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Trip Report Trip report - Belgium and France

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Recently returned from a great trip to Belgium and France. Thanks to all those here and on tripadvisor for their advice.

Began in Brussels because DH had a business meeting there. Stayed at the Marivaux Hotel which was fine, but could be improved. Good points - it was conveniently located (walking distance to Grand Place, Metro, train station and many restaurants) and had good service. However, the room layout was terrible (for example, there was no place to hang a suit or pants as the closet had a shelf in the middle) and the free wifi was so weak in our room as to be useless.

The first day we walked over to Grand Place and found out there was a tour starting at 2:30 from Brussels Walking Tours. The walk supposedly takes an hour and a half, but we really spent twice that amount of time. The guide, Fernando, was extremely knowledgeable and glad to answer any questions. He gave a great overview of the city and summary of Belgium history. Also pointed out places we might want to visit at a later time. All told, one of the best things we did in Brussels.

The next day we took the train to Brugge. (Note - just buy the ticket at the station on the day you plan to travel. There are frequent trips on this route.) Everyone told us before we came - "You must go to Brugge." Perhaps we were expecting too much - but it was a big disappointment. Due to the lousy weather (off and on rain), we couldn't walk around as much as we would have liked. Also, between the traffic and the construction, we felt like we couldn't just gaze at the old buildings in peace, but were constantly jumping out of the way of cars or bulldozers. Did get some great chocolate there at Dumon.

Saw two Brussels museums which were both well done. One was the unique Musical Instrument Museum. They have a large collection of musical instruments from different times and places. By each group of instruments, there is a place to plug in your earphones and hear samples of the appropriate music. Also saw the Belvue Museum which tells the story of Belgian history (hint - not very old) and includes English subtitles.

One day DH had his meeting and I was left to amuse myself. In addition to buying chocolate, I learned to make Belgian waffles which was really fun. The results were excellent and I took leftovers to the hotel and heated them in the toaster the next morning. Note on chocolate - you must try several brands at different price levels. We found we could really tell the difference between the $30/lb variety and the $60/lb.

Then it was on to France, beginning with Alsace. We took the train which was pleasant and efficient. (Note - these tickets were purchased online in advance, the earlier the better.) Our base for the next few days was Strasbourg. We stayed at the Hotel Hannong, which was a great choice. This is a small family owned hotel with character. It's walking distance to all the city center tourist attractions as well as the train station. Staff was very helpful and everyone spoke English. Also, many places advertise free wifi, but here it actually worked well in the room.

We really enjoyed walking around Strasbourg and the overall ambiance of the city. One day we visited the cathedral and walked to the top of the tower. This is definitely worth it as you can see the gargoyles etc up close and personal. On the other hand, the famous clock was rather disappointing - the moving parts were so high up and dark that you couldn't really get a decent view of them. We also visited the Alsacien Museum which has an interesting collection of items showing the traditional life of the area.

Another day we took the Regioscope full day tour 2. We had a good time, but it was not exactly a tour. The "tour guide", Deepak, was not a guide at all, but a chauffeur. He drove us from place to place and chatted about the area while we were in the minibus. However, at each stop, he dropped us off and we were totally on our own. On the other hand, the sites that we visited were all great. The Haut Koenigsburg castle is amazing, the towns were so cute you thought you were in Disneyland and the wine tasting was fun with quite generous servings. Really, the day was one of the highlights of our trip, just not quite what we were expecting when we signed up for a "tour".

We took the train to Colmar one day. (Again, you purchase tickets at the station - there are no better deals for reserving in advance.) The town looked lovely, but we didn't get to see much because of the continuous rain.

We left Strasbourg by train for Paris, but stopped for the day in Reims. (Note -there is no luggage storage at the train station, but we were able to leave our suitcases at the Suite Novotel Reims Centre Hotel.) The main reason for our stop was to take a tour of a traditional champagne house, in our case Ruinart. They take you down into the caves or crayeres to see the champagne aging and explain the process in detail. The caves are based on chalk mines originally dug by the Romans - pretty neat. There were only 8 people in the group, so it is very personal. After the tour, we enjoyed sampling some of the bubbly. Hint - you can sign up for one or two glasses with the tour - getting two glasses doubles the price. However, if you only get one glass, you have your choice and can select the fancier Dom Ruinart vintage.

While in Reims, we visited the Museum of the Surrender where you can see the room where the Nazis surrendered to the Allied forces. Anyone with an interest in World War II would find this memorable. Also took a quick look at the Cathedral and admired the Chagall windows.

Our base in Paris was the New Orient Hotel. This is a nice, small, reasonably priced (for Paris) hotel located in the 8th arrondissement. It's in a quiet neighborhood, but is an honest 5 min walk to a Metro stop or 10 min to a RER station. (The Metro was wonderful! We rarely waited more than 2 or 3 minutes.) The front desk staff was very pleasant and helpful and everything worked well with one exception. The shower was elevated above the bathroom floor and didn't have a glass door, so every time we took a shower, no matter how we arranged the shower curtain, there was a small flood in the bathroom.

I had never been to Paris, so I'm afraid we did mostly the standard tourist things. One of those was admiring and then going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Only one elevator was working, so lines were long. We were happy to be in good enough shape to walk to the second level which saved us at least an hour in line. While we were waiting we enjoyed some yummy crepes from the stand next to the carousel. (Hint, there is a light show after dark every hour on the hour. If you are going up at night, the best view of the light show is from the second platform, not the top.) We also went to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. I thought the view of the city by day was actually better from there than from the Tower. Note - the Arc is open late, so schedule your museums etc earlier in the day and do this at the end.

Took several walking tours including two from Discover Paris. I think these really give you a better feel for the city than taking a bus. I liked that you didn't have to reserve these in advance - just show up at the meeting point at the appointed time. Also had a great private tour of Jewish Paris - thanks Rabbi Tom.

One thing I really noticed was that everything in Paris seemed to be a work of art. The buildings, the street lights and even drains were designed to be beautiful. That's not even mentioning the food and especially the pastry. What does it say about a people that has two distinct different words for bread bakery and pastry bakery? To me, it says you had better sample lots of both while you are visiting.

The other totally touristy thing we did was see the show at the Moulin Rouge. It was expensive and over the top, but also great fun - like a combination of a Vegas show and old time burlesque. Even if you don't see the show, it's worth it to go to Montmartre at night just to see all the buildings lit up.

Our last day was spent at Versailles. We took the train there. Even though we had purchased tickets in advance, you still have to wait in a very long security line. The palace certainly lived up to its hype - it's practically the archetype for palace in the western world. We were there on a Sunday and so got to see the fountains flowing - very worthwhile if you have the chance. Although it is mobbed in the chateau, the gardens are so large that it doesn't feel that crowded.

Potential links of interest
Belgium
http://www.hotelmarivaux.com/
http://www.tripadvisor.in/Attraction_Review-g188644-d2242235-Reviews-Brussels_Walking_Tours-Brussels.html
http://www.mim.be/en
http://www.belvue.be/BELvue/museum.aspx?id=252828&LangType=1033
http://www.brusselswaffleworkshop.com/brussels-waffle-workshop-description.html

Alsace and Reims
http://www.hotel-hannong.com/en/hotel-strasbourg.html
http://www.strasbourg-cathedral.com/
http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu/index.php?page=musee-alsacien-en
http://www.regioscope.com/?Rpage=english/?Rpage=
http://www.ruinart.com/us/la-maison-ruinart/#the-first-established-champagne-house
http://www.reims-tourism.com/museum-of-the-surrender/commune/tabid/15267/offreid/cb2de5af-14c9-4cec-bd29-24db48aae3ee/museum.aspx

Paris
http://www.hotelneworient.com/
http://en.parismuseumpass.com/
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g187147-i14-k5135308-Important_links_for_visitors_to_Paris-Paris_Ile_de_France.html
http://www.discoverwalks.com/paris-walking-tours/
http://www.eiffel-tower.com/preparing-your-visit/planning-your-visit.html
http://www.arcdetriompheparis.com/
http://www.moulinrouge.fr/
http://en.chateauversailles.fr/homepage

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