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Trip Report Belgium in January...

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Found a bargain airfare, had a week off so spent a week in Belgium last month...very enjoyable! (and the $285 rt fare from JFK made up for the high cost of meals & snacks). Brussels was my base and I took a few day trips from there.

Weather: out of 6 days, it was grey w/sporadic rain/drizzle for 5 days; in the upper 40's F
Hotel: Le Dixseptieme, near the Central station and Le Meridien. Very, very nice; had a junior suite (130E) w/floor to ceiling windows; kitchenette; flat screen TV with lots of channels, 4 or 5 in English. Elegant decor. Great location.
Local transportation: got a 24 hr metro card and bought single tickets for other days; generally, walked everywhere in the historic area; took trams twice - bought tickets on board
Food: bought breakfast items (yogurt, bread, etc.) for my room; lunches in local cafes most days; filled baguettes, pastry & chocs for dinners in my room
Shopping: clothing is chic but very expensive so didn't spend time shopping. Chocolates were fun to buy...and sample!
Pre-trip research: I like to read beforehand and have a general plan for each day’s activities; used guidebooks, including Michelin green guide for excellent commentary re: architecture & history; Insight guide for odds and ends of things to see (like graffiti street in Ghent); plus Belgian tourist board web site.

DAY 1
Arrived mid-morning, took train from airport to Brussels central station and trundled my suitcase about 1 block to the hotel & settled in. Wandered around nearby area getting my bearings; stopped in tourist office for brochures & maps. Found myself getting cranky which I’ve learned is nearly always my Day 1 experience – fatigue associated w/getting to the airport, waiting through delays, barely dozing on the flight and getting to my hotel; after multiple travels, I now know not to expect much from myself on arrival day. So, bought a baguette, diet coke and pastry and went back to the hotel for sleep.

DAY 2
Walked 2 blocks to the Grand Place - very impressive, perhaps more so than in summer when it's crowded. Buildings in shades of grey, different archictural styles w lots of carvings to appreciate, gilt statues shining against the grey. Tried to read my detailed descriptions of the guild hall carvings but the rain was muddling the pages so I gave up and when into the tourist office to get some directions. Went across the Grand Place to the Museum of the City of Brussels, primarily to see the collection of donated costumes for the Mannekin-Pis statue. Did a quick pass through the other collections of china, statuary, tapestries and maps but enjoyed looking at all the costumes for this goofy statue (and watching the video of visitor reactions!) Bought a deck of cards showing a different costume on each card - that'll liven up card games. Walked to Mannekin-Pis, and, yes, it is smaller than I would have thought. It really is funny - the whole idea of the statue, dressing it up and then people's reactions.

Walked through Grand Sablon – chocolate stores galore! Had read all about Pierre Marcolini, so went in but they were pushing pre-packaged boxes which didn’t appeal. Walked to MIM (Musuem of Musical Instruments) which is in a converted Art Nouveau department store. The building itself - exterior and interior - were very interesting; I'm not a musician so the instruments and musical audio clips didn't enthrall me; although I had no idea a harpsichord produced such a range of sound - beautiful. I had planned to have lunch in the MIM restaurant on the top floor, since I had numerous reviews. At 1:00 it was very busy, but by 2:00 it had thinned out and I got a nice table next to the window. Had very tasty ham & zucchini quiche with a salad and Diet Coke - 18E. Lunch was good, enjoyed the view, people watching/eavesdropping and resting my feet.

Took tram to Horta Museum (off Rue Louise). This great example of Art Nouveau was fascinating. Amazing interior stained glass in stair way and skylight; period furniture; overgrown garden. Well maintained and loved that all the rooms were accessible – no velvet ropes keeping you to the center of the rooms. Helpful staff suggested I visit another Horta building, the Hannon house, which was a few blocks away. So, I walked there – not nearly so well restored or as large as the Horta Museum, but interesting to see a building in a different level of restoration (gorgeous blue & purple flowery stained glass window). Dark by now so it was fun looking through the windows and seeing people going about their routine. Christmas lights were still up in the streets which added to a festive sense.

Walked all over creation and ended up at Anspach supermarket near the Bourse; bought soda, pretzels, candy and ElleNet. Weighed a ton, got turned around on the way back to the hotel but sure saw a lot! Baguette and snacks in room.

DAY 3
Metro to Royal Museum of Military History; this was an old style museum – lots of mahogany display cases filled with stuff, each with it’s own label; walks of the first room (a hangar) were covered with lances, pennants, bugles, drums, etc. Row upon row of displays of Belgian uniforms through the ages. Special exhibit “Belgians Can Do Too!” detailing Belgium’s role in Korean war; videos, photos, bio’s, guns, uniforms, etc. Naturally, both world wars had their own sections. Interestingly, the museum is closed from noon – 1:00 pm, so I was kicked out; decided to go back to MIM for lunch again but it was cauliflower soup and salmon quiche which didn’t appeal, so returned on the metro to military museum…bought Panini in metro station and ate on a park bench outside military museum. In the entire, huge museum, there were probably only a dozen visitors so I enjoyed being able to move at my own pace (saw various Nazi uniforms w/skull & cross bones on caps; Cossack uniforms; various colonial uniforms – Congo, Algeria, Tunis, etc.)

Metro’d back and went to Coudenberg (underground street, cellars, etc.), across from another tourist office. Interesting and the audio guide was thorough but… it was a bit much (snoozy). Had read that St. Catherine square was worth seeing, as it’s more “local” than Grand Sablon so wandered over… Also walked to the Beguinage but, unlike Bruges & Ghent, there was no sense of a cloistered, secluded area for gentle women. Ah well, certainly seeing a lot!

Walked to Rue Neuve to check out the dept stores – Inno and HEMA since the January sales were on. HEMA didn’t appeal at all and Inno had nice goods but so expensive, even with 60% sales. Was tired and annoyed at myself for wasting time in dept stores so didn’t spend long there. Raining, but was drawn by the sweet smells and lines of people to a waffle stand ---- that perked me up! At first, I thought it wasn’t cooked all the way through, then I realized the moist bits were melted sugar…yum, yum. Bought another baguette & pastry at Paul and back to hotel.

DAY 4
Off to Antwerp! Trains to Antwerp & Ghent leave from Central Station, which is 2 minutes walk from the hotel (several per hour). Quick train and metro into the center of town. Went to the cathedral – very white and bright inside; took free guided tour but the guide, while very nice, went into way too much detail and off on tangents so I was glad when the hour was up! Not a fan of Rubens, but enjoyed puttering around looking at the carving details, esp on the pulpit. Walked around the streets…had seen recommendations for two shops: Goosen’s bakery which had a line of about 10 people into the street (all 3 times that I passed it) and Huis Boon for leather gloves…quaint shop but the gloves began at 100E so didn’t bother trying any. My primary reason for choosing Antwerp over Bruges was the Stephen Jones exhibit at the MoMu (Mode/Fashion Museum); he’s a famous milliner who makes crazy hats and this was the biggest exhibit ever of his hats (350). Loved it!

Walked to Grote Market and had lunch in an anonymous café and people watched (croquet monsieur) which wasn’t the eggy-batter/fried concoction we have here but instead was toasted white bread w/ham & cheese. Wandered around; overall impression was of a very fashionable city – the regular, local folks were all spiffily dressed in the latest styles – different styles for different ages, but nonetheless, stylish. Train back to Brussels.

DAY 5
Sunny Sunday - off to Ghent! Loved, loved this city. Easy train and tram to center of town. I had a list of about 5 places to go but enjoyed wandering so much that I only got to 3 of them. First stop was Gravensteen castle – got a great sense of a real feudal castle; room of torture instruments was certainly interesting (things you’ve read about or glimpsed in movies); also, the room of armour, swords, knives, maces, etc. Lots of towers and walls to explore – including a medieval latrine. Not a huge castle, and both museum rooms were small enough to intrigue but not bore. Very helpful ticket sellers pointed me in the direction of the Bejinhof (with a pastry stop on the way); peaceful area, lots of small brick houses and large garden.

Walked to Huis Aljin museum – what a great place! Lots of little houses joined together to show life from mid-19th century through 20th based on themes; childbirth/death and the items associated w/both (mourning dresses & jewelry; rattles); kitchen; apothecary; barber; then, across the courtyard into a building filled with appliances from the first half of the 20th century – the juxtaposition really made the point about the huge, life-changing differences these provided. Then, onto leisure time & cameras, hobbies (pigeons) and winding up with the ‘70s. Thought provoking way to display items.

Wandered in Patershol district behind Alijn – quiet, old houses, narrow streets, some old houses modernized but still fit in. Locals returning home with their baguette or pastry box. Crossed the canal to Vridag market and had lunch at café. Sunny window seat – toasty warm! Was going to try a Belgian specialty but the girl two tables away was eating spaghetti Bolognese that looked and smelled so great, that I had that and it was tasty.

Found Graffitti street easily – not “urine-soaked” as some posters had commented, nor seedy. In fact, two artists were working on their designs and a few people were taking photos (or locals using it as a short cut). Know next to nothing about graffiti, but this was bright, colorful and imaginative. Wound up in the main square and went to St. Bavo’ s Cathedral – not my cup of tea but worth popping in. Freezing cold inside. Walked through Butcher’s Hall – beams and building were interesting. Wandered around more, looking at buildings; finally got the tram at the McDonald’s in Korn market and train back to Brussels.

DAY 6
My last day, so wanted to focus on absorbing the buildings and ambience. Got my map out and walked around old areas I hadn’t seen before; love seeing 17th century buildings all over, with a modernized one in the middle. Went into every church I saw; some clearly off the tourist paths and others who are just learning how to appeal to tourists (flip charts with the church’s history, mission, outreach programs). Had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien since I’ve heard about them for years…. The lunch itself was just OK and the waiter wasn’t the friendliest, but the pastry and rolls I bought were super (some sort of a nut breadstick, with filberts and almonds). Back to Grand Sablon to buy chocolate at Passion Chocolate – the clerk was so friendly and offered so many samples that I wasn’t intimidated and created 3 boxes to bring home. The huge church there was amazing – extremely long stained glass windows with such vibrant colors.

Took the tram to Cantillon brewery – the only family owned artisanal brewery left in Brussels, making lambic beers. Self-guided tour through what is clearly an on-going business – in fact, while I was there, they were winching huge bags of hops up from the ground floor to the 2nd or 3rd when I heard a shout and ker-flumph…the bag had torn and fallen 2 stories. Hops all over… I’m not a huge beer drinker but sampled gueze beer – sour/bitter; then tried kriek (flavored w/cherries) which was sweetly sour. But definitely worth doing – plus, the brewery is further out from the center, so got to see a different area. Early flight home the next day, so back to the hotel and packed.

So, that was my winter week in Belgium! I like travelling off season since crowds and prices are less; would go back to Ghent again, maybe in combination with a trip to Amsterdam or just for a long weekend.

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