You might think that the more you travel, the shorter your wish list of travel destinations becomes. It’s actually just the opposite. The more you travel, the more you hear about awesome places from other travelers. Or you meet people that convince you that you really need to plan a trip to their home country. It’s especially tempting when they offer to host you and show you around.
This was the case for us when we met some new Belgium friends while we were in Budapest in August (see blog). I was pretty much sold on visiting Belgium when I heard about the delicious chocolate, fries, and waffles. Bryan was sold when he heard about the great varieties of beer. So we decided to squeeze about 4 days in Belgium on our way to London. After Liechtenstein, we continued to travel by train north towards Luxembourg. One of our stops on the way was Strasbourg, France. We had about an hour before our final train to Luxembourg City so we hopped off the train to check out Strasbourg. The city is adorable. So charming in fact that we immediately decided to delay our train ride out until the morning so we could spend some time there. Strasbourg is on the border of Germany so it has a unique feel to it. The white and black timber-framed buildings are located right on the waterways. The bridges are filled with colorful flowers. Strasbourg also has an enormous towering Strasbourg Cathedral with intricate designs. The cathedral is considered one of the best examples of Gothic Architecture and was the highest building in the world for well over two hundred years (1647 to 1874).
The next morning we continued our way to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. We thought we’d check out Luxembourg on our way north since neither of us had ever been there. Honestly, I can’t say much about it. It’s a pleasant enough city with some attractive views over the houses and buildings of the Grund area. But, honestly, I really can’t think of a compelling reason to recommend a visit. I think it would have been a much different experience if we were with local people who knew where to go. We were glad we decided to spend a night in Strasbourg, rather than rushing to get to Luxembourg City and spending two nights.
We hopped on another train and continued north to Bruges, Belgium. I definitely can recommend a visit to Bruges. It’s an endearing little city. There are canals everywhere – it’s referred to as “The Venice of the North.” The architecture also reminds me of Amsterdam. Most of the rows of buildings have step-gable roofs (back in the day this style made it easier for roofers and chimney sweeps to access the roof). Bruges also has windmills and a ridiculous amount of lace and chocolate shops. I’ve never seen so much chocolate! I think you can find chocolate in just about every shape – from innocent shapes like dogs, sheep, and teddy bears, to not-so-innocent shaped things (use your imagination, I’m not giving any details). :-) Ghent is another charming town only an hour and a half from Bruges and about 40 minutes from Brussels that we stopped in for a few hours. The scenery is similar and they have an old castle, but Bruges was still our favorite.
We’ve been pretty fortunate with our health so far on this trip (thanks to everyone’s prayers and the dozen or so shots we had before we started our trip). But weird, minor problems always happen to me. It might have happened when we were sleeping outside in Salzburg, Austria but somewhere along the way a bug bit me above my eyelid. It gradually started swelling and it just kept getting bigger and bigger day after day until finally I could barely open my eye. I looked ridiculous and Bryan kept telling me to wear my sunglasses even when we were inside. In Bruges I finally decided to go to an Apotheka (pharmacy) to see if they could help me. The pharmacist was so nice and spoke perfect English. Within a few minutes I was all set with antibiotics and cream for about $12 USD (no insurance or ID necessary). It couldn’t get any easier and faster than that. (And don’t worry, my eye was all better in no time ).
Our friend Arnaud lives in the heart of Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. Fortunately, he has four-day weekends every week so he had plenty of time to hang out and show us around his city. Arnaud is extremely proud of his country and city. He gave us an excellent tour of his city that was the perfect style: see a sight then have a Belgian waffle, see another sight then have some Belgian fries and Belgian chocolate, sight see a bit more and try a Belgium beer at one of his favorite pubs (you get the idea). :-) It probably goes without saying that this is the point in our Europe trip where we start to gain the weight back that we lost over the last few months. :-) Belgian waffles are so sweet and tasty that they really don’t need any syrup or toppings (many people just eat them plain and by hand). Belgian fries are unique because they are cooked (fried) twice and are served in huge quantities with a long list of sauce options. Belgian chocolate is ridiculously melt-in-your-mouth good. I’ve had Europeans tell us how nasty American chocolate is and I was a bit defensive. Now I see where they’re coming from. Despite all the touristy chocolate shops, the best place to buy high quality Belgian chocolate is right in the grocery store.
Along with scrumptious food, Belgium is also known for its high-quality and varied beers. Even if you don’t like beer, you’d like Belgium beer. They have unusual flavors such as cherry, mango, coconut (served in a coconut shell), and chocolate. The fruit flavors taste more like juice than beer. One bar we went to called Delirium Café won the Guinness Book of World Record for having the most number of beers in stock. Delirium offers no less than 2,004 beers available at any given time – usually more than that. Delirium is now working towards the goal of offering 2,500 different beers. Their beer menu was a novel with 258 pages! Another interesting (and kind of creepy) bar Arnaud took us to was called “Le Cercueil” (the casket). The bar has a graveyard, haunted house theme. It was dark, spooky, and had coffins as tables.
The architecture in Brussels is distinctive. There are rows of beautiful, huge townhomes where each home is a completely different architectural style. As our friend said, it looks like they took a bunch of neighborhoods and just shook them all up. The city also boasts a huge number of green, peaceful parks with beautiful landscaping and fountains. Parks like these make a huge difference in the social vibe and attractiveness of a city. Another site in Brussels is the iconic Peeing Boy Fountain (called “Manneken Pis”). We didn’t see many tourists in Brussels until we got to the little bronze statue. There were hordes of tourists taking photos of the little naked peeing boy. Occasionally “Manneken Pis” surprised everyone with a spray. I was surprised how small the iconic statue actually is. He’s only two feet tall. There are quite a few different legends about how Manneken Pis started but no one really seems to know for sure why the statue was built around 1618. And to make sure there’s gender equality, in 1987, the girl version “Jeanneke Pis” was placed outside of Delirium Café.
After two days of fun, food, and beer in Brussels, it was time to take a train through the “Chunnel” to London. The high-speed Eurostar train took us through the undersea channel tunnel from Brussels, Belgium to London, England in two hours with speeds of nearly 200 mph.