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Trip Report Our European Eating and Drinking Adventure - May 2009 (very long)

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The travellers: MB & me, married couple in our early 30s. This was our first trip to Europe as a couple, MB’s first trip ever and my first trip to these countries (visited Italy on a school trip as a teenager). We are Canadian. MB loves beer, comics and cars and we seemed to plan our trip around those things, especially beer. I love experiencing other cultures, food and drink and being on the water (boats). Visiting museums and waking up early were not a priority for us but having fun, seeing a lot, taking pictures and eating and drinking as much as possible were. We had a pretty tight budget but managed to loosen up when it counted.

I have been dreaming about a trip like this for a long time and planning for over a year. When airfares started to plummet we realized we could actually make it happen this year. One of my toughest decisions was whether to bring our laptop with all my research, links and spreadsheets. We decided we didn’t want the hassle of lugging it around and the possibility of theft, which was probably a wise choice, but I did miss the ability to look things up quickly a couple of times. I don’t feel we missed much though, and I am thankful we chose not to carry it around. Our luggage was heavy enough!

The Itinerary: Our 10 day European adventure involved flying into Amsterdam for 3 nights, then traveling by train to Bruges for 3 nights, one night in Brussels and then train to Cologne to pick up our rental car. 2 nights in Koblenz while exploring the Rhine & Mosel and then a final night in Frankfurt before our early flight home. I know this itinerary may seem crazy and rushed to some, but the pace was perfect for us. The only thing I would change in hindsight is the night in Brussels. I had my doubts about it going in, but MB really wanted to spend time there. I think it would have been nicer as a day trip.

We made a lot of use of Rick Steves’ guidebooks (“Amsterdam Bruges & Brussels” and “Germany”). While certainly no substitute for a good map (which we discovered on our first day in Amsterdam) they were very helpful and actually led us to some great bargains in Bruges. I also used these forums a lot in our planning, so thanks to all the posters who gave great advice!

Our other secret weapon on this trip was Priceline. I booked 4-star hotels in Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt for under $70 usd per night. We could not have afforded this trip without this amazing resource. MB is very tall and somewhat fastidious so he was much more comfortable in these reliable chain hotels with high ceilings than taking chances bonking his head in independently run, smaller places. But that only covered half our trip and there is no Priceline action in the smaller towns so we were on our own in Bruges and Koblenz and ended up very happy with our smaller hotel choices (even though they cost twice as much).

Well, that’s a lot of background! I will update with Day 1 of the actual trip report!

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    Day 1 – Amsterdam
    We’d read that Amsterdam is a great entry to Europe because there are few language barriers and lots to see and do, so from the beginning we planned to enter Europe through Amsterdam even though the place we wanted to spend the most time was Belgium. We found a wonderful deal on a direct flight from Toronto to Amsterdam through Air Transat. It was even cheaper if we flew home from Frankfurt so we extended our trip to an open jaw adventure that allowed us to see Germany as well as Brussels and the Netherlands.

    Our flight left Toronto at 11pm and arrived in Amsterdam around noon. The flight was completely uneventful. Most rows on the Air Transat airbus have seats 9(!) across 3x3x3, so we paid $30 extra pp to sit in 2x3x2 double seats in the back of the plane. A bit more leg room for 6’3” MB and more importantly less cramped aisles so we weren’t bumped around by the carts. We hoped to sleep a bit on the overnight flight but only managed a few hours each. They woke us to serve a horrible, lean-cuisine-style chicken dish after midnight and again to give us a muffin in the morning. No issues and the flight arrived right on time. No complaints.

    Not being seasoned international travellers, we were a little shocked at the “security” clearance entering Schiphol. We went through the “Nothing to Declare” exit and showed our passport briefly to an attendant and were sent on our way. No questions whatsoever! We’re used to the US/Canada land border crossings where they grill you about your length of stay, etc. It was very refreshing!

    We glanced at the ticket machines but chose to buy our train ticket to Centraal from the attendant. After visiting several European train stations, I don’t understand the obsessive questions on forums about buying tickets from machines - cards, coins, etc. There was no line and the attendant happily told us what platform to go to. This was more than worth the extra 1 or 2 euros over navigating the machine.

    As per my RS guidebook, I wanted to find the airport “TI”. I didn’t really understand what that meant – I expected friendly ambassadors with lots of free advice and pamphlets - so when we finally found it, I was a little dismayed at the big line for a tiny kiosk with maps & info for sale. Although I lived to regret skipping the line and not getting an Amsterdam map, I found TIs in general to be a huge waste of time on this trip and staffed by the only rude, unfriendly people we met in all of Europe.

    The train trip from Schiphol to Centraal seemed longer than 20 min, and there is nothing interesting to see out the train windows. We were embarrassed by our huge suitcases, not realizing that by the end of the trip we would be pros at handling them on trains. We walked out of Centraal Station and I found a kiosk that sold drinks where we could buy our Strip Ticket for the trams. This was also a little complex and probably would have been worth the extra few euros to buy individual tickets, but I was pretty proud of us for navigating the system and getting on the right tram to Leidseplein.

    Lugging our suitcases on the tram was no fun, but it was a short trip and we were listening intensely to the stops called out and reading the maps to get off at the right place. Once we got off, we were thrilled to find it was a short, 2-minute walk to our hotel (Nh Amsterdam Centre). They did not have a room ready for us even though it was now after 14:00, but we stored our luggage to tour the city. I also had to duck into their nice, clean WC to change clothes after travelling for 12 hours.

    Our first stop was beer & a snack. Back to Leidseplein. We expected service to be slow but it was not an issue for us, we were served quickly with 2 Heineken and a nice parma ham and pesto baguette to share (€17 total). After this short break we walked over to the adjacent Boom Chicago theatre to sign up for the St. Nicholaas boat tour for the next day at 17:00. It was not hard to find the unmanned signup book. Then we explored the canals around Leidseplein on foot and found an Albert Heijn grocery. I LOVE grocery stores, especially in foreign lands. We purchased some cheap beers and snacks for our hotel room (beer around €1 each) and headed back to check in.

    I expected small hotel rooms in Europe but this room was almost hilariously small. It was obviously not the best room in the hotel, on the 2nd floor with a view of some air duct systems, but it was modern and clean and the bed was comfortable. We had a snack and changed and showered and headed back out into the city.

    By this time it was 18:00. It was my intention to find Gollem, a bar near Dam Square that has a huge selection of Belgian beer. I wanted to surprise and impress my husband who had travelled all this way to drink as many beers as possible. I had Google map directions, but no actual map of the city, just a Rick Steves guidebook to lead us. We ended up walking in circles around the area and ending up in Jordaan. It was beautiful but I was getting tired and a little frustrated that we could not find what we were looking for.

    We ended up in a lovely little café near Singel & Spuistraat where we relaxed with beer & snacks. I had my first (and second) Kriek of the trip and MB had a Delerium and we shared a lovely charcuterie platter with warm spicy sausage, bread and cheese (€20 total).

    By 21:00 we had walked back to the Leidseplein and we were astounded at how light it still was out. I wanted to take the tourist boat at night since we would be taking the boat in daylight the next day. We just missed the 21:00 Blue Boat candlelight cruise departing from the Leidseplein, but it wasn’t dark out yet anyway so we bought tickets for the 22:00 boat. (€30 + €2 for a map so we won’t get lost again tomorrow.) We had a drink outside at the Irish pub in Max Euwe plein while waiting for our boat.

    The 90 minute cruise was very good. We shared a bottle of generic red wine (€12 – not bad). The covered boat was not full and all the guests spoke English so the guide only gave English explanations. He was a very entertaining older man with a flair for the dramatic. It was lovely to see the canals lit up, especially the 7 bridges and the Magre Brug. When we went through the red light district we saw a drunken Asian businessman pee into the canal. I couldn’t get over the houseboats with people eating dinner, watching TV and living their lives on the water with no window shades!

    We got back to our hotel just after 23:30, making this a very long day. We looked at local TV a bit before falling asleep. It was often terrible American movies subtitled in Dutch, which was nice for us in this foreign land. We had a great 1st day and were very proud of our navigation skills so far, despite getting lost in search of Gollem.

    Tomorrow: Day 2 in Amsterdam - Bike & Boat tours!

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    I am a big fan of Priceline in Europe and have used them in Paris 2x, Venice 1x and London 1x. All hotels were excellent and a fraction of the published prices - none over 100USD and all 4 star.

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    Enjoying your report, looking forward to more!

    I laughed at your comment about the obsession with buying tickets -- I'm kind of the "I'll figure it out" type of gal, but I did appreciate a the Dutch train system's practice website :)

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    canadiancouple - We'll be in Amsterdam in October, and we're planning on signing up for the St. Nicholaas Boat Club ride through the canals, so I'm really looking forward to your critique of the experience.

    ...but chose to buy our train ticket to Centraal from the attendant. We do the same thing, when we travel through Schiphol into Amsterdam. We find the NS counter to be much more convenient, because we can buy our train ticket as well as a Strippenkaart all in one transaction (plus they'll give you a map of Amsterdam with the tram stops listed).

    Did you ever get to Gollum? It's another place we're planning on visiting. I'm looking forward to the rest of your report. Thanks for posting.

    Robyn :)>-

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    Sorry for the delay....

    DAY 2 - Oops.. we slept until 9:30 and had to rush to make the 11:00 Countryside bike tour with Mike’s Bikes. It was not far from our hotel and I checked the directions on the computer in the hotel lobby. We arrived just as they were starting to give instructions. There were about 15 in the group and MB, because he is tall, was chosen to bring up the rear and make sure no one got lost. That was fine by me as we could go at our own pace. The bikes were great, easy to manoeuvre and with saddle bags to handle our sweaters & water bottles.

    The tour is billed at 4 hours but it was about 40 minutes before we even left the bike garage. We stopped at the Magre Brug again for a little history on Amsterdam, then biked out through the countryside on gorgeous paved trails along the dykes. Biking in the city was a little intimidating at first, but once we got into the countryside it was calm and lovely. We stopped at a windmill where tour busses dropped of groups as well. Had a few pics and a little more history of the area, then on to the cheese & clog farm. There was a bathroom and our guide offered us all a beer for €1, then we went inside. It seemed like a humble little family operation at first. They gave us a demo on cheesemaking and a little sample, then showed us clog making. Then we were led into the store which was huge and had tons of tacky Dutch souvenirs, clogs and cheese. We did buy a bit (cash only) and then we were on our way again. We biked through more dykes, farmland and canals full of houseboats, then back into the city and through Vondelpark, which is lovely. We aren’t in top shape but weren’t too exhausted after 3 hours of riding. I thought it was good value at €22 per person.

    But we had forgotten to have breakfast and there was no stop for lunch so we were starving. We stopped at Febo for a croquette (dispensed from little coin-operated cabinets) then back to the hotel to change before a real lunch. Ate pancakes with cheese & bacon from a little café off the Leidseplein, with Belgian beers (€27 for pancakes & 2 beers each).

    Next it was time for our 17:00 boat ride with St. Nicholaas. We met at the Boom Chicago theatre. I noticed the bartender had takeout cups and I was getting drowsy so I ordered a koffie verkeerd (latte) to take on the boat. It was great – my new favourite non-alcoholic drink in Europe! When the group was assembled – about 10 of us - the volunteer captain led us to the little boat docked a few blocks away. This is not really a tour, it is more of a relaxing hour or two on the water. The boat drivers are all volunteers and don’t give a tourist spiel but will answer questions. Our guy asked us where we wanted to go and no one had any suggestions so we told him to take us where he wanted to go. I believe we were mostly in the Jordaan area. There is a bit of bad blood between these boats and the covered tourist boats, but I’m glad we did both. Doing one at night and one in daylight was a nice way to see the whole city from different perspectives. This boat is open and you can bring whatever you want to eat/drink/smoke so it was quite a laid back experience. At the end the volunteer asks you to drop a donation in a coffee can. The recommended amount is €10 per person, which is what we paid. It was well worth it. Just being on the water is so great and so relaxing.

    Once the boat trip was over we headed by tram to Centraal Station. I checked the price & schedule for train tickets to Antwerp later in the week. We walked to the public library behind the station. It was about a 10 minute walk from the station. I wanted to use the free internet kiosks and also heard the view from the café on the top floor was nice. I’m really glad we went here. We had great views of the harbour area and the science museum shaped like the Titanic. The library is amazing with over 1100 free internet stations. We checked email, etc. then went up to the café. It is more of a cafeteria setup, but they have nice fresh juice, food stations and beer & wine. Went outside on the patio with our drinks and the view was amazing. A great view of the city.

    Now on to the red light district. We wanted to get there before dark since we didn’t know what to expect, but since it was light until 22:00 we had lots of time. It was definitely less creepy than I expected, and more spread out. The ladies we saw in the windows were very attractive and seemed to beckon to both my husband and me. Thanks but no thanks. We just walked around gawking like tourists – which we are, and grabbed some frites from a stand. Then we found a truly gorgeous old bar and had a few drinks. I wish I knew the name of the place but it is on the edge of the RLD closer to Centraal Station and has posters of monkeys everywhere. It was great. Then back to the Leidseplein by tram to enjoy the rest of the evening. Again we forgot to eat dinner and once we realized we were starving we were pretty tired. We stopped into McDonalds and ordered bitterballen. I do not recommend this solution but I think our decision-making skills were somewhat impaired. Still I’m glad we got to try truly foreign food in a foreign McDonalds, even though it was pretty gross.

    Tomorrow – Day 3 – Last day in Amsterdam and our first and only museum.

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    Day 3 – I guess we are not destined to get going in the morning. We made it out of the hotel by 11:00 and back to Albert Heijn grocery store for picnic fixings and then on to Vondelpark. The shop is close to the park so they have lots of small packages of meats & cheeses. We picked up those and some rolls and yogurt and beer and headed off to the park for brunch. It was a gorgeous day. We were lucky with the weather our whole time in Europe, but we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day for a picnic. We relaxed and people-watched in front of a small stream.

    By about 13:00 we had had enough sun and gathered our things and walk to Museumplein. We considered seeing the Van Gogh or Rijksmuseum, but honestly didn’t feel like it so we went to a museum more up our alley: The Heineken Experience. It was actually a lot better that I expected. For €15 per person you get entry to the museum and 3 beers – one in the middle of the museum and 2 tokens for the bar at the end. There are lots of interactive displays. They have pull out screens with different tacky Holland scenes you can stick your head in for photos, you can send photo and video messages to friends and family through email, and there is a 4-D “ride” that goes through the brewing process as if you are the beer, so you get shaken around and misted with a bit of water. I have been on a LOT of brewery tours and this one made it more fun and interesting. We also printed a Heineken bottle with our names on it as a souvenir (€5) and collected it at the end of the tour. We had our “free” beers and were on our way.

    Now you may recall I’d had a hard time finding Café Gollem the bar earlier in the trip. I found out there was another bar, Gollem II near the museums and this one was right on the corner and easy to find. It was about 15:00 and the place was deserted but there was a very nice guy at the bar who helped us. MB saw the holy grail of beers listed on the menu – Westvleteren. It is not exported to North America so it is very difficult to get but considered one of the best beers in the world. They were out of Westvleteren 12 which is supposed to be the best, but they had Westvleteren 8 so MB tried it and he was in heaven. This bottle was actually aged a few years so he got really lucky. He maintains it was the best beer of the trip and of his life! I stuck with the lambics I prefer. We were sitting outside and it was just such a perfect day we were very happy.

    One thing I noticed with bar service on our trip is that they won’t come by and offer you another drink until your glass is empty. I’m used to ordering another when I still have some left so I’m not left without a drink while they bring another. So we made sure to drain our glasses so we could order another round. The bartender said there was nothing he had that could top the last round, so MB settled for a Charles Quint on draught and I had Frambozen (raspberry) beer. These 2 rounds cost €22, mainly because of the €10 Westvleteren,

    We decided to do our shopping & sight seeing. There were a few things we wanted to buy and since it was our last day and getting close to shop closing time we did a mad rush through our stops. Thinking back now it is amazing we made it everywhere. First the Albert Cuyp Market which was right around the corner. It is mostly like a flea marker/bazaar with clothes and small items for sale and there are also fresh and cooked food stalls. It was pretty busy but we managed to get some spicy chicken wings as a snack and hit the stroopwaffle booth for a fresh hot stroopwaffle and a package of them to take home. Next we grabbed the tram and headed to the flower market. Unfortunately, there were no bulbs available for export to Canada. They said they only have those in August, but we did get to see the Mint Tower which we had missed on our previous wanderings. We cut through to Leidsestraat where we kept seeing this beautiful pottery in the window of a shop that was always closed when we walked by. We made it before closing time and bought a mug with a really cool design to remember Amsterdam. Next we hopped back on the tram. I tried to use the same strippenkart but the conductor would not allow it, even though I’m pretty sure you can transfer within one hour. Oh well, we were stamped again and off to Dam Square which we had also managed to miss on our travels. Just outside the square there is a great beer store we’d read about, and we were able to make it there 15 minutes before closing. MB found bottles of Westvleteren 12 and bought some to take home. They were very expensive at €10 each but he was worried we wouldn’t see them again and had to get some. Then we asked how to find the original Gollem bar and were directed to an alleyway we had walked by 3 times on our previous search. It was so frustrating that it had been right there all along, but we were glad to finally find it.

    This place is very small. There is a small bar area and a slightly larger area with tables a few steps up. We didn’t find the staff or patrons particularly hospitable – they seemed slightly annoyed to have tourists in their midst, although you’d think they’d be used to it! MB finally tried Westvleteren 12 and pronounced it delicious, but he preferred the aged #8 he’d had earlier at Gollem II and I much preferred the atmosphere there over the original Café Gollem.

    We headed back to the hotel to drop off our purchases and get ready for dinner. We wanted to try one of the Leidseplein tourist restaurants and saw a Chinese restaurant serving duck, which is MB’s favourite. We got an absurd amount of food on a round rotating platter to share and had some wine as well. The food wasn’t the best I’ve ever had but the portion was unbelievable and at €42 with 2 glasses of wine each I thought it was excellent value.

    After dinner we were back in the Leidseplein for another enjoyable evening in the coffeehouse relaxing and people watching. We had a great last day in Amsterdam and were sad to be leaving in the morning.

    Tomorrow: Day 4 – on to Bruges with some train delays along the way.

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    Looking forward to your

    installment in Bruges. We will be leaving for The Netherlands and then Belgium next week.

    I am going to sign up for the St. Nicholaas canal boat trip. I know that you are encouraged to bring food, drinks and smokes. Was there a lot of smoking on the boat? What was the demographic, generally. I am not looking to join a party boat as I will have my two kids with me.

    Thanks for your report.

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    I have taken a canalboat cruise in the day and at night too.
    This is highly recommended to get the different perspectives.
    The Lovers night one with wine and snacks is very nice.
    I have taken this 2x and will again this fall with DH :)

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    Hi poutine. The St. N boat demographic was all adults, late 20s to 50s. People were smoking cigarettes and joints and drinking wine from paper cups or beer. I'm a non-smoker and the smoke didn't really bother me since the boat is open air. It didn't get rowdy but I'm not sure it's the best place for young children.

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    Day 4 – Finally awoke at a somewhat decent hour and managed to check out of the hotel by 10:00. There were no issues or charges with checkout, but since I’ve been back I’ve read a few reports that made me realize we really should have asked for a final bill. Even though it was pre-paid through Priceline and there were no additional charges, some people have had problems with charges showing up later. No issues for us though.

    We got to the train station and I was once again glad I’d gone to the ticket counter instead of the machine. It seems the direct train to Antwerp was cancelled today due to construction so we had to take a different one and change trains. Now luckily, there were some American girls in front of us in the same situation. The attendant told them where to transfer and they asked him to write it down, thank goodness! I quickly introduced myself to these girls and kept them in my sight the whole time we were on the trains so we wouldn’t get lost. They were going on to Brussels but Antwerp was on the way so we stuck together.

    I had planned to pay for the tickets on Visa but the attendant said cash only. It was unclear whether it was my Canadian card that was the problem or if their system was down or if they just don’t take credit cards. We had to rush to make our train so I didn’t ask questions, I just paid cash. €31 each, but no time to grab breakfast.

    The mystery stop turned out to be 's-Hertogenbosch which we would have had a hard time spelling on our own. When we got off the train there was another waiting but of course we were not going to jump on a train without knowing where it was going. Sadly, that’s just what we should have done. It departed quickly and we found out it was the train to Antwerp & Brussels and there wouldn’t be another for an hour. So we lugged our bags through the station and Albert Heijn saved the day again. There was a small grocery store and we bought some drinks and hot croissants stuffed with ham & cheese plus a bag of fresh carrots & radishes since our vegetable intake had been pretty low so far. It was a nice way to wait. I also had to buy some large bandages because I had injured my toe on the shower plug that morning and it was really starting to get bad. There was a small drugstore-type shop and I was a little intimidated by the selection. When I chose my bandages, the cashier started speaking to me in Dutch and I got a bit nervous. I used my patented technique of a blank stare followed by “I’m sorry I only speak English” and of course she repeated herself in perfect English. It turns out the bandages were on sale 2-for-1 so she wanted me to take another package plus a free little wallet to go with them. How nice! And those extra bandages did come in handy on the trip.

    We finally caught our next train and it seemed like forever, but we got to Antwerp and were rewarded by their beautiful train station. Our original plan had been to arrive in Antwerp early and spend the day here and travel on to Bruges in the late afternoon, but the train delay meant we didn’t get there until 14:00 and also it was Assumption Day and everything was closed, so we only spent an hour in the city before our train to Bruges.

    We packed our luggage into lockers. Unfortunately all the big lockers were full so we had to each jam a suitcase into a smaller locker. In all, this was probably not worth the cost and hassle since they were €3.50 each and we didn’t have enough change and had to get more. But we got it sorted and headed out into Antwerp. First we stopped to admire the train station and buy our tickets to Bruges (€13.60 each). Then we popped into the TI and asked what there was to see near the station. The attendant couldn’t have been less helpful and had no suggestions, so we just grabbed a map and set out on our own.

    The Antwerp zoo is right outside the station. We love zoos but decided €18.50 each was too much to pay for just an hour, plus there was some kind of children’s festival going on and it looked busy so we decided to see the town instead. We walked along the mostly deserted streets. The architecture is beautiful. Every building is covered in ornate carvings – even the shops. Back home malls are generally modern monstrosities but in Europe they are gorgeous. They were all closed though due to the holiday so we sat in a nice beer garden so we could have our first Belgian beer in Belgium. Prices for beer are much cheaper than Amsterdam. It was just €6 for a Tripel and a Kriek.

    Headed back to the station and caught our train to Bruges. Our guidebook indicated this should be a 50 minute trip but it took at least 90 minutes stopping at each town along the way. I’m not sure if an express train was available, but we were growing weary of train travel. Fortunately there were a bunch of adorable Belgian children on the train with face paint from the children’s festival so they made us smile while we waited to arrive.

    I’d made a budget for this trip that didn’t include many splurges and I’d printed directions by public trainsit to all our hotels, but on this train ride we decided we were tired of hauling suitcases around and we’d take a taxi to our hotel. This was the best decision ever. I don’t know if we would have found our hotel on the winding streets of Bruges. Cost: €12 and well worth it.

    The Hotel Fevery is a small hotel about 10 minutes from the centre of Bruges. It was the first hotel I found in my research a year ago and it is very reasonably priced. I had emailed the proprietor to ask for a room without low beams because MB is so tall and when he showed us to our room he told us it was a bit bigger than the others. It was about twice the size of our 4-star room in Amsterdam It was on the 3rd (top) floor and there is a lift that stops part way up and a few stairs to the door, then a few stairs down inside. There was a standard 2-beds-pushed-together queen sized bed with separate duvets, a small table with 2 chairs, a tv and a huge bathroom. The room was spotlessly clean. I loved this hotel. Once we were planning the trip in earnest I looked at B&Bs but we’re not used to staying in those and we like our privacy, so this was an excellent choice. Paul, the proprietor was completely unobtrusive but extremely helpful when we had questions. He gave us a map and circled all the most interesting sights and also gave us a discount card for most of them. And we were on our way out into Bruges.

    Due to the delays we had just missed the procession of the Holy Blood in the main square, where they take out the vial of Christ’s blood and parade it around. I can’t say I was heartbroken to miss it because once we made it to the centre, the crowds were gone and even though the bleachers were still set up for the parade, it was very peaceful. When planning our trip I really wanted to be in Bruges early in the week to avoid the busy weekend, but we unavoidably ended up there on a busy holiday weekend. It caused almost no problems except one crowd scene. I’d still go back on a weekend but would choose a weekday if I could. And I would stay longer than 3 days because we just loved it there.

    The streets of Bruges were gorgeous. We took a picture of the first canal we saw outside our hotel and laughed at it later because each subsequent canal was even more beautiful. We wandered kind of off course but finally made it to the Market Square and saw all the gorgeous buildings and the bell tower. Time for a beer, of course. We went just outside the square and found a place that boasted 15 different fruit beers: Don Quichotte. I tried the strangest one – coconut! It was actually delicious. MB had the only beer still brewed in Bruges and we were very happy. The weather was gorgeous and we were finally at our destination. We had another round (cranberry for me this time) and were on our way to see more of the town after paying the €20 bill.

    We stopped for some frites in market square and sat on the empty bleachers to eat them and take a look at our surroundings. The frites were hot and they were served with mayo on request and for a €0.50 surcharge. Not a fan of mayo, I had ketchup (also €0.50) but MB loved the mayo. We walked through Burg square and past the canals. We were looking for another bar called ‘t Brugs Beertje. Since we never figured out how to pronounce it we called it the 300 beer bar. We were afraid of another Gollem incident because it looked difficult to find, but Bruges is small and we came across it easily. When we first entered we were concerned because the place was packed and there were no seats, but the bartender directed us to the back and we walked in to the the smoke-free back room which turned out to be the best decision of our whole trip.

    MB is a real beer lover. Over the past few years he and his brother have been tasting more and more advanced and rare beers from all over the world. When I first started dreaming of going to Europe, I knew I could entice my husband with all the rare and delicious Belgian beer and it worked. So to see him sit down to a menu of 300 beers was a very happy moment. He was in heaven. There was a young man behind the bar and a young girl helping him (both looked like early 20s). They were so helpful and kind to us. We ordered our choices from the menu and then chose a second round on our own and had a nice croque monsieur with a wonderful salad from the small food menu.

    For the next round we asked for assistance and told him what kind of beers we liked. He made perfect recommendations for us. MB had Black Albert which turned out to be his second favourite beer of all time after the Westvleteren (unfortunately, just as rare). And I had Gueze which is an unflavoured lambic with a nice sour taste. I loved it. Prices were very reasonable at about €3 per beer but some of the premium ones were more like €7 – still cheaper than Amsterdam! We also purchased the Bruges beer guide which had some pretty vague coupons in it I think it was around €10. With that and our sandwich our bill was €42 for a whole evening of Belgian beer. We were very satisfied!

    Finding our hotel after that was a bit of a challenge. We got a little lost and it took us about 30 minutes but we made it back by midnight. The streets were completely deserted and it felt a little eerie at times, but it seems very safe.

    Tomorrow – Exploring Bruges by boat + our fancy dinner

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    Thanks Canadiancouple for your answer. The kids aren't that young - 10 and 12. I was more wondering if it was one big drinking and toking canal boat tour. I wonder if maybe I should take a morning ride ....

    Please continue.

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    Day 5 – Bruges
    I don’t think sleeping in is an option in Bruges. Bells chime at 7:30 and every 15 minutes after. We managed to sleep until 8:30 and made it to breakfast by 9:45 with just 15 minutes to spare. This was our first inclusive European breakfast and I just loved it. What a sensible meal – meats, cheeses, rolls, and something sweet. The Hotel Fevery spread included a basket of fresh rolls and toast at the table and an optional boiled egg (we declined), and a small buffet of salami, ham, cheese, yogurt with fruit and nuts to add in, cereal and spreads. I believe their chocolate spread was nut-free (MB is allergic) but we didn’t want to take any chances. I have to admit, I chowed down. I love breakfast. MB was more reserved because he doesn’t usually eat in the mornings.

    We chatted with Paul for a bit and once we were done breakfast we were off to try to climb the bell tower. By this time it was 10:30 and there was quite a line. We considered it but then decided to move on and try again another time. Time for my favourite part of a new city – the boat ride. Our RS guidebook said they’re all basically the same so we picked one at random and hopped on. They really jam you in. There was a man on our boat who had to be 6’8” at least. He took up 2 spots. I felt bad for him with all the low ceilings and tight spaces in Bruges. The boat ride was nice. You could tell it was a canned spiel but the guide added a few dry jokes in there. The canals were beautiful. We couldn’t believe how gorgeous the city is. The ride was about 45 minutes and €6.80 each. Definitely worth it.

    It was another astoundingly gorgeous day, sunny and about 15 Celsius. We decided to rush to make it to the De Halve Maan brewery tour at noon. We were there 20 minutes early and it was a good thing because the tour was sold out 10 minutes later. We got 1 free admission with our beer guide from last night, so we essentially paid €5.50 for 2 tours and 2 beers . They split the groups by language and the English group was first. I highly recommend this tour. Our guide was wonderful. She was very enthusiastic about Belgian beer and very funny. There are a lot of tight stairs on the tour so you need to be willing to do some climbing, and the descent is more like a ladder so you have to go down backwards. But once you get to the roof it is all worth it. A gorgeous view of Bruges, then beer in their lovely courtyard.

    We continued our walking tour to the begijnhof. It was so peaceful and quiet. We popped into the church. I haven’t been in a church in years but it still smells the same wherever you go. It is quite comforting. Then through Minnewater park where we took a few pictures of the lake of love and strolled happily in the peaceful surroundings. I really can’t emphasize enough how beautiful it is here. So it was a bit of a shock when we got through the park and ended up in busy fairgrounds. We kept walking and it got more and more crowded. We stopped into the TI because I had read in the Rick Steves guide that there was a pass for bike rental and 3 museums for $15. The pass no longer exists and the lady wasn’t very friendly about letting us know. We also asked about the Canadian War Museum which we had read about and actually had a discount coupon for in our book. She had never heard of it and could not explain how to get there. This was the last straw with me and TIs. I really can’t understand why they hate tourists so much. Everyone we met in Europe was so kind and friendly to us except the people who were supposed to be there to help tourists! Fine – no museums for us in Bruges then. We weren’t dying to see them anyway.

    After that unpleasant experience I had my only claustrophobic freak out of the trip. We turned on to the main shopping street and it was absolutely packed with people. You couldn’t even move. MB wanted to look in the shops to find the nice shoes he envied on all the European men, but I had to get out of there so I told him I’d meet him in Market square. There was nowhere to sit but I got an ice cream and leaned against a wall in a cool spot. At least I could breathe! MB was done soon. The prices were a bit insane so he passed on shoes. I had a rant about people who come to this beautiful city and only want to spend time in H&M but then cheered up quickly when we got to Cambrinus.

    ‘t Brugs Beertje is the 300 beer bar and Cambrinus is the 400 beer bar. They actually have a huge wooden menu with all their beers. It would have been nice to sit outdoors but it is very nice inside. I had my favourite beer of the trip, the Lindemans Apple and an Oulde Kreik which I wasn’t as crazy about because it is aged in oak and has that oaky flavour. MB had a Westvleteren 8 that was not aged and so not as profound an experience as the last one, but still good. And another stout. We also had a cheese sandwich and salad. It was beer cheese on beer bread and very nice. (€27)

    A few doors down is the Bier Tempel where MB bought more Westvleteren 8 & 12 and a Westvleteren glass to take home. This was an expensive and heavy decision, but it was the only thing he really wanted to bring home and he was the one who had to carry it!

    Back to the hotel to change for our fancy dinner. We had reserved in advance online for dinner at Den Dyver. MB wanted to go there because they do beer pairings. Back home we love food and love to cook. We also love to eat out but we’re more likely to go to ethnic places than fine dining, so this was really a treat for us. We got dressed and had some extra time so we used the internet in the lounge of the hotel and MB had a beer. We chatted with Paul and he knew all about the Canadian War Museum, but it is 60km from Bruges so we wouldn’t be able to make it there. He did tell us about the Canada Bridge though, and gave us directions to that and ideas for our bike ride the next day. (Canadians liberated Belgium & the Netherlands in WWII so there are often monuments honouring Canada sprinkled about. Amsterdam has a Toronto bridge.) We stopped at the small bar by our hotel for one more beer before dinner. It stays light until 10pm just like Amsterdam so we had a lovely walk.

    At Den Dyver the service was incredible. We had 3 people taking care of our every whim. The gentleman was a beer expert and explained each beer and how it pairs with the meal. We ordered aperitifs – MB’s was beer and mine was a kir royale with hops liqueur and they brought an amuse of cantaloupe, ham and lettuce salad in a glass, whole baby shrimp and olive tapenade with a beautiful selection of bread. MB had the 3 course menu with beer pairing (€55) and I had the wine pairing (€66). My first course was steamed halibut with fried octopus and fennel and asparagus served with sauvignon blanc. MB had lamb croquettes with beets and I can’t describe his beer. We both had the beef as a second course which was a fillet with mashed potatoes, asparagus and mushrooms. I fail to recall the wine but I believe it was a Portuguese red. For the 3rd course I chose the cheese course which was probably the best thing I’ve had in my life. 6 small pieces of cheese served with grape reduction and a single biscuit, served again with a red I believe from Italy. MB had bruschetta with brie and pesto served with beer. Beware if you choose a traditional dessert instead of a cheese course there is no wine or beer pairing for some reason. Then there was another amuse which was dark and white chocolate mousse with pineapple and passion fruit layered in a shot glass and the perfect ending to the meal. This was a very long meal, we were there for almost 3 hours but it was worth the cost. The service was great and although MB didn’t try any beers that blew him away, he was very happy with the experience.

    On the way back to the hotel we tried to find a place to have a final drink but nothing was open. It was only 11:00 but we were away from the city centre. So we went back to the room and watched part of another terrible American movie subtitled in Dutch (Whoopi Goldberg is a basketball coach?) and congratulated ourselves on having such a wonderful trip so far.

    Tomorrow – Last day in Bruges so we bike to the coast

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    Day 6 – Bruges

    Those church bells really get you up on time! We were out of the room by 8:45 – a record! Had a big breakfast again and made it to the bell tower for the opening at 9:30. Now the guidebook says this is 366 steps, but it doesn’t mention how narrow they are. Luckily there are several stopping points where rooms open up to take a break, but you spend a lot of time squeezing up against the stairwell walls to let people pass in the opposite direction. Also, the view is somewhat inaccurately represented in the film In Bruges. All the openings are fenced and the walls are so thick it is almost impossible to see the square immediately below. But you do get a nice view of the surrounding areas and I love the carved directions that show how many kilometres to Amsterdam, Paris, Damme, etc. The way down was faster but I don’t know if it is worth the price. It costs €8 per person, not the €5 Rick Steves claimed in his 2009 book. With our hotel’s discount card we paid €6 each.

    Next we wanted one last tourist stop in Bruges but got a little confused as to exactly what it would be. MB said he wanted to see the church. I assumed he meant the Basilica of the Holy Blood so I headed in the direction of Burg Square but he kept telling me we were going the wrong way. After some confusion, we realized he wanted to see Michelangelo’s Virgin & child in the Church of Our Lady, so we were going the wrong way. Once we figured that out it was easy to find since it towers over the whole town. (Sadly, it is covered in scaffolding currently so it doesn’t enhance photos, but I bet it will when it is done!)

    This surprising turn of events turned out to be another excellent decision. The morning was already hot and getting busy, but the church was cool and not too crowded. We were stunned at all the beautiful church art before we even got to the Michelangelo. I suppose if you’ve been through Italy recently it wouldn’t be such a treat, but this church is gorgeous. There is a beautiful carved wood altar in the centre and wonderful paintings all over. The Michelangelo is incredible. It is behind glass and not too large but MB noticed it is so much more intricate and realistic than other statues in the church. We loved this place and the best part was the price – Free!!

    That mission accomplished, the plan for the remainder of the day was to rent bikes and ride to Damme and then see if we could make it all the way to the seashore. We got bikes from the place just off Market Square near the bell tower, I can’t recall the name but we got a great discount with the Rick Steves book. Rather than €12 per person we paid €8 each to have the bikes until 22:00. Very nice.

    We biked back to the hotel to pack a bag for the day and Paul at the hotel lent us a bike map and showed us the way to Damme and the seashore. The trip to Damme is lovely and quick. There are paved paths on both sides of the highway. We stopped at the windmill for a quick picture and then to have a drink in town. Then we got back on the path to ride to the sea – about 15km further. The paths are covered by trees and run along the canals and are very well marked. They are mostly flat and very easy to ride. What a wonderful way to spend a day!

    We eventually got to the town of Heist on the North Sea. It is a typical seaside town with restaurants and shops along the beach. It was strange to be in such a modern setting after our time in Bruges. It was a hot day so there were lots of people sunbathing. We locked up our bikes and got a drink at a beach bar. Sangria filled with fruit for me and a beer for Mb (€9). Then we walked along the shore. The water was frigid but there were some kids swimming. We relaxed on the beach for a short time but didn’t really feel like biking back to Bruges.

    Luckily there is a train that you can take your bike on. We couldn’t find a way to purchase tickets at the station. There were no machines and no windows were open, so we just got on the train and bought our tickets on board. The conductor opened the bike car for us and there are fold up seats and straps to hold the bikes. It was pretty full but we managed to fit in. We paid the conductor since we’d been unable to buy tickets at the station. It was €5 per person and €6.60 for both our bikes. Well worth it not to ride 2 hours back to Bruges.

    Once we got back to Bruges we wanted to visit the Canada Bridge. We had it circled on our map and it is one way to cross from the new part of Bruges to the old town. It is strange to realize not all of Bruges is a fairytale medieval town, there is actually a modern section too. The bridge has 2 huge buffalo and is carved with crests of Canada and says Canada Bridge on one side and Canada Brug on the other with inscriptions in Dutch and English. It was a very nice moment. Both MB and I have grandfathers who fought in Belgium and the Netherlands in WWII so it was nice to see them recognized here. We took lots of pictures then headed back to the hotel.

    Once we got back we were hot & tired and realized it was after 18:00 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. So we showered and changed and headed out to return our bikes and spend our last night in Bruges. Unfortunately we walked out into the first bad weather of our trip and had to ride our bikes back to the bell tower in the rain. Once we returned them, the rain has stopped and we decided to walk back to our favourite place ‘t Brugs Beerjte to eat and drink. They have spaghetti bolognase on the menu, and while it was not gourmet cuisine, it was exactly what we needed after an exhausting day. Our 2 bartenders from our previous visit were there and seemed happy to see us again. We ordered many beers, first from the regular and then from the premium beer menu and ended up with kind of a big bill (€55) but it was more than worth it for dinner, drinks and great company. I would love to go back there any time.

    Walking back to the Hotel Fevery around midnight we shared one last order of frites (plain €2.50) and were very sad to be leaving Bruges in the morning.

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    I am enjoying your report! My husband and I were in Amsterdam, Bruges & Paris last month so it is neat to hear about your experiences. We were in Amsterdam 5/14-5/17, Bruges just the night of the 17th, then Paris for five nights. We stayed at Hotel Fevery and really enjoyed it. The bleachers were being set up in the square the day we left, so you must have been a few days behind us.

    Looking forward to more of your report!

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    Day 7 – Brussels

    We awoke in Bruges at first bells at 7:30 to pack and get ready to leave for Brussels. Another beautiful, sunny day but it is supposed to get unseasonably hot, around 30 Celsius, which does not bode well for a travel day. We went down for our last breakfast once we were packed and had nice fresh croissants along with all the other offerings. Once we were ready to check out, Paul asked where we were heading and pulled out a map of Brussels and circled the sights for us. He also warned us to keep an eye on our belongings on the train and on the streets of Brussels. Very helpful!

    Took a taxi to the station (€12). It was very fast so we caught the 10:31 train to Brussels (€12.50 per person). Once we got to Brussels I went to the Thalys counter to buy tickets for the next day to Cologne. Buying in advance offered considerable savings as we were able to get the Optiway ticket for €31 each. Originally I intended to leave on the 8:25 train but settled on the 10:25 to save a few euros and have a less hectic morning.

    We took a cab to our hotel (€12). Now that we’ve done this a few times I would never go back to taking public transit to the hotel. It is worth the extra €10 not to have to lug the bags and navigate the tram/bus system. But if we were not loaded down with suitcases, taking the tram is easy.

    Through Priceline we booked the Nh Brussels City Centre. It was an incredible deal at around €50 for one night, but the hotel’s name is a misnomer. When you look at a map of Brussels you see a ring indicating the city centre, our hotel was well outside this ring. It is in a shopping district that seemed to be shut down this Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, the distant hotel location combined with the heat (over 30 degrees Celsius) and the limited charms of Brussels made this our least favourite stop of the trip. If I had to plan again, Brussels would be a day trip, not an overnight stay (although things did get better as the evening wore on and we ended up having a nice time).

    Only noon when we arrived at the hotel, our room was not ready but the staff was fabulous and helpful. We stored our bags and started the 30 minute walk to the true city centre. We found a small café alleyway and stopped for a beer (€6 for 2), then on to the Palais de Justice, which is covered in scaffolding but looks impressive even so. There is a great view of the whole town here, somewhat obstructed by construction, but you can see over the buildings and even to the Atomium in the distance. Another neat feature is the elevator down to the lower town. Little did we know how much we would miss this feature later in the day. It is a large passenger elevator that takes you down the steep hill to the lower town.

    Once we got down there we understood why guidebooks describe Brussels euphemistically as “earthy”. It was definitely seedier and less clean than the towns we had visited so far. The streets were busy and we made our way along with the tourists, first to the part of the old city wall that remains, then along to Mannekin Pis. It is really nothing to see, and mobbed with tourists, but it is something to take a photo of, so we did.

    (By the way, we brought a money belt with us as advised in the Rick Steves book. We figured better safe than sorry, and we’d be carrying more cash on us than we normally would at home, but we felt so comfortable everywhere that we never used it EXCEPT in Brussels. With the warnings we’d received and the general atmosphere of the place, we felt more comfortable with it. To be clear though, Brussels did not seem more dirty or dangerous than any other large city like Toronto, Chicago, etc., just much more so than Amsterdam and Bruges.)

    On to Grand Place, which really is grand. It is something everyone should experience. The buildings are incredible and it is so amazing to see them all in one place. Once you’ve looked at the bildings there’s not much else to see, so we headed through the Galleria (covered shopping mall). The interior is quite hot due to the glass ceiling, but each shop is separately air conditioned. We stopped into a chocolate shop and got a tiny ice cream to share (€3.50). We never did end up buying any chocolates to bring home. The prices were somewhat prohibitive (€2-3 per piece), and the weather was so hot I was afraid it wouldn’t make it home.

    We stopped on the other side of the mall for a drink at La Morte Subte. I had a peach lambic, which was excellent and MB had a Duvel, I believe. We sat indoors hoping to escape the heat, but it was very hot and smoky inside (the only issue with smoky bars on our trip).

    Our destination and the main purpose of our visit to Brussels was the Comic Strip Museum. MB is a huge comic fan and wanted to see this. It does not have any North American comics, mostly tributes to Tintin and other Belgian comics. It was definitely not for me and we were so hot by the time we walked there, and the heat was so unbearable inside, I’m sure I was not too pleasant to be around. The building is lovely but all skylights and windows creating a very warm interior. Exhibits are mainly in Dutch and French with a few English translations. For €15 per person I wouldn’t recommend this place unless you are fanatical about European comic characters and/or comic art in general. MB loved it.

    Next we wandered the deserted streets of Brussels to try to find Parc de Bruxelles and Palais Royale. Unfortunately, this part of town has no elevator, so we had to take a steep staircase and then climb several hills to get to the Upper town. We passed a beautiful cathedral and hoped for a shop or café to get a drink but nothing was open. At 3:00 on a Sunday afternoon I expected there to be more to do, but I guess the town really does close down on the weekends. Once we got to the park we found a shady bench to relax on and enjoy the statues in the park. We finally found a kiosk selling drinks and ice cream at the end of the park close to the Royal Palace. Grabbed a cold drink and continued walking.

    We found the Musical Instrument Museum and took the guidebook’s advice to go to the café on the top floor for nice views. The attendant at the door was very reluctant to let us in since it was almost closing time, but we did make it up and had one drink and a lovely view before being kicked out. (Drinks: €7 for 2, admission to café is free.)

    Feeling somewhat refreshed, we decided we could make it back to the hotel and walked along past Petit and Grand Sablon, to our hotel. We stopped at the grocery shop before the hotel and grabbed some beers and snacks (€19) for the room. Once we checked in, we were dismayed that the air conditioning was not on so it was very stuffy, but we soon remedied that, had a shower, drink and snack and felt much better. We probably spent too long in the room but it was just too hot to be outside. This room was much more modern, comfortable and roomy than the Nh in Amsterdam. The view was nicer too.

    Now it is 22:00. Once again heeding the warnings about Brussels after dark, we planned to take the metro to the town centre for dinner and back. But the metro station was a 10 minute walk from the hotel, so we took the tram outside the hotel instead (€2 pp). I found the transit system somewhat inhospitable to tourists as we still had quite a walk once we got to the closest tram stop to Grand Place (Parc). We were looking for the bar Cirio which was recommended by Paul in Bruges, but it was a little tough to find. We finally found it and ordered a “half and half” expecting some kind of beer combination, but it was white wine and sparkling wine poured together at the table with a flourish. I loved it so I had another and MB had a beer.

    By this time it was dusk and we headed back to Grand Place to have the typical tourist experience of moules frites on the square. Strangely, perusing the menus we did not find many places advertising them. We ended up at a bar tucked into one corner of the square that brews its own beer. We were the only customers outdoors. We shared an order of moules (honestly, could anyone eat a whole order?) and MB tried their beer while I had a wonderful apple lambic. The view was spectacular with Grand Place lit up at night. We really enjoyed this experience (€31 for moules, frites and 2 beers).

    The plan was to go to the famous Delerium bar, although I’ve read mixed reviews and didn’t expect to love the atmosphere, but instead we found the Toone puppet theatre which is a bar at night. The atmosphere here could not have been more perfect for us. We settled into the centre room which is normally the puppet theatre and had some beer. I finally tried Faro, which I had been wanting to try the whole trip (a sweetened gueze) and MB had Chimay Blue (€9 for both). Unfortunately is was now last call. We decided to take a taxi back to the hotel so we wouldn’t have to walk and we’d be comfortable and safe. Another excellent decision. The cab driver was blasting a Tom Waits CD and when Jersey Girl came on we all sang along! The cab was only €7 and when we stepped out I said “bonne musique!”. It was a great end to a somewhat trying day. Really, this was the only difficult day of our trip and it was mostly due to the weather and being too ambitious about walking in the heat. I’m left with fond memories of Brussels, though I may not go out of my way to return.

    Tomorrow: We arrive in Germany! Rental car, Rhine cruise, gummi bears, and wine!

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    sherhatfield we just missed each other! They tore down the bleachers the day after we arrived in Bruges. I can't express how much I loved the Fevery. I'm afraid if I do a TA review they'll think it's fake! We were so happy there!

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    Day 8 – On to Germany!

    Here our trip changes a bit. We took the train through the Netherlands and Belgium but liked the idea of a car rental in Germany to see the sights off the beaten path. MB is also a car fanatic, so we planned a special driving trip for him to the Nurburgring. Plus we wanted to see Burg Eltz and a car is the best way to do that. It cost about €250 for 3 days for an automatic with insurance.

    So we awoke in Brussels around 8:00 to catch our 10:25 train to Köln. Allergies (hay fever) were starting to get bad for both of us with the humidity so we didn’t have a great sleep. We took a cab to Brussels Zuid station (Midi). It was about equal distance from our hotel to there or Centrale so no point heading to Centrale just to catch another train to Midi. Arrived in plenty of time and searched for an ATM. There was a track change so we had to ask a few questions and ended up departing a few minutes late. Left luggage at the front of the car for the first time and were a little nervous about it but it worked out fine. I expected Thalys to be a direct train but there were 2 stops before Köln. We ate sandwiches we had made from our grocery trip in Brussels and relaxed.

    We arrived on time and the Köln station is very easy to navigate. Found the rental car agency with no trouble and even used the McClean washroom (€1!) which was not much fancier than the usual €0.20 washrooms elsewhere.

    I believe we were upgraded to a Mercedes C-class and walked the 2 blocks to the parking garage to drop off our luggage in the car so we could see the Dom. It is amazing. I swear the most wonderful things we saw in Europe were free or very cheap. Again it was stifling hot outside but nice and cool inside the Cathedral. It is extremely conveniently located beside the train station. It is the first thing you see walking out of Köln station. We viewed the paintings and stained glass and took some incredible pictures of the Dom. We’d planned to stop for lunch in Köln but didn’t see anywhere appealing and to be honest, I was intimidated by the German language. Until now we had had no problems finding people who spoke English but I assumed Germans would not be as multi-lingual. I was very wrong!

    But we did run into a language barrier in our car. Once we got back to the garage and started it up we found the GPS was in German. Unfortunately (and predictably) so was the manual so we could not figure out how to switch it to English. After struggling for 10 minutes we were about to just wing it with the maps I had printed when we approached an employee in the garage for help. With a flip of a button we had English GPS. We had a lot of good luck on this trip, but that was the best piece. Once we got onto the road we knew we would have been in deep trouble with out the GPS.

    We programmed Koblenz into it and after a little construction detour, we were on the freeway (not the Autobahn, sadly). The car was comfortable, roomy and high-tech. We were speeding along the highway listening to German radio and enjoying the beautiful countryside. Although it is not the Autobahn the pace is still pretty fast. I think it was 100 km/h minimum and 140 km/h maximum but people were going much faster.

    In about an hour we arrived in Koblenz and found our hotel with no trouble. We were advised by our guidebook to avoid Koblenz. We read it is not a nice town at all. I suppose it is far less quaint than many of the small towns on the Rhine and Mosel, but it was absolutely perfect for us. It is right at the confluence of the Rhine & Mosel, and since we planned to spend a day on each river this was the perfect location.

    We checked into the Ibis hotel for 2 nights. This was the lowest rated hotel of the trip, I think it is a 2-star, but again it was perfect for us! It was only about €69 per night but they upsold us on the breakfast at €10 per person per day, which I’m glad we got. They also had free internet in the lobby and a 24-hour bar that was actually pretty busy most of the time. The room is quite Spartan – MB compared it to a dorm room, but it was roomy and clean and the bed was quite comfy.

    So out again into the heat and we walked down a lovely pedestrian avenue towards Deutsche Eck where the Mosel meets the Rhine. We looked in some shops and were astounded at how much cheaper the prices are in Germany compared to Belgium. Shoes were half the price. We stopped for a snack at a stand selling pizza slices €2 (everywhere in Europe we saw “Hawaiian” pizza and sandwiches – pineapple, chicken and cheese). We also stopped at an all gummi store with gummi bears, pizzas, and other creations and MB bought gummi bears for €2.50 because he loves candy. So far Germany was treating us very well.

    But it was hot! By the time we made it to the Mosel we were parched! We stopped at a lovely beer garden on the river. We shared a plate of bratwurst and fries and had a beer. I had a huge iced mug of beer and MB had one double the size! There was a €1 - €2 deposit on the mugs, but once that was paid back our snack and drinks were under €10. Again, we were astounded at the value in Germany.

    We walked along the Mosel to Deutsche Eck. There is a large statue at the corner with tons of stairs to climb, but it is covered in scaffolding. Nevertheless it was a lovely sight to see the rivers converge. There is a castle above the town on the Rhine side. We rushed the KD dock hoping to make the 18:10 boat. The lady who sold our tickets was impressed with our plan to take the boat to Boppard and return by train, calling it very wise. The tickets were €11 per person for this leg and the boat was virtually deserted – probably due to the weather which was very hot and humid and threatening rain. Even so we went up to the top deck and were the only ones there for most of the trip. It was much cooler on the water and it never did rain.

    This is where my notes get a little hard to read because this is where we made the switch from Belgian beer to Rhine wine. I love dry Reisling and we drink it all the time at home, but I was still in beer mode so I was probably drinking it faster than was wise. In addition, ordering a glass of wine in Germany gives you a full glass AND a little pitcher with a second glass inside. So for about €3.50 we were getting about 12oz of wine. We did this twice on the 2 hour trip to Boppard and were more than a little tipsy when we got off the boat.

    But the view is beautiful. Castles and vineyards line the river we loved this. Once we got to Boppard we stopped for another glass of wine (€4.50 for a glass of wine with the extra pitcher and only €1.50 for a dark beer for MB) in the lovely riverside garden of a hotel. The garden was lined with roses and was a wonderful atmosphere.

    We didn’t plan a long stay in Boppard so we checked out the train station just to get comfortable with purchasing tickets and make sure there were trains running back to Koblenz. Good thing we did this. Although our guidebook said the touch-screen ticket machines were multi-lingual, we couldn’t get English to work on the Boppard machines. We ended up using the other type of machine where you punch in a code on the keypad for where you want to go. It cost €4.50 each back to Koblenz and we had 30 minutes before the train so we popped into the café just outside the station to have yet another drink. I’m sure you can see why my notes are practically illegible!

    I should mention that my worries about the language were unfounded. I think we only encountered one person our whole time in Germany who didn’t speak English and it was at this café. But pointing to the item on the menu was fine and we enjoyed another glass of wine before our train.

    The train was a short 15-minute ride back to Koblenz. No one checked our ticket on this or any other train journey in Germany, but they checked every time in Belgium and the Netherlands. Once we got back to Koblenz we managed to find our hotel and looked around for somewhere to get something to eat. Lots of places were closed so we ended up getting snacks at our hotel. And more wine which I ordered but thankfully did not finish. Then off to bed having had way too much to drink, but luckily not enough to ruin the next day!

    Tomorrow – The Mosel, my favourite castle, a driving adventure

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    I am happy that you enjoyed Germany (so far).

    >>>the Cathedral. It is extremely conveniently located beside the train station.<<<

    Haha! The site of the Cathedral was chosen 1,500 years before the train station was built. However, the Emperor decided to build it right next to the cathedral. When you are approaching by train from the Eastern direction and look out of the window, you have the illusion of riding right into the Cathedral.

    >>>Again, we were astounded at the value in Germany. <<<

    That's what I keep writing here on this forum. Due to low inflation during the last years, travelling Germany IS very inexpensive, especially when compared to Britain, Italy and France.

    It is a pity that you have not been more adventurous in Köln - there are wonderful brewpubs with hearty local fare, one of them (Früh) right next to the Cathedral.

    But I see you enjoyed the riesling, my favourite grave variety. Zum Wohl!

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    Ha ha... of course the cathedral was there before the station, but it makes things very convenient for tourists! Unfortunately we had to drive so could not get too adventurous in the brew pubs.

    We loved Germany! There was so much to see and do and the prices were incredibly reasonable. Transportation, lodgeing, food, drink and shopping were all much cheaper than the other countries we visited.

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    Prices in Germany are so ridiculously low because of foolish Socialist governments formed by either or both of the 2 big parties (Germany is one of the few democracies where the voter has a choice of voting for either the left or the left - and since "re"-unification the general education and awareness of economy and hasn't exactly improved in both, the political caste and the population) that piles up deficit after deficit and splashing out taxpayers' money and thus (indirectly) subsidises everything to the detriment of generations to come.

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    Day 9 – Mosel, Burg Eltz, Nurburgring

    This was a day both MB and I were very excited about. I was excited to see Burg Eltz – one of the best preserved medeval castles in Europe, and MB was planning to drive the Nurburgring! For those unfamiliar with the Nurburgring, it is also called the Green Hell, and it is widely considered the toughest, most dangerous and most demanding purpose-built race track in the world. It is a 23km-long race track with insane curves and elevation changes. Most days it is open to the public for a few hours so people can drive on it in their own cars. We were going to try.

    But first breakfast. I was glad we got the included breakfast. It was a huge buffet with meats, cheeses, breads, fruit, yogurt and Nutella, and even the only scrambled eggs we saw in Europe (although they were buffet eggs, not great). We filled up knowing we had a big day ahead.

    By 10:30 we were headed on a scenic drive along the Mosel towards Burg Eltz. The Mosel was lovely and picturesque but it became an even nicer drive once we left the river and headed into the hills towards the castle.

    Burg Eltz is unique in that it has remained intact for 700 years. Being in a valley helped protect it from attack and it is an incredible sight to see. Arriving by car you pay €1.50 to park and then there is a steep 10-minute walk downhill to the castle. When you finally catch the first glimpse of the castle, it is breathtaking. Once we got there we asked about the English tour which would start in 30 minutes. You can not enter the castle without an organized tour. Just seeing the exterior is worth the trip, but the interior was fascinating, so I’d recommend taking the tour (€8 per person). While we waited MB had a beer and I had a cola light on the café patio. It was quite windy in the valley and a patio umbrella actually blew away, but it was comfortable and the surrounding river valley is gorgeous.

    Our “English” tour guide had a thick German accent and struggled a bit with some words but did a great job. We saw the rooms off the castle which remain in the time they were restored, from the 11th to the 17th century. 3 families used to jointly own the castle but I believe it is now owned by one family. There are beautiful fresh flowers throughout. The tapestries are incredibly preserved. No photographs are allowed inside the castle so that probably helps preserve them, but they are gorgeous. There are also animal skins and heads (trophies) on the walls and some of them, (moose, bear) came all the way from Canada. My favourite room was the kitchen with so much clever design. The walls are thick to keep food cool and there is a separate area to store salt, which was precious and expensive.

    Once we were ready to leave we decided to take the shuttle van up the hill instead of walking. We felt a little lame in there with the older ladies, but I didn’t want to ruin my memory of the castle with a sweaty uphill walk. It cost €1.50 each for the shuttle and was well worth it.

    On to Cochem. This is an adorable town. We were hoping to taste a bit of wine but not much since one of us would be driving. We chose Cochem as recommended by Rick Steves and it is a nice little town. Unfortunately, the GPS got us a bit lost and we were driving through very narrow streets at a steep incline, but we finally found some parking and explored the town on foot. We did find a wine garden and each had a flight of wine to taste (5 very small samples each) and our wurst for lunch. MB had potato salad, which he loved and I had French fries and curry ketchup with mine (€17 for all). We felt bad not buying a bottle of wine or two, especially when we saw how cheap they were (€3-7 each) But we knew we wouldn’t have time to drink it before we left and had no space to take it home. We walked around the town and took some pictures of the castle, then went on a little further to Bellstein, which is a tiny town on the Mosel. We stopped for an ice cream sundae to share €5 (every café in Germany seems to have a separate illustrated dessert menu). We were biding our time in the little towns before heading to our next stop – the Nurburgring.

    On certain days the Nurburgring is open to the public to take their cars out on the track. MB had done some research and although you are not technically allowed to take a rental car on the race track, there is really nothing to stop you. We agreed that I would be in the car too – I was actually more comfortable being there because I knew he would drive more safely. As we approached the Nurburg area it started raining. MB was very concerned about this development but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened because it meant no motorcycles on the track. A motorcyclist had died on the track earlier that day (there are about 40 deaths a year), and the bikes were not allowed on until the weather cleared. We bought a lap card for €22 (one lap) and headed onto the track. There is no waiver to sign – they don’t even take your drivers license or license plate number – but there are rules posted by the track. We saw all sorts of supercars with roll cages and drivers in helmets. Honestly, I was terrified, but once we got on the track it went by very quickly. Due to the light rain and all the tight curves we didn’t get going very fast and were passed by a few other cars. We probably averaged 80km/h and got up to 140 on one straight stretch, so no faster than we would normally drive at home, but with all the curves and elevation changes it was quite thrilling. MB was so thrilled and happy when we were done, I’m glad we got to go on the track. But this is not something I’d recommend to anyone unless you are an excellent, safe driver who has done a lot of research and your life wouldn’t be complete without the experience.

    We headed back to Koblenz in the rain. Once we got back we paid a €10 deposit to borrow an umbrella from the hotel and headed out to dinner, but the rain had stopped. We walked along the pedestrian squares with lots of restaurants but I couldn’t find anything appealing. Just like in Amsterdam there were lots of Italian, Argentinean, Mexican and Irish places but a dearth of local cuisine. We finally found a place that looked good, although it turned out to be mostly Italian. It was called Chili Gastro. I can’t find a website or much info online, but I highly recommend this place. I believe the address is Paradies 2, Koblenz. We sat outdoors even though it was cool, they have a covered patio. Most of the menu was pasta but we ordered schnitzel to have the German experience. It was enormous with 2 large pieces, fries and salad. We also asked for a dry white wine and ended up with an Italian Sauv. Blanc. So we just gave up on our local experience, but the service was incredible. The server told us he’d graduated business school and was working to help friends and wanted to get into restaurant management. He also talked about his experiences driving tourists on the Nurburgring, which he does as a side job. His English was better than most of the people we know in North America. He really made the meal wonderful and the bill was only €41

    Next we stopped for a few drinks at the Irish pub down the street, which was pretty empty for 22:00 and headed back to the hotel.

    Tomorrow – Our last day in Europe, finishing the Rhine, Frankfurt

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    Day 10 – Rhine, Frankfurt and a Canadian connection

    We woke up early to pack our bags and leave Koblenz. Had our last European breakfast and checked out of the Ibis. We paid €12 for parking for 2 nights and rushed off to make the 11:00 Goethe KD paddleboat from Boppard to Bacharach. When we arrived in Boppard we got a little lost and ended up parked (for free) about 10 minutes from the boat dock. Luckily, by jogging, we made it just as the boat was about to depart (€16.20 each from Boppard to Bacharach). This is the old fashioned paddlewheel boat, but actually I preferred the setup of the other boat. This boat had less outdoor space and no open top level, so people were jammed in chairs in rows on the front deck or tables along the sides. We knew we couldn’t handle sitting in the blazing sun for 2 hours, so we found a covered seat in the back for most of the ride. It is under a canopy with open sides so the view was somewhat obstructed, but still ok. It was also a little windy back there so I wore a jacket for the first daytime on the trip.

    The boat made its way slowly along the river and we saw dozens of castles. It was nice having the Rick Steves book and the KM markers on the riverbanks to guide us along. Eventually the boat got less packed and we made our way up to the front where there is a better view. We had some wine and passed the Loreley. This really is a beautiful trip. There were some American teenage girls with their parents playing with their cell phones the whole trip and I couldn’t believe they weren’t enjoying the view.

    After 2½ hours we reached Bacharach. This is another adorable town, it is really a lovely place to walk through. We stopped for some Riesling-flavoured gelato and walked the cobblestone streets. We found a pizza place for lunch and shared a pizza and some local wine (€16). We walked to the train station and bought our tickets back to Boppard (€5.10 per person). This time the English machine worked fine but the schedule was somewhat inaccurate and we waited an extra 10 minutes for the train. We made it back to our car in Boppard by walking along the riverside and set the GPS for Frankfurt – last stop on the trip.

    I feel like we were incredibly lucky with this trip and had very few frustrations, but gassing up and returning a rental car in a foreign country is no picnic. Once we got near Frankfurt we stopped at a gas station off the highway because we were a little worried about finding one in the city. Although MB is pretty knowledgeable about cars, it took over 30 minutes to figure out how to fill up. We weren’t sure whether we needed diesel or regular gas and the owner’s manual was no help. Eventually we found a staff member who spoke a bit of English and he directed us. €58 later we were filled up and on our way into Frankfurt. We looked pretty dishevelled by the time we got to the front desk of the Mövenpick Hotel Frankfurt City.

    This was by far the most upscale hotel we stayed in on our trip. Again it was a Priceline score for around $50 USD. We wouldn’t be spending much time in the room since we needed to be on a 7:00 flight the next morning, but it was very comfortable and modern. The view was of the convention centre behind the building. Due to its location this hotel caters mainly to a business clientele. The mini-bar is very nice and they even give you gummi bears on your pillow!

    When I first booked the hotel I figured even though our flight was early, it would be better to stay in town so we could experience Frankfurt before leaving. But in retrospect we would have been better off staying near the airport, dropping off our things and driving back into the city to return the rental car and have dinner before taking the train back to the airport hotel. Our original intention was to take the train to the airport in the morning, but when we asked at the desk, the clerk was not confident there would be a train that early (4:00) and recommended a cab for €20. This sounded reasonable but turned out to be a bit misleading. So we ordered a wakeup call and a cab for early the next day.

    So here we were in downtown Frankfurt. We drove the rental car to the train station drop-off. Again, this was less than clear but we eventually found the nearby parking lot and dropped off the car, then the keys to the rental agency inside the station. I was pretty nervous about additional charges but there have been none so I’m quite satisfied with that endeavour.

    Next we stopped at the Hbf tourist info and actually met a helpful person who gave us a map and told us how to get to the Sachsenhausen. I was very excited to try apple wine. She directed us to take the tram, but we realized later we could have easily walked.

    Now this was the local German experience we had been looking for! We went into one of the places recommended in Rick Steves’ book (I can’t remember the name but can look it up), and it was wonderful inside. The walls were painted with murals and there was an indoor/outdoor courtyard. There were only large tables for 6 but one was wempty so we sat down and immediately the waiter dropped off 2 glasses of apple wine from a wire rack of glasses he was carrying. He marked on a coaster that he had given us 2 and brought over English menus. I ordered a smoked pork chop with sauerkraut and MB had beef with sauerkraut. The waiter was an expert at upselling and got me to order mashed potatoes as well. MB declined the mysterious “green sauce” with his beef.

    The plates we got were hilariously huge. The meat cuts were enormous and salty. There was also brown bread and mustard on the table. I won’t say this was the most delicious meal we had in Europe, but I loved the experience and the food was… interesting.

    Once we started eating a young couple asked if they could sit at our table since there were no more free. We didn’t even realize at first that they spoke to us in English, but once we got to talking we found out they were from Winnipeg (Canada) and also flying home the next day. They had been in Europe for a month and had been to some of the same places as us, so we had lots to talk about and the guys caught up on NHL playoff news. They ordered food and managed to get upsold to the green sauce, which had what looked like a boiled egg in it. It was not a hit, but we all had lots of apple wine.

    By the time we settled up, MB and I had drunk 5 glasses of apple wine each, so the waiter told us we should have ordered a pitcher. The glasses are only €1.60 each and it is €16 for the pitcher so we wouldn’t have saved anything, I guess it would have been more convenient for the waiter though. I love hard cider at home, and this apple wine was not really like that. It is not carbonated but definitely has a nice apple flavour, especially after a few glasses. Our new friend from Winnipeg didn’t like it at first and asked for beer instead, but the waiter said no! Not sure if he was joking around but he got used to the apple wine.

    Again, everything was very inexpensive. The meals were about €7 each and our total bill was €34 for all that food and drink. Our new Canadian friends offered to walk us back towards the train station, which was great so we didn’t get lost. On the way we passed over the Main river where there had been a football celebration earlier. Once we got to the station we parted ways with our Canadian friends and found our way back to the hotel. This took about half an hour to get all the way back and it was after midnight by the time we got to bed. 3 hours later we received our wakeup call and were off to the airport.

    We wanted to spend all our Euros so we wouldn’t have to take them home, so we only kept about €30 for what we thought would be a €20 cab ride and something to eat for breakfast at the airport. Unfortunately, the cab ended up costing €30 and we were very lucky we had just enough left to pay him. The airport was deserted and everything was closed so early in the morning, so there was nothing to spend money on anyway. We were told we had to check in 3 hours early for the flight but that was just absurd. The security gate was not even open until 6:00. They did have nice sleeping chairs in the lounge though, so I caught a few zzzs before we went through security.

    The flight home was uneventful but very long. I slept a bit. MB, being tall, was extremely uncomfortable in the seats but we were patient. We really wished we had brought some kind of food & drinks on the plane. We got a little muffin after takeoff and then a horrible lean-cuisine-style meal a few hours later, but we were starving.

    Arriving in Toronto was also uneventful. We filled out customs forms and I indicated I had cheese from the Netherlands, expecting to be detained, but we were waved through. We had our luggage, shuttle to long term parking and were in our car on the highway within an hour of landing. In all I couldn’t have been more impressed with the efficiency of the airline and the airports we visited.

    We had a 2 hour drive home from Toronto and it was teeming rain the whole way, but we had a wonderful trip and were very happy to be home.

    Thanks for reading my report! I know it was long and probably included a lot of details and adjectives that others may not want to hear (as I learned from a recent thread on annoying trip reports), but I’m thankful for all the help on this forum and hope this report helps people realize you really can go to Europe on any budget and have a great time!!

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    Great report. I'm so glad you enjoyed Germany. It truly is one of our favorite places. I only wish I spoke more German. Even though I took lessons years ago when we lived in Vienna, it was so very long before we went back on vacation i had forgotten much of what I'd learned.

    But each time we go back, I remember a little more. In another few years, maybe I'll actually know enough to carry on a decent conversation!!

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    "Our new friend from Winnipeg didn’t like it at first and asked for beer instead, but the waiter said no! Not sure if he was joking around but he got used to the apple wine."

    He wasn't joking. The traditional apple wine places don't sell beer. In my opinion, that's the only reason how they can sell this vile stuff since any sane person would switch drinks after the first glass of apple wine :-) Some of the locals seem to like it, though.

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    Thanks so much for your "report"! I really enjoyed it and especially regarding Bruges. My husband and I will be there in Dec. and we're looking forward to it. We also will be going back to Germany for the third time. We love it, the people are great, so friendly and welcoming. Since your husband loves beer so much, you should take a trip to Prague,
    we were there last year and had the best dark beer we've tasted so far. Sorry I don't know the name, we just always asked for dark beer and it was delicious.

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    I just had a chance to finish reading your trip report (it's been a busy summer), and it sounds like you had a wonderful time.

    As I mentioned before, we're planning on taking the St. Nicholaas Boat Club tour on our upcoming trip to Amsterdam in October, so I was glad to read that you enjoyed your alternative canal cruise.

    And thanks for the tip about the library behind Centraal Station with the free internet connection and the great view. How, exactly, do you get there? Are there signs at the station directing you towards the library? If I'm walking out of the station, towards the River Ij, with our backs to the city and the Damrak, do we make a right and start looking for the library?

    Robyn :)>-

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    It fantastic that you appreciated your German experience.

    For a German reading trip reports like yours is amazing because e.g. I myself don't travel much in Germany and therefore these reports are quite eye opening!

    Excellent report!


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    >>>Thanks for reading my report! I know it was long and probably included a lot of details and adjectives that others may not want to hear<<<

    Thanks for writing your report. And esp. for the details and adjectives.

    I am German and I always enjoy reading how visitors experience this country. BTW, "green sauce" is a Frankfurt specialty and for us as exotic as for you.

    However, as a native, I was better on the Nürburgring than MB. I averaged 90 km/h, although, I have to admit, on a day with dry weather.:S-

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    Thanks everyone for your comments and kind words!

    Robyn, hope it is not too late to let you know the Central Library in Amsterdam is on the left when you walk out of the Centraal station. Walk towards the NEMO science museum that looks like a boat. You'll come to it right before the museum.

    I'm hoping to travel more in Europe but it will be hard not to go back to the countries and cities we visited because we had such a wonderful time everywhere.

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    I've really enjoyed reading your report, especially the section on Bruges. I've spent a total of 3 one week vacations in Bruges (primarily for the beer) and will probably go back again and again. Den Dyver is always a favorite meal ever was a +5 hour meal there on New Years Eve. Sigh...the memories. Thanks for bringing them back!! :)

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    Canadiancouple - Thanks for the info about the Central Library. We leave for Europe in 9 days.... can't wait to get there. I have my list of pubs and breweries to check out while we are in Amsterdam and Antwerp.

    Robyn :)>-

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