Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Arkansas can wait - Part 2: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent

Our last day in the Netherlands consisted of our day trip to Delft and then heading on to Brussels.  Sounds simple.

It wasn't.  We don't do "simple".  Here's how it went.

  • Check out of hotel
  • Store luggage at hotel
  • Tram to Amsterdam Zuid station
  • Train to Delft, changing in The Hague
  • Tour Delft
  • Train back to Amsterdam Zuid via The Hague
  • Tram to hotel
  • Get luggage
  • Tram back to Amsterdam Zuid
  • Train to Schiphol
  • Grab something to eat
  • High speed Thalys train to Brussels

Phew.  That's how we relax on vacation.

We might have been able to make things a bit simpler had we been able been sure we could store luggage at Schiphol or The Hague. They have lockers, but if you don't have a "chip and pin" credit card, you can't do much of anything.  Gotta get us one of those!

Relaxing at 187 mph, watching the tulips go by.

Everyone knows about Amsterdam.  Everyone knows about Paris.  What's in between?

Brussels.  Brussel sprouts.  Ich.  How nice can that place be?

We arrive at the train station in Brussels, which has all the ambiance of Penn Station New York, and:

  • Wander around until we find the transit line we need
  • Endure a completely confusing exercise in getting transit tickets from grumpy guys in ticket booths
  • Enter the system through a confusing array of turnstiles and ticket validation machines
  • Wander around a bit more up and down various sets of stairs, schlepping our 40 pound suitcases, until we figure out which platform we need.  
  • Ride the subway up a few stops and get off
  • Wander around a bit more, coming up above ground again about 20 feet from the front door of the hotel.
It's dark now.  We are tired.  The hotel door requires a key to get into the lobby from the street.  The desk clerk buzzes us in.  He's not nearly as friendly as the staff back in Amsterdam.

Not a very welcoming experience.

Brussel sprouts.  Ich.  We should have known.  What were we thinking?

Next morning, we head out to find out if our first impressions were on the mark or not.  As we walk through the lobby, the desk clerk - a different guy from the previous night - yells, "Stop!"

We do and then look at him, puzzled.  Now what?  "You cannot drink water in Brussels", he says, spying the water bottle we are carrying.

What the...???

"In Brussels, you must drink beer.  Do you like beer?"  I nod.  "Come here and I'll show you where to eat and drink!"  and he marks up the tourist map for us.  Then, "You have to go to Bruges while you are here.  Come see me before you go and I'll tell you what to see and do."  This is Phillipe, an unofficial enthusiastic ambassador for Belgium, at our service!  Now, we're smiling and ready to go!

Didn't see that coming!  Brussels turned out to be a great place.

Off to the Grand Place or Grote Market...  depending on if you like French or Dutch name for the place.  The French generally like nice sounding names.  The Dutch just like commerce - don't care what you call it.

Grand Place (imperfectly stitched panoramas)

This is the THE tourist spot in Brussels - for good reason.  It's a gorgeous place AND it has a tourist info office.  We wander in and ask about walking tours.  "There a free one leaving at 11AM, just outside."

We go.  It's a Sandeman "New Europe" tour.  They ARE free, but you can tip what you feel the tour is worth at the end.  It's how the guide makes all his money.

The tour is excellent.  The guide, Fraser from Scotland, is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Belguim and Brussels.

Fraser doing his thing.
Some sights from the walk...

Guild houses

All the Guildhouses and Town Hall were rebuilt in the 1690s after the French leveled them with artillery

tower on Town Hall

Lots-o-people in the facade of Town Hall

Another guild house - Karl Marx stayed here until they tossed him out

World Famous Mannekin Pis.  Why is he world famous?  Nobody knows.  He just is.

The continuous crowd at ol' Mannekin
The oft stolen, legendary statue.  Pick your legend.

Church of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours

Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

Started in 13th century...

...finished in late 20th century

Inside the cathedral:

Large organ is on the side of the main gallery.  Apparently, is sounds best in this location.

Some pulpit!

Stained glass everywhere.

Chapel on side gallery

Royal Park

Royal Palace

Looking down on Brussels

19th century indoor mall
After the tour, we headed over to St. Catherine's Plaza to find a place to eat. There are lots of restaurants there and it would be a great place to eat some mussels in Brussels, but local mussels were out of season.  While wandering around, a friendly local redirected us to another part of the city where we found a nice cafe.

Here are some scenes from our trek.

Bell tower from what was a church?

St. Catherines

Yet another rendition of St. Michael doing his thing....

Brussels is known for comic book art.  The most famous is Tintin.  These murals are all over the place in Brussels

Neighborhood cafe for dinner

inside the cafe

WW I and WW II memorial

Brussels has streetcars, too!

Ornate, gothic churches everywhere....  This one, Notre-Dame du Sablon.

Quiet city park

Evening on Grand Place

Chocolate!  Yum.

Day Trip!  Bruges - rhymes with "luge". A small town that used to be a major center of commerce.  In fact, was one of the largest in Europe.  The habor silted up and time passed Bruges by.

But, first, this.  We found it outside the train station.
Why?  Because Peyo was from Belgium.  That's why.  The real question is "Shouldn't he be blue?"

A quick one hour train ride and we are there:

Nothing fancy about the Bruges train station

City Gate

We took a canal tour

Canal tour

These are swans

Sights along the canal
Standard tourist view of the square.  It was a lot more crowded than this picture makes it appear!
Phillipe said only tourists eat here, so we didn't

Entrance to side street that leads to lunch stop
Lunch stop - recommended by Phillipe

This is it!

Lunch! (we had a sandwhich, too!)  Phillipe recommended this beer.  It was good.

Obligatory bronze statue

Belfort in Bruges - combo watch tower and alarm system

the center of town
Traffic jam

Some more scenes from Bruges...

Fish Market...there still sell a few fresh fish, but mostly souveniers

Burg Square

Town Hall

Standard Gothic cast of characters

Burg Square

Gruuthusemuseum...a history musuem

Not exactly ADA compliant...there was a lot of this sort of thing.

St. Walburga's Church in Bruges was perhaps the most stunning looking church we ran across on our trip...massive ancient cathedrals and elaborate stained glass notwithstanding.

You've seen one small, Belgium city, you've seen them all?  Nope.  Next day, Ghent!  Ghent has a similar history to Bruges, but evolved into a larger city in recent times. It still has it's medievel city core, though, and is a great place to visit.

"New" train station in Ghent - built in first part of 20th Century
Really nice murals in concourse

Ghent has trams!  We rode to the town center from the train station
Belfort dating from Medevial times

Plaza down below

Belfry had an actual fire breathing dragon - this is what's left of the original.
It would spit burning pitch for special events.

Fire breathing dragon version two built in the 19th century.

Main bell named "Roland"

View from the top

View from the watchtower walkway

St. Nicholas

Timing mechanism for Roland the Bell

Carillon mechanism
Ghent has canals, so we took a canal cruise.

Guild houses now shops and cafes

Post office, I think?

Party boat

Old fish market.  No old fish, just shops and restaurants.

Last remaining wood frame building

Gravensteen Castle from the 12th Century

Cannon named "Mad Meg". Used once.  Lousy range. Collasal flop.
Some more sights from Ghent:

Ancient ceiling in ancient building with massive beams

Jan-Frans Willems (Flemish populist from 19th century)

Jacob Van Artevelde (14th Century Flemish statesman)

St. Jacobs - yet another ancient chruch

just plain weird

Now, that's looks like a steetcar!
Belgium food:

Belgium waffles.  They really do exists.  The natives take them with just powdered sugar and maybe some chocolate, but the they serve'em up with all sorts of fruit and goodies for the tourists.

"So much food. Not enough mouth!"

They also are the home of "French fries". The legend is that the Doughboys of WW I ate them and liked them, but thought they were still in France, so when they cooked them back in the US, they called them "French fries".  The secret is frying them at two temperatures.  A low one to cook them through and then a high one to get them crispy on the outside.  They usually serve them in a paper cone with all kinds of sauces, but none better than ketchup!  (I think I might actually like ketchup better than fries)

I will never understand mayonnaise with fries, though.

Chocolate.  It's everywhere.  From high priced shops in tourist areas to the supermarkets.  And, it's all good.  We became rather fond some chocolate praline bars we'd pick up at the local supermarket and chocolate bread from the local bakeries. 

This was good!

chocolate bread
Easter was coming

These strange eggs were all over Brussels

Our hotel opened into a shopping mall with parachuting bunnies.

And, strangest of all, across the street from our hotel was a....

They still exist?

Brussels!  Sprouts?  No way! Waffles, fries, chocolate, beer and much much more. We're glad we stopped by for a visit! 

Back on the Thalys train. Next stop Paris!

Thalys trainsets cooling their heels in Brussels Midi Station