Belgium Travel Guide
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In honor of North Carolina declaring April "Beer Month" you should know about this itsy-bitsy authentic beer parlour that we found in the capital of beer -- Brussels.
Even if you’re not a huge fan of the brewskie, it would pretty much be sacrilege not to go to a beer tavern in Brussels, the place of pilgrimage for many a beer-lover. There are beer halls, taverns and cafés aplenty, but if you want to go to a quirky original populated by locals rather than tourists, La Fleur en Papier Doré is the place.
This small tavern and café, dating from the middle of the 1700s, was once a convent and we suspect that the good nuns who lived there took a nip or two of the stuff in their time. Later it became a haunt of the Surrealist artistes –- René Magritte’s crowd. This artistic group, and the other writers and artists who followed, apparently liked to indulge in more drink than they could afford. All you need to do when you’re at La Fleur en Papier Doré is look up at the drawings and paintings crowding the jam-packed walls to see how cash-strapped artists paid their overdue bills in kind. As a shout-out to its past, the tavern still hosts exhibitions and writer’s evenings.
We headed there on a sweltering hot August summer day to find a cool cave fronted by a super-friendly barmaid. We picked a table in the back and settled in for what was to be a lesson in the history of Belgian beers. (Pics of this little gem follow below!)
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My room at the Hotel De Tuilerieën, where "In Bruges" was filmed
What would your life be like if you hadn't yet traveled to Europe? If you'd spent years reading travel novels and fantasizing over guidebooks, but hadn't made the big leap? This is the case for Andy Miles, who in his late twenties just embarked on a trip to hit most of the cities for the first time. He's walking us through the emotions and observations of a true Newbie Traveler.
Have you ever wanted to wander around inside of a postcard? Go to Bruges. It's the most beautiful, pristine and picture-perfect city I have ever had the pleasure of exploring.
Following my time in Amsterdam, I arrived at Bruges' main train station in mid-afternoon, just as the surprisingly hot Belgian sun was at its peak. Train stations give me a sense of tranquility (or should I say "train-quility") since I've always found traveling by train to be an incredibly relaxing experience.
The Bruges station, aptly named "Bruges railway station," isn't a remarkable building; it actually looks like the high school from every bad teen movie more than anything else. See what I mean? However, the structure gets the job done and has stood here since 1939, though the station itself has been welcoming trains since 1838.
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Brussels Airlines recently announced some major network upgrades and in-flight products and took to social media to brag about their new toys to all their followers. With dramatic unveilings on Twitter and instagram and the final product look on Facebook, the carrier created quite a buzz for their newest seats.
In the front of the plane, the Belgian carrier is launching lie-flat sky beds for intercontinental service with all of the bells and whistles we expect in business class. Super roomy seats with loads of work space is what premium passengers can expect with the addition of a pneumatic setting that allows passengers to pick a 'hard' or 'soft' seat.
Don't worry, there is some fun for economy too! By reducing the profile of their seats, Brussels boasts just about 33 inches of leg room and further recline.
We knew there were canals in Bruges, of course. We knew there were old buildings. We knew there were chocolates, too. Something we weren’t aware of, though? Windmills.
It was as we were wandering round the east part of the old town that we suddenly found ourselves at the end of a street with a slight hill in front of us. And when we looked round, we saw a windmill. And, a little further on, another one.
For €2, we climbed the 34 steps into the first one. Turned out we were in the Sint-Janhuysmill, built in 1770. The mill mound, though, was first established in 1297. What’s more, there used to be no fewer than 29 mills in Bruges.
But history aside, what was spectacular about the mill was the view. From up on high, we could see not only the main canal acting as a moat around the city, but the entire skyline of the old town as well, all high pitched terracotta roofs and church spires (yes, the rumors are correct. Bruges has a lot of churches).
Belgium: the dull country, right? All gloomy grey skies and dreary towns, a country so boring they had to make chocolate and beer to keep the inhabitants from self-immolating?
Well, Belgium sees your derision and raises you… chocolate genitalia. In three flavors.
Yup, so dulled were our senses by every other shop in Bruges being a chocolate shop, that it took a few seconds to realise what we were staring at here. But lo, it has just about every primary and secondary sex organ that a bachelor/ette partier would need. And we're sure we want to know what "zachte tietjes" translate as.
If only we’d had the foresight to buy these for our Vegas trip this week.
In Bruges, you want to eat chocolate, of course. And, back from Bruges, you want to carry on eating chocolate. Just one problem: as you’re hauling it back across continents and timezones, you don’t want it to melt, because melted chocolate is gross, wasted chocolate.
Which is why, when you make your rounds of the genius chocolatiers of Bruges, every time you buy, you’ll be offered a cool bag, too. In weather similar to that at the momentthe low 70sall you need to do is put your chocs in the bag. If it gets hotter (and trust us, there’s no chance of that at the moment), just throwing in a cold can of drink will be enough to cool it for the journey home.
There is a catch, of course; you have to pay for the bags, with most shops selling them for between 1 and 2 euros. But, having seen our boxes emerge unscathed from six hours in our sweaty suitcase, we can vouch for them being more than worth it.
And Belgian chocolate really does live up to its reputation. That we can also vouch for.
Guido Gezelle, the Flemish poet. Philip I of Castile, Spain’s first Habsburg ruler. Tony Parker, the
marriage wrecker basketball player. It’s fair to say that Bruges hasn’t given birth to many A listers.
But do not fear, because these days there’s a celeb who not only lives in Bruges but appears daily for photograph sessions with his fans. He even made a cameo appearance in In Bruges.
His name is Fidel, he’s a golden Labrador, and he lives at the Côté Canal bed and breakfast overlooking the main canal. But he’s better known as “that dog who’s in every person who goes to Bruges’ photo album”.
One of the first things you’ll be told when you go to Bruges is that Bruges is small. It’s walkable. It may look big on a map but you can walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes.
That may be, but even when a city’s as pretty and tiny and walkable as Bruges, sometimes it’s nice just to sit back and be ferried around the place. Andthe best way of being ferried around in Bruges is the literal wayin a small canal boat.
From the canal, you get a totally different perspective than from the shoreand you also get a brilliant part canned, part live commentary (in three languages), pointing out the main sights of the townas well as tiny details like the smallest window (about 10in high, on a huge building) and even a local dog which likes to hang out of a canalside window and look photogenic.
It’s the type of thing you’d expect to see in Buenos Aires, or even Seville, but not in Belgium. And definitely not in a fish market in Belgium.
Yet as we were walking along the canal in Bruges last night, we were drawn to the Vismarkt by the twinkling music of the tango. When we got there, we found the cobbles had been covered over with board, and ladies and gents were getting all dressed up, heels and flowers in their hair and everything, and dancing.
Turns out it’s the idea of a tango school owner. During the year, Pasos de Brujas holds lessons in the classroom, but every Sunday in July and August, they spill out into the Vismarkt, and anyonewhether or not you’re a pupil at the schoolcan join in.
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Europe can get damned expensive these days. The Euro is continually killing the dollar, hotel prices are just as high as ever, and well...beer doesn't grow on trees. Thus, it's perfectly okay to go the cheapie route and think back to your glory days backpacking the south of France or the north Holland or wherever and seek out the stops that leave you with some money left over for a waffle or two. Or three.
Our picks for the best budget dining and imbibing in Bruges, Belgium:
Where to eat:
· Bierbrasserie Cambrinus: The second we walked by its historical facade, warm-lit interior and menu boasting Belgian specialties, we knew we'd have to have dinner here. That said, it's not a restaurant that takes advantage of tourists; the menu is in many languages, but the prices are low and the food is scrumptious and plentiful. We recommend the eels on toast for an appetizer, and the hare with potato croquettes and homed applesauce for an entree. And any beer is good. cambrinus.eu. Philipstockstraat 19.
· Assiette Blanche: Just like what we did with the hotel listings above, this second item is the more expensive. Assiette Blanche is for a special occasion, or if you're looking to experience some of the culinary awesomeness that this part of Belgium is known for offeringlike shrimp croquettes with foie gras mousse. They offer a 3-course dinner menu for around 35 Euros, so a good value for a fancy place. It's actually just down the street from Cambrinus, so if one doesn't look good, you aren't walking far for the other. assietteblanche.be. Philipstockstraat 23-25.
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When we travel, one of our favorite things to do is to pop into a local grocery store and check out the food products and candies we'd never find anywhere else. So we're trying out this new feature, Foreign Grocery Friday, where each week we'll feature some of our (and your) favorite overseas treats. Got a recommendation? Let us know!
When you think about Belgium, what food comes to mind? Odds are chocolate, right? Well, that's totally fine because duhBelgium is huge in the edible ecstasy department, but don't rule out all the other lovely candies that color the rainbow, like the delicious bites called Cuberdons. These conical treats, also called "mini noses" and "priest hats," are specially slow-cooked to create a gooey interior, with a harder shell.
The taste: Mmmm raspberry. Yep, Cuberdons are raspberry-hued as well as raspberry-flavored. There's none of that dicey white chocolate flavor that comes with many raspberry sweets; these are 100% concentrated fruity scrumptiousness. Eat them whole, though, or risk getting the goopey center all over your fingertips...which you will then be tempted to lick clean in public. Ah yesand there are many other flavors to sample, but raspberry is the recognized classic.
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This year Disneyland Paris is going on a little bit of a beach vacation, and they’re encouraging one and all to swing by to take in a little of the sun and sand. As part of this year’s Sand Sculpture Festival in Blankenberge—that’s in Belgium—piles and piles of sand are being transformed into a version of France’s most famous theme park.
It’s not just princesses and castles either, as the whole park has been recreated. The only downer is that this is a look but don’t touch situation, as sand Space Mountain wouldn’t hold up too well to throngs of tourists.