A Travellerspoint blog

Belgium

Bruges

Belgium photos

My solitary experience in Belgium previously was a brief visit to the dreary and bureaucratic capital of Brussels. Consequently, I decided I needed to visit a slightly more appealing destination to appreciate the country, so I ventured to the Flemish city of Bruges for 2 nights. I travelled to Bruges expecting to encounter a quaint city that is easily “coverable” with limited time. I was surprised to discover that the old town, one of the best preserved in Europe, is humungous; a reflection of the city’s medieval prestigious as a major international trading centre.

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Just after arriving in Bruges, I met up with Australian Paul and a group of his Australian friends who were on a day trip from Antwerp. A Globo Trip veteran, Paul (otherwise known by his Greekified name Pol Antriou Chenterson, according to his newly acquired Greek passport) is easily the most critical person of the existence of this blog and frequently campaigns for its permanent disbandment. Fortunately, my commitment is immune to the churlish commentary of a dour (and somewhat grotty) individual. I found Paul and his friends grazing on greasy roast chicken at a somewhat sterile takeaway establishment, an unusual choice for lunch in a city renowned for its culinary prowess. We then spent the afternoon wandering Bruges, critiquing the austere interiors of churches and exploring, with much more interest, gift shops laden with Belgian specialties. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic supposedly containing Jesus’ blood (apparently He was a blood donor). As an alumni of the Catholic education system, I was personally incensed that a fee was required to visit the museum where we thought the relic was located. I firmly believe that if you successfully endure 13 years of indoctrination, you should be entitled to free entry at all Catholic associated institutions globally. In protest, I exited the Basilica promptly, though we later discovered the relic is exhibited in a freely accessible chapel… not the museum.

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I joined a free walking tour of Bruges to appreciate the city’s history. The tour commenced from the iconic Belfry, an 83m tall clocktower at the centre of the old town and a powerful demonstration of Bruges’ medieval importance. The “Golden Age” of Bruges lasted from the 12th to 15th centuries as the city functioned as one of the most important commercial centres in the world and the population boomed to approximately 200,000. From 1500 however, the channel that gave Bruges direct access to the sea began silting up, resulting in the city gradually declining and losing prominence to nearby Antwerp as the leading port of the Low Countries. The stalled development preserved the city’s architecture and layout, allowing Bruges to recover economically at the end of the 19th century as one of the first mass tourism destinations. The architecture of the old town is uniquely and entirely “old”, with many buildings serving as traditional breweries.The old town is crisscrossed by canals, which allowed merchants to easily transport goods from warehouses to the port. The canals provide spectacular vantage points to admire the city’s beautiful skyline, punctuated by church spires and bell-towers.

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The expansive old town of Bruges is almost completely unnavigable in the absence of technology. After dinner on my first night, I found myself completely lost as my phone ran out of battery power and I had no recollection of how to return to my hostel. The streets of Bruges wind in a totally illogical manner, the architecture is very similar throughout and the layout lacks a defining geographical feature (like a river), creating a veritable labyrinth where its very difficult to establish your bearings in the twilight. In yesteryears, I would have loved the romanticism of “getting lost” in a beautiful old city, but I’m too old and cynical now to be frustrated by the inconvenience. I bitterly wasted an hour trying to locate my hostel, before finally stumbling upon a street map I could photograph and follow. I was subsequently vigilant with ensuring my phone was adequately charged.

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For such an infinitesimally small and mostly unnoticed country, Belgium’s succession of momentous contributions to global gastronomy is really quite extraordinary. The Belgians are (supposedly) the inventors of chips (or fries / frites) and the quality of Belgian waffles, chocolates and beers are internationally recognised as peerless. I sampled two traditional Flemish meals in Bruges; moules and frites and carbonnade. Moules and frites consist of a cauldron of mussels cooked in white wine and twice fried chips with garlic mayonnaise. Carbonnade is a rich beef stew similar to France’s beef bourguignon, but cooked with beer rather than red wine. Belgium is synonymous with quality beer and I was of course required to sample a few drops, despite my preparations for Paris. Pol’s friends suggested I try a “sour” beer, which is produced from a very unpredictable process of fermentation. The beer was unlike anything I had tasted before, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I much preferred drinking cherry beer, wheat beer and a Belgian tripel called Garre, which I found at a historic pub hidden down a side alley and upstairs. The beer has an alcohol content of 11%, so the pub’s policy is to limit 3 drinks served to patrons.

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I anticipated Bruges would be a pretty little town, where I would possibly become bored after 2 days. However, I found that I had grossly insufficient time to explore the entire old town, visit some of the museums and breweries and sample enough beers to feel like I had properly tasted Belgium.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Belgium photos

Posted by Liamps 02:08 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Brussels

I never intended to travel to Belgium at this time of year, but due to some uncharacteristic disorganisation on my part, it became much more affordable for me to detour to Brussels and fly from there to Spain than it was to fly direct from Amsterdam. I decided that I should make the most of the detour and consequently spent two nights in the capital of Europe, which was enough to “tick off” the city.

I arrived in Brussels in the late evening and found that although I was marginally further south than Amsterdam, it was still bloody cold. The bus trip to Brussels was not such a pleasant experience as it featured several annoying encounters with rude French staff. Thus far on this trip, the French have lived up to the reputation that the rest of Europe seems to give them! After eventually arriving at my hostel and despite being exceptionally fatigued for no particular reason, I braved the cold weather to find an appropriate restaurant for dinner and immediately fell into a tourist trap; the very trap my guide warned me against! Fortunately though, I doubt its possible for any eatery to serve less than delicious food in Belgium; and who am I to complain about three courses plus a drink for 15 euro? I don’t particularly enjoy mussels, but I don’t loathe them, so I thought I should try one of Belgian cuisine’s signature dishes, moules and frites (they are quite proud that hot chips originate from Belgium). It was quite an experience being served a massive bowl (or tank) of mussels that were cooked in a delicious broth; overall a quality meal and solid introduction to Belgium.

Since I had only had one full day in Brussels, I was determined to maximise that day and see the city by waking up early and hitting the streets. I did manage to wake up early and hit the streets, but the cruel coldness compelled me to dash to the only open café and hibernate until the sun was clearly above the buildings. This was where I ate another Belgian classic, waffles! I was intrigued to observe that the standard Belgian breakfast appeared to be a croissant, a roll of bread, butter, juice and coffee; there were many (I assume locals) ordering the same thing.

Once the weather was almost bearable, I ventured to (apparently) the nicest square in all of Europe, Grand Place. It was indeed a very nice square, lined with elaborately decorated buildings with gold ornamentation. I’m not sure what makes it the nicest though as it strike me as being particularly remarkable in comparison with the other great squares of Europe. Along with many other sites in Europe, I can’t quite identify the justification for its inclusion on the World Heritage list; what non-trivial universal qualities does it represent or exemplify? This relates to one of my pet peeves, the inequality and compromised nature of the list. Its completely ludicrous that half the list is composed of sites from Europe while many extraordinary natural sites (such as the Okavango Delta, South Luangwa National Park, Namib-Naukluft National Park) are not recognised and as usual, it comes done to which countries have the money to get their sites included.

I spent most of my day just walking around Brussels. Its remarkable how close European cities are to each other (Brussels is only three hours from Amsterdam by car) and yet be so different. The architecture prevalent in Brussels and the cityscape showed little resemblance to that seen in Amsterdam. The city features many Beaux-Arts buildings and generally appears more regal and capital-like then their Dutch counterpart. Intermingled among the older buildings within the central area are modern structures, which I think is an obscurity for a European city. Brussels was one of the primary centres of the art-nouveau movement in the early 20th century and consequently there are many apartment buildings throughout the suburbs that have been constructed in this style. Art-nouveau was one of the forerunning styles to modern architecture, as it rejected the conventional practice of recreating previous architectural styles. Rather than using architectural precedence, it looked particularly to nature for inspiration and is characterised by the liberal application of ornamentation (often just two-dimension) and sinuous structures or components. I visited the Victor Horta museum which is an art-nouveau apartment designed by the movement’s most acclaimed architect and (critically for my visitation) a World-Heritage listed site. Unfortunately for some ridiculous reason, patrons are not permitted to take photos inside and so I cannot provide any imagery of the extraordinary interior. I can’t understand why such a policy would exist since its not like the photography would deteriorate the interior (unlike paintings) and google has already hindered any desires to prevent imitations.

One of my highlights of the entire trip in Europe thus far was my lunch in Brussels. For only 19 euros, I enjoyed an entrée, main meal and a dessert at a restaurant which clearly wasn’t a tourist trap as there was no English menu and was frequented by French-speaking locals. After randomly selecting my dishes from the French menu, I ate a delicious slice of pate with a variety of interesting garnishes, a fantastic beef stew with mash and chocolate mousse. Another thing I liked about the restaurant was that they provided a basket of fresh, crusty bread and constantly filled it up.
My departure from Brussels thankfully ended my experience with cold, dreary weather. While I only spent one day essentially in Brussels, I felt that it was enough to see the city.

Tutulu

Liam

Posted by Liamps 04:23 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

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