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Trip Report Trip Report: Benemany (Belgium, Amsterdam, Cologne)

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Wrote this a while back but forgot to post.

Background: Traveled the two weeks before Christmas. Husband and wife experienced European travelers, make all our own transport and lodging arrangements. Two nights in each location. Enjoy traveling in December because Christmas in Europe is enchanting with cheaper air and hotel rates. Travel light; one “carry-on” sized bag, one computer bag. We used medium “Space Bags” to compress clothing. They work great and cost $8 for two at Wal-Mart.

Rail travel: Booked all train tickets online; Brussels to Bruges, Bruges to Ghent, Ghent to Antwerp (all through SNBC Belgian Rail site), Antwerp to Amsterdam (Thalys), Amsterdam to Cologne (NL HiSpeed), Cologne to Brussels (Thalys). Thalys and NL Hispeed booked 60 days out, Belgian Rail only allows booking within 30 days. Efficient, clean, and comfortable. Booked 2nd class tickets for all trips, glad I booked in advance to get reserved seats because fast, Intercity trains were completely full. Belgian Rail strike (22 Dec) was almost catastrophic, but luckily traveled on the 23rd so missed it.

Priceline: Booked all hotels using Priceline except Bruges and Antwerp (wanted to ensure central locations). Cheapest was 5* Renaissance at $65 per night, most expensive was NH Centre Amsterdam at $77 per night. All were good or great!!! You lose some charm staying at “big chain” hotels, but get reliable, great quality lodging and save significant money. Hotel reviews on tripadvisor.com.

Eating: Looked fixed price lunch specials to enjoy nice restaurants. Researched before I traveled and knew where I would have lunch in each location. Good food and saved time and money. Breakfast, if not included in hotel, would be at the nearest bakery. Dinner was either Christmas market food (grilled mussels with garlic in Brussels where a highlight) or found the supermarket nearest to the hotel in every city to buy food. Also used supermarkets for inexpensive presents, chocolate bars in Belgium, Stroopwaffels in Amsterdam, Ritter sports in Germany.

City Cards: Never a fan of the “one price for all attractions” cards and only used one previous for Paris museums. I used them extensively on this trip after doing the math. 15 Euro a piece in Bruges (all municipal museums, 3 days), 20 Euro in Ghent (municipal museums + transport , 3 days), 49 Euro in Amsterdam (most museums, canal cruise, transport for 2 days) and Cologne 14 Euro (museums and transport for two days). Well worth it but gotta push and stay on the move to get value, not for everyone.

Brussels: Stayed at Renaissance Hotel near European District. $70 per night with great, inexpensive bus access (#95) to center of town. 27 years since last visit.

Autoworld: 9 Euro per entrance. Over 250 classic cars; thought it was a potential mistake when first entered, but left smiling. Must for anyone with interest in cars, enjoyable for all.

St. Michaels Cathedral: Free entrance, small charges for crypt and treasury. Not the most impressive, but still beautiful; a good visit.

Grand Palace: Night Christmas light show is fantastic, but the lights and stages really detract during the daytime.

Royal Museum of Fine Arts: 8 Euro per, Modern portion closed for refurb. Smaller than expected, but still great. Art displayed chronologically in a beautiful facility.

Royal Army Museum: Incredible!!! and Free!!! Paid 2.50 Euro for audio guide and well worth it, special audio programs for kids. Great aircraft hall, some tanks, extensive WWI and II exhibits, impressive uniforms and weapons for the 1800s. Must for all veterans or those interested in military.

Bruges: 1st visit. Stayed in Hotel Ter Reien (mistake), paying about $100 per night. If I had it to do over would have stayed at Crowne Plaza 100 yds away. Knew the town would be touristy, but didn’t expect the busloads, even in December. Very compact and easy to walk anywhere within old city walls. Wife and I walked 25 minutes across town with luggage from train station to hotel (took a bus back). All sites were included in 15 Euro museum pass.

Groeninge Museum – Beautiful, extensive facility; THE place to learn about and enjoy Flemish Primatives.

Arentshuis: 50 yds for Groeninge; interesting for 30 minutes trip to see the work of Bruges artist Frank Brangwyn

Memling in Sint-Jan: Must see; beautiful interior, fantastic art, very crowded with tourists. Seek out the small restaurant in the pharmacy for the apple pie.

O.L.V.-ter-Potterie: Don’t miss and well worth the walk, incredibly beautiful chapel.

Gruuthuse: Room of Honor is incredible, everything else just o.k..

Onthaalkerk Onze-Lieve-Vrouw: Being renovated, had to miss it.

Archeologie: For kids only, avoid if not traveling with children.

Stadhuis: The Chamber is incredible, the rest is so-so.

Brugse Vrije: Must see for Renaissance Chamber and fireplace.

Volkskunde: Old alms houses; converted to museum showing home life, shops and schools from 1800s. Interesting display of lace.

Gezelle: Skip it, even with museum pass

Gentpoort: Fair, decent weaponry, wouldn’t go out of the way for it.

Basilica of the Holy Blood: Not included in Museum Pass, but charge is for Treasury visit only. Unexpectedly beautiful (In Bruges filmed elsewhere???) I really enjoyed the visit.

Belfort: 366 steps good climb if for nothing else than just to say you did it, seeing the clockworks is pretty cool. There are places to rest on the climb for those who are worried.

Ghent: After slow start due to malfunctioning transport ticket machines, Ghent proved to be the highlight of the trip. Almost as charming as Bruges, great museums, beautiful sights. Stayed at the Ghent Marriott and its central location really added to the experience. 20 Euro per person city pass included public transport, and paid for all the sights.

The Belfry: Interesting historical guild hall at entrance. Elevator makes it a much easier climb than Bruges. Great View.

Design museum Gent: Very good museum, great Coca Cola special exhibit. Third “design” museum I visited and surprised how much I enjoyed them all.

Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen): Extensively rebuilt, but nonetheless awe-inspiring, I really enjoyed the visit despite crappy weather. Great views from the top.

The House of Alijn: Similar to Alm houses in Bruges but covers a larger time frame (1880s to 1970s), fine photos and artifacts.

St Peter's Abbey Arts Centre: Enoyed the church visit more than the Abbey. Abbey tour consists of a 90 minute hand-held video tour with a “monk” called Allison. Quit after 30 minutes.

Museum of Fine Arts – Very good museum with a fine collection, you will not be disappointed.

St Bavo's Cathedral + The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: Don’t miss, beautiful cathedral with very interesting treasury. Take advantage of the free audio guide when viewing the Adoration.

Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.): S.U.C.K.S

STAM - City museum Ghent: Very interesting museum in a great location. 2000 years of Ghent history in a 90 minute visit.

Antwerp: Stayed one night at the Hilton, $147 for the night. Fine hotel but exorbitant extra charges. Sunday brunch (24 Euro, reserve online) at De Foyer (Bourlaschouwburg theater) was fun with a beautiful interior. All stores open for Sunday before Christmas shopping so town was vibrant and crowded.

Het Steen: Not as impressive as Gravensteen, but walk through the courtyard is free.

The Rubens House: Good visit with decent representations of his artwork, contemporaries and student’s works, and influences. House is an interesting visit on its own.

The Cathedral of our Lady: Antwerp’s Fine Arts Museum closed for refurb, so many Reubens are here. Saw a children’s Christmas concert.

Amsterdam: First visit since the early 80’s, museums and concert displaced Heineken and highs. 49 Euro a piece 48 hours IAmsterdam card is pricey, but pays for itself if hitting the major museums, included canal cruise, and public transport ( I rode the trams a lot).

The Dutch Resistance Museum: Fine, touching museum, compact but extensive exhibits.

Rembrandt’s House: Felt manufactured and touristy, I’d skip if not included in city card.

Hermitage Museum: Special exhibit on Reubens, Van Dyck and Jordeans was spectacular!!!

The Old Church (Oude Kerk): Closed for event, but you need to walk through Red Light district to locate so cultural excuse to see the seedy part of the city.

The New Church (Nieuwe Kerk): Great special exhibit on Jewish heritage including portion of Dead Sea Scrolls.

Rijksmuseum: Incredible, extraordinary!!! Initially bummed when read about main building being refurbed, but new wing (with “masterpieces”) is large and impressive.

Van Gogh Museum: Extensive and thoughtfully displayed. Biographical tour brings insight to the man. I loved it!!!

Concertgebouw: Saw Brittian Sinfonia perform Handel’s Messiah. Paid 22 Euro for online tickets in 3rd row. Great Experience.

Canal Cruise: 1 hour cruise included in IAmsterdam card with recorded narration. Went at night and really enjoyed the lights (and the rest).

Cologne: Come for the Cathedral but stay for the museums. Stayed at the Renaissance ($65 Priceline), a 15 -20 minute walk from the central train station. Wanted to enjoy German Christmas Markets and Cologne has seven individual ones. Visited four twice, on two consecutive nights walking an easy oval loop (about 3 miles) from the hotel to the cathedral and back around. 28 Euro family museum pass included all sights for two for two days (Note: this is a museum pass purchased at any municipal museum, not the “City Welcome Card”.)

City History (Stadtmuseum): On the way to the Cathedral, interesting place for an hour or so. A little bit of everything concerning Cologne from founding to present day.

Romano-Germanic Museum: Interesting look at Roman Cologne, museum built over an unearthed Mosaic floor. Lots of jewelry, coins and busts.

Cathedral Tour: Paid 6.50 E for a one hour guided tour then a 20 minute film about the cathedral. Very interesting and should be considered by all.

Museum Ludwig: I loved this place!!! Lichtenstein, Warhol, Picasso, Dali….. extensive and thorough pop art collection. Don’t talk to “Woman with a Purse”, she ain’t real.

Wallraf-Richartz-Museum: Incredible!!! Greeted by special exhibit “Secret Treasures”, fantastic display of 500 paintings not in permanent collection. Permanent collection is extensive and laid out chronologically. This is a great art museum!!!

Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum: Incredible anthropological museum covering cultures from around the world. Extensive, well laid out, thought provoking.

Christmas Markets: Sorry Belgium, your Christmas markets are AAA, but Germany is the big leagues. Better food, goods, and atmosphere. Went to four in Cologne and enjoyed each one.

Bottom Line: Great trip and never felt it was too much nor ever overwhelmed. Planning for six months prior to visit is a lot of fun and can really make things smooth upon arrival. Internet made it easy to know which bus to get on upon arrival, where tourist information offices are located, how to get to sights. It is so easy to visit Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, trains are easy to use and the trips are very short. Looking forward to next trip!!!

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