Beautiful Belgium – For all you chocolate lovers out there…..
At the time I first started my European travels, bombarded by so many different options and so much information, I turned to various tour companies and looked at their travel schedules for an idea of where to go and what to do. I noticed a number of times that tour operators generally started their European segment with only a day spent in Brussels, Belgium. This really surprises me, as Belgium is a beautiful country and in my opinion, is totally underrated as a tourist destination.
When to Go
As with most European countries, the best time to head for Belgium is the very beginning or end of summer and tourist season. With the arrival of many holiday makers from June to August cities become congested, restaurants and bars are full, and long queues outside museums and galleries put a damper on the sightseeing experience. Also, and very importantly for those of us with limited travel funds, prices tend to soar. July and August are not always consistently sunny, but with a wide variety of things to do, both indoors and out, the weather will not hamper your travel plans or leave you stuck inside your hotel at a loose end
What to See and Do
The highlight of Brussels, in my opinion, is the Grand Place….sigh! This market square is officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site and my favourite square in Europe, with beautiful old guild houses topped with golden figures, forming an imposing frame around the cobbled centre. Here artists display their creations by day, and a sound and light show fills the night air with its melodic compositions and illuminations. It is a scene that suggests old world elegance and culture, and as its name suggests, it is grand!
Brussels is also home to the famous Manneken Pis, a statue of a small boy weeing into a fountain. Many legends and stories surround this statue, one suggesting that it was erected in honour of the disappearance of a small boy, the son of a wealthy merchant who went missing while visiting Brussels. A search party who was sent out to find the child and located him weeing in a small garden. Who would have thought that urinating in public could lead to immortalization of this magnitude?
Travel Tip no 1 – If you are an adult, urinating in a public place is not cute and is likely to get you arrested. Only small children can get away with this kind of thing, so don’t be tempted to try it, even after too many Belgian beers.
Another famous and much talked about Belgian landmark not to be missed is the Atomium, a well-known symbol of the 1958 World Trade Fair held in Brussels. It was constructed to symbolize peace coupled with a futuristic vision of a world of super-technology which would lead to a better life for all, and is rather impressive.
If you happen to venture by the Grand Place at night, and are looking for something to eat, head for the Butchers Street “Rues des Bouchers” and feast on enormous portions of steaming mussels, frites or chips which when dipped in mayonnaise are delicious, waffles, chocolates, and of course, Belgian beer. The food in Belgium is considered to be on a par with French cuisine by many, and they are not wrong. However, it is the chocolates, and beer which deserve and get the most attention. Local sweet shops are packed to the rafters with truffles, pralines and other treats which will tempt you whether you are a chocoholic or not. They are definitely worth a taste! As for the beer, the selection is impressive, and for those of you who like Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, you will be in your element. There are many cafes that specialize in selling a variety of beers. I am not a beer drinker at all, so all my observations regarding the beer are based on the oohing and aahing of my male travel counterparts, who seem to have a tough time deciding which is their favourite brew. Travel Tip no 2 – the shopping in Brussels is fantastic, with many premier European department stores, so ladies, ditch your men in the local cafes and while they taste the hops, head for the shops.
Travel Tip no 2 – the shopping in Brussels is fantastic, with many premier European department stores, so ladies, ditch your men in the local cafes and while they taste the hops, head for the shops.
No trip to Belgium is complete without a trip to Bruges. It is a train ride away from Brussels and definitely worth the visit whether for a day or longer. Bruges is quaint and is hailed to be one of Europe’s most well preserved medieval cities, with much to offer, from parks and museums to churches and diamond cutting exhibitions. There are beautiful canals all around the town, lending the town a very romantic atmosphere. Travel Tip no 3 – If you are going to be staying in Bruges overnight, make a reservation on one of the “floating hotels” that are moored on the canals. It is a fantastic experience and makes an interesting alternative to spending the night in a grounded” hotel on land.
Travel Tip no 3 – If you are going to be staying in Bruges overnight, make a reservation on one of the “floating hotels” that are moored on the canals. It is a fantastic experience and makes an interesting alternative to spending the night in a grounded” hotel on land.
Bruges has so much to offer that you’ll need a few days to do everything. In spite of bad weather we had a great time exploring the two main town squares and all the little alley ways that lead away from them as well as a number of churches and museums. The main medieval squares in town are the Markt, home of the famous belfry, featured in the movie In Bruges, where the 2 main characters warn some overweight tourists of the number of stairs they have to climb to the top, and the Burg, where the Basilica of the Holy Blood is said to store drops of Christ’s blood. The Burg is surrounded by a myriad of small alleyways, Blinde Ezelstraat, which translated means Blind Donkey Street is the direction to take to the departure point for canal boats at Huidenvettersplein. Taking a canal cruise is a great way to get a feel for the town, escape the streets congested with tourists and catch some wonderful sights and smells as you float on down the river.
Bruges’s Minnewater Park stretches from some of the spots where the floating hotels are moored into town itself. It’s great fun to hire a bicycle and cycle through the park into town to do your sightseeing, and the park itself is a great place to picnic in the cool shade during the warm summer’s afternoons.
Travel Tip no 4 – You don’t have to book to go on a guided bicycle tour, but instead, there are a number of bicycle hire shops in town, so grab a bike and do your own exploring at a leisurely pace with the help of a map.
If you lean more towards the cultural aspects of what the city has to offer, head for the Memling Museum. It houses an impressive collection of Flemish art, and has an olden day apothecary as part of its exhibition as well as a pottery exhibit, An old abandoned building , wrought iron crosses, and marble angel statues add to its outside allure. This is a place where you could spend days and never get bored. Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child is another sight not to be missed in Bruges. This incredible masterpiece is housed in the Church of Our Lady.
Travel Tip no 5 – It is possible to buy a combo ticket to gain access to a number of different museums and exhibitions for a lower price than paying separate entrance fees at each one.
If the pervasive mouthwatering smells from the various chocolaterias gets too much for you, indulge your longing with a visit to the Chocolate Museum. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about chocolate is here, from how the delights of chocolate first came about, to an actual tasting session. I was surprised to find that I loved lavender infused chocolate that I would never have dreamed of trying before, and their chilli chocolate proved to be an excellent balance of sweet and spicy. The various diamond cutting exhibits are also an alternative fun way to spend a rainy day.
I hope you enjoy your trip to this beautiful country. It is truly a wonderful place to visit with a vibrant culture and food worth travelling across the globe for. And then, of course, there’s the chocolate…….