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Trip Report Five nights in Belgium, May 2013

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Pictures: see http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,86,0,1,0-brugge-belgium.html for Belgium Highlights or see links within for photo collections of each town.

My visit to Belgium came at the end of a ten day trip that started in Paris and Luxembourg City. The itinerary was to fly into Paris and out of Brussels to fly home, nine nights total. I started with a few days in Paris and knew I would end with at least a few nights in Belgium. I had a few nights to play with in the middle and didn’t nail them down until I was in Europe. I knew I wanted to visit Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp for sure. I considered Brussels optional, having briefly visited before (see below). Leuven was on my radar as a possible day trip to fit in somewhere. I made reservations in Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp but left open the possibility of changing them as I went along.

In terms of planning the order of visiting the towns: although I was flying home out of Brussels Airport, almost any city on my agenda would allow me to get to the airport by train the final morning, depending on how early I wanted to get up for the Thursday morning flight. It wasn’t a case of “need to stay in Brussels the night before I fly home.” Belgium isn’t a huge country, and the airport is well connected by train to the main cities. I also kept in mind that Brussels, the capitol of the European Union, is busy during the week with government business (so hotels are more busier and more expensive) and cheaper on weekends, and Bruges is a little busier on the weekends so more expensive on a Friday or Saturday night.

I am a photographer, and my primary interest on a trip to Europe is wandering around and exploring and taking pictures, not going to many museums (I visited three in Belgium).

I used the book “Rick Steves' Snapshot Bruges and Brussels: Including Antwerp & Ghent” as my primary guidebook; it covered all the places I was interested in except Leuven, though some of its information (especially about Antwerp) was dated and inaccurate.

I didn’t decide for sure to start my Belgium trip in Brussels until near the last minute, the day before I arrived from Luxembourg City.

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    Brussels (1 night)

    Pictures here: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,388,1,0,0-brussels-belgium.html

    I had previously visited Brussels back in 2002 for just a few hours, off the train between Paris and Amsterdam. It was sort of last-minute “I could stop there for a few hours” addition to my Paris-Amsterdam plans - Belgium wasn’t on my original agenda. But I found Brussels pleasant and nice and regretted having not spent more time in Belgium.

    Years later, I had read a lot more about Belgium, and other towns like Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp seemed more interesting than Brussels. On this trip, the only compelling reason I could think of to spend a night in Brussels was to see and photograph the beautiful Grand Place all lit up at night. Maybe I’d throw in a quick side trip to nearby Leuven on the way in or out.

    The train from Luxembourg City stopped in Arlon, Belgium, where seemingly all the passengers changed to a train to Brussels. The train schedule clearly noted a train change in Arlon, so I was not surprised, but at the Luxembourg City train station the “big board” of departures listed Brussels as the final destination for our original train. If you glanced at the board and weren’t really paying attention, you might think the train was direct, that you shouldn’t get off at Arlon. At least one person on our train was confused about changing trains and almost stayed on.

    I booked the Scandic Grand Place hotel because it was close to the Grand Place (obviously) and an easy walk from the Central Station, and the price was right on a Saturday night. The Scandic was OK as a hotel - not bad, nothing special, great location for the price.. My room faced an interior corridor so my “window” looked down to the lobby/breakfast area. I worried about the noise from the echos inside, and my air conditioner was not working. But I worried over nothing. None of this bothered me and I slept fine.

    I expected Brussels on a Saturday night to be pretty empty, but it wasn’t. Upon arrival, I found that some sort of soccer match had occurred in Brussels and loads of Brits were in town - having just won their match, apparently. Cheering Brits were all over town in full party mode, celebrating loudly. Brussels on this Saturday night was a big party town, not quite what I’d expected.

    The weather forecast for my first few days in France and Luxembourg had been pretty accurate: clouds, drizzle, and rain - disappointing. But the forecast for Brussels was wrong; instead of the forecast rain, it was clear and beautiful when I arrived early Saturday evening.

    It was already late afternoon when I finally headed out from my hotel to the Grand Place to check it out, walk past the overrated Manneken Pis statue, etc. The square was already mostly in shade as the sun was soon to go down. I passed several waffle stands and wanted one but decided not to spoil my dinner. The other item on my agenda in Brussels besides photographing the Grand Place was having a burger at the Hard Rock Cafe. Yes, eating at an American chain restaurant in Europe is kind of a “dumb tourist” thing to do - but I had no real interest in Belgian food. Sad to say that this wasn’t my first visit to a Hard Rock in Europe. The Brussels Hard Rock Cafe was mobbed but I managed to score a small table near the bar after about 20 minutes, next to a framed case of some boots worn by bassist John Entwistle of “The Who.” The burger was great - well worth the wait!

    After the meal, it was only a quick walk back to the hotel to grab my camera gear and come back to photograph the Grand Place at dusk- and wow, was it ever beautiful!. It’s not only lit - it also had a Disney-like light show, so I photographed the square lit in several different color lights. Later, I wandered around the “restaurant row” area and took some “street shots” of people dining outside with the neon lights, etc. Photographing Brussels at night felt very rewarding and quite easy compared to Paris. The biggest constraint was dodging the drunk, celebrating Brits who wanted to pose in front of my camera whenever I set it down on a tripod. When I was finally about done taking pictures, closer to 11PM, the crowds were finally thinning out. I was still hungry for a waffle...but by then, all the waffle stands I had passed earlier were closed.

    The next morning, the weather was still OK - mostly sunny, a bit hazy. Should I hang around Brussels a bit longer, take a quick side trip to Leuven, or head right to Bruges? I decided to do a quick walk around the Upper Town then take in the only museum I found of interest, the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (I had seen the Museum of Musical Instruments back in 2002 and would recommend it, if it’s still the same now) The Comic Strip Center sounded a lot more interesting than it turned out to be - for me. I just didn’t know much about the history, so a lot of the context of these great artists was lost on me and I was soon bored and got out of there. Oh well.

    After a final walk through the Parc de Bruxelles (nice but don’t go out of your way) and the Mont des Arts hedge garden below the Royal Palace, I checked out of the hotel and finally caught the next train to Bruges, leaving about 13:00. The ticket machines at the Belgian train stations didn’t seem to work with credit cards, so I had to buy my ticket to Bruges from an agent at a ticket window - not much of a line, and even though I wrote down the destination and date the agent spoke English. The schedule claimed the train went on to Bruges but only Ghent was listed as a destination on the “big board” at the Central Station for some reason. You’d think it would should Bruges too - wouldn’t you? I knew Ghent was the right direction, anyway, and stayed on and sure enough, we only stopped in Ghent with most people going on to Bruges.

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    Bruges (2 nights)

    (or “Brugge” if you prefer.)

    Pictures here: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,387,1,0,0-brugge-belgium.html

    The train to Bruges on a Sunday afternoon was quite crowded in second class, and I regretted not splurging for first class. Otherwise, I liked Belgium’s train system. None of the national trains, not even the Inter City (IC) trains, seemed to be reserved, so you can buy a ticket for one particular day and use it on any IC train that day.

    When we got to Bruges the weather was still really nice, and now I was sorry I hadn’t come first thing in the morning to catch the great picture-taking weather. (With rain predicted for the next few days.) I took a city bus from the Bruges main train station to my B&B, called Be My Guest, and then quickly set out exploring the town and taking some decent pictures in good light. I set out for the popular Grote Markt, basically the main town square. I found the famous “postcard shot” location I’d seen with the famous bell tower with reflections in the canal, but unfortunately it was a more of a morning location; by late afternoon it was a bit washed out by the afternoon sun. But I’m glad I found it then, because I came back later at dusk and got some great shots from there.

    Bruges was mobbed with tourists on a warm Sunday afternoon, but I took a liking to the place that got better the longer I stayed (even as the weather worsened). As much as I wanted to take advantage of the sunny weather to snap pictures all afternoon, I fit in a quick visit to the Groeninge museum (Flemish paintings) before it closed (It would be closed Monday, and I was leaving Tuesday.) The museum was a worthwhile visit - I didn’t love it but I was glad I went. The work was unique, and the museum didn’t bore me, even though museums often do.

    I didn’t climb the Bell Tower (it was either do that or see the museum before both closed). Too bad - this was to be my last nice weather day in Bruges, as it turned out. I saw no point in climbing the tower afterward to take pictures in the rain. I briefly considered taking a canal ride, but there were long lines, and the boats were packed with people. I doubted I would have been able to take decent pictures - better to walk along the canals instead.

    My B&B, Be My Guest, was great. It was cheap, clean, homey, well located on Hoogstraat, and an easy 10 minute walk (at most) to the Markt and the Burg square - or a more picturesque walk along the Dijver canal. The owner was friendly and helpful. It wasn’t warm in May so I kept the windows closed at night, but if it had been warmer, I would have wanted the windows open (no air conditioning), which means street noise from Hoogstraat street. Otherwise, I’d stay here again. It seemed like a bargain and a great experience, so much better than staying in some impersonal hotel..

    I had dinner at a little Italian bistro just up the street from the B&B, next to (and part of) Charlie Rockets, which is an American-themed bar with a hostel upstairs. (The bar didn’t seem cheap despite the hostel atmosphere.) My lasagna was surprisingly good.

    The next morning, a Monday, the rain had indeed returned, plus most of the town’s museums were closed. What to do? My original plan had been to spend the whole day in Bruges, maybe take a bus up to Damme (would loved to have biked but I had too much camera stuff). But in the rain - why bother?

    At this point, I decided to spend the day in Ghent instead of spending the following night there - and spend the final two nights in Antwerp, instead. With rain predicted the rest of the week and having already endured spotty weather in France and Luxembourg, I was feeling a bit discouraged and in the mood to cut my losses. Staying at a budget hotel in Antwerp would be cheaper than staying in Ghent.

    I walked from the B&B to the Bruges train station (about 20 minutes) in a slight drizzle, through the Minnewater Park (lake with dozens of swans) and the Begijnhof, a secluded neighborhood reserved historically for “religious young women.” I also passed through Koningin Astridpark, which you might recognize if you are a fan of the film “In Bruges” starring Colin Farrell. (The “suicide scene” takes place there.) I was a fan of the film though I’d wanted to visit Bruges even before I’d seen it years ago. I had a copy of the video on my netbook and watched part of it one night in my B&B - so I could rightly claim I saw “In Bruges” in Bruges - ha ha ha!

    [See below for more on Ghent.]

    I got back from Ghent in the early evening, went back to my B&B to relax before dinner, and when I finally headed back out around 8:30, I was surprised to find many restaurants were closing already. The town suddenly seemed fairly dead on a rainy Monday night compared to the sunny Sunday the day before. I wound up eating at Quick Burger on the Markt square - open til 11, at least! Other than fries and waffles, Bruges isn’t the kind of town where you can find handy take-away food like pizza slices easily like you can in other places. I didn’t feel like hunting for a restaurant that was still open and then wait to be served. So Quick Burger it was.

    My final morning in Bruges, it was still lightly raining. I didn’t feel in a big rush to get to Antwerp, but what to do in Bruges now? I left my things at the B&B after checking out and decided to take one last walk in the drizzle. This walk extended into a few hours, as I walked north along the wider canal on the east side of Bruges, past some of the old windmills there. Somehow, despite the rain, it was an exhilarating walk, and I had a great time. I still managed to take some pictures with an umbrella.

    I wandered back to Jan Van Eyck Square and found close by a great little casual Italian restaurant called Trattoria Trium, which I deeply regretted not finding earlier. I briefly considered having a sit-down lunch there but settled for a quick take-away pizza slice sitting on a wet bench in Jan Van Eyck Square. Then I ended my visit to Bruges, got my things from the B&B, took the bus back to the train station, and headed for Antwerp.

    I loved Bruges, perhaps as much the first sunny day as the last rainy one. But I’d put the comparison to Venice (if you’ve heard it) out of your head - they are very different places. (Venice has no cars or bikes; Bruges is full of them and has fewer canals.) iI do understand why some are put off by the tourist mobs in Bruges, but I still loved it. It’s a clean town full of quaint old buildings along pretty canals and ponds filled with swans.

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    Ghent (Day trip from Bruges)

    Pictures here: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,389,1,0,0-ghent-belgium.html

    Ghent was originally supposed to be an overnight, but I did it as a day trip from Bruges instead (see above). That did require about 30 minutes of backtracking by train each way, as Ghent is roughly between Bruges and Antwerp. I wound up passing through Ghent several times without even stopping there.

    As I expected, the Ghent St. Pieters train station was under construction and slightly confusing, but I managed without too much trouble to find the #1 tram and take it from the station to the center of town. I had to spend 2 Euros on a tram ticket (bought onboard from the driver) because I could not find an open shop or ticket seller (or machine) from which to buy one. I later figured out that the public transit in most Belgian cities runs on the same ticket system, run by the same transit agency, and I could have bought a bus/tram ticket in Bruges (for 1.20 Euro) and used it/validated it when I got on the tram in Ghent. I could have saved some money buying some extra unvalidated tickets when I had the chance.

    Ghent seemed downright dreary when I got off the tram in the center of town about noon. What a contrast from the tourist mobs yesterday in sunny Bruges! With my umbrella up, I started wandering around and tried to get my bearings. I noted the tall towers and churches - the Belfry, St. Bavo’s Cathedral (with some scaffolding on it), etc. The town was founded at a confluence of rivers, and cityscape, if you can call it that, has a nice, appealing curve to it, giving it the kind of dramatic view you don’t quite see in Bruges. Unlike Bruges, Ghent has no huge market square; rather, there are several smaller squares. Ghent is really a beautiful town; too bad I was photographing it with a P&S camera under an umbrella!

    I found some sort of market running mid-day - cheap food and cheap clothes, nothing special - and grabbed a hot dog from a vendor. Then I found the tourist office where a walking tour would launch at 1:30.

    Sometimes I take walking tours when visiting these towns. On a rainy day in Ghent it seemed a reasonable idea. The Ghent walking tour officially sanctioned by the TI was about two hours and a bit disappointing. I had already browsed Rick Steves’s self-guided Ghent walking tour in his book and found that our tour guide didn’t cover most of it - she spent about half of it inside St. Bavo’s Cathedral alone, and that didn’t interest me much. I really didn’t get a great sense of the town from her, just tidbits of history here and there, and after she finished I went back and re-did the Rick Steves’s tour which I found more interesting. I wandered over to the Graffitistraat, to the Friday Market (nothing going on on Monday), through some back alleys and streets.

    Here and there the rain stopped and I was able to get out my digital SLR camera, but the sun never came out. I felt I had covered the center of Ghent pretty well but just wasn’t inspired to take great pictures, despite the town beauty Ghent is known to have a thriving restaurant/bar culture, as a big student town, but late in the afternoon the town still seemed pretty empty and a lot of the stores didn’t even seem to be open. Was it some kind of holiday? Maybe at night it would have been more interesting had I stayed into the evening (or perhaps school was out mid-May?). Because it wouldn’t get dark until 10, I had no intention of sticking around in Ghent to take dusk pictures and getting back to Bruges so late. It was tempting to try to stick around late enough to have dinner somewhere but I wasn’t even sure what else to do in Ghent. I got the sense there was a lot more to explore, but I was tired and not feeling energetic from the overcast day. I headed back to Bruges.

    Later, I had mixed feelings about not spending the night in Ghent after all. I got the sense that there was more to explore beyond the core. Maybe I would have gotten some nice shots at night, even in the rain. But it seemed like the kind of town that would sparkle for my camera with a blue sky as a backdrop, and I was completely uninspired to spend the whole evening there in the gloom. I probably made the right choice and spending only the day. I left feeling I’d like to return someday and see the town again in better weather.

    Ghent seems like a great town, though.

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    Antwerp (2 nights)

    Pictures here: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,390,1,0,0-antwerp-belgium.html

    I booked first class for the train from Bruges to Antwerp - probably a waste of money, as unlike the Sunday train, the Tuesday afternoon train was nearly empty. I had the whole first class car to myself most of the ride! It probably cost 50% more (maybe $10 more). Unlike second class (four seats across, two each side), first class had only three seats (two on one side, one on the other) so the seats are a little bigger. It would have been worth it on a crowded train. The train ride was comfortable but the scenery wasn’t particularly beautiful or interesting. Belgium is pretty flat and largely farm country.

    Antwerp’s train station is HUGE! And very beautiful. I had reserved a room at the Ibis Budget hotel near the station. I asked at the station Travel Information desk (TI) where the Ibis was and followed directions out the front of the station to find it...only to find I had gone to the wrong Ibis hotel - there are two at the station and mine - the Ibis Budget - was behind the station not in front, so I had quite a long hike through the station to get back there.

    The Ibis Budget is a really weird. I had read the reviews and been mostly prepared, so I wasn’t shocked when I arrived.. It had a funky “clean but absolutely no frills” feel to it. (Accor Hotels, the owner of Ibis, also owns Motel 6 in the US.) This is the first hotel I’d ever stayed at where you pay in advance at check-in, and instead of a key or a key card they give you a CODE to get into your room (type it in on a keypad). I guess this all saves them money - you never have to check out and no one ever loses a key. The hotel felt like one where bean counters had given great thought to how to shave every penny of expense they could find in a hotel - and they may have succeeded.

    The room felt like a huge airport bathroom with a big bed - but clean. There were no chairs, just two upside down plastic trash cans...oh, I guess those were stools! I guess it sounds awful from my description but I didn’t mind. It was cheap, clean (practically brand new), and I slept fine, so I guess it was worth the money saved. I usually prefer staying in the center of town instead of near the train station, but as I was leaving for the airport early the last morning and probably day tripping to Leuven, staying at the train station made sense, anyway.

    My first stop in Antwerp was to be the Diamond Museum - supposedly near the train station and not open the next day (Wednesday) so better see it this afternoon while I could. The hotel clerk at the Ibis had no clue about it. I looked for it in the square in front of the train station - the address was given in my Rick Steves book - but I couldn’t find the museum. Finally I went back to the tourist information center inside the train station and was told the museum was under renovation and was moving. Oh, well - maybe next time.

    Next I decided to walk to the center of Antwerp, down a popular shopping street called the Meir. Rick Steves describes the walk as an “enjoyable stroll,” but it felt mostly like an expensive outdoor shopping mall. There are a few interesting diversions (e.g. the Reubens House museum is down a side street off the Meir) but otherwise, it’s a walk you can do once and forget, unless you are into shopping. At least it doesn’t feel unsafe - I wound up walking the Meir several times back and forth, including late at night.

    It took me only about 20 minutes to walk from my hotel to Groenplaats, near the center of town and the Cathedral of Our Lady, also close to the Grote Markt. These were (besides the train station) nearly the only really interesting buildings I saw in town. Antwerp sure is different from Bruges and Ghent, with their pretty canals lined with old houses!

    I wandered out to the nearby waterfront which is not very inviting - there’s a little castle out there and a busy road but not much else. I guess the Zuid neighborhood (to the south) is supposed to be a happening neighborhood, but I never made it that far (I started walking in that direction one night but didn’t see any people so I turned back). It was rainy and not that warm this first afternoon, and there seemed to be few people about. I headed back toward the Grote Markt and found a fantastic place for Belgian French Fries called Frituur n1 - WOW they were good! I dried off a wet bench in the market square and sat eating my big pail of fries, wondering if I’d just ruined my dinner.

    I asked at the french fry place how late they were open (in case I wanted to go back the next night) and was told (in English) “five.” The woman working there must have misunderstood me - I meant what time do you CLOSE, not what time do you OPEN? The woman repeated: five. As in 5AM. Yes, they stay open all night, til 5am!!! It was hard to imagine while I was there, as there were almost no people around, even at night. I guess at busier times the area is more bustling and they must sell a lot of fries to bar patrons and such.

    I headed back to the hotel, relaxed a little, then grabbed my camera gear, and headed back to the center, this time by tram. Antwerp’s tram system is weird. The trams in town are buried underground like a subway, but they are just trams that require you to descend way underground to get to. And the arrival time indicators look like they were designed in the 1960s - cool looking in a way with little light bulbs indicating how many minutes (approximately) til the next train, but they are a little unconventional compared to your standard reader board saying “tram #1: 3 minutes” or something. I took the tram only once. I came back to the hotel much later that night and it just seemed easier to walk the 20 minutes back on the Meir, even though my feet were tired.

    There is a little colony of Italian restaurants near the cathedral - the old “checkered tablecloth” variety of Italian restaurant, not part of any new trend. I’m always a sucker for these kinds of places as I enjoy cheap, basic Italian food. I had a lasagna at one of them (mostly empty at 9PM) and bided my time til the sun went down; the lasagna was nothing to write home about, but I could take my time and watch out the window for it to start getting dark. I wanted to try taking some pictures in the Grote Markt at dusk, even in the rain.

    I setup my tripod in a slight rain in the Grote Markt, not far from the restaurant. Surprisingly, I was able to get some great shots using an umbrella and wiping the waiter off my lens often. In some ways, my Antwerp shots are among the best of the trip - ironic because Antwerp was probably my least-favorite stop on the trip.

    After II was done shooting in the Grote Market, I hiked up to the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) and see what that was like at night. (Maybe a 10 minute walk north of Grote Markt.) I walked through Antwerp’s Red Light District, which wasn’t quite as seedy as I’d expected. There were more people (men) here than anywhere else I’d been in Antwerp so far but it wasn’t exactly crowded. I felt perfectly safe, even though I was carrying some expensive camera gear (put away in a bag - so I guess it didn’t look expensive), but I didn’t exactly dwell in the area. I take it a guy with a camera on a tripod wouldn’t exactly be welcomed.

    Finally, I walked back to the Grote Markt then walked the Meir about 20 minutes back to the hotel, not bothering with the tram.

    I decided to see the Reubens House the next morning and then take a train to Leuven for a few hours. (See below for more on Leuven.) The Reubens House is a restoration of the house painter Peter Paul Reubens once lived in; now it’s a small museum, perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in Antwerp, with a few of Reubens’s works and many works from artists he admired.. The Reubens House was interesting enough and worth seeing - and that’s a compliment from me, as I’m not a museum person. There wasn’t much else in Antwerp I wanted to see. The MAS didn’t seem like the kind of museum I’d enjoy; there’s a new museum called the Red Star Line Museum focusing on migration of people...but it wasn’t open yet.

    As with Ghent, I considered staying for dinner in Leuven but didn’t want to stay til 10PM to take pictures at night, either (especially with a flight home the next morning!). Back in Antwerp, I thought about looking for a real restaurant for my final dinner. I didn’t feel like trying another Italian restaurant down at the Grote Markt. Instead, I went back to that french fry place one last time and had another pail of fries - yum!! That was my final dinner and it was great!

    I didn’t much care for Antwerp as a town. I think had the Diamond Museum and the Red Line Museum been open I might have had more to see there, but I quickly ran out of things to see and photograph. In retrospect, I probably should have spent the last two nights in Leuven (which I really liked) and done a day trip to Antwerp. Maybe Antwerp’s Zuid district really is interesting but I didn’t make it that far.

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    Leuven (Day trip from Antwerp)

    Photos here: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,391,1,0,0-leuven-belgium.html

    By the time I got out of the Reubens House in Antwerp, the sun was coming out, so I got the next direct train to Leuven as quickly as I could. (The ride was about 45 minutes.) In Leuven, the sun came out here and there but mostly it was overcast. At least it wasn’t raining!

    Leuven’s train station was under construction, like Ghent’s. I found the exit and walked the pedestrian street called Diestsestraat all the way to the center of town, only about 15 minutes. This was quite a contrast to the Meir in Antwerp with all of its expensive stores. The Diestsestraat was mostly modest shops - dollar stores, cheap restaurants, etc. Leuven is a college town not a world diamond center, so I guess that changes the character of the stores and restaurants.

    In some ways you could describe the center of Leuven much like the Grote Market in Antwerp: a big church, an interesting town center, a pedestrian area. But Leuven felt much more fun to me. Maybe the student vibe simply made it feel like a real town.

    I found a cheap little pizza place next to a McDonalds (and picked up their WiFi - thanks!) and got to relax a little. Then I set out to wander around and take pictures. At least it wasn’t raining so I could use my DSLR instead of the little point-and-shoot camera, and occasionally the sun came out.

    Leuven wasn’t covered in my Rick Steves book, so I had taken some notes from some online research. The Grote Begijnhof - the historic neighborhood for young religious women - was outstanding, larger and more interesting to me than the one Begijnhof in Bruges. It was about a 15 minute walk from the Grote Markt but well worth the walk. There are some canals running through the quaint neighborhood full of brick buildings and pleasant courtyards.

    I didn’t find the University Library - a beautiful building with a “bug” statue in front of it - until I was about to head back to the train station. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to photograph it while the sun was out.

    Leuven is a pleasant town, much more low-key than Antwerp or Ghent. I think I would have enjoyed staying there instead of in Antwerp for sure - and it would have been just as easy to the Brussels airport (direct train).

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    ..and home!

    One benefit of that train from Antwerp to Leuven: it was the same train I’d be taking the final morning to the airport, so I could see where to get off, etc. It was very easy, only a few stops between Antwerp and Brussels airport. Fortunately, the hotel was able to print out my boarding passes, and as I had only carry-on bags again, checking through the airport was easy. In fact, Brussels was one of the easiest airports I’ve flown out of in Europe. Very low-stress.

    My USAir Flight (coach) back to Philadelphia was routine and comfortable; I had a long layover in Philly but the connecting flight back to Portland, though long, was fine. USAir hadn't been my preferred airline but I'd fly them again.

    I probably would have enjoyed my trip to Belgium more in better weather. (I hear this spring was unusually rainy.) Or had I visited off-season, perhaps I would have come with lower expectations. I loved Bruges, found Leuven pleasant, thought Ghent just as picturesque as Bruges (had the sun come out), and enjoyed seeing the Grand Place in Brussels at night. I didn’t really care for Antwerp, but the Reubens House was worth seeing, and the french fries I had in Antwerp were outstanding. Maybe Antwerp would be more fun in the summer or when more people are in town.

    If I were to go back, I’d want to stay over in Ghent and Leuven or maybe Bruges again.

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    Great report! I loved your night shots of the city lights.

    Except for the Reubens house, I was not thrilled with Antwerp. I agree that I would rather go back to some other places. When I was in Ghent, I visited the castle, but the cathedral was closed for work being done. Leuven is now on my radar thanks to your report and pictures.

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    Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!!! These are the kinds of trip reports I long for. Our interests align somewhat both being into photography. My wife doesn't understand it so I drop her off at the hotel for nighttime photos. Def a photogenic country though. Bookmarking so I can read more later

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    Thanks, Tailsock! Let me know if you have any photography-related questions about Belgium, if you wind up going there. (e.g. where certain shots were taken, etc.) If you visit, I hope you have better weather than I did in Ghent and Leuven!

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    Andrew, I just found this and must go cook dinner. So I am marking this for a leisurely read as your photos and your computer info already have made you my hero (as I've mentioned in other threads)!

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    After seeing your photos, I would like to visit Leuven; Ghent has been on my list.

    I think I liked Antwerp b/c that was my base for 3 days of solo exploring Belguim/Holland. I liked returning to that grand train station each afternoon. But, if I really think about it, there really isn't all that much to do there - I liked the Rubens House, MAS and the small Museum Van der Bergh. I also liked walking around Grote Market and agree that the waterfront area wasn't especially inviting.

    I also agree that there really isn't all that much to see in Brussels. I only spent 2/3 day there and felt I saw what I wanted to see (and no, I never saw Mannekin Pis). I will always think positively of Brussels b/c I think the Grand Place is well, grand, and I really liked their art museum. My friend also took me to a great crepe place - and a wonderful chocolate store.

    I'm glad your flights to and from PHL were good ones.

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    Oh, Andrew - a quick question - was Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo open all the way? I read (in an old guidebook) something that said it was open only certain times?

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    I saw the Altarpiece as part of the walking tour. It was just about the last thing we saw. The tour guide seemed to be unsure whether she'd be able to let us see it and said she might need some help getting us in - but it was open. All she had to do was put a coin into the coin-operated light so that we could see it!

    So sorry, I wasn't really paying attention to the access rules.

    Also, while I was there, I think the guide said some pieces of the altarpiece were being cleaned and that some panels in the piece we saw were reproductions. You can see a snapshot of it on my website but probably you can't quite tell the difference.

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    Wonderful pics. What was your P&S, please?

    We took a one-day bus tour to Bruges (from Paris) and loved it although I missed seeing the lace-makers there and the lace museum in Burano.

    Where to next?

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    Thanks, TDudette! I used two cameras on this trip: a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR (an expensive camera) and a cheap Canon Powershot SD880 (a few years old now).

    I used the Powershot on the days when it rained - I often used it with an umbrella. You probably can't tell a big difference in the images on a web page, but you would be able to tell a big difference in quality between the Powershot and the Mark II when printing them (as I sometimes do).

    I have no future trips planned, but I'm thinking about going to Turkey or back to the Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc.) for my next trip.

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    I've been reading about Lumix P&S and am thinking about it before my next trip. Current Olympus born in 2007 and it has been a workhorse in daylight. DH and I usually were asleep by dark so it didn't matter and we just bought post cards in the darkened churches!

    Thanks, Andrew!

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