Tag Archives: Belgium

Traveling in Europe: Bruges

Europe 2011: Bruges

Clicking on the above picture will take you to the web album.

Bruges (Brugge) was by far my favorite of the three places, including Antwerp and Ghent, which I visited in Belgium. I actually took the tram or bus from Ghent to Bruges, a fairly short trip. The weather was perfect and quite warm and while I found the many brick buildings of Bruges and the canals to be particularly picturesque the smell wafting out of the sewers was fetid. Luckily, within a few feet the stink would dissipate.

I think I counted at least a dozen chocolate shops in the town center, but of course by the end of the day when I wanted to buy some I couldn’t find my way back or find any. I’m notoriously directionally challenged and old medieval lanes and streets tend to wend their way here and there and around buildings and canals. Given that, the area wasn’t large and I could always find my way back with a bit of exploration.

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Brugge canals have building buttressing the water and red trim to compliment the blue of the sky.

Belgium doesn’t have a museum/gallery pass like Holland does. However there was a day pass for several museums and galleries and even for a day trip it saved me money. It’s always good to ask at the train stations, tourist centers or the first gallery you go to (as I did in Brugge) if such a thing exists. My pass was for three days but at 15 Euros even for one day, I saved money.  Arenthuis is an 18th century mansion that housed contemporary art and works but the Bruges artist Frank Brangwyn. His paintings were bold and colorful and I quite enjoyed the style. He had also designed furniture and other items.

Bruggemuseum is actually a collection of historic buildings. I wandered into some of them and missed others. It was only one day after all and many things close at 5 pm including shops.  One of my favorites was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a small chapel up on the second floor of a gothic building. It was beautiful both in simplicity and elaborateness. A gothic cathedral, it was small, with vaulted wood ceilings and every inch of wall and ceiling painted in patterns and colors. I loved it. It had such a great sense of peace as well. Somewhere, tucked away is a reliquary with an old rag supposedly covered in the blood of Christ.

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Details of the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Every inch of the interior was painted.

Because I will still battling travel ills and a cold I got started later in the day and wandered the streets, missing some of the historical buildings. In a way, after seeing so many churches over two weeks it was fine to miss a few. However, if I hadn’t needed to get to Brighton for the British Fantasy convention I would have stayed an extra day to explore Brugge longer.

By dusk I was trying to find a restaurant to eat at but they were tucked away on different streets so it took me a bit to find one. The place I entered was packed, with warm brick walls and a sweating owner trying to keep everyone seated. I don’t remember its name but I had begun to learn that the portions were quite large in Belgium so I ordered an appetizer and dessert, with a couple of glasses of wine. Beside me this couple had ordered mussels and the very large metal mixing bowl they threw their shells into was at least 16-20 inches across. My meal filled me nicely.

Brugges, Bruge, Belgium, history, travel, Flanders, medievalI was in Brugge at the end of September, as evidenced by the turning leaves with the weather at about 25-27 degrees, unusually warm for that time of year. The night came on early and I headed back to Ghent where I would leave for Calais the next day.

 

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Traveling in Europe: Ghent

Europe 2011: Ghent

Clicking on the above picture will take you to the photo album.

After two days in Antwerp, I took a train to Ghent. I stayed at Het Rommelwater and Renee had sent me directions and which station to disembark from. It was a short walk down the major road, where the street curved away. Like Holland, Belgium has many tall narrow buildings and I lugged my heavy suitcase up to the second floor. The room was a double (since renovations were underway outside of the single room), and had a little sitting area and table. Outside the room was a fridge, toaster and microwave for use by the guests. Like many guesthouses, there were maps and information on the city.

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A view from the belfort overlooking Ghent.

 

I probably could have taken a bus but I walked to the city center along one of the canals in about twenty minutes. The weather was excellent so I didn’t mind the walk and a chance to take pictures. It looked like Ghent was going through a major reconstruction of some of its oldest buildings, which included the  town hall, a mixture of several centuries’ architecture. Some places you cannot get into unless you take a tour so I signed up to see inside the stadhuis. I was the only non-Dutch speaker (Belgians speak French and/or Dutch but it’s called Flemish) so I ended up getting a private tour. This was awesome because I could ask all the questions I liked. The hall is a blend of gothic architecture at one end and the more plain 17th century architecture at the other. As buildings of civic fortitude it wasn’t magnificent but it was interesting. There was even a throne room, with red velvet, a canopy and some ostentation. Supposedly one of the round seats with a cushion on top actually hid a commode underneath.

After the stadhuis I went over to the belfort, constructed in the 1300s. It also was the old cloth hall and this part of Belgium was known for its linen, wool and especially its lace. From the guildhall you could go up the clock tower or belfry, which houses at least four floors including many bells, a giant music box tumbler that controls the carillon bells, and the metal skeleton of the last gilded dragon that adorns the steeple. I decided to walk up all the stairs, that’s 366 or so, although there is an elevator that goes part way up. I stopped in at each floor to read the displays and let myself breathe. At the very top you can lookout over the heads of gargoyle waterspouts in 360 degrees. I took the elevator down, then wandered about the streets.

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This medieval building had more modern whimsical statues.

I did go into Saint Bavo cathedral but after the churches of Holland and Antwerp I was a little oversaturated and it was pretty tame in comparison.  I found Het Gravensteen (meaning castle of the count), which was built in the 12th century. Unfortunately it was so late in the day that it was closed. The castle is not as large as a city block, though it looks impressive and has a tiny moat around it. I would have loved to see the inside as castles were few and far between in these areas. Still, the weather was lovely for wandering along the streets and canals.

When it came time for dinner, there were many restaurants lining the canals. Ghent was my biggest food fail of the whole trip, which included England and Holland. One place was canopied, looking a little better class than some of the other places, and had this variety of shellfish including whelks and cockles. I’d never tried these so I walked in and asked for a table. They told me to take a seat outside and a waiter would be by. As I perused the menu I saw that you received a selection of shellfish for about 35 euros, definitely not cheap. But I waited and waited and waited. I don’t know if there was a prejudice over serving a single person, I wasn’t dressed well enough or the waiter just couldn’t see me sitting there but after 15 minutes with no service I left.

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Ghent's canals are wider and fewer than those in Holland's cities.

The next place I chose didn’t work because the menu was almost all fried food. By the time I found a place to eat it was dark. I sat outside since the weather was still fairly mild and decided to try the eel, which I’ve only had as sushi before. The eel was cut in chunks and deep friend, rather tasteless and greasy. It came with a salad and mediocre fries, which is saying something for a country that prides itself on its frites.

I think the combination of all the construction around the cathedral and clock tower, the sad dining experience and some places being closed before I got to them, left me with little memory of Ghent. I was also coming down with a cold. The travel guide said you could do Belgium in two days (if you just hit the highlights) and Ghent could definitely be done in a day.

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These life size statues were in the bottom most level of the clocktower.

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Traveling in Europe: Antwerp Part II

Europe 2011: Antwerp click to enter album

Most of these memories are from my second day but in some cases it’s a mix of the two days in Antwerp. I was actually kind of glad that I decided not to go to Brussels. I was still feeling somewhat sick and my feet were starting to hurt from all the walking. I went to St. Paul’s Church and possibly St. James’ Church. In fact, I’m not sure anymore if I did go to the second one, and it’s possible one of these churches didn’t allow pictures inside. St. Paul’s church had the statues of calvary outside, with rough hewn stones forming a grotto. I couldn’t tell if it was of recent or older centuries but while St. Paul’s was of an earlier era, the calvary statues were added in the early 1800s I believe. It was in one of these many cathedrals, where I listened to piped in organ music, looking at the patterns of light through stained glass, staring at carved wooden and stone statues and admiring triptychs by the masters that I thought, even if a person wasn’t religious they would be hard-pressed to not feel moved by all the fantastic accomplishments and beauty of humanity.

Shops opened late on Monday because, as one person told me, people might be hung over still. 🙂 I wandered around the old area and noticed there were enough chocolate, frites and waffle shops. The Belgians love their chocolate like the Dutch love their meat.

While I still had to work at dodging bicyclists and nearly got run over twice; it’s not really clear who has the right of way so I always tried to look in all directions. I think the order is first trams, then cars, then bikes then pedestrians, almost reversed from Canada. Most of the street corners have fewer lights and cars and trams drive down the same narrow streets. At one point the tram was stuck because someone had parked too close to the track. The tram drivers kept ringing the bell for about ten minutes till the guy ran back and moved his car.

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This was a great lunch with three large pieces of halibut. About 17 euros including wine.

More people smoke than I’m used to but it didn’t seem as prevalent as Holland, however no matter where I went I seemed to smell cigarettes and people can sit on restaurant patios and smoke. I had a smoked halibut salad for lunch, which was quite large, making up for the 15 euros I paid. The portions are more than I’m used to. Unless ordering a bottle of wine, it was only one type of house wine so there was no point in asking for a type. At 3.5 euros a glass it was more reasonable than the water. Chocolate isn’t that cheap but the frites are, which come with an array of flavored mayo sauces. Being Canadian I’m used to dunking my fries in flavored mayo so it wasn’t that odd.  I wandered into a few stores and found shoes really expensive as well, which curtailed me buying any.

St. Paul's interior. This life size statue of Mary (holding a plate with eyes) has had the stain rubbed off of her hand from centuries of worshippers.

I actually wandered along the Scheldt River the day before, which is one of the biggest shipping ports in Europe. There is a plague commemorating Canadian troops liberating the city in WWII, and a couple of statues. Walking farther along is Het  Steen, which means the rock. It’s the oldest fortification in Antwerp and is rather small when you think of it as a castle. There wasn’t a lot to see as it was locked up (probably considered a museum) but it has a good imposing look to it.

I ran into an Egyptian-Belgian and he insisted in taking me to the best waffle shop where I had a waffle with chocolate sauce. I’m actually more used to waffles being like quilted pancakes but this was so airy that it was easy to eat and tasty. Down near my bed and breakfast was an area of the city that housed Art Nouveau buildings. While this man would have loved to show me around for several hours, the light was going to be gone soon and I love Art Nouveau. I made my way to the area and took some pictures of the truly amazing architecture from about 1910-1920.

That evening I at near the B&B in a square which had several restaurants. I had mussels and when the came in the giant pot with several slices of bread I was stunned. I ate nothing else and couldn’t even finish the mussels. Here in Vancouver, that meal would have fed three, but then the price was about the cost of three portions. I certainly didn’t go hungry.  After I walked down to this cafe and sat outside writing in my journal and having a couple of glasses of wine. These two women bought me a drink and we talked. One was on her way to Seattle for her sister’s wedding and was considering moving there, much to her friend’s surprise. Then three men arrived, with one being of the flaming variety of gay. He was very friendly and began chatting with me, telling me to join their table. Partway through the evening he said he loved me, but oh, not that way. I smiled

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One sample of a fantastic Art Nouveau balcony and architecture.

and said that was fine, I knew that.  (In fact, I saw a fair larger gay population in Antwerp than I did in Amsterdam.) His friends were getting mad at him for not talking with them and then at one point, the one guy (two were from Hungary) whose English wasn’t that good started yelling at me and blaming me for all the “horrible” things Canada was doing to the Indians.

I said it wasn’t that simple or black and white and that yes there were good and bad things done. He kept at me and I asked, “If your brother killed someone, would you be guilty?” That didn’t deter him so finally I lost it and retorted, “Fine let’s look at what the Hungarian Magyars did to the Gypsies.” He got more worked up yelling and walking around that the two women were telling him to shut up in Belgian. The bartender came out and said he was going to call the police. I was bewildered. Here were some of the friendliest people I’d met in my travels and some of the nastiest all at once. I couldn’t take the ranting so I thanked those who had been nice and went back to my lodgings. That one incident was bizarre but I’d go back to Antwerp again because I certainly didn’t see it all.

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Traveling in Europe: Antwerp Part I

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The Cathedral of Our Lady is a great example of Gothic architecture.

I spent about seven to eight days in Holland and from Den Bosch took the train to Antwerp. The B&B hosts I was staying with, Mabuhay Holdings, would not be home till about 8 that night so I stowed my luggage at the train station. The problem was that the luggage lockers were all full except for two rows that weren’t working. And here, the bottom stand that kept my suitcase upright decided to fall off. I managed to tape it back on but the cheapness of the suitcase was becoming apparent. At the other end of the Antwerp station was another set of luggage lockers. The other end was a very long walk that equaled about three city blocks, past covered shops and lots of gold and diamond stores. This was also one of the few places where I had to use a credit card to secure a locker, as most restaurants and B&Bs in Holland and Belgium do not accept  anything but cash.

There was a helpful tourist information booth in Antwerp station where I was given directions and a map. I then headed toward the old city. Antwerp is a blend of old and new in a way the other cities weren’t. Often, centuries-old cities are more medieval and ancient at the center and as they expanded they became more modern. Of course, there will be a blend when old buildings disappear  but maybe not  that much when they’re historical. However, I suspect that Antwerp’s blend comes more from the aftermath of WWII than from a conscious effort to modernize. (Indeed, a quick google check confirms this.)

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The historic guildhouses in the grote markt, Antwerp.

As I walked along I could smell the waffles, a famous Belgium food. Luckily, while Antwerp is open and modern, there are still many historical buildings. The square that holds the stadhuis or townhall also has a row of historical guildhalls, with gilded statuary at the top. One was under repairs but they are four-five centuries old, having experienced a fire in the 1500s.

The square, also called the grote markt, holds the Brabo fountain, where a Roman warrior named Brabo, standing on a dragon is throwing the hand of a giant into the Scheldt River. Antwerp’s name means something close to this (Brabant, hand throwing). As I walked through the square, the Cathedral of Our Lady’s bells began to chime. They chimed for 15 minutes and were just lovely. Mary is obviously a patron of the city and Marian statues can be found on various building corners. In fact, you can wander down different streets and come across large statues of Jesus and Mary, or other saints. The cathedral was stunning, airy and light, and very large. It had quite a range of triptychs throughout, including Rubens and  Caravaggio.

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In the courtyard of Rubenshuis; the angular aspects and different colored stones are typical Rubens.

In fact, by far one of the best museums on my trip was Rubenshuis, the studio and house that Rubens built and lived in. I had always known he was a painter but what I didn’t realize was that he was a renowned architect, so much so that his work influenced architects of his time and for those to come. Rubens in turn was influenced by Greek and Roman architecture and styled his house after a Roman villa. His use of marble, rectangular designs and angular openings gave a particularly vibrant appearance that seemed apparent in parts of the cathedral. One side was dedicated to his paintings; the other to his architectural studies and influences. Like many museums, taking pictures is not allowed. One of the rooms had the walls covered in about tw0-foot square panels of embossed and stained dark red leather. This would have warmed the room visually and as an insulating layer. Amazingly, most of these leather-covered walls are preserved. Because Rubens built his house opening into a courtyard, the windows all face one side. Truly beautiful and stunning centuries later. I spent most of the day just in Rubenshuis alone, and the rest in the cathedral.

I arrived on a Sunday and it turns out most museums are closed on Mondays, I decided to spend a second day in Antwerp and skip Brussels. There is definitely more than enough to see. Also, while Amsterdam seemed to be big on Argentinian steak houses, Antwerp’s most popular style of restaurant was pasta and pizza. These restaurants were everywhere.

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This side chapel exhibits Rubenesque uses of colored stone.

While the guidebooks said that even in restaurants they would charge for toilet use, that wasn’t true though it was for every store I went in. You cannot get a glass of water at restaurant and must pay for it. In fact, water costs as much as a glass of wine. I ate in the old part of town that night and then with some confusion, managed to catch a tram to my lodging. It was unclear which tram stop I needed so I ended up waiting a long time and when I got down to the convergence of three streets, the bus driver said it was close but to ask the police and transit man who were standing there discussing something. Perhaps it was a small comfort as a directionally challenged tourist that when I asked them where Drakstraat was they had to look it up on the map and it turns out it was the street the tram had gone down and we were pretty much standing on it. Even the locals don’t know the names of their streets.

More in my next post on Antwerp, with the photo album of the trip.

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Lessons Learned on Traveling in Europe

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Horley (near Gatwick) Station

I thought I would write a lot while traveling, even took a laptop (mini) to do so but there were quite a few factors that made me post only once. I managed to get some gut bug when I flew into Amsterdam. It might have been caused by suspect Chinese food in Horley (but then I’m sensitive to the change of flavor in meat–it might have been slightly old or…bad) or it could have been the water, which is far softer than Vancouver’s water and maybe my body just couldn’t adjust. Still, tummy troubles didn’t keep me down but made my day a bit slower to start.

In Holland, thousands of people use bikes. If I had rented one it would have been a nuisance because I don’t just take pictures of tourist attractions but of things on the street; leaves, textures, patterns. A bike would have meant that I would be hopping on and off constantly.

I found my suitcase was in fact too heavy and I would take even less next time, maybe buying more there. However I was packing for rain and cold and got a very warm, extended summer of 25-30 degrees Celsius. I didn’t wear some of the items I brought because it was too hot. Still, backpacking might have worked but I have a few back issues that might have made it worse, but lugging anything up narrow, multiple Dutch and Belgian stairs will indeed give you a workout, and thankfully, my knees are good.

Most B&Bs have towels, though if you’re couchsurfing, check beforehand. I did a bit of both with even a hotel or two in there. I hate water splashing in my face and have always preferred using a face cloth. While these are pretty standard in any hotel in North America, you won’t find one anywhere in Europe (Holland, Belgian and England were the countries I visited this time). I brought one but might have brought two next time so one could air and dry when using the other. I had to deal with a bit of mildew even in half a day of being packed wet.

Many European buildings are centuries old and, besides having many stairs, have very high ceilings. This means the light might be faint. If your eyes don’t do well in low light, bring another light. I also brought a container for water, which was a good thing when walking around all day. In Belgium a waiter told me it was against the law to serve tap water so you’ll pay as much for a small bottle as almost for a glass of wine. And on drinking, while cider is in the veins of the British, Irish and Scottish it’s harder to find in other areas. I usually found only one bottled type in various places in Holland but it was nonexistent in Belgium.

I took cash but also brought my bank card and credit card. While cash always works, a couple of times I had to use the

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An example of old, steep, narrow stairs in Amsterdam

credit card, for reserving a room, or for storing my luggage at a train station because the machines didn’t take coins. I never could find out if traveler’s checks would work or not, or if there was a fee.

Trains are plentiful and sometimes hook up to trams. Many of the information areas are helpful. However, I found the rudest service in London at the booths marked for information. While different people working about the station were helpful in telling me what line to catch, no one bothered to clarify that there are trains and then there are trains in England. There is the underground or the tube, which has trains, and then there are the overground trains. They come into the same stations and sometimes your ticket transfers between the two (and buses) and sometimes it doesn’t. The underground information people were not helpful with the trains and vice versa. No one bothered to tell me the difference. At Victoria Station there was in fact a Tourist Travel Information center, which no one told me about, but they helped me figure out the overground and underground trains to the airport (after three other ties). It was also cheaper to fly from London to Amsterdam than to take a train through the Chunnel. On the way back I took a ferry from Calais to Dover, so check all forms of transportation,  and several months in advance of your trip for the best deals.

This is an overview and I did so much walking and visiting of galleries and buildings that I was just too exhausted to write in the evenings. Over the next few weeks I will do reviews of accommodation, food and the places I traveled.

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Travel Tips for Amsterdam

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Amsterdam canal by phault: Flickr http://www.flickr.com/people/pjh/

I’m getting ready to travel to the Netherlands and Belgium in about a month’s time. There is actually a fair amount to do, check and get beforehand. Because I’m traveling alone, there are a few other considerations to take into account.

When I traveled to Ireland a few years back I went with my sister. We rented a car, drove as far as we could each day and then as the sun was dipping below the horizon we’d drive into the nearest town, have a drink at a pub and ask them to recommend a B&B. It worked well 90% of the time. We were off season (the end of Sept.) and the towns we stayed in were not the larger cities. That’s why in Kilkenny, a college town, it almost didn’t work. It was a Saturday night and full of party people. It took three tries but we did find a B&B.

So I thought I could do the same thing as I traveled to the Netherlands. I land in London first and as I always do I like to book my first and last nights so that I know that I’m set. I find that Trip Advisor though you have to look at more than a few reviews to get a sense of place. But I will then search elsewhere for rooms, hotels, B&Bs or hostels and check their own sites as well.

As I did the preliminary research for Amsterdam I was a bit shocked at the price of any lodging. A quick look into Belgium showed it to be much the same. My sister and I got a B&B for an average of 25-50 Euros, which equaled between $$35-$60 CAD. Traveling with someone can definitely cut the rate down but here I was looking at hostels, sharing for 50 Euros a night. Yes, there are cheaper places but it’s a fine line to find something that is cheap enough, fits your needs and is clean and pleasant enough. The reviews fit one or the other criteria, but not both.

So I started looking farther afield, googling things like B&Bs Amsterdam, and cheap lodging Amsterdam. This turned up a few more sites. Bed and Breakfast Netherlands lists a lot of actual homes used as B&Bs that you might not find on Trip Advisor. It also breaks the cost down to a single person price. I haven’t yet tried it though.  Couch Surfing can also work and I’ll be trying it for the first time though I’ve already hosted a few people. You don’t have to reciprocate in hosting but it helps for references. I’m looking forward to meeting some of the people who live in these cities. It’s the best way to know a culture. Note that during the high months, Amsterdam hosts can get as many as 10-20 requests a day. It’s one of Europe‘s hotspots and a mecca for the gay crowd. I didn’t realize all this and even though I’m going at the end of Sept. I’m glad I started early. I’ve spent quite a few hours (probably 24-30) just searching out possible accommodations for Amsterdam. I’m not going to book every night everywhere because I don’t know where I’ll go but I now have an idea of what it could possibly cost me (my whole budget). My stay in London is coming in at $120 for two nights at a B&B and that’s a good price.

Know that many Dutch homes are narrow and tall, with very steep stairs. it’s part of their history where land was eked out from the sea so up was the way to go. Amsterdam is of course more expensive than some of the other towns and there are such designations in some of the travel guides as “stoner hotels.” Yes, smoking pot is allowed in some if not all establishments.

Again, money is interesting and it’s looking like traveler’s checks are becoming too outmoded, and that most places won’t take them or will charge an exorbitant fee for cashing them. As well, many Dutch hotels or B&Bs only accept cash because credit card charges eat up their profits so they just don’t use them. Once I’m on the road, I’m sure my experiences will differ some and I’ll report on that. But the best advice for traveling to Europe is check ahead of time on the type of lodging you want and whether you can afford it. I’m glad I did and I’ll be using several options.

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