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yk's Trip Report: 10 days in France and Belgium on a budget

yk's Trip Report: 10 days in France and Belgium on a budget

Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 09:31 AM
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yk's Trip Report: 10 days in France and Belgium on a budget

DH & I got back a few days ago from our trip to France and Belgium. The whole trip was fantastic and went very well. Of course, I had to thank all of you who helped me make this trip possible, both directly (by answering my questions) and indirectly (by me reading various trip reports and threads). It is the collective knowledge of Fodorites that I really benefitted from.

If you have read any of my trip reports before, you'll know that I'm overly verbose with my trip reports. I like to put in lots of details as I find those very useful when I read other TRs for my trip planning purpose.

DH & I; in our mid-30s.

10 days in early-mid September 2008.

Our itin as follows:
Day 1 - Paris
Day 2,3 - Angers and environs
Day 4,5 - Paris & Versailles
Day 6,7 - Bruges with bike trip to Damme
Day 8 - Ghent
Day 9 - Brussels
Day 10 - return home

Believe it or not, we got invited to another wedding in the Loire Valley again, near Angers. You may recall that we attended a wedding in the Loire Valley last fall (trip report:
http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=35084833). Since we already been to Paris a couple of times, and toured the Loire last year, we decided to visit somewhere else. I had thought about other parts of France, but we finally settled on Belgium based on 2 reasons:

1) DH enjoys beer; and he was tired of drinking Kronenbourg 1664 every day last year in France (seems like that's the only beer available in France)

2) We watched the movie In Bruges back in March, and DH enjoyed it so much that he wanted to visit Bruges.

I have been to all these cities in Belgium just 2.5 years ago (trip report:
http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=34738595), but it was rather rushed, and I really enjoyed Belgium that I didn't mind going back again so soon.

On a Budget
If you've read my other trip reports, you'll know that I'm generally a frugal person. However, on our trips, we tend to splurge once or twice on meals or on concert/opera tickets. This time we did not.

Firstly, during the trip planning period, the euro was around $1.60, so I worked extra hard to find bargains. Fortunately, the euro came down to $1.42 while we were there, so I think we saved at least $200-300 based on the exchange rate alone.

Secondly, with the US economy being the way it is, we just didn't want to spend that much on the trip. Period.

Thirdly, although I found some excellent bargains, I was not able to get a good deal on plane tickets, so I felt the only way to limit the cost of the trip is to keep everything else on a budget. Therefore, our most expensive meal on this trip was €87,50 for 2; and we did not go to any concerts (well, nothing particularly interesting was on during our trip).

Since I know these places relatively well, the trip-planning part was quite easy. The difficult thing was finding cheap but acceptable lodgings, and also learning how to use SNCF to book discount train tickets.

DH & I both enjoy art/paintings, and on this trip, we focused on the Flemish Primitives. We rented (from the library) a DVD series on Art of the Northern Renaissance by the Teaching Company.
We have several of their art DVD series and like it a lot. In this series, we watched about half of the lectures which were relevant to our visit. We also owned their DVD series on The Louvre, which we reviewed before the trip.

For guidebooks, I just took out what's the newest available from my library. So I ended up with TimeOut Paris (2008) and Lonely Planet Belgium (2007). I also borrowed the Pudlo Guide for Paris from the library. I have my own Streetwise Paris map.

A firm believer of packing light, this trip was a challenge. DH has a 22" rollaboard, while I just bought a new 19" rollaboard. This wouldn't be too bad if we didn't have to pack nice attire for the wedding and also for a pre-wedding cocktail/dinner the night before! In the end, we managed with just those 2 pieces of luggage, plus a small day bag for each of us. We were able to bring the following:

5-6 tops each
2 khakis and 2 jeans each
socks and underwear for the entire trip (we don't like doing laundry, so we pack enough)
3 sweaters for me
1 jacket each
1 sleeveless dress; 1 dressy top and 1 dress pants for me
1 suit for DH plus 2 dress shirts
2 pairs of shoes each (including dress shoes for DH; dressy sandals with kitten heels for me)
hat and sunglasses for DH
wool gloves for me
2 chargers
GPS and its friction mount
2 inflatable neck pillow
1 lightweight umbrella
2 ziplock bags of toiletries (which include enough shower gel and hair conditioner for 10 days for me)
1 evening purse
1 pashmina wrap (which doubled as a scarf for the rest of the trip)
2 guidebooks
1 collapsable duffle bag

We used everything we brought on the trip, with 2 exceptions ... The umbrella and the duffle bag. I was glad we brought the umbrella along, and even more glad that we didn't have to use it!

Our suitcases were so full from the beginning that we had no incentive to buy anything on the trip, which of course helped with our budget! I was really glad we kept our luggage to a minimum because we moved around quite a lot, took lots of public transportation which required going up/down flights of stairs.

BTW, I didn't even wear a dress watch on this trip. Instead, I wore my Timex Ironman which double-dutied as alarm, hence I didn't have to pack an additional travel alarm clock.

The only item I wish there was an alternative was the GPS friction mount. It was essential, but it is so bulky and heavy (>2 lbs) that I wish I didn't have to lug it along.

We used a huge variety of transportation on this trip:

Trains (both commuter trains and long-distance including TGV and Thalys)
Metro and Buses in Paris
Trams in Brussels and Ghent
Boats (3 cruises)
Taxi in Bruges
Rental car in Loire Valley for 48 hours
yk is offline  
Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 09:45 AM
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Aside from the required "dress-up" wardrobe... SIX tops for 10 days, and FOUR pairs of pants (2 jean 2 khaki) for 10 days, per person?? you must be a regular Fashionista! The Belgians should be flattered that you changed so often to show them variety! : )
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Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 09:47 AM
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I'll start the trip report with Paris, where we visited on Days 1, 4 and 5.


Where we stayed
We spent 2 separate nights in Paris, and stayed at 2 different hotels.

Our first night was at
New Hotel Candide in the 11th arrondissement
3, rue Petion, 75011
Metro: Voltaire

Our Cost: $0 inclu breakfast
Hotel rate: €150 double + €10 breakfast per person

So why did we choose this hotel? The obvious answer was because it was free (courtesy of Hotwire). A few months ago when I went to London, I stayed at a hotel booked via Hotwire. There was an issue with the hotel, so I complained to Hotwire. They decided to give me a credit of $150 on my Hotwire account. So, my goal was to find a hotel in Paris thru Hotwire that would cost approx $150. After checking Hotwire for weeks, I finally saw a 3* hotel in the Gare du Nord/Republique zone for this price. There was no report on which hotel it would be, but I decided to take the plunge. Afterall, it was only for 1 night.

Anyway, I had hoped that the actual hotel would be closer to Gare du Nord, but we ended up at Voltaire metro stop. The positive side is that it gave us an excuse to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery which is right down the street from the hotel.

Here is a link to the review I posted (with photos) on Tripadvisor.
Basically, it's an average 3* Paris hotel: small rooms, thin walls etc. For the rate it charges, I firmly believe one can find a similar hotel in a more convenient neighborhood.

BTW, since I booked thru Hotwire, I called the hotel a week before to confirm my booking. However, when we arrived, the staff had no record of me despite I gave her my printed confirmation. Finally, she asked if we had booked thru Expedia and she insisted that we did (I later found out that Expedia owns Hotwire) and found our reservation. And according to her, our rate included breakfast, which was not mentioned on our Hotwire booking. So, all-in-all, a very good deal as we "paid" only $150 for something which would have normally cost €170.

On our 4th night, we stayed at
Hotel Waldorf Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement
17, rue du Depart

Cost: €123 + €8 breakfast per person

I picked this hotel because I wanted to be very close to Gare Montparnasse as we had to use it 3 times during our 24hr stay. This hotel was perfect: just a few minutes' walk to both the Gare and the Metro stations. Because of that, we even saved € on our departure day by leaving our luggage at the hotel, instead of storing it at the train station. Here is the link to my review (w/photos) on Tripadvisor.

What we Did
Day 1

Our flight from Boston arrived early at CDG at around 7:10am. We had no checked luggage and there was no line for immigration. We walked to the RER station and stood in line for a good 15 minutes to buy our tickets. We got on the 8:10am RER towards Gare du Nord. I don't know why I never used the RER in my previous trips.... it's so convenient!!!

Instead of changing for the Metro at Gare du Nord to our hotel (which involves 2 lines), we took the bus instead which goes directly to Voltaire. Since the bus terminus is at Gare du Nord, we got seats. But the bus got very crowded enroute (this was Fri morning), and I can see how difficult it would be for someone w/luggage trying to get on a crowded bus.

Not surprisingly, our room was not ready at the hotel, so we dropped off our luggage and walked over to Père Lachaise Cemetery. We picked up a free map (only available during the week but not the weekend). I was quite amazed at how huge the cemetery is, yet so crowded at the same time. The cemetery is also full of chestnut trees and I've never seen so many chestnuts lying around on the ground!

Anyway, even with the map, some graves are harder to find than others. We were there for about 2hours and saw (in no particular order) the graves of: Jim Morrison, Chopin, Pissarro, Bizet, Proust, Ingres, J-Louis David, Rossini, and of course, Oscar Wilde.

Lunch We ate at Au Rond Point, which is right next to the Père Lachaise Metro stop. This is in the Pudlo Guide. They have a number of menus to choose from. DH picked a "panini formula" which includes a panini, a drink, and a crepe for dessert. I had their lunch special which was pork curry over rice plus a drink. The curry was very nice, quite different from the Indian or Thai curry I'm used to here. Our lunch was €24,50.
Restaurant website:

We were ready to collapse, so we returned to the hotel and were unconscious for 3 hours. Finally, we peeled ourselves off the bed at 4pm, took a shower, and headed out.

We took the #69 bus to the Musée Carnavalet in Marais. We only had about 1/2 hour there before closing, but since it's free, why not? For some reason, we didn't pick up a plan for the museum, so we ended up going around the period rooms in the wrong order. Nonetheless, we still enjoyed it. The museum reminds me of the Geffrye Museum in London, but of course, this is much bigger in size. We visited its lovely courtyard/garden in the last few minutes before closing.

Our next plan is to head towards Pont Neuf. But since today was the day of Pope's visit to Notre Dame (due to arrive there around that time), we took a detour to the Left Bank to check it out (though not first stopping at Berthillon for ice-cream). The quays along the Left Bank were closed to traffic with several large projection screens set up to broadcast his visit. From a distance, we could see the Pope on the screen in his PopeMobile, while we could here people cheering from the streets.

We had a rather meh dinner at a resto at corner of Rue Dauphine and Rue Nesle in the 6th. I can't even recall the name as it was not worth going. DH had a flank steak w/frites which was okay, but my salad was the most tasteless salad ever! We picked this place randomly as we only had about 1 hour to eat dinner before our 8pm Seine cruise, and it looked like it could serve food quickly. Dinner was €31.

We took the 8p cruise from Vedettes du Pont-Neuf (don't forget to print out the discount coupon from the website). We picked 8pm because sunset that day was around 8, so we could see both Paris at dusk in the beginning, and Paris at night in the end.

Finally, we took the Metro back to the hotel and collapsed. One may say that we did way too much on our first day. But I found out this time that walking around in fresh air was a great way to combat fatigue. We felt rather refreshed at the cemetery and on the Seine cruise. Of course, we would have never made it if we didn't take a 3-hour nap.
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Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 10:13 AM
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I'm glad you made it to the wedding after all, and also that you didn't need your umbrella unlike your last visit to England!

Your trip reports are always so detailed and interesting too so I look forward to the rest.

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Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 10:13 AM
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PARIS continued

What we did
Day 4

We returned to Paris (Gare Montparnasse) from Angers by TGV around 1pm. We quickly found our hotel and checked in. Then we took Bus #95 to the Louvre. Since this was a Monday, we expected the Louvre to be crowded because most other museums are closed. Because of that, we entered through the Porte des Lions entrance where we encountered no one except museum staff!
[See thread about Porte des Lions here:

We have visited the Louvre on previous visits, so we focused our visit this time on the Flemish & Dutch paintings, which are located in +2 level of Richelieu wing. We spent about 2 hours there, then stopped at the cafe in the pyramid entrance for an afternoon snack.

Recharged, we headed out to Jardin des Tuileries and walked all the way to Place de la Concord. We saw a Richard Serra work at the western end of the garden.

Next, we headed to Jardin du Luxembourg as DH has never been. We sat by the main pool and watched the kids played with old-fashioned sailboats. We took the bus back to our hotel, rested for a while, then headed out for dinner.

Dinner We ate at Parnasse 138, which is listed as a favorite in Pudlo guide. We had a reservation for 8pm (we asked the hotel staff to call for us earlier in the day) and were seated promptly. I don't think we could have gotten in without a reservation as the place was full even though it was a Monday night. It definitely is more popular than many other restaurants that we walked past. They offer serveral menus of various prices, ranging from €15 to €23.

DH had french onion soup, followed by sliced duck breast w/potato au gratin and hericot vert. I started with a smoked salmon over risotto, then calamari Provencale style. The food plus 25cl wine and 2 coffees came out to just €46. The food was very good and the price was right.

Parnasse 138
138, Boulevard du Montparnasse, 75014

Originally, we planned to go up Tour Montparnasse after dinner for a night view of Paris, as the tower is right across the street from our hotel. But by then, I was really tired plus we had a long day tomorrow, we didn't feel like paying €20 just to go up for a quick look and then come down, so we skipped it.

Day 5
After an early breakfast and check out, we went to Gare Montparnasse to take the train to Versailles. We bought the Forfait Loisirs ticket from the Transilien window (level 0)
which comes with the r/t train ticket, Versailles ticket, plus a map of how to get to the Chateau from the Versailles-Chantiers station.

I know most people go to Versailles by RER-C, but this SNCF train from Montparnasse is very convenient. The train takes only 14 minutes, and then it's a 15-min walk to the chateau.

We arrived at Versailles at 8:50am (gate opens at 9am) and were so glad we arrived early. The whole courtyard is quite deserted which is nice. We were #7 & 8 in line to enter. We sprinted to the audioguide booth (included with forfait loisirs) and then to the State Apts. We did encounter 2 small Japanese tourist groups, but for the most part, it was quite empty at that early hour, including the Hall of Mirrors.

Currently, there is a Jeff Koons installation at Versailles, which poses some interesting contrast in the State Apts. For more detailed discussion on the Jeff Koons, see this thread:

The audioguide includes a brief commentary on the Jeff Koons work in each room, which I thought was a nice touch.

After the State Apts, we toured the Dauphine apts, then headed out to the Gardens. We slowly made our way out to the Grand Canal, where we sat at a bench and ate a snack (leftover bread and cheese from breakfast). Then we walked to Grand Trianon. After touring the inside, we marched onward to Petit Trianon and the gardens.

My last visit to Versailles was 5 years ago. I never made it to Petit Trianon or the Hameau that time due to time contraints. This time we did (and our feet really felt the distance)! I very much enjoyed the Hameau as it is SO different from the rest of Versailles.

Finally, we made our way back to the Chateau, though not without a last look at the Orangery from above. As we exited the Chateau, we stopped at the cafe near the entrance and ate a very late lunch. 2 sandwiches and a drink cost €13,30. Altogether, we spent 6.5 hours at Versailles.

We took the train back to Gare Montparnasse. We went back to our hotel for our luggage and took the Metro line 4 to Gare du Nord, where we would take the 6:25pm Thalys train to Bruges. (The 6:25pm is the only train that goes directly Paris-Bruges daily.)

We had plenty of time to spare at Gare du Nord, so we stopped by a cafe for some coffee and crepes. Then, we got some dinner to-go from a kiosk (sandwich for DH, salad for me) and we ate on the train. We arrived at Bruges just before 9pm.

A word about Transportation in Paris:

Although I have been to Paris 7-8 times before, this is the first time I used the buses in Paris. A huge incentive is based on posts by Fodorite Robespierre, who is quite an advocate for bus use in Paris. I myself use the buses in London a lot because I enjoy watching the streets, so I figure the same should apply for Paris.

After spending some time on the ratp.fr website, I got quite comfortable with it. It even has a interactive Bus map which is very helpful in planning bus trips. Overall, I find the buses more convenient than the Metro because majority of the time, the bus route takes me directly to where I needed to go, whereas the Metro would require a transfer.

But for traveling longer distances in a hurry, metro wins hands down (which is the same for London).
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Old Sep 23rd, 2008, 11:33 AM
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Next is on Days 2 & 3:

ANGERS & surrounding

Day 2
We left Paris in the morning and took the TGV to Angers, arriving at 11:30am. We stored our luggage at the train station (see thread here for more details about luggage storage at Angers:
http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=35132084) and walked into town.

Lunch We ate at L’Auberge Angevine, an ancient chapel converted into restaurant. Great ambience and really good food. We chose the menu du jour (€12 for 2-course; €15 for 3-course, including a drink). The main course was beef with a shallot sauce. It was presented beautifully and tasted great.

Next, we visited the Angers Cathedral - stiill with stained glass dating from the 12th century.

Our last stop was Château d’Angers. We paid extra for the audioguide, which turned out to be way too verbose. However, without the audioguide, I don't know how one can make much out of the visit as there is very little explanation along the way. The layout and the visiting route were confusing despite having a map and the audioguide.

I was completely worn out by the commentary even before we got to the tapestries; which is the last stop of the visit to the Chateau. It is really a shame, because I was so tired by then all I could do was fall asleep in the dim tapestry hall listening to the audioguide.

I am never that interested in tapestry anyway, and I found this Apocalypse tapestry somewhat underwhelming. Well, the sheer size of it is impressive, but the color has faded significantly and they look worn out. To me honest, I much prefer the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

We returned to the train station, retrieved our luggage, and picked up our rental car from Europcar. From Angers, we drove 40km NW to a small town called Candé where we stayed for 2 nights.

The wedding venue was at Chateau de Challain, located 7km north of Candé.

Dinner That evening, we had a group dinner at Le Petit Manoir. This is probably the best meal on our trip. Sadly, the chef/owner had sold his restaurant, so even if it still exists in the future, it won't be the same chef.

He came up with a 3-course dinner for €40, each course with 3 choices. I started with seared wild scallops with a mousse made from foie gras and port wine. Just sublime. My main dish was baked lobster with thai spices. Dessert was "molecular tiramisu" with summer truffles. There were actually big enough shavings of truffle that I could have a good taste of it! This was our most expensive meal at €87,50 for 2.

Day 3
Initially, we planned to visit Saumur today. However, due to time constraints, we changed our minds as we didn't want to rush there and rush back. So, where to go? (I didn't have a guide book for this area!)

Fortunately, at our B&B, there were plenty of maps and brochures to give us some ideas.

After breakfast, we drove to Ingrandes, which is right on the bank of the Loire. After we parked the car, we found ourselves witnessing a huge parade of antique cars going thru the tiny, sleepy town. This kept us entertained for a good 15 minutes (they clogged up all the streets in town).

Next, we drove on D751 (along the banks of the Loire) to Chalonnes-sur-Loire. This is a slightly bigger town than Ingrandes. It has a nice path along the river so we took a walk.

Finally, we headed to Chateau de Serrant, located just outside of St Georges-sur-Loire.

We arrived at 12:15pm, which gave us plenty of time to visit the grounds before the scheduled 1pm English guided tour. This chateau supposedly is rated 3* by Michelin guide.

The grounds are beautiful and devoid of tourists. Another English-speaking couple joined us on the tour, so there were 4 of us. The chateau interior is quite nice (mainly Louis XIV, XV, and Napoleon style furniture). We also got a close-up look at the most expensive piece of furniture in the chateau: an ebony secret cabinet made by Pierre Gole, a 17th century Dutchman. According to our guide, there are only 6 such cabinets exist in the world today, and that cabinet alone is worth more than the Chateau itself. The tour lasted for 1 hour and we found it very enjoyable.

By then, it was time to return to our B&B to get ready for the wedding.

I was sad that we didn't get to Saumur this time, but at the same time, was glad we didn't try to rush our way there and back. Instead, we had a leisurely day in the area and Chateau de Serrant was a nice bonus.

The next morning, we drove back to Angers to drop off our car, then took the TGV back to Paris.

You may wonder why we didn't just rent a car from Paris and drive to Angers from there, instead of taking the train.

The reason is simple: DH does not enjoy driving in France. We had a rather bad experience last year driving in France, so this year, I decided that we'd limit the driving to a minimum. I made sure I reserved the smallest car possible (navigating thru the narrow streets in small towns is not easy), and we got a decent Hyundai i30. I also bought a Garmin Nuvi specifically for the trip to help navigate as well. With all this preparation, the driving was much less stressful this time.
(I want to make sure this is a positive experience for DH, so that he will continue to agree to drive in Europe in the future.)

TGV & Thalys
Thanks to the knowledge here, I was able to buy PREMs tickets for the TGV and MINI fare tickets for the Thalys train. Without this forum, I would never have known about these discount tickets and how to book on voyages-sncf.com.

In the end, our tickets Paris-Angers on TGV was €25pp one way (~50% off regular price). Our tickets Paris-Bruges on Thalys was €25pp (~70% off regular price). Altogether, we saved over €200 on tickets.
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 06:19 AM
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Where we Stayed
B&B Absoluut Verhulst
Verbrand Nieuwland 1

Cost: €80 inclu breakfast (however, they have raised the rates to €90 now)

Truly a wonderful stay at this small B&B. The couple, Freida and Benno, who runs this place is the nicest people I have met in a long time. The breakfast they provide is out of this world. You can read my detailed review on Tripadvisor.

What we Did in Bruges
Day 6

After a delightful breakfast, we set off for Groeningemuseum, home of the Flemish Primitive paintings. On the way there, we got to enjoy a relatively quiet Bruges, as the daytrippers have yet to arrive. At the museum, We bought the Combo ticket (€15 for 5 museums/sights). I absolutely LOVE this museum. It's not crowded (if you get there early), and there are no ropes or alarms that keep you at a distance from the paintings. I could literally stand inches away from a painting (there is a glass pane) and admire the tiny paint strokes.

My favorite painting remains the Madonna with Canon van der Paele by Jan van Eyck. It is so beautifully painted: from the wrinkles on the Canon's face, to the shining armor of St Geroge, to the velvet with gold thread robe of St Donation, to the frayed carpet at Madonna's feet. It just takes my breath away.

By the time we emerged from the museum, the town is packed with tourists. We made our way to the Burg. First, we visited the Basilica of Holy Blood (where a vial of Christ's blood is held). Then, we went to the Liberty of Brugge Museum (Brugse Vrije). The main thing to see there is the Renaissnace hall, with a huge fireplace commissioned by Charles V (the HRE) in the 1500s. To complete the tour of the Burg, we next visited the Gothic Hall inside the Stadhuis, a room from medieval times.

Lunch As today was Wednesday, there is a farmers market right on the Markt.

We decided to have a picnic lunch: sausage with a side of mushrooms for me; chicken kebab for DH (both from a cooked food truck), and 2 plums from a fruit stall. We found a bench just underneath the Belfry and ate our food there. Of course, our lunch was not complete without frites from the fritestand at the Belfry, so we shared one. This affordable lunch was just €11.

We went back to our B&B for a quick break, then set off for the De Halve Maan Brewery. I accidentally misread the map, and with a slight detour, we arrived just after 3pm and missed the 3pm tour. The next one was at 4. With the extra time, we each got a Magnum Classic for dessert and we headed over to the Begijnhof (béguinages) - a UNESCO site.

We got back to the brewery just before 4.
The brewery tour is rather boring, IMO. But DH enjoys it, which is all that matters. It is quite a contrast from the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour we had taken in St Louis (think clean/sleek/modern vs old/cobwebs). The best part of the tour obviously is the end: a free glass of beer.

After the beers, we caught the last canal boat tour just in time. As touristy as it may seem, I find the tour very enjoyable and relaxing, plus it gives one a different perspective on the town and the buildings (as we weren't distracted by the glitzy, kitschy souvenir shops on the street level).

After the cruise, we took a walk around town - up to Jan van Eyckplein, then cross over to St Annarei. At this time of day, the daytrippers have all left, which makes the town much nicer to stroll in. We reached our B&B and rested until dinner time.

Dinner We chose to eat at De Koetse (recommended by Lonely Planet).
It was good, not great. We both chose the €29,50 3-course menu. DH had smoked salmon, followed by moules frites, and finished with an Irish coffee. I had the fish soup, then grilled lamb, and lastly, Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce). Final bill was €77.

Bar Since the main goal of visiting Belgium is for DH to try out different beers, we hit a bar each night in Belgium. Tonight we went to De Garre. I like the setting there - small, cozy, old wooden bar - though I could do without all that cigarette smoke! DH tried a lambic beer there called Boon Oude Geuze. I had a smell and a taste. It smelled very strongly of yeast, and tasted awful - like sour dishwater! Quite an acquired taste I suppose.

[BTW, I don't drink at all. I lack the enzyme that is needed to break down alcohol. Even if I drink just 1/3 of a glass, a few minutes later my skin turns blotchy red and my heart races. It's not a feeling I enjoy so therefore I don't drink. However, I do take several sips of beer or wine when DH orders just for a taste of it. So when we are at the beer bars, I usually order a soft drink or a coffee while DH had his beer(s).]
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 06:52 AM
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Day 7

After another great breakfast by Freida and Benno at the B&B, we set off for the Belfry. 366 steps later, we reached the top. As this was relatively early (just after 10am), we were among just a handful of people at the top. The stairway of the Belfry is quite narrow, and I wonder what it's like during summertime full of tourists? We stayed at the top long enough to hear the carillon bells ring.

Next, we visited the Sint-Janshospitaal/MemlingMuseum. We went straight for the chapel in the far end where the Memling paintings and triptychs are held. As I had visited this place before, I had no patience to go through the hospital exhibits again (which is a lot; with very long-winded audioguide descriptions). DH was fine with skipping the rest, so we left soon and headed for the Church of Our Lady across the street. The attraction there is the Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and Child. I don't get why it's such a big deal. It was very crowded by that time of day, and we were roped off so far away that it's impossible to really admire it (not unlike his Pieta at St Peters at the Vatican).

We returned to our B&B and rented 2 bikes from Freida and Benno. At just €5/day for a bike, it definitely is the best deal in town. We rode it just down the street to the Museum voor Volkskunde (Folklore Museum) on Balstraat. This museum is set inside a row of almshouses, which is really neat. Inside, each room(a total of 20) depicts a 19th-c shop: ranging from shoemaker to tobacconist to tailor to cooper's shop.

As the Folklore Museum is located east of town, from there, it is an easy short ride to the canal path on the East side of town where the old windmills are.

We then rode along the big canal towards Damme (4 miles). There is a bike path on the side of the road, and the canal is very serene and beautiful.

We soon arrived at Damme, but we continued biking to reach the restaurant Siphon (recommended by Patrick). When we got there, we were dismayed to find that it's closed on Thursdays and Fridays! So we biked back to Damme and headed into the tiny town.

It is hard to believe that 500 years ago, Damme was a busy port of Bruges. It even has a Stadhuis and was where Charles the Bold and Margaret of York got married in 1468.

We decided to eat lunch at the restaurant Pallieter right next to the Stadhuis (because it was the most crowded).

It was a beautiful day, so we sat outside on the sidewalk. We had a very leisurely lunch which was very, very good. DH ordered their 3-course menu of the day. It started with Serrano ham with greens, followed by turkey kebab. Dessert was a coffee ice cream cake. All for just €15! I ordered a salad with croquettes filled with cheese and tomatoes. This was delicious, and the salad came with fresh fruit including kiwi, strawberries, and canteloupe. Total for lunch was €39. We almost didn't feel like getting back on the bikes after lunch.

As we still had a couple of hours in the afternoon, we decided to ride further along the bike paths. Freida had lent us a Belgium bike map which lists all the bike routes. We found the signs very easy to follow, and on the whole, the area is very flat. Most of the routes either have a dedicated bike path, or is a very remote road with little traffic.

We biked as far as Oostkerke, then returned to Damme via a different route through cornfields and farmlands. From Damme, we past the Damme windmill and followed the canal back to Bruges. Altogether, we biked about 20km that afternoon.

We were exhausted when we got back to the B&B, so a nap was in order.

Dinner that evening was at In den Wittenkop, a place recommended by Benno. (He also praised RockFort, which gets lots of great reviews, but we decided RockFort is too expensive.) We were given each a cream of zucchini soup as amuse-bouche. DH chose the 3-course €35 menu. He started with a grilled goat cheese salad. For his main course, he had Flemish beef and pork stew with fries. Dessert was coffee parfait. He enjoyed all 3 dishes. I ordered a la carte. To start, I had the soup special which was garlic soup w/escargot. For the main dish, I felt like Italian, so I picked the fresh pasta with mushrooms and parma ham. Both were great except there was a bit too much olive oil in the pasta dish. Dinner was €80.

In den Wittenkop
St. Jakobsstraat 14
(just ~ 1 block NW of Markt)

Bar Tonight, we visited Cambrinus, a bar that boasts over 400 kinds of beer.
The beer menu itself weighs a ton, and of course, tough choices for DH. In the end, he tried 2 beers: first, a honey beer; and second, La Gauloise Blonde.

Even though I have been to Bruges twice before, this is the first time I had stayed for a few days. I find it much lovelier to experience Bruges this way, as the town is so beautiful and more so at the morning and evening hours when it's deserted of daytrippers.

Our bike ride through the Flanders countryside today was both our favorite activity on this trip. As much as I like cities and towns and museums, the bike ride was just different - very peaceful and enjoyable.
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 09:07 AM
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thanks so much for your tr. I have been on the lookout for it since I have read alot of your past TRs and your posts on setting this trip up.

I am going to A'dam [8 nights],Bruges[4 nights] & Brussels[3 nights] in Feb. the restaurant reviews are great. I am a budget traveler and will have an apartment in A'dam and Bruges to hold down food costs somewhat but when you do go out you want to make it count!

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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 09:57 AM
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Day 8
After breakfast by Freida & Benno at the B&B, we left for Ghent. Frieda & Benno had pre-arranged a taxi for us, and the image of them standing by the door waving goodbye to us in the cab is one that I won't forget for a long, long time.

At the Bruges station, we bought a VIA ticket (€13,30pp 2nd class) - one ticket from Bruges to Brussels but allows a stopover in Ghent. The price is the same as 2 separate tickets (Bruges-Ghent then Ghent-Brussels) as ticket prices in Belgium are calculated based on distance.

Once we arrived at St Pieters station in Ghent, we stored our luggage at the lockers. IIRC, there are 3 sizes and the medium size is big enough to store our 2 rollaboards (€3,50 for up to 72 hours). As the train station is far from the center, we took tram 1 from the station. There are ticket machines at the tram stop; €1,20 per ride; ticket has to be validated by the machine on board the tram.

The first attraction we visited was St Bavo's Cathedral for the Ghent Altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers. It is located in a side chapel inside the cathedral. The audioguide is lengthy but very good information. If you listen to every description (which we did), it takes about 50 minutes.

Next, we stopped by the tourist info (right beneath the belfry) to get a map of the city, then we climbed the Belfry. Initially, I was going to climb up the stairs. But as soon as I walked up about 10 steps, my thighs were burning already (from climbing the Bruges Belfry plus 20km cycling yesterday), so I took the elevator up. DH insisted on taking the stairs himself. We took the stairs down.

Next door to the Belfry is St Niklaas Church. We popped in for a few minutes... not much to see. From there, it's a short walk to the old harbor and the Graslei. We randomly picked a canal boat company for a cruise (all of them charge the same for the same duration).

The canal cruise is not nearly as scenic as the one in Bruges, because many houses along the canals have been rebuilt, so you'd see a 400 yr-old house next to some ugly concrete ones from the 20th century. Nonetheless, it's still quite enjoyable and our guide is very animated and knowledgable. Also, the view of the Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) from the canal is far more impressive than from the street level.

After the cruise, we ate lunch at de Foyer Brasserie, located on the first floor of the theatre next to St Bavo's.
It has a huge outdoor balcony/patio with great view of the Belfry. We picked 2 daily specials: pan-fried plaice for DH and Sole Meunière for me. Both dishes come with mashed potatoes and vegetables. We were very pleased with the quality of the food although this place was more expensive than I had originally thought. Our lunch was €50.

We walked to Patershol district, which still contains some medieval buildings with beautiful stone carvings on their facades, then back to Korenlei and Graslei. We stopped by the TollHouse bar on Graslei No.11 for a drink, supposedly the smallest bar (perhaps the narrowest bar) in Ghent. It is formerly a toll house for the ships on the canal back in the 17th century. Right next door at Graslei No.10 is one of the oldest buildings in Ghent, formerly a grain warehouse dating from the 13th century. Nowadays it is home to the Ghent outpost of Belga Queen.

After the beer, we walked to Korenmarkt to catch Tram No.1 back towards the train station, but got off a few stops early and walked to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts).

This attraction is by far the most underwhelming/disappointing stop we had on our entire trip. It has lots of paintings by not-so-well-known Flemish artists and by Jacob Jordaens (a pupil of Rubens). The only truly famous paintings it has are 2 by Hieronymus Bosch.

We were there for about an hour, then we walked thru Citadelpark back to the train station. We retrieved our luggage and took the next train to Brussels. We arrived in Brussels at around 7pm.

Since we spent more than what we anticipated at lunch, we opted for a dirt cheap dinner in Brussels. I recall a street near Hotel Amigo that is full of Döner Kebab joints. On the way there, we passed by Grand-Place so we stopped for a while. The sun was about to set so the evening rays were shining on the buildings around Grand-Place, making them all glowing with a warm orange color.

I easily found the street I was thinking of, which is Rue du Marche aux Fromages. We randomly selected a Döner Kebab shop (one called "Athens"). Even though these are cheap-eat joints, they are still full-service and offer tables on the sidewalk (and inside as well). DH had a mixed-meat served w/salad, and I had a falafel pita. Total was €15.

After dinner, we went around the corner and stopped at Gaufre De Bruxelles for dessert. DH had a Liege waffle while I had the Brussels one. Then we went to the bar A la Mort Subite where DH tried their signature brand, Mort Subite (which means Sudden Death), but with the raspberry flavor. It tasted very sweet, and the raspberry flavor pretty much masked any beer flavor, so after that one, he ordered a Grimbergen Dark which is an Abbey beer.
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 07:05 PM
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I love your trip reports, yk. They're always so well written and thought-out.

Those Teaching Company dvd's look very interesting, not only the art history but the music and straight history sets as well.

It looks like we share an interest in Northern Renaissance painting. In fact, I owe you a huge thanks - I'm preparing for a trip to London in a couple of weeks, and I was reading your most recent London report the other day - and that's where I learned about the upcoming Flemish Masters exhibit at the Queen's Gallery, which I am now very excited about going to see.

If it wasn't for your report I would have missed this exhibit, so a million thanks
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 07:25 PM
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What a great report, THANK YOU!
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Old Sep 24th, 2008, 07:28 PM
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great report!!
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 05:44 AM
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 07:58 AM
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Thank you for all your comments. It's always nice to know that somebody is reading this.

Apres_Londee - you are very welcome. Enjoy your trip to London. The Queen really does quite an impressive painting collection. The National Gallery also has a nice collection of Flemish paintings, and if you're a Bruegel fan, there are 2 paintings by Bruegel (the Elder) at the Courtauld.

Regarding the Teaching Company DVDs, we have enjoyed several series on art, though some better than others. It really depends a lot on the professor. We like Rick Bretell (who does the Impressionist series and the Louvre), the one who does the Northern Renaissance is new - she's pretty good but sometimes too cerebral. The one who we found rather dry is Professor Kloss, who does the Italian Renaissance and some other ones.

My in-laws have got DVDs on other subjects from the Teaching Company and they like those too; in fact, they are the ones who got us into it in the first place.
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 08:21 AM
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Now near the end of the trip...


Where we stayed
Hotel Floris Arlequin
17-19 rue de la Fourche

Cost: €63,75/night inclu breakfast (booked thru hrs.de as its rate was better than the hotel website)

I actually stayed at this hotel 2.5 years ago the last time I was in Brussels. I didn't like it too much then, but I like its location (just 2 blocks from Grand-Place). When I saw this unbeatable rate, I just couldn't say no.

Well, it turns out that the Floris group had taken over the hotel since my last stay, and gave it a complete facelift. The decor and furniture looks much better, and more importantly, no more cigarette smell in the rooms. Here's the link to my Tripadvisor review:

What we Did
Day 9

Our first stop this morning was the Fine Art Museums. We reached it by way of Mont des Arts stairs so that I could point out the Old England Building (now the Musical Instrument Museum) to DH. The Old England Building is a beautiful Art Nouveau building full of wrought iron.

We arrived at the Fine Arts Museum just before 10am (opening time) and there was a line to get in. The big attraction was the Bruegel to Rubens exhibition which was closing that weekend. 50+ paintings from The Queen's collection were shown in this exhibition. The regular admission to the museum is €5, but with the exhibition it was €9 (still a bargain as the show will be in London next month and the admission is £8.50).

One of the highlight of the show is being able to see Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents (Queen's Collection) side-by-side with a similar one painted by his son (Brussels' collection).

At the end of the exhibition was a film documenting the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992, and the subsequent £40 million restoration work. The movie was narrated in English, with Dutch and French subtitles. Unfortunately, they turned the sound off, but it was still an interesting film to watch.

After the exhibit, we first headed for the Modern Art section (as it is next to the exhibition hall). There still aren't that many Magritte paintings on view, but they are currently building an annex to the museum complex which they will call the Magritte Museum, opening in 2009.

We returned to the original building where the Ancient Art is shown. They have moved the paintings from their original galleries (which are closed for asbestos removal) to new ones, so everything looks a bit different to me compared to my last visit. Anyway, all the "biggies" are still on view including the rest of its Bruegel collection and Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David.

We were at the museum for probably 2.5-3 hours, so it was time for lunch. We popped in the Museum cafe to check options/prices, and decided it's not that cheap (€6 for a small wrapped sandwich, €20 for hot main course). Options were limited, so we left. We ended up in Sablon, and after looking at the menus at various places, we ate at Le Pain Quotidien.

DH ordered their sandwich of the day special, which has fresh goat cheese, sundried tomatoes w/olive pate. I had a soup of the day (not 100% sure what it was but I think butternut squash), and a lemon tart. Lunch was €26,60.

Art Nouveau afternoon

We walked back up hill towards Rue de la Regence and took tram #92 to Horta Museum (€2 per ride). We got off at the Ma Campagne stop. We first headed to Hotel Hannon, which is now a photography gallery. It charges an admission for the exhibition, but honestly, we just wanted take a peek of the interior decor. When we entered, the staff lady was busy chatting with a couple, so we just stood in the foyer looking at the ceiling, stairwell, stained glass (absolutely stunning!). A few minutes later (the staff was still chatting), we left.

Next, we visited the Horta Museum - still amazes me on this second visit.

We then did a walk-by of several more Art Nouveau houses in the area, including:
Rue Africaine 92 (by De Lestree; 1903)
Maison Hankar at Rue Defacqz 71 (by Paul Hankar; 1893)
Rue Defacqz 48 (by Paul Hankar; 1897)
Rue Faider 83 (by Roosenboom; 1900)
Hotel Tassel at Rue Paul-Emile Janson 6 (by Horta; 1893)
Hotel Solvay at Ave Louise 224 (by Horta; 1894)

Sadly, none of these are open to the public. Most of them are privately-owned, and a handful of them can be visited with a special group. Looking at these buildings from the outside really doesn't tell you much about the interior. I wish some organization in Brussels would just take over these houses and open them all to the public (like Casa Batlló and Casa Mila in Barcelona).

Once we got to Ave Louise, we decided to slowly stroll back to town as it was a nice Saturday afternoon (~1.5 miles). We reached the Palais de Justice and took the glass elevator down to the Quartier Bruegel, full of antiques and furniture/interior design stores.

We made our way back to Sablon and bought some chocolates from Neuhaus and Wittamer as gifts. We also bought 6 pieces from Wittamer for ourselves (~€0.60 a piece).

As we made our way back to our hotel, we passed thru Grand-Place, and there was a huge folklore festival going on - with folks wearing traditional garb, and of course, plenty of beer tents. With me twisting his arm, DH tried 2 more brews: Grisette and Delirium Tremens.

Dinner that night was at the touristy Chez Leon.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that we ate there. Rather than randomly choosing among the 50+ restaurants along Rue des Bouchers and Petite Rue des Bouchers, I felt more comfortable with Chez Leon's reputation.

DH chose the moules "a la plancha" -a huge plate of mussels with some calamari and 2 enormous prawns. I ordered the Leon Formula, which is a large bowl of mussels (650g) plus a beer. Of course, both of our dishes came with frites. Our dinner was €46.

Our final Bar on this trip was Falstaff.
It is a beautiful Art Nouveau brasserie but also with some elements of Art Deco, which makes it very unique. Prices are a bit higher here, but the setting is well worth it. The last beer DH had in Belgium was Karmeliet Tripel.
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 08:52 AM
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Day 10
Today is just a travel day to get home, but there are a few things I wanted to point out:

Brussels National Airport
Very user-friendly. Only 15 minutes by train from Brussels. Fairly compact airport. We arrived 2 hours before our flight to JFK. Check-in and immigration and security took no time at all. Interestingly, boarding began 1 hour before departure time.

Transiting at JFK
As there is no nonstop BRU-BOS, we had to go thru JFK. Every now and then, there are posts here asking if X hours is enough to transit/transfer in JFK, so I figured I'll post our experience.

We had the BEST circumstances on this Sunday afternoon:
1) Short taxi from landing to the gate
2) Prompt deplaning
3) NO line at immigration/customs (for US citizens)
4) We had no checked luggage (so no need to retrieve nor re-check)
5) We were connecting on the same airline - American - so we didn't have to change terminals
6) We already had our BPs for our connecting flight
7) Short line at the security

Despite all that, it still took one hour from the time our plane touched down (which officially is the arrival time), to the time we got to our next departure gate.

So, I think, on a busy day at JFK, it can easily take 2 hours to do the above, esp if one has checked luggage. And if anyone has to change airlines and/or terminals, 3 hours would be a minimum, IMO.
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 09:21 AM
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Outstanding trip report. I'm saving a bunch from your trip as referrence for my future travels.

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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 09:45 AM
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What's the Damage?

Although I said we did this trip "on a budget", in reality, we didn't really have a fixed budget. Our goal was to get the best bargain that we could find. As you can see, we didn't travel on a shoestring.

- We stayed at acceptable lodgings with private baths.
- We did all the sightseeing that we wanted (though we did deliberately visit several free sights in Paris)
- We ate reasonably well: we didn't eat at any fancy places and we had our share of take-out sandwiches, but we also had a number of good meals too.

The biggest expense was our airfare plus the rest of transportation. Since we covered a lot of ground on this trip, it added up quickly.

OTOH, lodging was relatively cheap, esp we only paid for 6 nights of our 9 nights of hotels. 1 night in Paris was free, and the 2 nights at the B&B in Candé were paid for by the wedding couple.

Lastly, food costs. This was the main area where we saved some money; by not eating at sit-down fancy places for every meal. It also helps that breakfast was included with the hotel rate at most places we stayed.

BTW, we were very lucky to travel during this time period. The € was at $1.42 at the beginning of the trip, and up to $1.47 by the end. Most of the expenses we paid for was with cash at around €1=$1.42; however, our train tickets bought 3 months in advance were at €1 = $1.58.

So here's the breakdown:

Airfare - $2176
Trains - €200
Taxi - €18
Metro/Bus/Tram - €32
Cruises - €42
Bicycle - €10
Rental Car - ~$180 for 2 days

Food including snacks, beer
€700 for 9 days


€490,50 for 6 nights; 3 nights free

The Grand Total (using a few different conversion rates) comes out to: $4793

If you subtract the airfare, it comes out to $2617; which averages to about $290/day.
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Old Sep 25th, 2008, 01:50 PM
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great report, thanks.
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