Thursday, March 22, 2007


Let's go to Belgium!

Follow along with pictures here.


Belgium 3/8-3/13

Overnight Flight To Brussels

We planned to leave home at noon to give ourselves plenty of cushion time to reach the airport, park the car, check in, etc. As usual, when we plan to leave and when we actually leave are two completely different things. We left (about 1.5 hours) late but nonetheless had no problems getting to the airport on time.

Although departure from the Philadelphia airport would have been more convenient from our location direct flights are only offered from PHL during peak season (which March is not). We departed from EWR. At our time of booking (months in advance) we found the best flight rate through expedia but as the date of departure neared and the overall rates increased the best rates were directly through the Continental website.

Upon arrival in Newark we stored our car at Park 2 Go for $10 per day and took their shuttle to the nearby airport. Though Chris said it looked “more like a junk yard than a parking lot” the people at Park 2 Go were friendly and the car was perfectly fine. For a fee (~$100.00) they will wash and detail your car so its nice and clean upon your return.

While waiting to board our flight we talked with a member of the Air Force who was stationed with her husband in Belgium. She advised that we simply must try Speculoos-a type of Belgian cookie. As illustrated by the fact that I've been enjoying said cookie while drafting this narrative for you I am much obliged for that little tip! Mmmmm! Be sure to pick some up.

We stayed up all night Wednesday packing and hoping that self-induced sleep deprivation would help us catch some zzzz on Thursdays overnight flight to Brussels. No such luck-despite earplugs, eye covers, and comfy brought-from-home blankets we were awake the whole time! Perhaps this was due to the excitement and anticipation of visiting a new destination or perhaps it was due to the fact that every time we closed our eyes the flight attendants were serving more food. While one attendant walked the aisles with a garbage bag collecting “trash? trash?” from one meal or snack, at her heels was a cart pushed by another attendant serving us a subsequent meal or snack. I'm not sure that there wasn't a time that I didn't hear the pop tops of cans or bags of snacks being opened. You won't go hungry on this flight that's for sure! And too much food sure beats bartering with the flight attendant for an extra bag of pretzel sticks or graham cracker bites. I would like to note that I was quite pleased with the vegetarian/vegan foods offered (I had checked pure vegetarian when I made my reservations).

Day One

Although many advised against it (due to our limited time frame), we really really wanted to experience for ourselves the rolling fields of the Ardennes. Sooo when we arrived in Brussels at 8:30 in the morning we immediately picked up our rental car from the Europcar desk and hit the road!


Our plan was to follow (part of) a driving itinerary we found online through Avis called Gothic Cathedrals and Battlefields. The route was to be a loop from Brussels heading south through Namur to Orval then heading north though Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge) back to Brussels.

The drive started out well and we saw such beautiful natural scenery and quaint little towns!


In fact, one of my favorite pictures of the entire trip was taken in Dinant of a gentleman cycling home from the market with a sprig of herbs in his gunny sack!


That's exactly the sort of everyday life we hoped to capture by venturing away from the more visited towns of the north. We continued on enjoying every cobbled street and every stone church (and frituur sign).


Considering, however, that we hadn't slept in over 2 days our glee was short lived. By the time we got lost on our way to Redu-only our third destination of seven for the day-it had begun to rain and we were crabby, hungry, and utterly exhausted! After a quick stop at a convenience store somewhere in Belgium or France (which we inadvertently wandered into at one point) to pick up a snack (some Prince cookies and water) we decided to cut our loop short by heading directly over to Bastogne then back to Brussels. My grandfather was taken prisoner in Bastogne so the sight of the Battle of the Bulge was a poignant “must see” for me.


We had an uneventful drive back to Brussels with plenty of daylight left to locate Sofitel Brussels Europe, the hotel we chose for our first night. Scratch that. With plenty of daylight left for someone who knows their way around Brussels to locate the hotel. It took us over an hour. Sheesh! But it was worth it. We parked the car in the hotels garage (perhaps could have found a cheaper place but were willing to pay more for convenience) and headed to the lobby to check in.

As we exited the elevator towards our room I thought it was so cool how the lights came on as walked down the hallway (sensing us). Our room was very clean, sleek, and large. We had a large movie star bathroom (cant see it all in the picture), comfy bed, and pretty view from the windows-which actually opened!

PICTURES 18 - 22

Since the night was still rather young (9pm or so) and we had gained a second wind we asked a guy at the front desk (the same one who checked us in and subsequently checked us out) whether many fry/waffle shops would be opened near the Grand Place (and also asked him to send some bathrobes up to our room for later). He said he'd send the robes up and in response to our fry/waffle inquiry said, “oh sure, they will all be open” or something to that effect. So we took the metro to the Grand Place to get our first taste of the infamous fries or waffles or, better yet, both!! The Grand Place was indeed grand-a very pretty sight.

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Much to our chagrin, however, nearly all of the shops, fry, waffle, or otherwise, were closed. Grrrr. We headed home, still hungry and now kind of annoyed (and even more annoyed when our fluffy bathrobes were not there to welcome us-double grrr), ordered room service, washed the airplane cooties off, and snuggled into bed. Ahhhh…. Not sure if it was the comfy bed or the fact that we hadn't gotten any sleep for days but we slept like babies that night. And slept and slept and slept.

Day Two

We rolled out of bed around 1pm and checked out around 2pm. First things first: Breakfast! Our choice? Chocolate. There's a Neuhaus Chocolate connected to the hotel so we picked out some goodies for our road trip to Brugge by way of Antwerp.

The drive is a pretty one but given we got such a late start to our day our plan to “stop in” Antwerp became more of a “drive through” Antwerp. We were eager to get to Brugge (and find our hotel before nightfall given our track record) and after twice waiting for over twenty minutes in what we believed to be “just traffic” but what turned out to be “the line for a parking garage” we were ready to exit Antwerp. The city did, however, look like a neat place to visit and it would have been nice to have had more time there. On to Brugge!

PICTURES 27 - 30

Only a few miles outside Brugge we had the opportunity to taste our first Belgian frituurs (yay!) at De Harlekijn Frituur & Snack-a little place right on the side of the road.

PICTURES 31 & 32

The famous “mayonnaise” served with the fries was more creamy and less vinegary than mayonnaise here at home. Along with the mayonnaise the fries were served with a pickle sauce. The service was extremely friendly (they treated us like celebrities!) and the fries were delicious!

Finally we arrived in Brugge and its exactly as we imagined: cobbled streets and stone buildings surrounded by canals, naturally more compact than Brussels-really pretty and not disappointing at all. Like so many who had come before us, Brugge proved to be our favorite stop in Belgium. We drove around and found our hotel, Relais Oud Huis Amsterdam, purely by accident (“hey, isn't that our hotel right there?”). It's exactly as pictured online. I chose this hotel, despite some negative reviews, because I absolutely loved the décor. The front desk service was helpful and I was happy, overall, with our canal front room which, by the way, according to the front desk was supposedly the best of the non-suite rooms. Room #10 for those of you taking notes. Anyway, all the negatives mentioned in previous reviews on this hotel were accurate: there were (many) carpet and furniture stains, broken knobs, tacky hairdryer in the bathroom. Perhaps I wasn't so disappointed because I had been prepared for those things. Plus, I was so pleased with the view of the canal that I think it outweighed all the negatives. An inside ledge fronts two huge windows that open up above the canal and the street below. I spent a lot of time sitting on this ledge looking at the stars, the surrounding lighted buildings, and the passers by. It really was exactly like wed hoped!

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I will say that there are two things that I would strongly consider if you're thinking of staying at this hotel. Number One is that there is not necessarily a working air conditioning (some rooms are air conditioned and may be available upon request). Even though the temperatures outside were in the forties it was still HOT HOT HOT in our room-particularly in the bathroom. I am one who is always cold and I was hot. I cant imagine how hot it would be in the summer! We opened the windows to get relief from the heat of the room which brings me to number Two which is that the traffic below (pedestrian, auto, and boat) is quite loud. I imagine in peak season there would be even more traffic below the window-particularly the canal tours (on boat) which start early in the morning but didn't bother us because we needed to get up anyway.

The heat and noise were not unbearable (at least at this time of year), however.  I mention these aspects not at all to express displeasure with the hotel but only to help others decide whether this would be the ideal place for them to stay while vacationing in Brugge. I still think the building had a lot of character and I'm glad we stayed there but if I were to ever return to Brugge Id seek a hotel that is canal front without a street along either side of the canal.

After check in we parked the car in a garage in conjunction with the hotel (I know for a fact that there were less expensive garages but, again, we were willing to pay more for convenience sake) and went exploring near the Markt!


First things first: Beer! We went to the first bar that didnt seem like one we would happen upon in the middle of Philadelphia (i.e., big, loud, and packed). We chose Don Quichotte. It was in this small quiet pub that we tasted our first few Belgian beers. 


Beer was good, service was nothing special. After that we were hungry and found the menu posted outside of the 't Hof Van Rembrandt rather appealing. Food was ok and service was a bit lacking (an overall note: our hotels in each city told us that service/quality in tourist-ridden places such as the Grand Place and the Markt would be rather poor. I don't know whether that's necessarily true, I'm just passing it along). We walked around a bit more and enjoyed the windows of the chocolate shops and the beautiful lighted architecture.

PICTURES 41 - 45

Finally we picked up some snacks at a convenience store and headed back to enjoy our hotel room! Upon return our tv and some of our lights no longer worked-no big deal to us. The next morning on our way out we told the front desk and they said they'd take care of it.

Day Three

This day proved to be my favorite of our entire trip. We had no time limitations and spent the entire day wandering around the streets of Brugge, popping in here and there to get some brood or chocolate. We again visited the Markt, stopped by the Burg, and climbed the Belfort.

PICTURES 46 - 50

The view from the Belfort was nice but I think Chris put it best when he said “we should have just taken Rick Steve's word for it.” That still cracks me up! Anyway, for anyone considering the climb to the top Ill tell you that, at first, the steps of the steep spiral staircase leading upward don't seem so intimidating-they are nice and wide with a wall on one side and a dome in the center adorned with a rope to assist with your grasp. Eventually, however, they become nothing more than teeny tiny triangles of cement and just as you begin to wonder whether you've made a monumental mistake in taking on this venture you reach the top. Whew! And, again, the view is nice but not one Id describe as breathtaking.  I would advise to skip the Belfort climb and spend their time exploring other parts of the city. While I presume the steps can be a challenge for some it should be noted that there are a few points during the ascent where you can step off onto a platform and take in some history on the Belfort and catch a welcomed breather! Note: our calves still hurt days later!

We then spent some time near the Dijver (Venice of the north) and other canal lined streets and stopped by Het Dagelijks Brood to pick up some snacks to enjoy during our explorations!

PICTURES 51 - 53

Next we walked to the outskirts of the town to explore the windmills. This was perhaps my favorite part of my favorite day! The sun was on its way down and cast yellow shadows on the windmills and the hills on which they stood. We strolled along the pathway through a park-like setting sharing a baguette and taking tons of pictures of the trees, jagged roof tops, people watching (including some locals hanging out with Mary Jane atop one of the windmills) and just enjoying each others company!

PICTURES 54 - 64

A road runs adjacent to the pathway and we witnessed an accident during what we presumed was rush hour traffic-just one of those random things a person doesnt forget I guess. 

We followed a nearby canal back to our hotel and encountered some swans along the way. We took some pictures and, naturally, shared some of our baguette.

PICTURES 65 - 72

We freshened up in our room and headed out for dinner. We had briefly lost our way the night before and come across a restaurant that looked cool and that we wanted to try called ‘t Gulden Vlies.

PICTURES 73 & 74

That's where we decided to break bread this night. Yum yum yummy food, I absolutely loved the décor (including that eerie face on the wall), and the service was friendly! The restaurant is owned by a couple and the husband cooks in the back while the wife serves the guests. This was our big night out. With salads, entrees, drinks, and desserts our bill (plus our super extra tip because we were so pleased) was just under 80€. Here I had been thinking that we had stumbled upon some undiscovered jewel-how exciting! I could tell all my friends and family about this awesome little place that nobody knows about tucked away in a back street of Brugge (or at least it seemed)! When we got back to the hotel room, however, I saw that it was already in many of the guidebooks. Sigh. Oh well, it was still a great experience! I would totally absolutely completely recommend eating here!

Dinner took about 3 hours (at least) after which we headed home to the hotel (upon return the tv and lights still didn't work) for some R & R.


Day Four

Today we woke up and rented a tandem bike (what fun!) to explore the town. First stop: the Basilica of Holy Blood, encountering some horse drawn carriages along the way.

PICTURES 76 – 82

We continued to explore, thoroughly enjoying all the beautiful scenery and taking pictures of weird little stickers…

PICTURES 83 - 85

We biked some more, popping into several chocolate shops. One place came highly recommended by two different locals on two separate occasions: Verheecke. Yet another local commented that Verheecke was “commercial” and instead recommended Dumon and Chocolate Line. Its natural that everyone has their own favorite. I felt it was absolutely imperative, however, that I try out all the chocolate shops so I could give an honest recommendation to friends and family ;)

We thought the Verheecke chocolate was good but we liked some others better. My two favorites were Dumon and Galler (though we didnt make it over to the Chocolate Line). Walking into the Galler store was like walking into Tiffany. Everything was neat and in its place. The service was good. Walking into Dumon was a bit different. More Target than Tiffany but the service was exceptional. It seems like many of the chocolate shops are family run and we happened to be helped by the sister of the chocolatier himself. We talked with her for quite some time about chocolate, travel, even our pets! A very kind lady. All of our gifts of chocolate for our friends and family came from Dumon (and she nicely and tightly wrapped everything up to keep it safe on the plane)!

After our chocolate binges, er, taste tests, we headed back to Brussels by way of Ghent. Again, being short on time, it was more of a drive through than a stop in and, again, it looked like a neat place to spend some time. I took some lame-o pictures from the car as we whizzed through the city (picking up some familiar food for dinner along the way).

PICTURES 86 - 89

As we entered Brussels we got some nice pictures of the Atomium.

PICTURES 90 & 91

Then headed into the city to locate our hotel. Its a good thing because, despite being Novotel “off Grand Place” it took us about 2 hours to actually find it. We decided that poorly constructed maps and one-way and/or unlabeled streets were the source of our frustration (and certainly not our map reading skills). We were sure that an internet search would name Brussels as “one of the most difficult cities to navigate.” Although that's yet to be determined I believe this disinterested third party's photograph provides an accurate representation and further substantiates our claim.

We ultimately located the hotel just before nightfall and, as directed by the hotel, parked the car in the Grand Place parking lot. We asked the woman at the front desk, who was very friendly and helpful, for a room with a pretty view and they delivered! The building has only 5 floors and we got a nice room at the top (again, the lights sensing us as we approached our room). Instead of looking out to the neon signs of the bars, etc (which was one side of the hotel) we looked out onto a quieter street with the Grand Place in the distance. Our room and bathroom were large and clean and comfy.

PICTURES 92 - 96

After check in we headed out to the Grand Place to enjoy our last night in Belgium and, of course, to get some last minute fries, waffles, chocolate, and beer! Brussels is just a big city and like any big city there is some of trash and there are lots of junky shops selling, well, junk (and the shops all begin to look alike). We roamed the streets for a couple of hours or so, stopping by the Manneken Pis and enjoying our final waffle, before finally calling it a night and returning to the solitude of our room with a view!

PICTURES 97 - 101

Early morning flight from Brussels

The only thing I sort of wanted to see that I didnt get the chance to see was Palais de Justice.

Although it could be stressful at times and we fought a lot (“we need to get back into the ring” “We are already *in* the ring!”) we agreed that if we had it to do all over again we would still rent a car and drive the Ardennes and drive ourselves between cities (versus taking the train). We feel we got to experience something a little extra special that we would not have otherwise experienced.


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