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Eurfirst Trip to Belgium

Updated November 15, 2007

Few vacationing Americans intentionally put Belgium on their travel plans. If they do pass through, it is because they are travelling between France and the Netherlands. But those who take the time to stop quickly realize why Belgium is considered "Europe's best kept travel secret." From the most modern center of Brussels, the "Capital of Europe" to the simple towns in the north and south, you'll find people who are friendly and hospitable throughout Belgium, with a wry sense of humor shared in many languages, as these most cosmopolitan people make you feel at home in their country.

You'll also find great pleasures in the traditional foods of the country and will put on some pounds if you enjoy the waffles and chocolate and then wash the snacks down with a variety of Belgium beers. But remember, you can always walk the pounds off in France...enjoy the tastes of Belgium.

Brussels

This energetic city is the capital of modern Europe with offices of the European Union, NATO and the Belgian government giving this city an international aura. It is a city where the best of life is blended together: its modern buildings are tucked between historic halls as beautiful parks pull the calm of nature into its busy neighborhoods.

The historic section of Brussels has history and architecture dating back to the 13th Century. The main squares of the city, the Grand Place, the Place du Grand-Sablon and the Place Royal, are surrounded by great buildings and museums devoted to preserving Flemish history. One of the country's most prized tourist attractions, the "Manneken-Pis" fountain, can be found on a short walk from the Grand Place, often donning amusing costumes to warm his bare bronze form. Souveniers of the fountain can be found throughout the country--a no-so-subtle expression of Flemish humor.

Filled with diplomats and businessman, the city has a buzzing nightlife that should begin with a dinner at one of the guild halls. Then wander through the historic district enjoying a good Belgium beer at a local club.

With a short ride, you can also visit the place of Napoleon's undoing--Waterloo. A farmfield south of the town is preserved much as it was when the "Little Corporal" was defeated by Wellington. A full tour includes a visit to the inn where the British General penned the message of his victory and now houses a museum in Wellington's honor.

Brugge

One of my favorite cities in Europe is Brugge, known as "the Venice of the North" for the canals that run through the city. It is a charming town that fills with tourists on summer days; the locals greet them with a wry sense of humor that you'll find if you take a boat cruise down the canals or take a serious look at the shapes of the chocolate treats found in the candy shops.

Once a thriving medieval trading center, Brugge is now a small city bustling with tourists. Considered "Venice of the North," narrow canals run through the center of town past churches, museums, a medieval convent and hospital to Minnewater, the lake of love. The well-preserved homes and shops now invite travellers to stay for a while and enjoy delicious Belgium chocolate, Belgium waffles and Belgium beer. As you stroll past candy stores displaying anatomically incorrect chocolates, souvenir stands with wine bottle openers paying tribute to Mannekin Pis and T-shirt stores that promote the "Beer Tour of Brugge," you come to appreciate the not-so-subtle Flemish sense of humor. Those wanting something more tasteful souveniers can leave with beautiful laces from the region or traditional chocolates that are richer and creamier than one can conceive. *If you do buy chocolate, remember that the melting temperature of chocolate is 88o Fahrenheit (around 30 o Celsius) which is quickly reached in the interior of a car. We quickly realized the souveniers we bought for friends wouldn't look very pretty after a few hours in our car, so we enjoyed them as dessert following a lunch of Moules and Frites.

If you are arriving for the day by car, park at the train station. A free bus will shuttle you to the oldest section of town if you pay the nominal fee to park at the station. This is certainly more convenient than trying to find a place on the narrow streets of the town itself.

A pleasant way to start your visit is with a boat tour of the canals. Low, narrow boats pass each other as they head down the watery paths to the most scenic destinations along the canals. Our guide, like most residents of Brugge, was multi-lingual, speaking Flemish, French, Spanish, German and both American and British. As we made our way down the canals, he told his stories in each language, adding entertaining wisecracks about romance in this charming town. There are many different points of departure for the cruises but the prices are extremely reasonable whereever you board. It seems that the guides don't make much on the ride itself, but appreciate the generousity of tourists who are expected to tip as they leave the boat. Our guide's good nature warranted generous compensation but we felt the excursion would still have been a bargain at double what we paid.

At sometime during the day, climb the Belfort (bell tower) that reaches almost 300 feet above the Markt square for a panoramic view of the city and countryside. If the weather is generally clear, you'll see the the major shipping canals that connect with the North Sea. Look for the windmills on the outskirts of the old city and enjoy the charm of the square below. For us, this was one of the most beautiful views in Europe, even though it was somewhat cloudy when we reached the top. A definite must-do.

Hours of wandering the quaints street can stir up your appetite. There are many restaurants offering various types of foods...most seem to have some French influence. Try a pot of mussels with "pomme frite" (fries) cooked in a traditional wine sauce. Served in a pot that provides more than enough for two, the succulent mussels should be accompanied by one of the local brews. For dessert, which is how the locals consume them, have a Belgium waffle topped with ice cream or fruit and whipped cream. Remind yourself that you've climbed almost a quarter-mile (don't get too exacting) and complete the day's consumption with a few carefully selected truffles. This will definitely be a diet-busting day but one you will savor forever, or until you can get back to do it again.

If you plan your trip early enough, you can find lodging at bed and breakfasts located within the heart of the city for a fairly reasonable price. If not, there are other B&Bs on the outskirts of town. You'll be surprised to find very clean, reasonably priced rooms in the Brugge area if you do a little research. A short drive from Brugge, you'll find de Camerling Bed and Breakfast whose gracious hosts will serve you a savory and hearty breakfast and give you great suggestions to make your time in the region enjoyable.

But if you want to stretch your budget or would like to spend some time relaxing on the sandy shores of the North Sea, head to the beach resorts about 10 kilometers north of Brugge. Another well-kept secret in Belgium are the long beaches and coastal towns that draw local tourists for the summer holidays. We stayed in a clean, well-maintained campground just a short drive from both Brugge and the North Sea for less than $13.00 a night which included state of the art showers and excellent facilities.

Like The Netherlands, Belgium is an ideal place to bike. The 2007 Tour de France missed the narrow streets of Brugge but visited nearby cities on the coast and raced through the beautiful countryside around the quaint town. With the summer temperatures in Belgium, riding through the region is easy and enjoyable. There are many rental locations both in Brugge and on the coast, and it would be a comfortable ride from the dunes to Brugge.

Canal in Brugge

A Canal in Brugge Tower above Town Square in Brugge

From Tower above Town Square in Brugge

Campgrounds near Brugge

Ghent

Like Brugge, Ghent is an ideal place to take a short canal cruise to begin your visit. The medievel architecture and history remind you of the importance of Ghent as the trading center of the Flemish textile industry.

One of the major attractions is the castle of the Count of Flanders built during the 12th Century. Fortified to protect the counts from angry subjects and invading armies, the castle is well preserved and open to modern tourists.

Throughout Europe, you can climb to the top of belltowers for a bird's eye view of the city below. An elevator makes the journey to the top of Ghent's belfry easy; if you haven't been to the top of a tower in other cities, try to get to the top of the Belfry in Ghent. As you look across the city's rooftops, you'll get a new perspective on life in medieval Europe as well as the modern beauty that Europeans enjoy each day.

In the evening you can get a different perspective on Flemish life as you enjoy the flavors of locally brewed beers. Be warned that some of these beers are exceptionally strong, often containing as much alcohol as distilled liquors. Near the castle, you'll find many pubs serving local ales and lagers. Just be certain you have a good plan for getting back to your hotel or campground.

All of Ghent comes together in the last week of July to celebrate its culture. If you are in town, plan to spend an evening celebrating with the natives as their music and dance fills the streets.

If you are interested in military events, head toward the countryside of Belgium. There are many places where you will find tanks and canons left by the troops who fought near those villages, but one of the most moving places you will see is at Neuville-en-Condroz where thousands of soldiers are buried at the Ardennes American Cemetary and Memorial. This somber place, with rows of crosses planted like Iowa corn, reminds visitors of the price so many men paid to stop the Nazi onslaught. A striking chapel with its straight lines and haunting eagle sculpture pays tribute to the more than 5000 soldiers who died in the Battle of Ardennes.