bruges, but only a few actually produce their own, and this is one of them.

    We spent a week in Bruges. We originally planned for a day trip or two to Antwerp, and one to Zwin, a nature preserve on the coast. But we found so much to do in Brugge that we never made the day trips. The weather was warmer than usual, but not unpleasant, and we did not experience the rain we had anticipated. They sell a city card that includes admissions to museums, and a canal ride. We walked around town for a day, then took the canal ride the next day, and it was pleasant and helpful in orienting yourself. We skipped the very popular horse drawn carriage tour, which would have been another good way to orient yourself, as we were already oriented, and the ride is 39 euro for the carriage of up to five people. With just two of us, it seemed pretty expensive.

    On Sunday, they had a pageant, or parade, The Pageant of the Golden Tree which runs every fifth year since 1958, and celebrates the history of the area since a tournament and royal wedding in 1468. There are very many participants and to one not familiar with the history of the area, some meaning is lost, but it is still something to enjoy. Establishments line the route with chairs and you can rent a seat. We sat outside a café (free) and enjoyed the parade and the local beer (not free). It ran again the next Sunday, but we had left by then. The lady who rented us the house sent a link to some tapes of the parade: http://youtu.be/6IlzAGiPt-4 . I particularly liked the horses and bands, and the stilt walkers.

    We enjoyed the museums and churches, particularly the primative painters, but I think our favorite activity (surprisingly, because I haven’t learned to appreciate his work) was the Picasso exhibit, which had works by Picasso and other of his associates.

    Part of the Bruges pass is a discount on a harbor tour at Zeebrugge. We went, but wouldn’t advise it. The train drops you off at the station, but you literally have to hunt down a taxi (we found a lady who called one and he pulled out of a garage and took us to the dock. The boat tour is of a large, but not busy, port. We did find a very nice lunch at a café near the dock, but again had to get someone to call for a taxi to get back to the train station.

    Bruges is packed with excellent restaurants and we didn’t have a mediocre meal. We typically have a simple breakfast in our apartment; I awaken early and buy two pastries, while my wife makes coffee or tea. In Bruges (and in Brussels) the pastry shops often do not open until later, so we started buying our pastries the previous afternoon.

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    We then moved on to La Roche en Ardennes. While there is good train service to large towns, the smaller towns are served only by bus, and it is difficult to plan a train/bus trip. We ended up taking a train to Brussels; another train toward Luxemberg to Marloie, where we anticipated lunch while waiting for the bus to La Roche. Marloie’s rail station is rather desolate, and we couldn’t find any food, so we dined on beer and chocolate. Since this was a Saturday, the bus didn’t actually go into La Roche, but dropped us off near a hotel on a hill above La Roche. I looked around for a taxi and there was none. I stopped in the hotel and asked if they would call us a taxi, and they said there were no taxis in town. We started off on a long walk over cobblestones with too much luggage, when a man came out of the hotel and told us he would give us a ride. He took us right to our inn, and wouldn’t accept any money. That is typical of the people we ran into in Belgium, helping you on and off trains with your luggage, and generally being very pleasant.

    La Roche en Ardennes, is a small village that is hard to find on the maps, but that was heavily involved in the Battle of the Bulge. We stayed three days at http://www.strument.be/uk_hotel.php?variable=accueil|Hotel|Category|uk

    It is primarily a restaurant, with I think 8 rooms in the hotel. It is 800 meters outside of town, so you are in a quiet forested area. We took the half pension option and it was well worth it, as the dinners were excellent. Alas the restaurant was closed on our third day, but there are plenty of other excellent restaurants around. Our room was large, modern, and very clean. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this place to anyone. In a small town such as this, not as many people are fluent in English as in larger tourist areas, but we were always able to communicate. I think La Roche is primarily a place where Belgians go for outdoor activities; there were a lot of campers, hikers, canoe paddlers, and bicyclists.

    Our next stay was in Bastogne. We needed a combination of bus, train, and bus to get there. One option is to go through Marloie; the other is Libramont. We had been to Marloie on our way to La Roche, and it is a rather isolated station, where you can’t even get lunch. Libramont is more pleasant, and I would recommend it. It didn’t hurt that if we went through Marloie, we would have had to pay for our final bus ride, but going through Libramont, the bus ride is part of the train fare (thanks to the station agent who told us this). Actually, in Belgium, if you are 65 or older, the train fares are amazingly low. Our fare from Bastogne to Brussels, where I splurged for first class, was 12 euro each!

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    In Bastogne, we stayed at http://www.hotel-collin.com/homepage_uk.htm.

    The room was of good size, and well decorated and clean. The restaurant was good, although they were closed on our second day (I’m jinxed). The breakfast was especially good, with more options than usual in a very attractive room overlooking the square. Our primary activity here was visiting the memorial at Mardasson, which is well kept with a great feeling of serenity. Unfortunately, they are rebuilding the adjacent museum, so we did not get to see the explanations in the museum of what we saw from the memorial, but it was still very understandable. Incidentally, I have read many comments that the signs leading to the memorial are hard to see. We walked to the memorial, it is hardly a long way, and the signs we passed were perfectly clear and legible.

    Our final week is in Brussels. We stayed in the very touristy area near the Grand Place. We had a plain apartment a block from the Grand Place, on a narrow street that had many places of entertainment, so it was quite noisy. With the windows closed, we were able to sleep. There was no housebook (rental apartments usually have a folder telling you where whatever you want, such as a grocery, is). But a friendly hair stylist who had his shop on the ground floor gave us good information whenever we asked. The apartment has no wifi, and after spending a week without the internet, I think I will upgrade a wifi connection to a necessity. I am using the internet more and more to get and store information, even to check up on the guidebooks I still carry, and I’m too old to go back to carrying extensive notes. One of the museums we really wanted to see was the Musee d’art Moderne, and after walking there, we found it was closed for restoration. Ideally I would have checked the internet and found that, and saved us a long walk. There is a small elevator at the apartment, which is handy for your luggage, but its so small you have to take turns.

    Brussels also has a city card, and we got two, but only the two-day variety, as much of what we wanted to see was not included.

    Our favorite experience was the Musee des Instruments de Musique, in a delightful art deco building with a fine restaurant on top (beware, the terrace at the restaurant, with a great view of the city, is by reservation only, but you can eat the same fine food at an indoor table). I’ve found that museum restaurants and cafe’s are an excellent place to have lunch. The museum itself gives you an audio set, but the only instructions are to not push any buttons. When you stand near a display, a picture of it is displayed, and you hear it being played. What they don’t tell you is that not all the displays are active on the audio set, and there were many of us standing by an organ by the entrance, doing everything we could think of to hear the tape, only to find that there was none. They do have an impressive collection of instruments, and enough of them are wired to make visiting a real pleasure.

    The Musee d’art Ancien was quite good, as was their lunch room. The Musee Magritte was extensive.

    I hadn’t planned on going to the Atomium, but my wife wanted to see it so we went. It was actually pretty interesting. Getting there was an adventure, as I had bought a GPS unit with a map of Brussels that included public transportation. Often it was right, but sometimes confusing, especially taking you step by step around a traffic circle, and often using street names that were not on the streets (Ideally, streets are named, and signed, in two languages, but often not. As we were coming up out of a metro station (the tram, which is not the metro, stops in the metro station, but perhaps an hour of looking for the tram stop affects my thinking here) two pickpockets attacked me. I knew there was no reason for this scruffy looking character to be brushing off my shirt, so I knocked him down, at which point his partner pushed by and got my GPS unit out of my pocket, but I got one of his legs. He dropped the GPS unit but I got his second leg and was about to take him down when his partner pushed by and dragged him away. The police were there very quickly, but the miscreants had fled, so we were advised on keeping our valuables out of sight. Take that advice as you wish, but the whole idea of a tourist having a camera is to have it ready to use.

    One place we enjoyed was Whittamers at Place du Grand Sablon, a delightful neighborhood. I think I would try to stay there, rather than the Grand Place, as it is closer to the museums and less crowded and touristy.

    We also visited the Jacques Brel experience. It has as its theme his relationship with Belgium, and there is less music than I would have hoped. You get an audio set that controls when you can go into the next room, so if someone is ahead of you, you have to wait until they are finished before you can proceed. Still, it was a pleasant afternoon.

    We left early Thursday, and there was no answer to the number I had to get a taxi, so my wife stood outside the apartment while I tracked one down. We got to the train station and bought tickets for the airport, but there was no signage showing how to get to the tracks, or which platform to use. I got in a different line and the agent told me where to go (I than noticed that the listing of trains did include the airport, but apparently only on alternative postings of the schedule. Things went well at the airport and we were directed to the Brussels air lounge, which was pleasant but fairly crowded for that early in the morning. We left for the gate early, as we are slow walkers, but got there in plenty of time, as United wasn’t ready at the appointed time. We finally took off quite late, after having to return to the gate for a maintenance issue. That made our connection at Newark very short, particularly as after passing through customs, you have to recheck your luggage and go through security again. We did get home safely and on time. Before we deplaned, they gave us a card and instructions to visit a web site. When I did, they gave us vouchers because the video had not been working on the flight. The irony is that we had not noticed, as we bring our own entertainment.

    Since this trip was in August and September, we had packed for rain. In our almost three weeks in Belgium, we had only one afternoon of light rain. What luck.

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    What a fascinating report. I am astonished that you ran into such aggressive thieves in Belgium, and confess I would have let go of my belongings rather than grab onto legs.

    The next time you travel, you might find that a lightweight 3G or 4G device, or an unlocked Smartphone into which you can insert a local rechargeable SIM card gives you all the connectivity you need to access the Internet for small tasks like checking museum opening times or your e-mail.

    I'm curious as to whether you drank any beer in Belgium because you didn't mention it. I'm not a beer drinker, but I confess that whenever I go to Belgium, I can't resist it. It's a whole different world when it comes to Belgian beer -- just like Belgian waffles and Belgian chocolates are a whole different world.

    Your rule that museum cafes are good places to eat holds true for many countries, but I warn you if you ever go to Italy to make different plans.

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    I used to drink beer; in fact, I made my own to get the taste I liked, but the doctors told me to stop drinking it, so I did. I did, however, have some in Belgium. They have literally hundreds of types, and all the ones I had were excellent. I especially liked the Trappist ales. Chocolate is also off my diet, but my wife sampled extensively, and I occasionally cheated. Many of their chocolates are flavored, which was a new experience to us.

    I've held off on a 3G or 4G device because I haven't found a lot of information on how extensive coverage is. We do visit a lot of art museums, but we also spend a lot of time in more remote venues. The companies that market the 3G and 4G devices in my area are only concerned with domestic coverage. I had to do a lot of looking to get a 4 band cell phone for wider coverage, as the marketers don't seem to know anything about that, either.

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    thanks for sharing your experience incld the pickpocket attempt in brussels. good reminder that street crime can happen anywhere including places that one normally doesnt associate with petty crime. we are looking at bruges as possible destination next year as part of amsterdam-berlin- krakow itinerary.

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    Sounds like a wonderful vacation, loaded with delicious memories. How kind of the man at the hotel to give you a ride into La Roche, and what a triumph to thwart your would-be muggers. Thanks for sharing.

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    Thanks for the report. Our 19-day trip to the area overlapped with yours, and I'm planning eventually to write a report as well, when I get some time. We also were in Bruges at the time of the once-every-five-years parade and enjoyed the little spectacle. (Surprised to hear that it takes place again the following week--it involved a cast of hundreds!)

    In Brussels we did several of the things you did, but the host of our B&B pooh-poohed the Atomium so we didn't go. Interesting to hear that you enjoyed it.

    I admire your intrepidness in taking buses to other parts of Belgium. We rented a car on our way out of Bruges and used it for the final week of our trip to explore the countryside. I think it was a good decision. The train system is great though!

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