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“How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s thing?!”

img_7282First Impressions

If you understood the reference I made in the title, then you must have seen “In Bruges”. I’m not embarrassed to say that I discovered the magical town of Bruges from that film. It’s a pretty stellar movie and it was the reason I put Bruges on top of my must-visit list. I was afraid that building Bruges up in my head would leave me disappointed and in a way it did and it didn’t. I wanted to get to Bruges early but I was still feeling sick so we couldn’t mobilize until 11 am and got to Bruges at half past noon. The reason I wanted to get there super early was to avoid the crowds, which were the main reason I was a little let down. The Bruges I fell in love with was the one featured in the scenes in the movie that had no tourists. In reality, during the hours of 10 am to 6 pm, the streets are filled with visitors. In my mind, it wouldn’t be as touristy, but being a tourist myself, I couldn’t really complain.

Accommodation

We did not stay in Bruges but I wish we did if only to be able to experience dawn and dusk there, when the tourists have all gone home.

Getting Around

We took the train from Brussels Central Station to Bruges’ Railway Station. Initially we didn’t know which train to board since on the big board at the station, they only show the train’s final destination not all the stops it’s making. We asked a helpful attendant and figured it all out. Once at Bruges’ train station, there are buses or taxis that can take to the main square but we opted to walk and I’m very glad we did because it allowed us to take in and savour all the sights Bruges had to offer.

Attractions

img_7220The walk from the train station to the town center took us through a few of the major landmarks in Bruges: Minnewater park, the Béguinage and the Church of Our Lady. The main event for us was definitely the Belfry and the market square. Unfortunately there was going to be a concert in the square and they had already set up the stage and seats right in the middle so that took away from the view.

The two things we did in Bruges was walk around to all the different places we remembered from the movie and take a canal ride. The canal ride is a must since you get to see a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise have seen in a short amount of time for very little effort and the captain we had was hilarious.img_7237

Food recommendations

We didn’t stay long enough to have a proper meal. My cold was also getting worse so I couldn’t indulge in all the beer I desperately wanted, but I’ve heard just the best things about Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan. We did get to sample some chocolate, again from a shop whose name I can’t remember. I would say it was comparable to the chocolate from Brussels, although I also didn’t find the famous chocolatier Dumon that apparently makes the best chocolates in all of Belgium. I definitely need to come back.

Souvenirs

Chocolate would be a good bet. But there is also, if you can afford it (we couldn’t), lace. My boss mentioned to me that Bruges is famous for crocheted lace and I had no idea. Once you get there though a lot of shops showcase the intricate pieces in their windows.

Final Thoughts

img_7152Keith said Bruges seems like what all the other ski towns in the US try to emulate, with the cobbled lanes and colourful buildings. We didn’t go inside the churches and the museums, but at the end of the day we were perfectly happy just being in this charming medieval city that really does look like it leapt out of a storybook.img_7153

Next post we find out if Paris is always a good idea…

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The Thing About Brussels…

img_6926First Impressions

On the Wednesday of our first week in Europe, we woke up early to snap a photo of the iamsterdam sign before it got swarmed then took the Thalys train from Amsterdam Central Station to Brussels-South Station. Two hours later, we found ourselves in Brussels. I read in another travel blog that Brussels was a bit of an enigma. And we understood exactly what the author meant when we found ourselves in Belgium’s capital. In fact, we couldn’t quite form an opinion about it while we were there. Did we like Brussels as much as Amsterdam? Did we even like Brussels at all? The vibe is completely different than the Dutch city we left behind. Gone were the bicycles and canals, to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of the de facto capital of the European Union. It was bigger and busier, more diverse. There were soldiers patrolling and vagrants sitting on the ground with signs. It reminded us a little of Toronto. Sure the architecture was nice, as in most of the cities in Europe, but what set Brussels apart? We hoped at the end of our stay, we would figure it out.

Accommodation

We were staying three nights at a fourth-floor apartment in the center of Brussels through Airbnb. Admittedly, I was a little nervous since this was my first experience with Airbnb and I had visions of somehow not ending up with a place to stay but luckily, the host was super responsive and arranged for her neighbour who lives in the same building to greet us and give us the key. Since I had always stayed in hotels or hostels with lifts, the narrow, steep, winding staircase took some getting used to. So did the no air conditioning. And we had just arrived during a heat wave. It was brutal at night, even with a fan. Other than those two things, the apartment was very spacious and I loved the bathtub. There was a kitchen and dining room that we did not really take advantage of and a living room with a pull-out couch. Another bonus was being near a church whose bells rang so you didn’t need to set your alarm. All in all, I would recommend staying here, but only during the cooler months.

Getting Around

Our only experience with Brussels’ transit system was when we took the tram to get to our Airbnb when we first arrived. Being fluent in French, it was easy to navigate for me since the signs were in both French and Dutch. But aside from that, we once again relied on our feet. Our apartment was so close to all the attractions that we didn’t really need to take public transport. All of the street signs in Brussels are both in French and Dutch as well. I suggest picking one language and sticking with it when following directions. For some reason, I found it easier to navigate the winding streets of Amsterdam, but luckily Keith picked up the slack. The whole “everything is much closer together” rule still applies here. We would sometimes have to double back because the street we were looking for was really more of an alleyway or a short strip that was an offshoot of another street that you wouldn’t really consider a separate one in North America. Some streets, especially the ones that were around the tourist attractions are pedestrian only.

Attractions

img_6919Our first day there, we headed straight to the main event: the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. It was breathtaking, without being hyperbolic. When we rounded the corner coming into the square, we were both just taken aback and stopped breathing for a little bit. It was just like nothing we had ever seen. I had seen major monuments before but the Grand Place just surrounds you in amazing architecture and stupefying splendour. There was the King’s House on the north side then the City Hall on the south side and then guildhalls on the east and west sides. Tourists just sit down or stand in the middle of the square for hours, just admiring and taking photos.

After gawking for I’m not even sure how long, we explored all the little side streets and shops around the Grand Place. There were so many pubs, bars, restaurants, chocolatiers and souvenir shops. Then we went down a street where we saw a crowd of people was gathered and it turned out to be the site of the Mannekin Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a naked little boy peeing. It was smaller than I imagined and I honestly don’t get what the fuss was all about. Keith liked it though. He said it helped him understand Brussels more. He said it meant the city didn’t take itself too seriously.

The next day, we were supposed to go to Bruges but due to unforeseen circumstances (I wasn’t feeling so well, I was starting to get the travel cold), we decided to switch Thursday and Friday’s itineraries. We stayed in Brussels and crossed off number two on Keith’s list: The Belgian Comic Strip Center. As soon as we found out there was a museum dedicated to comic books in Brussels, we knew, being the nerds that we are, we needed to pay a visit. Luckily this was also just a 10-minute walk from the apartment. The museum was fascinating for both of us, as someone who works in comics (Keith) and someone who is a big fan of the medium (me). It goes through the history of the comic book, the process, and highlights some of the pioneers and current creators. Belgium has a rich history with comic books. You may have heard about Hergé’s Tintin or Peyo’s The Smurfs. Much like the Rijksmuseum, the museum itself is a work of art with its Art Nouveau design. Needless to say, we were both glad we could make the pilgrimage.

img_6975The rest of our stay in Brussels consisted of just exploring the streets near our apartment. There were two smaller squares near us, the Place de la Monnaie and the Place des Martyrs. We also tried to find as many of the comic book murals that grace the side of the buildings in the city. If we had more time, we would’ve done the Comic Book Route to see all of them. Another thing on my list that I didn’t get to do was visit the Mont des Arts, apparently the best view of the city.

Food Recommendations

As a lover of beer and chocolate, Brussels did not disappoint. I don’t have specific recommendations when it comes to beer since I have come to the conclusion that you cannot get bad beer in Brussels. As for chocolate, there are so many stores but my co-worker recommended the chocolatier that invented the praline, Neuhaus, which I loved and even non-chocolate aficionado Keith enjoyed.

img_6947As for the famous waffles, just pick a stand and they should all be comparable. I got mine from Vitalgaufre and devoured it. Definitely get fries with mayo from a frites stand. Keith does not like mayo but for some reason, he didn’t mind Belgian mayo and he almost didn’t need my help to finish a whole cone by himself. We had moules et frites from a place I forgot the name of beside the Grand Place. It was ok but it didn’t really impress. I prefer the Thai mussels I make at home.

The one restaurant I absolutely recommend is Peck 47. Our Airbnb host suggested it. They’re located near the Grand Place and their food is fresh and so yummy. It may seem a little hipster at first but all of that won’t matter after you try their homemade lemonade and their delicious brunch. The bacon is probably the best bacon we have ever tasted. Ever.

Souvenirs

If you can ensure that they won’t melt, then chocolate from Neuhaus is a good souvenir to take back. We only had carry-on though so we opted for Speculoos cookies from Maison Dandoy. They come in the cutest packages so they don’t need to be gift-wrapped. We also taste tested them first, obviously.

Final Thoughts

img_6939By the end of the second day, we were starting to get what Brussels was all about. They had incredible monuments but their most beloved statue was a naked child peeing. They were the headquarters of the EU but they also had comic book murals on the side of their buildings. It seemed like anything goes in Brussels. This is probably just an ignorant tourist’s observation but the city seemed to be dealing fine with the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Then again, we don’t live there so the reality could be very different. When everything was said and done though, we realized we actually really liked Brussels.

Next post is all about the time we were In Bruges!

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“Do you guys wanna see my itinerary?”

img_7443I am resurrecting the blog with a five-part post on our recent European vacation. Apparently one of the best ways to combat post-vacation blues is to share your experience. Plus it would be nice to have our memories written down somewhere so why not here? This first post is an introductory one followed by four posts that will cover the four destinations of our trip: Amsterdam with a bit of Limburg sprinkled in, Brussels, Bruges, and finally Paris.

Before diving into our first stop, let me give you the context of our trip. We were attending a wedding in the Netherlands in the middle of August so we decided to make the most of this joyous occasion by visiting a few cities nearby. It would be Keith’s first trip to Europe, his first time setting foot anywhere outside of North America. As I have been to Europe before, specifically Paris, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg and Munich, I was in charge of the itinerary and did most of the planning. No pressure.

After weeks of researching (i.e. obsessively reading blog posts on all our dream destinations), we had decided that our trip would last 10 days mostly because we had a dog that I didn’t want to leave with the sitter for very long but partly because Europe is expensive and I also had a full-time job I had to get back to. Once we set our day-count limit, it was easy to pick and choose which cities to visit. We were initially going to do the Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) plus Cologne and Dusseldorf but cut it down to just Belgium, the Netherlands and added Paris. We’ll save Germany for a separate trip in the future and there’s nothing to see in Luxembourg anyways (just kidding, I’m sure it’s a small but beautiful country worth visiting!).

Then I spent the months leading up to our trip booking our accommodations, buying train and museum tickets in advance and seeking out advice and recommendations from friends. The great thing about being Canadian and living in Toronto is that there’s almost a 100% chance of knowing someone that is a) European, b) has family in Europe, or c) is currently living, has lived or recently visited Europe.

A couple lessons I learned during the planning phase:

  1. Airbnb is your friend but unless you are completely sold on a place, you should maybe abstain from booking it especially when the cancellation policy is strict. I booked a place in Paris that was cheap for a reason then found a much better option so I cancelled the first one but could only get 50 % of my money back.
  2. For my own peace of mind, I needed to combine all the travel information I needed (from our flight numbers to our hotel and Airbnb confirmations and addresses to our train times) in one place. Enter Excel. I found the templates that worked for me thanks to the following link: http://protravelblog.com/free-travel-itinerary-templates/. I used number 9 to have all the references I needed and number 4 for a day by day breakdown.
  3. Even though most everything nowadays has an app and can be accessed electronically through your phone, it is always a good idea to have printouts of your confirmations and tickets.
  4. Scan and bring a printout of the first page of your passport just in case. Luckily we did not need them but one of the guests at the wedding got her passport, credit cards, driver’s licence and health card stolen in Brussels.
  5. No matter how much you plan everything down to the minute, welcome the unexpected.

Our final itinerary looked like this: Two and a half days in Amsterdam, three and half days in Brussels with a day trip to Bruges, back to the Netherlands in Limburg for the wedding for a day, then off to Paris for three and a half days.

The next four posts will pretty much have the same format: First Impressions, Accommodation, Getting Around, Attractions, Food Recommendations, Souvenirs & Final Thoughts.

Next post will be on Amsterdam and Limburg. Hup Holland Hup!

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