Welcome to Belgium
Being another relatively small country, our highlights from Belgium can all fit on one page (at least at this stage). Being just south of The Netherlands, we seem to visit Belgium a couple of times a year. This normally revolves around cycling as we go for training or riding in the many cyclosportifs that the country holds during the spring. The Netherlands is flat. Dead flat. So if you want to ride on anything with incline, then a trip to Belgium is in order. The Ardennes has a mixture of gradual climbs over 3-4kms at about 6% average, and steep climbs over about 1km at 15 - 20% average. During March and April there are a number of professional one-day races around the Ardennes including Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Makes for interesting and sometimes tough training and racing. But better than dead flat and windy.
The north of Belgium is Dutch speaking (known as Flanders) and the south is French. The country is generally divided in this way and, as we understand, each region doesn't get along that well. There's been talk for years about dissolving the country - with the top half going to The Netherlands and the lower half to French. Will wait and see if that ever happens. Apart from the political struggles and bike riding, Belgium has some truly magnificent cities and towns (oh, and beers).
Although just situated over the border from The Netherlands (an easy day trip of 90mins each way on the train), Antwerp is truly Belgium. Loads of cobbled streets, brown cafes (small bars that gained their names from tobacco smoke staining the walls brown), waffle vendors and diamonds. The city centre itself has a collection of renovated buildings that form an endless line of mid-market fashion stores, so is quite nice to stroll along the pedestrian mall and take in these buildings as well as the odd church or two, stopping every few hundreds metres of so for a freshly made Belgium waffle. Off the main drag, there are side streets that take you to higher-end stores, restaurants or markets held in squares. On a visit one Saturday, we spent a few hours wandering around a great market that had loads of fresh fruit, vegetables, breads, and fish - literally off the main street. Plenty to eat and then washed down with a few potent beers sitting outside a brown cafe. Apart from their variety (who knows how many beers Belgium has?), Belgian beers are relatively strong in alcohol content - averaging about 6-7% up to 13-14%. One or two of those and it's "hello".
Antwerp also has a river that is used for transportation, so not all that pleasant, but a good place to walk endlessly taking in some of the buildings and an old fort that's worth a look. You can be secure in the knowledge that if you simply wander through the back streets, you are bound to not really get lost, and along the way, find some unique stores, squares or buildings that make it unique.
This town is known as the 'Venice of the North' due to it's large number of canals and ancient buildings and gates. Many tourists, and perhaps locals alike, would agree that Brugge is one of the nicest towns in Belgium. Situated to the west of Antwerp, not far from the very pleasant Ghent, Brugge is a place for wandering and taking in the marvel of it all. Similarly to Venice, we found there is not that much there, so easy to see in no more than a day, but to simply get lost in the small streets and discover new things is part of the attraction. Of course, you can do a canal tour and see the town from another angle, with residences literally in the water, so people open their back doors and climb aboard their own little motorboat.
Apart from admiring the buildings and squares, there is some great WWII tours that runs out of the city. We've taken Quasimodo Tours before (www.quasimodo.be) which gave a good overview of the battlefields and what went on there. To get a better appreciation of the hardship of war (although nothing could come close to what soldiers went through), take the tour in winter when it's cold, misty and very unpleasant as most of the images you will see in the museums (and in your own mind) during the day will be of freezing temperatures and drowning mud. Some decent drinking spots in Brugge too, including 'De Halve Maan' brewery which has their local Brugse Zot on tap in the tavern, and a small bar that hosts jazz on Langestraat. The latter is far enough away from the main tourist areas and just down the street from Flanders Hotel (www.hotelflanders.com) which is a good choice for accommodation.
Not only the capital of Belgium, Brussels is the capital of Europe! However, we found this is name only as it certainly doesn't offer what some of Europe's other great capitals do. In fact, it was very disappointing and nowhere near as good as Antwerp. It has very little sights, baring the impressive Cathedral which is worth a visit or the famous statue of the little boy taking a piss, and is essentially made up of government buildings and cobbled streets. Oh, there is the huge central square called Grand Place, but unless you are there when an event is on, then you can really only spend a few minutes there admiring the architecture. It's easy to negotiate and if arriving by train as we did being only 2 hours from The Hague, the stops are noord, central and sud. Get off at central to be right in the middle of the city. Walking around you'll come across your fair share of beggars and filth, and the high street here is not worth making the trip for. Normally walking along the high street is not something that we must do during a visit to a city, but in Brussels we were eager to find it for a bit of normality! Perhaps there is a much different vibe during the week when all of the EU politicians are there doing the governing?
Lovely gardens in Brussels
You could say this about a lot of places, but in Brussels you really need to know where the good places are to eat and drink. We scoured the city looking for a welcoming bar for a tasty Belgium beer in between rain showers, but could only find a couple that appeared to be grunge-inspired. Not the nicest of places. Where do all the rich people go? (clearly not into the city). We ended up eating in an American-style restaurant that was part of the Sheraton hotel, which was ok and at least clean. But like all cities in Belgium though, it does offer good, fresh waffles but you need to shop around as they vary in price from 1.50 - 2.50 euros. Really, the only good thing we found about Brussels was that they speak French (but English is no problem either) so you get to practice a little. Belgium has too many other places worth visiting first.
Manneken Pis - The famous statute of a little boy having a wee
Famous for being the centre of the Battle of the Bulge during the latter stages of WWII, Bastogne sits in the south of Belgium and is a small town that is steeped in war history. If you asked most Americans in the 50 - 70 year age bracket to name a place in Europe, then Bastogne would probably be one of the first mentioned. It was almost completely wiped out in 1945 as the Germans tried to take the city from the Allies stronghold, but has been nicely rebuilt over the last few decades. Featuring one main street up to the town square that commerates the achievements of the Allies and General McAuliffe in particular (actually the square is named McAuliffe Square) during that battle, Bastogne is the ideal size for a day-trip. Along with a statue of the General, there is also a US tank that sits in the square for a good photo op. At the other end of town (you'll need a car) is the fantastic Bastogne Historical Centre (www.bastognehistoricalcenter.be) that is a museum dedicated mainly to the Battle of the Bulge, but also other events in the region during WWII. Entry is about 9 euros and is really worth a visit here for a couple of hours, including the customary 'gift shop' on the way to the exit (excellent books but more expensive than your normal take-advantage-of-the-tourist gift shop). The Mardasson Memorial, which lies right next door to the centre, shouldn't be missed either. It was built as a tribute from the Belgian population to the American nation and features a brief history of the battle that took place around Bastogne as well as the names of every US state. It also offers great views over the Belgian countryside by climbing the spiral staircase!
There are other monuments in and around Bastogne (including one dedicated to General Patton) that are dedicated to WWII. However, Bastogne has a number of other museums and churches that are also nice without being spectacular. Just depends what you like and the time of year you visit. The main street as mentioned above is lined with decent restaurants and great patisseries that offer some of the best bread and cakes outside of France.
Nicki in Brussels
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