June 16, 2009

Visiting Belgium; Belgium chocolate, a girls dream

This is the way I imagined Europe; just before I went to France, Italy, England and Greece - quaint little cobblestone streets, street lamps, canals, petite gardens, and castles. It was all picture-perfect.
Walking through the town square and seeing the old architecture and little shops, having a romantic meal next to a warm fire while watching the gas burning street lamps glowing in the darkness. This was all I imagined, and more.

Arriving in France

To get to Belgium, one might need to go through other parts of Europe, like France, which is not too inconvenient taking that it’s only three hours from Paris by car. The country of beer, potato fries, chocolate and mussels -this was on agenda to see, try and taste.

Introduction to Bruges

Brugge, or Bruges, is an old beautiful town, with canals cutting thru the old streets, famous Belgium chocolate stores everywhere, waffles, ice-cream and potato fries, beer, old and very characteristic-to-Belgium architecture and cafes, and of course, its national dish of mussels, chips and waterzooi, a delicious stew of chicken, fish and scallops. Even though Bruges is relatively small, as all small European towns, its Flemish charms draw many tourists – and they are actually nice to them too.

No one seemed to have been working on Monday I’ve arrived; everyone seemed to be on the Market square – the central and main square of the city, eating Belgium fries and ice cream. I wondered: “Do they work at all?” I didn’t mind, though. As many Europeans by heart and upbringing, I enjoy having people around me, watching people sitting at a street-facing cafe, as there are many of those in Europe.

I was truly impressed with Bruges – its culture, beautiful Venetian-like canals, clean streets, friendly locals, little gift shops, and lots of swanks that they take care of and protect a great deal. These swanks are the property of Bruges, and they get marked with a letter “B” (or other), as the name of their owner when they are born, almost like a dog’s name tag, only a ‘tattoo”.

History of Bruges

Founded in the 9th century by Vikings, Bruges (Brugge) has it all – medieval romancing, a fusion of Flemish, German and Dutch cultures, art, impeccable but simple cuisine, shopping, and people watching. Some even say that once you see Bruges, you might forgo Brussels.

Bruges, pronounced “Bruuzh” by anyone except for the Belgians, is only about three hours by a car from the heart of Paris. The name Bruges is to be believed to derive from the old-Scandinavian word “Brygga”, meaning “harbor” or “mooring place”. Bruges, more commonly visited by French, Dutch and Germans – the close neighbors, draws hundreds of visitors to the little shops of melted-in-your-mouth and orgasmic-to-insanity chocolates of all shapes, colors and fillings. And don’t mind the breast-shaped chocolates with perfectly positioned chocolate nipples filled with creamy fruitful chocolate flavors. (Don’t call me a pervert, it's as common as topless sun-bathing in Europe.)

Bruges is a second to Brussels largest Belgian cities and is called “The Venice of the North” not for nothing. The city is ripped with the canals, which go low under the bridges and close to the houses as to be able to see the house interiors and the restaurants’ kitchens. Bruges is a medieval city and is one of the Belgium’s crown jewels as there is no other European city which showcases as much of the medieval history. Its proximity to the North Sea seeps the city with a refreshing sea air, and, of course, deliciously fresh seafood.

While Brussels is widely known, it is significantly overrated due to great exposure. And only the frequent travel-lovers know of Bruges, a not-the-less beautiful, ultra-welcoming and artistically endeavored town on the west side of Belgium.

Once one enters the old gates of the town that used to separate the king’s residency from the suburbs of peasants and villagers, one encounters groups of crystal-white swanks in the canal – the local “property” and royal symbol of the town where every single swank is counted for and marked with a letter-tattoo of their masters’ and owners’ names.

Bruges has been gradually becoming a very popular destination where one can see originals of Salvador Dali, taste a mouth-watering delicatessen at the main square, Market Place, overlooking the town’s towers – now city halls, very Belgian cafes and gift shops, almost as lounging at the piazza Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. Market Place is as much popular with locals as it is with the tourists, for people watching and for overhearing the native language, be it either Flemish Dutch or Walloon French. The area is popular all day around, for lunch on the steps of the (monument) and for dinner at the open restaurants with live Belgian or Flemish folk music.

The city offers endless fine dining opportunities of Belgium mussels, chocolates and best fruit beers (for those gals like me who does not favor the regular bitter beer), Bruges has earned a reputation for not only its culinary excellence, but for its famous lace-making, tapestry, glass, and pottery. It is famous for its down-to-earth residents and plush teddy bear-likes of Scottish short-haired cats. There are many casual cafes, which are very popular for its potato plate creations. Many restaurants and cafes have terrace overlooking the canals. From cafes with delicious pastries and waffles to gastronomic restaurants that offer local and international menus, Bruges’ famous local specialties are often found in the cuisine including dark beers from the local breweries in stews and the top quality local chocolate by itself and as an ingredient in some truly amazing deserts.

Home to the one of the oldest active monasteries and the canals, it is no surprise that Bruges has become a destination for the affluent travelers alike and cultural gourmets. All while managing to stay within still very reasonable prices and innocently untouched sights of culture, art and cuisine.

Bruges excels fresh feeling of untapped beauty among the town residents and within the redbrick walls of the town’s historic center. Once one steps in the gondola, a local tour guide canoes throughout the town’s little street canals under low-sitting numerous bridges and private residencies. The delicious smell of home-made meals, the freshly baked waffles topped with the local chocolate and the autumn’s blooming trees scent the air. Nuns and postmen on bikes and horse carriages are some of the sightings that keep people coming back to beg for more.

Its history of the technique of diamond polishing goes back as far as the middle of the 15th century and is attributed to Bruges goldsmith Lodewijk van Berguen. However, the diamonds began to be traded in Bruges as early as 1370, long before they were introduced into Amsterdam, which gave Bruges undisputedly the crown of the first European diamond city. This authentic six-hundred-year old technique can be viewed at the Bruges Diamond House, built in 1518 right in the heart of the city, and offers a purchase of diamond jewelry in classical as well as modern designs.

What to Do in Bruges:

Aside from cultural encounters, their European neighbors, for example, come to Belgium to shop for beer, chocolates, waffles, fries, lace-making embroidery and sabots. However, the town is a place for very well suited for very European romantic getaways. Bruges offers atmosphere for romantic gondola strolls, kissing on a dragon-sculptured benches under trees, counting horse ornaments and sabot house decorations so widely displayed around the town and horse carriage rides around the town of very little cars on streets. The city is perfect for photography lovers.


The best itirinery for a one-two day stay is to leave a car and embark on a long walk around the town starting from the gates and on. Through streets and canal bridges take gondola cruise and then pop up in a horse carriage for the best way to tour the ins and outs of the town’s narrow streets. Pick up chocolates by a piece, savoring each piece at a Market Place while people watching and have a mussels-beer combo at one of the canal facing restaurant at a river level.
Local Restaurants:
For the local restaurants, click here.

There are rumors (even among Parisians who are known for its love for food) that restaurants in Brussels are better than in Paris. That is, you get a better quality in medium-range places in Brussels than in pricy Parisian places. That may be true, but this is compensated by some times slower service; even slower than in Paris. This has been shared with me by Europeans who live and travel within Europe very often. But based on my own experience with Bruges, the service was good and the experience was very pleasant. Either way, where in Europe the service is not being slow? Comparing to what, USA? It’s a fact that we are a bit spoiled here by good and fast service.
Best Way To Get Around:

Walk: Before offering ways to commute and see the town, I’d like to stress that this is the town to see by foot, or horse carriage. Closely packed stores, shops, cafes, galleries, museums and historic buildings are to be seen by foot. So, wear comfortable flat soled shoes, the cobblestones can be tough to navigate with high heel shoes.
Taxi: Opt to take a taxi only as a way go get from a train station to your hotel, otherwise, you won’t need it at all.

Bike: If you want a complete tour of the city the best option it to rent a bike. There are virtually no hills and the scenery is amazing. Venture towards the outskirts of town and see the windmills. However, do note that the bikes they have seem and feel to be much bigger than the bikes in America, and they have no gears. Nevertheless, it’s still worth it, even better – stop by a local foods store and get yourself the local delicious goodies, like cheese, bread, wine and sweets, and take it with you on a bike for a lazy stop for a lunch in the city or country to enjoy the smell, view and feel of the surroundings.

Shopping in Bruges:

Bruges is best known for lace, chocolate, and of course some of Dutch-influenced handmade goodies, like Dutch clogs, or as they known in Netherlands – klompen, and you'll find an abundance of shops with all of it, including anything with town’s and country’s symbols (much like on Time’s Square in New York). But be careful, some of those Belgium chocolate truffles are filled with alcohol, like Champagne, Amaretto and Cognac truffles.

What I really enjoyed here in Bruges were the cute little bakeries and potato fries shops, and the wine and cheese shops. Ask the shop keepers to help you select the right combination for your lunch stop.
Bruges Accommodations:
Go to Self Catering Breaks to see what accommodations the town offers. Some of the European and International hospitality sites offer good deals as well, such as on Hotels.com and Ryanair.com.
Getting to Belgium:

“Bruges is the epitome of the old saying, "All roads lead to Rome". With its convenient location roughly in the middle of the London, Paris and Amsterdam triangle, you will find many ways to travel to Bruges," as locals put it.

Most often if you live in USA, you would have to fly to Brussels and there make a connection to Bruges, or opt to continue your travel by train, rental car, or by bus. For UK residents – ferry is one more option to get to Bruges.

However, the good news for Americans is that most of these flights are non-stop, direct, as it pertains to flights from New York, Washington D.C., Houston, etc.

The following airlines offer flights from USA to Brussels: Delta, United, Lufthansa, Air France, American Airlines, BMI, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Continental, Iberia, KLM Royal Dutch, Northwest, Swiss, US Airways, and Virgin Atlantic with a price range from anything as low as $585 to $1,276 round trip.

From Brussels by train:

Traveling by train to Bruges is the best way to see the beautiful Belgian countryside. For Eurail Pass holders, it is also quite inexpensive. There are several connections to hub cities that will lead you to Bruges.

Eurostar breaks - directline-citybreaks combines Eurostar & cheap flights with hand-picked hotels in more than 50 cities to offer cheap city breaks, short breaks & unforgettable weekend breaks.

The Belgian Railways (NMBS) will bring you from Bruges to Brussels in less then 1 hr, from Bruges to Antwerp in 1 hr and 20 mins, from Bruges to Ghent in 30 min., from Bruges to Ostend in 15 mins.

The Thalys links Brussels and Amsterdam in 2 hrs and 35 min. Trains depart and arrive at the south station (Gare du Midi) in Brussels. For more information, click
here.

For additional information about the Eurostar train, click
here.

The best way to find out train schedules is to contact
Rail Europe, or contact them by phone. From the US dial 1-877-257-2887 , from Canada dial 1-800-361-RAIL. For more information on the Eurostar, Thalys, Benelux pass, rail passes in Europe and point-to-point tickets visit: Rail Europe.
Quick Tips:
-Reduced price Eurail Passes for tourists coming to Europe must be purchased before leaving the US/Canada.
-The train stations in London, Paris and Brussels are located in the center of the city.
-Seat reservations within the Belgian train network are available only for groups of 15 passengers or more.
-The price of a round trip ticket is generally double the price of a one way ticket. The one way trip or the outward trip of a return trip ticket must be made on the date shown on the ticket.
-Since schedules can change, tourism offices don't usually keep train schedules. It is best to check with the station. In general, trains leave every ½ hr from and to all major Belgian cities. The first train is usually around 5 AM and the last one around 11 PM.
-Coin operated lockers are available for luggage in all major train stations.
-Bicycles can be rented at major stations. More info can be found
online.

If there are not ticket-sale facilities at the departure station, you can buy your ticket from the on-board train crew, without extra charges. Find them before you board. If there was a ticket counter and you instead purchase from the train crew, there can be an extra charge. The fines for attempting to ride for free are quite high, so you better not do it.

If you are staying in the same city or commuting for a while? You can buy a ticket for ten single journeys on the same route, which is good value. An explanation of the types of passes can be found
online.
From Brussels by bus:

Buses are used often by locals. Check beforehand bus routes to avoid confusion, bus drivers are usually quite helpful as are other passengers so do not be afraid to ask someone for some help.

There are 2 different kinds of tickets.1. De lijnkaart (linecard): a ticket used for trips outside the city. 2. De stadskaart (citycard): a ticket used for trips only inside the city.

Prices vary depending on where you are going, but within the city, a trip is generally € .75. Children from 6-11 years old have discounts of up to 50%. Children younger than 6 travel free. You can buy a bus card for from €7.5 to €25 at any newspaper stand or buy a card or single ticket on the bus. If you are traveling with a minimum of 10 people, you can buy a group ticket that gives you a 10% discount.

From Brussels by car:

Driver’s licenses from most countries are accepted in Belgium for up to 90 days. To see if your country's license is accepted, check with the
Belgian Embassy. The minimum age for renting a car is generally 25 years old.
From Brussels by air:
There are 3 international airports in Belgium: Zaventem Airport-Brussels, Deurne Airport-Antwerp, Ostend Airport-Ostend

Zaventem Airport is about 1 hr and 30 mins from Bruges by train. Check the timetable for the Airport City Express on the
Belgian Railways (SNCB/NMBS), entering Zaventem Airport as the departure or destination station in the online form.

If you prefer to rent a car, there are many car rental companies at the airport. Make sure you get a road map as Belgian roads can be tricky at times.

The modern Antwerp (Deurne) Airport is ideal for international scheduled flights and general aviation. You will find frequent regular connections with London, Rotterdam, Manchester, Jersey and Milan. For more information check the
Antwerp Airport.

For additional information on getting to and from Bruges, please click here. It will also provide you with information on medical and passport/ID documentation you need for visiting Belgium.
You can find deals here, and also check here.

(And don't forget to check out the slideshow of Bruges photos on the right hand side of the site.)

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