Grand Place, Brussels at night
Wahey, this is my 200th blog post!
Liberated Travel’s theme this week is Belgium. Their one experience was in Bruges. As it happens, I’ve only just mentioned my short visit to Brussels here but there’s a bit more to fill out on that stay.
We stayed at the Ibis St. Catherine, near a large square with St. Catherine’s church in it. The square is filled with restaurants, primarily seafood oriented as this used to be the fish market apparently. This caused a bit of a problem as my partner is not all that keen on seafood so we wandered a bit away from the square and found a small Chinese restaurant which, it turned out, was cheap, cheerful and quite tasty. When looking for hotels in Brussels, we did find the prices a bit high for our usual budget and even the Ibis, at about $200 CAD a night without breakfast was on the steep side (that was before I started looking at hotel prices in New York City!!!)
We got to Brussels about 5 o’clock so we headed to Grand Place after settling in though stopped and had a meal at a restaurant on the main road first, before following the narrow cobbled lane in. As you would expect, there are lots of little souvenir shops, restaurants, and shops selling Belgian chocolate and beer and lace in this area. You come out of there into the square and your jaw drops. The Stadhuis (town hall) spire soared over us and the buildings all around the square had gilded touches and decoration. Many of them are from the 17th and 18th century. The large structure facing the Town Hall is the Maison du Roi and the stone work almost looks lacy!
There are a lot of restaurants on the square though they’ll be expensive. Our first view of the square was at night with all the buildings lit up. Very impressive! We went through again in daytime as well, the morning after our day trip to Bruges so we could see the buildings properly. That was the morning we went to the very interesting Musical Instrument Museum and took a bus tour around most of Brussels, getting a good view of the atomic looking Atomium, built for a World’s Fair. We did notice one thing in particular about Brussels. There is graffiti *everywhere*. There’s always graffiti anywhere you go but it seemed that here it was on absolutely everything, even the bases of statues were defaced and most of it wasn’t really what you’d consider artistic. It felt rather disrespectful.
From the canal in Bruges
On to Bruges:
It took us about an hour by train to get to Bruges from Brussels Centraal station. We did get all day bus tickets at the train station but really only used them to get into the centre and back to the station later. Bruges has a main market square similar to Brussels with a high spire dominating the area and lots of guildhouses and a law court building and lovely architecture to gawp at. It was quite busy with tourists. Bruges used to be the most important city in Flanders but as the canals were filled in and trade went elsewhere, it floundered. Now, tourism is the major source of income for the city and it shows. The streets have a lot of touristy shops, souvenirs as well as chocolate and lace which draw in the tourists as well.
We found a Dali exhibit in the Market building and had a half hour look in there. I’m not really a Dali fan though my partner is. There was also an exhibit there by an artist Amanda Lear who was one of Dali’s muses and I actually did like one or two of her paintings.
There’s a small street that leads through to the other large square, the Burg where the Stadhuis/Town Hall stands and a few other buildings including the Basilica of the Holy Blood in one corner. Lots of the usual souvenir shops and restaurants in the area. We wanted to go into the Basilica but it was closed until 2 so we went out of the square and searched for a restaurant with a menu that appealed to both of us. Again, there are lots for seafood lovers here (in addition to the traditional mussels that are so popular in Belgium). We found one across the canal nearby that looked good and indeed we were both quite happy with our meals. I did try the mussels which were excellent and we shared a Belgian waffle for dessert.
En route back to the other square, we spied the dock where the canal tour boats were loading. Hm…. Sounds like a good idea now that the sun has come out. It was cheap too, in a town or even country where prices are high, less than 7 euro per person. The tour took about a half hour and you got a great view of the lovely canalside houses and old, old bridges. It’s a very nice way to see the city.
We still had just enough time to see the Basilica which is absolutely gorgeous! (more history of the Basilica here)It’s very colourful and gilded inside with a dark and peaceful crypt. I did sneak a few stealthy photos though you aren’t supposed to. Some of the tourists were quite blatant about it, using flash as well. That’s something I don’t do and if the photos don’t turn out, c’est la vie. Buy a postcard. I always feel that’s often why they forbid photos because this church, at least, didn’t seem to have any light sensitive paintings or tapestries. It’s all marble, gold and silver and wood. It’s stunning.
We thought we would try to find the Chocolate Story, a museum about chocolate but by the time we got there they were just closing. Ah well. We walked back through the little streets and stopped in a chocolate shop that had a cafe in the back. The tea room was elegant and most of the patrons seemed to be older women, dressed very chicly, with snobby looks on their faces. One even had a posh little lapdog! We didn’t actually buy any chocolate here though, we later found Dumon, a chocolatier that I remembered seeing mentioned in Rick Steves’ show about Bruges. It’s a small brick building just off the Market square. The shop is on two levels with the showcase of all the really tempting chocolates on the entry level. I’d like a small assorted box, please. “Yesssss……” she answered, as if to say “and what else?” We were out of cash so had to buy 20 Euro worth to use the credit card. We succumbed to temptation. Not really a difficult decision!
We got the bus back to the station, found a bank machine and had about 20 minutes to wait for the train which was air conditioned, nice and cool after a day out in the sun. Brussels and Bruges city centres are full of cobblestones, both the streets, squares *and* sidewalks. Let me tell you, that’s a killer on your feet and legs even with good shoes! My legs just throbbed that night!
Bruges is very pretty. I’m sure it’s even nicer at night when all the tourists have left. Restaurants are a tad pricey in the centre but you can walk a little further afield. It was busy when we were there and that was only May. I imagine it must be heaving with people in the summer! Brussels is like any large city really. There are lovely buildings, some very good museums. If we’d been there longer, I think we’d have gone out to the Waterloo battlefield area and taken in one of the larger museums as well. I’ve got a friend who really likes Belgium though she and her husband tend to go outside of the cities. I’m not sure I’d make the trek again at this point but who knows? I’m never really sure where the wind or whim will end up taking us when we talk about where we want to go next.
Graffiti on a Belgian train