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Belgium Trip Report

This is an account of a trip that my wife Frances and I took to Belgium, September 6-20, 2015. This was an independent trip, not a tour. We made the arrangements ourselves. Our hotels were all booked ahead of time online.

Saturday, September 5 (Alexandria, Virginia)

The adventure started earlier than expected. After dropping off the cats and doing some last minute shopping, we did all the packing we could. Just as we finished, I noticed the airport shuttle pull up. "This isn't right" thinks I. I ran outside and explained that we didn't need a pickup until tomorrow. Holding down a sense of panic, I rechecked my flight reservations. I was right. The flight was on Sunday. Relieved, I called the shuttle company, apologized for my mistake (which it was), and arranged for a pickup. When the confirmation came by email, the time was shown as 13:30. This was earlier than our original time of 14:55, but at this point I wasn't going to argue about it.

We relaxed the rest of the evening, finishing off our food and watching a Doctor Who movie.

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Sunday, September 6, 2015 (Alexandria and Dulles)

At 1:30 AM, the phone rang. By the time I reached it, it had gone to voicemail. The message was from the shuttle company, telling us that the shuttle was on its way! I called them back and told them no, no, you're twelve hours early. This time it was their fault, and they said they would schedule another pickup.

After breakfast, I called again and confirmed the time. We finished packing and prepared the house for our absence. Then we sat down to wait. The shuttle arrived a little early. We were the only passengers, and traffic was light.
The airport was not crowded. A United employee helped us with express check-in machine. We whisked through baggage and security, even though I forgot to take my change purse out of my pocket before going through the metal detector.
We arrived at the gate around 2:30, for a 5:54 flight. Nothing to do but wait. Halfway through, we got sandwiches from a Potbelly. Finally, it was time to board. We were in Group 5, of course. Fortunately, there was still room in the overhead bins.

Walking miles: 1.2

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Monday, September 7, 2015 (Brussels and Bruges)

(Given that our plane took off just about at midnight Belgian time, this is a good point at which to call it a new day.)
The flight went as well as it could, which isn't very well. Fran and I were seated across the aisle from each other. We like to do that, because we both have aisle seats. It’s too loud to hold a conversation in an airplane anyway. The food was a little better than usual. We got ice cream. We were using new sound canceling headphones for the first time, and they worked better than our old ones. I found a movie worth watching (Stargate), which helped pass some of the time. For the rest of it, I tried to sleep. I read or worked Sudokus when I couldn't. They must have crossed another threshold in airline comfort though, as I got even less sleep than I usually do.

Eventually the flight did end, and we deplaned at Brussels. We went through immigration and were finally free of the air transport system. Other next steps were to get some Euros from an ATM and catch the train for Bruges. Both of those tasks we accompanied by a certain amount of confusion. However, before too long, we were seated on the platform waiting for the train.
The train wasn’t crowded, and we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into two pairs of facing seats. The trip was only about a half hour (nothing is far away in Belgium). We got to see some of the countryside, which was green and flat.

After alighting in Bruges, the next step was to find the Academie Hotel. This was the most difficult hotel walk of the trip. It was the longest walk, and we were tired and jet lagged. All we had was a map that we had printed from Google. Bruges, of course is a medieval city with twisty-wisty streets. It is all cobblestones, which makes the rollerbags emit a terrible racket and puts one in fear of losing a wheel at every step. It was a pretty typical start for our vacation. We made some wrong turns, but we got there.

The person at the reception desk recognized our name as Flemish. This early in the morning, our room wasn't ready yet. We stored our luggage, pulled out our cameras, and set out to look at the town. Bruges was the very first town we were visiting for the second time. We had been there for about half a day in 2006, as part of a river cruise. Thus, we were catching sight of things we had seen before and trying to fit them in with what we remembered. Because we had been herded around by guides in our previous trip, we didn't have a good idea of how what we had seen fit together. By now, of course, we had a map from the hotel. After walking around for a while and making our way to the Markt (main square), we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a café (the Tonka) for quiche and cappuccino. By the time we returned, it was late enough that we could get into our room.
The room wasn't bad. It was a bit larger than some, which meant that we weren't constantly bumping into each other as we unpacked. There was only one free outlet; we had to unplug some lamps in order to recharge all of our devices. On the other hand, there was plenty of storage space for our clothes. Also, although we didn’t discover this until later, the TV had a USB port, which let us review our photos on the big screen. The light switches were odd. They were all dimmers. However, the dimming went in only one direction. You kept a finger on the button as the light gradually got brighter. However, if you waited too long, the light abruptly went out, and you had to do it all over again. All the switches had a second button, but we never worked out what it did.

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While we were reorganizing, I decided it would be a good time to call the people running the next day’s tour of Flanders Fields and confirm our booking. We had trouble with the phone, which was a new one (and we don’t use cellphones much anyway). I had to go out into the courtyard in the middle of the hotel to get a signal. Because of that distraction, I didn’t take a pen with me. Thus, when I did get connected, I couldn’t write down the directions to the meeting point. I had to send Fran running to the front desk to borrow one.

We decided to try to find the windmills on the northeast side of town. Our route took us through the center. There were throngs of people, individually and in big groups. The sidewalks were narrow, and so people kept spilling onto the streets, which weren’t much wider. Naturally, the streets had cars going up and down—plus bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. We passed through the Markt again. Because we had to pay for the tour in cash, I decided to get some more Euros from the ATM in the post office. The machine rejected my request. That was disturbing, although we’ve had individual ATMs do that before on trips. We continued on towards the windmills. I stopped at an ATM outside a bank, with the same result. Okay, now I was starting to worry about what we would do if we couldn’t get any more cash for the rest of the trip.

At this point it was starting to rain a bit. We had umbrellas but had left our raincoats at the hotel. It rains a lot in Belgium. Most of the time it’s a very light rain that doesn’t quite justify getting out your umbrella. Sometimes there is a sudden downpour that stops just as abruptly. Sometimes it’s sunny and raining at the same time. While we never had a day without rain, we never had one where it rained all the time.

Despite the rain, crowds, and ATMs, we had a good time and found the windmills. We then walked south along the canal path to see what we could see. Before returning to the hotel, we went back to the railway station to see if there was a currency exchange where we could get Euros for our U.S. currency if we needed to. There wasn’t, but there was another ATM, and I again tried to withdraw some cash. This time, the rejection message said something about the limit being exceeded. So I reduced the amount I was asking for, and it worked. Okay, problem solved. My card was apparently limited to withdrawing 400 € per day. That was a lot more than we needed on a daily basis. It was reassuring to know that we could still get cash.

We went back to our hotel and started thinking about dinner. I had compiled a list of restaurants from our guidebooks, but that wasn’t helping us decide. We finally decided to go find the meeting point for the tour and then just walk around until we found one that looked promising. We found the meeting point with less trouble than we expected. It was a bus shelter just on the other side of the canal from Bruges proper. We then retraced our steps and started peering at restaurant menus, trying to decide where to eat. We’re not very good at that. We want something that’s different from what we can get at home, but not too strange or expensive (or a dive). The fact that the menus were in Flemish, with some French and English, didn’t help. After much dithering, we settled on the Matinée, which was right across the canal from that iconic tree appearing in most brochures of Bruges. It was a bit run-down, but in a cozy sort of way. The service was good, and the staff spoke English well enough to understand what we wanted. I had a pork steak with frites and beer, plus a waffle with ice cream for dessert. On one side of us was a family with small children. On the other, a couple came in with a small dog. It settled itself down and caused no trouble at all.

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Upon leaving the restaurant, we found that Bruges had changed dramatically. It was now night. The tour groups were gone. The horses had gone back into their stables. There was room to walk around. You could stop and look at something without getting in the way. You could see some of the magic of this medieval city which drew the tourists in the first place. After a pleasant and round-about walk back to our hotel, we settled in for the night.

Walking miles: 11.1.

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We got up fairly early and had breakfast in the hotel. It was a good example of a breakfast buffet, providing all of the options for the different national preferences. One interesting item was a thin disk that was either a kind of sausage or dumpling—we never worked out which. It was good, though. The hotel was host to a large group, and they were all sitting together. We had enough room for ourselves despite this.

After breakfast we gathered up our cameras and headed to the pickup point on the other side of the canal. While we were waiting at the shelter, the bridge over the canal had to open to allow a couple of barges to pass through. This caused a backup of commuters waiting to get into Bruges. The traffic included cars, bicycles, and horse carriages.

In due course, the tour bus arrived, a smallish vehicle painted bright blue. The tour was operated by Quasimodo Tours , a husband and wife team (Belgian and Australian). The “husband” part of the company was our driver and guide for this tour. When he saw our name, he said that it was Flemish.

As we drove south towards Ypres, the guide gave us a capsule summary of the outbreak of World War I and the conquest of most of Belgium by the Germans. After the initial onslaught and “the race to the sea,” the front stabilized with the Belgians still holding a corner of western Flanders. Over the course of the tour he went into more detail about the three battles of Ypres that raged across this area from 1915 to 1918.

Our first stop was at a farmhouse at the side of the road. Our guide displayed some World War I shells that the farmer had recently found in his fields. Even a hundred years later, this is a regular occurrence. The Belgian Army maintains an ordinance disposal unit just to deal with them. Every year a few people are killed doing something stupid with what they found. The shells can still explode, and the passage of time has made their contents unstable. Some contain poison gas.

Our first formal stop was at the St. Julen Memorial to the Canadian soldiers who were subjected to the first gas attack, in 1915. Two thousand were killed by the chlorine gas, since they had no protection at all. The memorial is a small garden surrounding a tall pillar. The top of the pillar is sculpted as a soldier with his head down and his rifle resting on the ground. It’s known as “The Brooding Soldier.”

As we drove to our next location, our guide told us that we were in the area that had been no man's land in 1915. All of the ordinary things that we were seeing -- the buildings, the roads, and even the trees -- dated from after the war. This area had been reduced to mud and rubble by the artillery of both sides. Given that we had begun the day in the preserved medieval city of Bruges, this was especially poignant. It was about then that we saw a different reminder of the past: a plumbing supply van with "Vandenbroucke" on its side.

The Tyne Cot Cemetery was the largest that we would visit, with almost 12,000 graves. In addition, the walls around the site are covered with the names of those whose remains have never been found. (These are the overflow of names that wouldn't fit on the Menin Gate, which we would visit later.) Some of those may well be buried here, as 84 percent of the graves have the inscription, "A soldier of the Great War, Known to God"-- in other words, their identities were unknown. It was chilling to walk among all those white stones and think that each was a person. What could they have done, had they lived full lives?

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The Cemetery was built on the site of a German bunker complex. The arrangement of the bunkers reminded the British troops of country cottages, and so they called the location Tyne Cot. The central pedestal and cross are built over the command bunker. Some of the outlying bunkers are still standing. Fran pointed out that the rows of headstones had floral borders running in front of them. There were crews tending the plants while we were there.

Our next stop was at Polygon Wood, the site of a memorial to the Australian Fifth Division, which had fought to wrest this little hill from the Germans. It was only 40 meters high, but in the flat land of Flanders every elevation gave artillery spotters an advantage. Polygon Wood contains a large plinth on the top of the hill, surrounded by graves below. It is also the home of a donkey named Tommeke, after the British Tommies. As soon as we arrived, he came over to see us--perhaps because he knew that our guide had apple slices for him.

We stopped for lunch at the Hooge Crater Museum. The Hooge Crater was one of several that resulted from the British efforts to tunnel under German positions and blow them up with explosive mines. "Undermining" is a technique that has been used in siege warfare since ancient times. Our lunch in the museum's cafe consisted of huge open-faced sandwiches covered with pate de foie gras, accompanied by salad, frites, and beer. After lunch we had time to tour the museum, which is small but crammed with artifacts.

On the bus again, our guide told us that we were passing through a location that had been known as Hellfire Corner. It was on the main supply road to Ypres, and it was in sight of German artillery spotters. Thus, the convoys passing through this point risked constant shelling. Wouldn’t you know it—just as he was explaining all this, we passed a car dealership with “Vandenbroucke” prominent in the name.

Our next stop was at Hill 60, on the Messines Ridge. Again, “ridge” is a relative concept; 60 meters isn’t all that high. In fact, the hill itself is artificial. When they were building the railroad in these parts, they piled up the spoil from the digging at this spot, and that’s what made the hill. It was enough to become the focus for an intense three-dimensional battle during the war. The British tunneled under it and set off a series of mines, which included one of the biggest man-made explosions ever known up to that point. Some of the mines didn’t explode and are still down there somewhere. The remains of the hill were left in their natural state, because so many soldiers on both sides were entombed by the mines, artillery fire, and subterranean warfare. There is a memorial to the “Tunneling companies” that fought the underground battle.

After leaving Hill 60, we rolled into Ypres proper, to see the Menin Gate. This is a very large structure over the main road into the town, and its walls are covered with the names of Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never found. There are names from all over the world: British, Canadian, Australian, Indian, New Zealander, African, West Indian, etc. Britain drew from the entire Empire to feed the battle.

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From Ypres we drove to the Yorkshire Trench, a reconstructed communications trench that had been excavated in an office park nearby. It was just a short section, with just suggestions of what life must have been like during the battle. We were fortunate to visit when one of the volunteers who had participated in the excavation was there. He showed us photographs of what they had found, including equipment and a lot of skeletons. It was one last reminder of the convulsion that came over Europe during those years. As with most of West Flanders, the area around it has been rebuilt. We were in the midst of light industrial buildings of the sort you would find anywhere. Across the road was a wind farm with its rotating turbines. One of the complaints of the archaeologists is that development has obliterated most traces of the trench system before they could be studied. I see the point, but it’s nice to see the country returned to the boring, productive activities of peace.

Our final stop on the tour proper was the Essex Farm Cemetery. This was where John McCrae, the poet who wrote “In Flanders Fields,” had served as a doctor in an aid station. The bunker where the aid station was housed is there. Naturally, there are poppies growing. The cemetery includes the grave of Valentine Joe Strudwick, a British soldier who was one of the youngest to be killed in action, at the age of 15 (he had lied about his age, of course). Because of this, many Belgian school groups visit this site. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the poem. On the one hand, it’s a stirring patriotic piece. On the other, it’s calling for more men to come and be buried in the mud of Flanders. When you spend a day, let alone months or years, looking at the costs of the war, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been worthwhile. The poem should be paired with Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” for a better perspective.

As the tour was now ending, the bus drove back to Ypres to drop off those of us who had chosen to stay there for the Last Post at the Menin Gate, which occurs at 8:00 every evening. Since it was only about 5:00, we had time to walk around and see the town a bit. Ypres looks medieval, but, again, that’s deceiving. It was almost totally destroyed during the war. Winston Churchill (who was First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I) wanted to leave the town in ruins as a memorial, but the residents had other ideas. It was rebuilt using preserved records and reparations money from Germany. It has an impressive-looking cathedral and cloth hall. The cloth hall now holds the Flanders Fields Museum. Unfortunately for us, it was just closing time when we arrived. We found an ATM to top off our cash (the last time we needed that, as it turned out) and then found a brasserie on the town square for a meal. I had spaghetti carbonara and a half liter of beer.

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As the time got on towards 7:30, we started back to the Menin Gate for the ceremony. We were none too soon. Both sides of the road were already filling up with people. I pushed Fran to the front where she had a hope of seeing something while I stood further back because I could see over people’s heads. I took some pictures of the crowd but decided that it would be disrespectful to take pictures during the ceremony. In this, I was in the minority, and some of the shorter people I had let stand in front of me were soon holding their cellphones and cameras over their heads, in my face. Last Post is a bugle call, the British equivalent of Taps. I think it has more of a feeling of ache and loss in it, while Taps is more peaceful. The Ypres fire department has been playing Last Post every day since November 11, 1929, except during the German occupation of the Second World War. The idea originated with the Superintendent of the Ypres Police, Mr. P. Vandenbraambussche. Thus, Belgian civilians are honoring the Commonwealth troops who fought to take their country back from the Germans.

After the ceremony, we headed across the street, where we met up with the taxis that the tour company had arranged to take us back to Bruges. It was an uneventful drive back, although I think it was the first time I experienced being in a vehicle driving on cobblestones. It’s about as loud as the racket our luggage made. They dropped us off at our hotel, and we were glad to get to bed after such a long day.

Walking Miles: 3.8

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015 (Bruges)

This was the day we had allocated for seeing Bruges. We got up at our usual 7:30 and had breakfast in the hotel. It was still pretty early when we hit the street. The museums were not yet open, but neither had the tour groups arrived. Thus, we had the opportunity to see the town uncluttered by our fellow tourists.

Our first destination was Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John's Hospital), which had been founded in the middle ages as a charity hospital and continued in operation until the 1970s. Since then, much of the complex has been converted into a meeting center. However, the main wards and some other parts are a museum that encompasses medieval medical treatment, the life of the religious orders that ran the institution, and the ecclesiastical art the once adorned the wards and chapel.

Some of the medical part is pretty gruesome, of course. Treatments at the time were hardly gentle. It’s surprising how much they tried to do, including wound treatment, surgery, dentistry, eye treatment, and illness. The artwork is centered on the chapel’s three-panel altarpiece, painted by Hans Memling in 1474.

After leaving St. John's, we dropped in on a secondary site, the hospital pharmacy. It had been established by the religious orders in the middle ages but was later run by professional pharmacists. It is presented in a Nineteenth Century state. It was interesting, but there wasn't much to it. It did have some period paintings showing the pharmacy in earlier years.

As we went back on the street, it was clear that the town had woken up. Once again the sidewalks were packed with people, and vehicles were rumbling down the cobblestones. We made our way to the Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery in hopes of taking the tour. Unfortunately, the one that was about to start was already full. So we made a reservation for the next one and set out again, to stroll around and maybe find something to eat. After a bit of wandering, we went back to Tonka, the cafe where we had eaten on Monday. This time I had a chorizo panini, and Fran had a quiche. By the time we had finished, the tour was about to start. The brewery was only a few doors away.

The process of making beer is not that complicated to describe. Thus, brewery tours spend more time on the history of the company and the specifics of the facility than about how they make the beer. This one was true to form. We learned about the founder and various family members who succeeded him in running the brewery. Bruges being such a densely populated area, the production ran vertically, with different stories of the building being used for successive steps. We were taken up and down stairs to see the various vats, tanks, drying ovens, and storage areas. We saw old photographs and examples of their output over the years. At one point we were taken to a platform at the top of the building, where we got a lovely view of Bruges all around us. The group was reasonably small, but they knew their beer. They asked technical questions that the guide had some difficulty answering. To be fair, we were not speaking her native language. Maybe "bottle conditioned" doesn't translate easily. At the end of the tour, we were issued with tickets for free beers in the pub. Naturally, we took them up on the offer. We had Zot blonde, which is one of their signature beers. As we finished, we took pictures of each other, a rare event on our trips.

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Our next destination was the Folklore Museum, which was on the north side of town, near the windmills. It is an interesting place, if a bit stodgy. It is laid out as a series of rooms, each of which shows a kind of shop from Belgium in the Nineteenth Century: shoemaker, cooper, toymaker, dentist, and so on. The shoemaker shop had a diagram that showed which parts of a cow's hide were used for shoes. The candy shop had a video that showed hard candy being made, including putting it through a set of rollers that broke it into pieces of a specified shape. In addition to the commercial establishments, there were examples of a schoolroom, a kitchen, and a parlour. Oh, and, yes, our second antique pharmacy of the day.

We were hoping to get to two small art museums by the end of the day. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the first one, it had already closed for the day. The other one was undergoing renovations. So, we headed back towards the hotel. We looked in on a few souvenir shops but didn't find anything we wanted to buy. Upon arrival, we relaxed a bit, dropped our gear, and headed out to find some dinner. We wound up at a brasserie on the Markt. I had a mixed grill: small cuts of different meats with salad, frites, and beer. For dessert I had a waffle with Nutella. After dinner we strolled back to the hotel and packed up for our next destination.

Walking miles: 8.7.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015 (Bruges, Ostend, and Antwerp)

After breakfast, we checked out and headed for the railway station. At least we knew where it was by now. As we stood waiting for the walk light to cross the ring road, another couple asked us where it was. "Over there," we said, pointing across the street. "I can't find it on my phone," the man said. These made us feel good with our paper maps.

We bought our tickets and were soon on a train rolling northwest towards Ostend. It being so early, there were few other passengers, and so we didn't inconvenience anyone with our luggage. It was a short trip, only about 15 or 20 minutes. When we alighted at Ostend, it was clear that the station was undergoing renovations. That caused me some concern. Our plan was to check our luggage at the station and retrieve it when we left in the afternoon. We had checked the Belgian Rail website to make sure that Ostend had baggage storage facilities, and it was supposed to have self-serve lockers as well as a manned check room. However, if the station was all torn up, that information might be out of date. It would be difficult if we had to drag our stuff around all day. However, when we got inside the station, we spotted the lockers right away. We never found the check room, if they had one. We had to ask at the information desk for an explanation of how to use the lockers. You put in your money and enter the number of the locker you want to use. The control then unlocks the locker and prints a receipt that you have to put in a scanner when you want to unlock it again.

Having stowed out gear, we left the railway station and went out to find the tram station a short distance away. The ticket office didn't take Visa, but it was only a few Euros. When the tram arrived, it was pretty crowded. We squeezed in and were soon clattering along with the North Sea on our right. Our stop, Domein Rayversijde, was a shelter with beach on one side and coastal bluffs on the other. We walked up the bluff on a long set of stairs and paused to take in the view. As we turned to continue on our way, we saw—a weasel! It was lightning fast and gone within seconds, but both of us got a good look at it.

We followed the signs past a well-maintained mobile home park and finally arrived at the entrance to Atlantikwall. We were still a little early for the 10:00 opening time. A number of other people were already waiting to get in, including a school group, in their reflective vests. They opened a few minutes later, and we went through the ticket line. It was clear that their visitors’ center was undergoing remodeling, as the ticket sales were in a temporary building. We paid for the audio guides, so that we could get information in English.

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The tourist route takes you along a series of pathways, sometimes in tunnels and sometimes in brick-lined trenches. There are gun positions from both wars, observation posts, storage rooms, living quarters, communications centers, and so on. Many of the underground locations have equipment and mannequins to show what they looked like when in use. While most of the gun positions are now empty, a few do have cannon still in place. In the later part of 1944, the seaward defenses were supplemented by landward ones, as the garrison prepared to be attacked by the Allied armies (British and Canadian) advancing out of France. There are examples of beach obstacles and minefields, similar to what the Allies encountered in the D-Day landings.

We spent a good three and a half hours there, and it was only in the last half hour or so that we started to run out of steam. It was a bright, sunny day (unusual for Belgium), and we were moving into and out of tunnels. So we kept going from dark to light and back again, which required some adjustment. The contrasts were tricky for photography, but I sure took a lot of pictures! While we didn’t have the whole place to ourselves, neither did we feel like we were battling with crowds. Every once in a while we would catch up with a school group, or they would catch up with us. It was just a matter of letting them flow past and then continuing.

At one point we were passing through a group of small children, when they started talking to one another excitedly while pointing at me. Of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I think it was my hat. I was wearing an off-white fisherman’s cap that I had bought in Oslo back in 2011. It has some brown trim on the band and the visor. I have a bronze pin from the Viking Explorer Club stuck into the peak. I suppose that to someone who isn’t very knowledgeable it might make me look like a grizzled veteran of someone’s navy (I supply the grizzled part naturally). From time to time, I’ve noticed people staring carefully at my hat. A couple of children saluted me in France on Bastille Day 2012, but I think they were making a joke. In any case, this time I just smiled and waved.

After finishing the circuit, we retraced our steps and caught the tram back towards the railway station. Like many buses and trains these days, it had electronic signs to tell you the next stop. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the signs were announcing the wrong stops. Fortunately, it was pretty obvious when we arrived at the railway station, and lots of people got off there. We retrieved our luggage from the lockers and took the next train to Antwerp. This trip was longer, about an hour, passing through Brussels on the way. Antwerp Central Station is huge. It dates from 1905 and incorporates a number of architectural styles, including neo-gothic and art nouveau. As with most stations, it’s a bit confusing when you first step off a train. Fortunately there is a good Tourist Information office right in the station. They gave us a map and showed us the route to our hotel (which was very close). Thus oriented, we set out. It was a matter of crossing one street, turning another corner, and walking a block or two. The street was a study in contrast. On one side of the street there were luxury goods shops, including several related to Antwerp’s position at the center of the world diamond trade. The other side of the street had vacant buildings, massage parlors, disreputable-looking restaurants, and a gun shop (the only one I’ve seen in Europe).

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The Antwerp City Hotel doesn’t have much of a street presence, just a door in what looks like a parking garage. Inside, the décor looks like it is trying a little too hard to be upscale, with lots of hot pink and black, plus a stuffed (one hopes, fake) gorilla. However, the staff was helpful and well organized. We got into our room with little delay. The room was a bit larger than the one in Bruges, which gave us space to get around each other. It did not have those puzzling light switches, and we had enough outlets to recharge everything. The décor was again hot pink and black. The hotel is part of Different Hotels, a Belgian chain, although we never worked out exactly what this difference was supposed to be.

After unpacking and relaxing a bit, we went out to find some dinner. We had been to Antwerp in our 2006 trip, but then all of our outings were based on the river in the South. This time we were approaching the center from the other direction. We soon realized that the route directly south from the station leads into the main shopping district, a route that we would become very familiar with during our stay. We passed some landmarks we remembered, such as the “hand” sculpture and Ruben’s House. Our destination was Bourla, which had been recommended by the guidebooks. We ate on the outdoor terrace, where I had what turned out to be a gigantic steak, with blue cheese sauce, frites, and beer. There was some kind of large party having a good time nearby that included a small child. The mother and father had to keep taking her onto the plaza to walk around because she kept getting too antsy at the table. Right next to us were a group of young Japanese men, who were struggling to order in English, with a waitress who no doubt was a native Flemish speaker. They had to have the concept of steak tartare explained to them. They decided not to order that (“Raw!?”).

After leaving the restaurant, we went back up the main street, which was now much quieter. Apparently, Antwerp shuts down pretty early. One shop that was still open was the “Australian Home Made Ice Cream” stand. We stopped and got cones of speculoos ice cream, which we finished up by the time we got back to the hotel.

Walking miles: 6.0

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September 11, 2015 (Antwerp)

We had breakfast in the hotel, after taking a wrong turn in finding the breakfast room. It was a rather small lounge, and the few other guests seemed to be on business trips. The buffet was adequate, although not as good as the one in Bruges. Instead of offering both bacon and sausage, the two alternated from day to day. There was a machine for dispensing hot chocolate, but I could never get it to work.

Our plan was to visit the zoo, which was just on the other side of the railway station. However, as usual, we were up and about too early to get in right away. While we were waiting, we explored the station a bit more so as to be better oriented when we left. Also, in checking our planning notes the night before, we saw that the Red Star Line Museum (one of our must-sees) required timed tickets. We stopped at the TI to see if we could get them there. However, they said that this wasn’t necessary anymore. It had been, when the museum first opened, but the hype had died down.

The railway station has three levels, all of which have tracks. The middle level also has a shopping mall. In addition to the fast food, clothing, and florist, it has a long row of diamond shops—not what you usually find in a train station. The lower level is just trains, but I got some videos of one departing.

By this time, the zoo was open. It was quite a nice place, built in the old style with ornate buildings and gardens. Unfortunately, its famous elephant house, built, rather improbably, as an Egyptian temple, was undergoing renovations. We could only peek at it through the security fence. However, the penguins were being fed, and they had a large habitat for the vultures, marabou storks, and crowned cranes. It was well into the afternoon by the time we were done.

We left the zoo and walked down the shopping street, settling on Ellis, an upscale burger place, for lunch. Naturally, the burgers were accompanied by frites and beer. Given that it was getting late, we decided to walk down to the waterfront and then head north to find the Red Star Line Museum and the city museum (which goes by the acronym MASM), our targets for the next day.

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We made our way back through the city by a different route and got a bit lost in the process, but we soon found ourselves on the main shopping street. The time was about where "late afternoon” fades into "early evening." The stores were already closing their doors, and the crowds were already beginning to thin. After returning to the hotel, we sat down to decide where to have dinner. We settled on De Grotte Witte Arend (The Great White Eagle) which was on my list. It was in the same general area of the previous night's restaurant, and we found it with little difficulty. The tables were in an open courtyard, and the menu was notable for Flemish food and beer. The waiter made some good suggestions about what beers to have with our orders. I had chicken in pastry, with crème brulee for dessert. As we sat there sipping our beer and listening to classical music, we could watch people come in, look around, and then decide to stay or go. I wondered what went through their minds. I couldn't even tell you exactly what goes through my mind in that situation. If we had been just wandering around looking for a restaurant, we might not have walked through the big wooden doors in the first place.

We walked back through the now-empty streets. Before settling in for the night, we took another look at our plans for the next day. While the Red Star Line Museum was definitely on the list, we were having second thoughts about the MASM. The guidebooks said that it was organized by big themes rather than eras or subjects. We find that kind of museum irritating. They usually mix together things we want to see with things we don't care about. We decided to give it a miss and visit two smaller townhouse museums instead.

Walking miles: 11.8.

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Saturday, September 12, 2015 (Antwerp)

We ate our breakfast and then retraced our route to the Red Star Line Museum. It was still early, and we were looking at what we could see of the port area when we saw a tour bus pulling up. We quickly scampered into the museum so that we could at least get through the gate before the group poured in. The museum begins with a history of the Red Star Line as a company, including its origins, the ships it used, its routes, and its eventual demise. Then it concentrates on the story of the emigrants. It shows the conditions in the origin countries, some as far away as Poland or Hungary. Some people were able to leave freely, while others had to sneak out. The journey across Europe to Antwerp was mostly by rail, in various states of discomfort, depending on the families' resources. Once in the city, they had to wait in boarding houses, separated by nationality, until they could embark for America. Immigration authorities in the U.S. required that anyone barred from entry had to be returned to Europe at the shipping line's expense. Thus, the Red Star Line took care that no one boarded who would not be allowed entry. They were screened for disease and criminal background (as well as they could). They were they were given intelligence tests to make sure that they weren't "imbeciles" (I passed). They had to show that they had sponsors at their destinations or enough money to live on until they could earn a living. All of their baggage — and their bodies — were fumigated to make sure they were free of parasites. We saw the examination rooms, showers, and autoclaves where these activities took place. All of this was illustrated by photos, artifacts, letters, and video. Some of the letters were narrated in different languages. We were in the building where these activities took place.

Once onboard, the emigrants were berthed in steerage, three decks below the waterline. They didn't have much room, and the food wasn't that good. It wasn't the singing and dancing that you see in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, but it was far better than the "coffin ships" that carried the Irish in the 1840s.

Once arrived, the immigrants’ troubles (and travels) were not over. They still had to pass scrutiny by the American authorities at the ports of entry. Many had to take long journeys to the Midwest, Great Plains, or Mountain states before they reached their new homes. They weren't always welcomed. The museum displayed newspapers and political cartoons for and against immigration (sound familiar?).

The museum also covered the line's role as a carrier of more prosperous passengers. There were replicas of state rooms, photographs, menus, brochures, and souvenirs. Much of that would seem very familiar to today's cruise line passengers.

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We took a look in the gift shop. There were some books that looked interesting, but they were all in Dutch. We bought a couple of magnets ("Cleaned and disinfected"), and I got a small red star pin to add to my fisherman's cap. Because it looked like the café area had been set up for the tour group, we decided to have Clif bars and move on. Right after we walked out the door, I realized that I didn't have my notebook. We rushed back in and retraced our steps. The guard by the computer area had already found it. After recovering it and thanking everyone, we left again.

We walked back in the direction of the city center, to the Rockoxhuis Museum. This is the former home of a wealthy family that was converted to a museum in order to house their art collection. It was pretty extensive, mostly old masters and ecclesiastical art. Some of the rooms have electronic alarms that go off if you get too close. I accidentally set one off by leaning in, even though my feet were outside the line. Nobody arrested me.

After leaving the Rockoxhuis, we walked a short distance to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. This was another family home, but the difference was that the family had been book publishers for several centuries. The museum is thus a combination printing and art museum. We got to see the typecasting foundry, the print shop, the proofreading room, the library, business offices, and sales room. That last had a posted list of the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books. However it was in Latin (of course), and so we couldn’t read it. There were galleries of rare books and maps. In the family living quarters we got to see the fine art and furniture that the business bought them. We spent so much time there that they were closing around us. There was just enough time left for me to buy an antique map of Antwerp in the gift shop. (Its size caused trouble when I had to pack it.)

We left the museum and started back to the hotel. Before long, we were seriously lost. I can't explain exactly what we did after that—being lost is like that. After a few testy exchanges and a fair amount of map-pointing and hand-waving, we eventually got our bearings and made it back to the shopping district. It was much transformed. Here was Antwerp on a Saturday evening. The street was filled with people. There we shoppers, tourists, street vendors, packs of teenagers, couples, and musicians. Everyone was out to have a good time. It was fun just to join the crowd and let it carry us along.

We returned to the hotel and ditched our purchases and cameras. We decided to head back south again, aiming towards an Italian restaurant we had noticed earlier but looking around as we went. The weather had started to turn, with light sprinkles beginning. When we got to the Markt, we noticed an upscale-looking brasserie, Brasserie Flo. With the rain and all, we decided to give us a try. They asked us if we had reservations but found a table for us anyway. I think they were just messing with us, as it wasn't crowded. It was a good dinner, with good service. When they brought the check, I noticed that they had charged us twice for our cappuccino. They made the correction and then asked if we wanted to charge the bill to our room. Sure enough, when we left the restaurant we saw that it was in the Hilton—something that had completely escaped our notice on the way in.

Our trip back to the hotel was remarkably quiet. Saturday night fever is a short-lived disease in Antwerp, at least in the central city. Although it was still pretty early, the streets had again emptied. We repacked our luggage for the next stage of the trip.

Walking miles: 10.3.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015 (Antwerp-Namur)

We ate our breakfast, checked out, and walked around to the railway station. The guy who sold us our tickets said that he liked the way we pronounced "Namur" because it made it sound like "amour." He used a Dutch-sounding pronunciation that I will not try to reproduce. Having purchased the tickets, we went to the platform to wait for the train. While we were sitting a group of scouts arrived, under the supervision of a few adults. They were apparently on their way somewhere along our route. Not being very fond of children in large groups, we tried to board a different car, but we only boarded the same one from different ends. They were pretty well behaved, as it turned out. We squeezed our luggage and selves into facing seats and watched the flat countryside roll by. The kids got off before we reached Brussels, at a station related to a sports facility. We got a reminder of Belgium's language divide as the trip proceeded. At first, the announcements and electronic signs were in Dutch. As we rolled through the three stations of Brussels, they changed to both Dutch and French. After we left the Brussels area, the Dutch disappeared, and it was all in French.

We arrived in Namur in mid-morning. The station was big, if s little run-down. There was a TI just outside, and we stopped in for maps and some general orientation. Our hotel, the Grande Hotel De Flandre, was literally just across the street. The elevator from the ground floor to reception was a tiny thing, about the size of a closet. It had a regular door, like you would use to enter a room. When the light turned green, you opened it manually. There was no inner door to the elevator car, and so you could see the wall of the shaft scrolling by. After checking in, we took the elevator up a couple more floors to our room. It was snug, but there was nothing wrong with it. The hotel is part of the Best Western chain, of all things. Thus, the pens and stationery all had the chain logo on them. That was disappointing. Who wants to go to Europe and come back with Best Western stationary?

After unpacking what we needed for our two-day stay, we went out to take a look at the town. Namur is the smallest town that we visited on this trip. The station is north of the city center and its two rivers (the Sambre and the Meuse). It is best known in the guidebooks for its festival where teams of men on stilts compete to knock each other down. It was the wrong time of year for that, though. As we threaded our way through the narrow streets, we were interrupted by a footrace or marathon going past. Later there was a woman on a corner singing Edith Piaf songs. This was the last day of the Festival of Wallonia, celebrating the heritage of the French-speaking part of Belgium. We were to learn more about that later.

For now, however, we were more interested in lunch. We found a Pain Quotidien in a little square. This is an international chain of cafes, although it is based in Belgium. There are a couple in Washington DC, although I had never eaten in one. We sat down and ordered some tartenes, which are sort of open-faced sandwiches, or rather sandwich filling spread over triangular slices of bread. We accompanied it with mugs of hot chocolate. As we said there watching the people and their dogs walk past, we noticed that a church across the street was open, and we went to have a look. It was the Église St. Loup, built in the Baroque style. They had a special display for the festival and gave us information sheets in English. It wasn't very large, but it had intricately carved wood panels, confessionals, and pulpit.

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Continuing on our way, we passed through the city square, where a crew was erecting a large tent, and finally got down to the river. We could see the Citadel of Namur on the other side, right where the Meuse and the Sambre came together. That was on our list for the next day. There was another TI near the bridge, and we went in to ask about special events connected with the festival. They told us that there were tours of the Wallonian Parliament, something that was very rare, and also that the, Groesbeek-de-Croix, an 18th Century mansion closed for renovations, was also holding tours. Not wanting to miss the opportunity for something special, we hurried across the bridge to the parliament building. It is a medieval building, originally a hospital, nestled at the foot of the rocky hill that holds the Citadel.

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The building followed the medieval pattern of several wings surrounding a courtyard. We walked through the gateway and joined the group assembling there. We were handed a document in French that explained what the tour was about. I don't know any French, and Fran can read it but not follow it fast enough for conversation. However, the tour started quickly, and we were whisked into the labyrinthian building with a half-dozen other people. It was at about this point, when it was too late to gracefully withdraw, that we realized that the tour was entirely in French. That was entirely reasonable, of course. It was a special tour of the government of a French-speaking region celebrating its heritage. The fault was ours, and we had to make the best of it. To add to our bewilderment, each stop on the tour featured someone dressed as an historical figure discussing his role in the development of Belgian (and, presumably, Wallonian) democracy. The first person was playing the role of John Locke. Thus, we had a Belgian pretending to be an English political philosopher, speaking to us in French. And so it went. We stood around and tried to look attentive when we had no idea what they were saying. At least we got to see the inside of the building. All of the furniture was in a very modern style, with lots of light colored wood and curves. It looked like the Wallonian officials were well provided for. Each place at the conference tables had its own tray containing snacks, bottled water, juice, coffee, and tea. I did manage to take a picture of what I took to be the legislative chamber.

The tour ran its course, and we were returned to the spot where it began. We walked away, shaking our heads at what we had gotten ourselves into. We crossed back to the north side of the river and walked west along it towards the Groesbeek-de-Croix. When we got there, a string quartet and a vocalist were performing in the entry courtyard. When that ended, a group formed up for the tour. However, after only one room, it became clear that this was going to be about the restoration of the building, again conducted entirely in French. No, we weren't going to go make the same mistake. We discretely slipped to the back of the group and left through the entrance.

It was getting late by then, and so we made our way back to the hotel. We walked through some gritty streets. I remember one bar where guys were sitting in the open windows with drinks in their hands and their feet dangling over the pavement. In general, Namur is a bit worse for wear compared with the other towns we visited. Back in our room we got out our lists and guidebooks to find a restaurant for dinner. This wasn't easy, as most of them were closed on Sundays. We identified one, the Brasserie Francois. It was close to the Groesbeek-de-Croix. At least we knew the way. It was a large, old fashioned sort of place, with waiters in black jackets and white vests. The maître-de brought over a blackboard with day's specials, propping it on a chair for us to read. It was all in French, of course, as was the menu. We pieced together what few words we knew and had some help from the waiter. He spoke some English and was an immigrant from Tunisia. Perhaps that made him more sympathetic to our lack of French. I had beef skewers with frites and beer. For dessert I had a dame blanche, which was a gigantic sundae with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. While we were eating, a couple of guys sat at the table behind us and were having quite the conversation. Across from us was a family with two small children, one of whom didn't like sitting for so long. It was a lively place.

That was it for us, though. After dinner, we went back to the hotel and settled in for the night.

Walking miles: 4.7.

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Monday, September 14, 2015 (Namur)

The breakfast at the Grande Hotel de Flandre was on a par with the others we experienced. The hot chocolate machine actually worked.

Our plan was to spend the day in the Citadel. We took a different route down to the river this time, walking along the Rue de Fer and Rue de l'Ange, which turned out to be the main shopping street of the town. Among other things, we spotted another Australian Ice Cream shop. At the end of the street, right before the bridge and across from the TI, is a model train store. This struck me as odd. A prime location, right where tourists—not to mention the locals—cross the bridge, is occupied by a specialized hobby shop? As an urban economist, I'd expect a souvenir shop or maybe a Starbucks. I don't know when the last time I saw a model railroad shop at all, but there it was.

We crossed the bridge and climbed the steps into the Citadel, pausing now and again to take in the view and snap a few pictures. At one point we had to make way for a school group coming through. We were heading for the visitors' center where the tours began, but we had some trouble finding our way through the paths over, around and through the battlements. We got there eventually. We signed up for both the above ground medieval tour and the underground tour of the fortress tunnels. We had a little time before the first was to begin, and we had a cappuccino in the cafe while we waited. At length the tour started outside the building. The guide began by saying that she would say everything in three languages in order to accommodate everyone, but all of the participants said that English would be fine, and she needn't bother.

The Citadel of Namur sits on a rocky hill at the confluence of two rivers, the Meuse and the Sambre. Such an important location has been fortified since Roman times. There was a Count of Namur at one time, but later the area was sold to a bishopric. It passed through many hands, including the Austro-Spanish Habsburgs, French, Dutch, and Belgians. Both Vauban and Napoleon took the Citadel by siege. Both of them modified the defenses according to the technology of the time, a process that continued into the 20th Century. The town was spared heavy fighting during the world wars, although it was one of the objectives of the German spearheads during the Battle of the Bulge (they didn’t get that far). The Belgian Army didn't fully withdraw from the site until the 1970s.

Thus, what we see today is not the medieval castle. Parts of the older structures are still there, but most of what we see is from the 19th Century. The tour guide explained how the citadel changed over the centuries and how different parts were used. At point when the rain got too hard, (yes, of course it was raining) we ducked into an instructional room for children. Inside we could see courses of stone and brick from the different eras. There were also displays about life in the castle, including toys and games. There was a chainmail shirt that we could pick up to see how heavy it was. I really regret that I didn't think to try it on.

After the rain abated some, we went out again. The tour ended at the visitors' center, where we had another cappuccino and waited for the second tour. Once again, all of the participants opted to have the tour in English. This was an embarrassing reminder of our weakness in language skill. Just yesterday we had been totally lost in a tour conducted in the language of the region we were visiting. Today, visitors from nearby countries, none of whose native language was English, were happy to be lead around in our language in order to avoid the inconvenience of multiple translations.

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As artillery became more effective, fortifications changed from the high, relatively thin, walls of castles to lower, thicker bastions. The support spaces within the walls went underground for protection against high-angle fire and (later) air attack. Just as Namur's surface defenses were remodeled over the centuries, their underground facilities were expanded in response to expected threats. The earliest rooms were cellars and cisterns to store provisions in case of a siege. Later centuries added magazines, living quarters, and command centers. In the 1920s the tunnels were fitted with a positive air pressure system to protect against gas attack. The tour took us through tunnels that had firing ports for defense against attackers trying to scale the walls. Later in the tour we were taken outside again and shown these firing ports from the attackers’ point of view, a series of holes in the walls of the (dry) moat. When the Dutch were in control, they built their tunnels with floors that were higher in the middle, so that the inevitable water seepage would drain towards the sides. However, the Belgians weren't so careful and had more trouble with standing water.

After the tour, we stopped in the restaurant in the complex (Brasserie De La Reine Blanche) for a late lunch. I had a croque monsieur, which is a fried ham and cheese sandwich, with salad and frites. The beer was a local brew, a Namur Blonde Rosette. We went back to the visitors' center and to a look at the little museum, which covered the history of the town from different angles, including geology, military, industry, and public transport. My guess is that its contents were heavily influenced by the local government.

Having seen everything at the citadel, we walked down the hill and crossed back over the bridge. We walked along the Sambre to the west. I wanted to get a look inside the cathedral, but it was closed because it was Monday. However, we happened to arrive just as school was letting out, and so we were caught in the rush of parents driving up to pick up their darlings, with children and cars intermingled all over the parking lot. After extricating ourselves from that, we continued along the river until we came to a city park, the Parc Louise Marie. It had a pond with geese, ducks, and other birds, a fake grotto, and the remains of an ornate bridge. We started back to the center of the city via an inland route, passing through the university district as we did so. Then we returned to the hotel.

Monday isn't a great day to be looking for an open restaurant either, although it's better than Sunday. The guidebooks recommended the Restaurant St-Loup, described as a student hangout with a good line in fondue. Fondue for two people is overkill, but we went anyway. It was across the street from the church we had visited the day before. I started to order the ribs, but the server had trouble with English while describing how it was served. We finally worked out that it was all-you-can-eat. I decided to have the veal provencale. The bread came with pâté.

We walked back to the hotel via the shopping street and stopped to get a cone from the Australian Ice Cream shop. We got a bit lost on the rest of the route but found our way again. Then we packed up to be ready to leave in the morning.

Walking miles: 13.6.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015 (Namur-Brussels)

We had breakfast, checked out, and crossed the street to the railway station. The trip to Brussels took about an hour. After the usual confusion of an unfamiliar station and city, we sorted ourselves out and walked the short distance to the Hotel la Legende. It is just around the corner from one of Brussels' most famous sights, the Mannekin Pis. The room was pretty small, but it had three free outlets for recharging. We unpacked everything, as this would be our final stop. Then we set out to have a look around.
I can't remember the sequence, but one thing that happened was that we came across the original Pain Quotidien and had lunch there. We sat at a long wooden table with jars of condiments running down the center. Most of the other customers were by themselves and staring at their phones. We had quiche with bread and salad. I took advantage of the condiments to cover my bread with Nutella. While walking around we saw some signs for Brouckère and followed them to that metro station, where Fran took a picture of me next to the sign. (After we returned from the trip, I looked at the photos we had taken in 2006, and I noticed one of Brouckère that we took back then, apparently during the bus tour.) We made our way to the Grand Place, which was crowded, and also through the shopping mall of the Galeries Saint-Hubert. We went to the cathedral and were surprised to see how healthy the trees in front of it had become. On our previous trip, they had all been staked with heavy logs and ropes, in the excessive European arboreal style. Of course, these might not have been the same trees.

We went inside, and it was much as we remembered. This time we were on our own schedule, and we had more time to linger. It was a serene place, not crowded, with Gregorian chant softly playing (at first I thought it was a live choir, but it was a recording). The pipe organ is magnificent, seemingly suspended in the air above the nave. We stopped in the gift shop and came away with a model of the cathedral for our collection. We also went down the stairs to look at the excavations in the vault underneath the church, which we hadn't done in our previous visit.

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There was a sign outside the national library advertising a special exhibit on Waterloo--and this was the last day. Before looking at that we walked further east, looking at the landscaping and noting the locations of a number of museums. The art nouveau building that houses the Musical Instrument Museum was particularly striking. However, rather than go into one of those, we went back to the library for our chance to see the special exhibit. We had some trouble finding it inside the building. A woman from the information desk led us right to the entrance. It was a collection of documents, maps, and artworks about the Waterloo campaign. It covered the events leading up to the battle, the battle itself, the aftermath, and the long term legacy. Waterloo became a tourist attraction within days of the battle. It was such a stunning victory, and it essentially ended the war. People from Brussels and even Britain felt that they could go see the site immediately. Many of them were painters, either amateur or professional. Plans were made and implemented to memorialize the dead heroes, by nations, armies, regiments, and private individuals. It still goes on: part of the exhibition was a series of "then and now" photographs of the battlefield paired with paintings of the same sites. The exhibition also included paintings by a contemporary artist named Koen Broucke. I didn't like them.

By the time we left the library, it was too late to go anywhere else before closing time. We stopped at the hotel before going out to dinner. We went to the Brasserie du Lombard, which was just down the street from us. My main reason for choosing it was that I grew up in Lombard, Illinois, and I wanted a picture of the storefront with the sign that said "Lombard." It turned out to be a good choice. It is a friendly, pub-like place with windows on two sides for people watching. The menu was traditional Belgian, mostly, and there is a good long list of beers (which, come to think of it, is traditionally Belgian). The other diners and drinkers seemed to be locals, with a few tourists mixed in. I had some huge meatballs, with frites (and mayonnaise) and beer. We split a waffle with powdered sugar for dessert.

Back at the hotel, we sat down with our lists and guidebooks to decide what to do with our remaining days. Waterloo was a must. The big question was whether to go to Bastogne. We had hoped to find a tour similar to the Flanders one, but we never did. Getting there on our own involved an hour-long train ride to the nearest station, followed by a bus ride. We had no problem with the concept of a bus and train journey, but it would take as good three hours each way. We decided, regretfully, that we didn't want to use up so much of our limited time.

Walking miles: 7.3.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015 (Brussels)

In the morning we got our first taste of breakfast at the Hotel la Legende. The base of the meal was a stack of crepes, served cold, and various spreads to put on them. There was also cereal, fruit, cheese, breads, and sliced cold meats. There was plenty to eat, but no bacon, eggs, sausage, or other hot food. I concentrated on crepes with Nutella, plus ham and cheese. On some days there were newspapers in French, which Fran enjoyed reading.

Our first stop was the Tourist Information center in the Grand Place to check on bus and subway routes. However, they told us that everything we wanted to do was within walking distance. So, off we went. Our first route took us through the museum mount area that we had explored the day before. We continued eastwards, walking through the EU quarter, with all the official buildings housing the different commissions and agencies. We noticed an increased police presence, including guards in body armor with assault rifles. At length we came to the Parque Cinquantenaire. Fran had some fun observing and photographing the crews maintaining the landscaping. About halfway through, we noticed flashes of bright green flitting around the trees. Looking carefully, we caught sight of small parrots! Parrots in Belgium? Yes, as it turns out. There is a colony of feral birds that are the descendants of a small flock that were released when an amusement park went out of business . Fran got a couple of good pictures.

The Royal Armed Forces and Military History Museum is housed in an impressive ornate building. (Its sister building houses Auto World, of all things.) Outside the building is a small collection of artillery, some of which bear 19th Century maker's marks from Liege. We decided to get the audio guides, so that we would have some explanations in English. I had to leave my driver's license as a deposit. This being the centenary year of Waterloo, they had a special exhibit on that battle. On our way to that, we passed through exhibits of armor from the Dark Ages through the Thirty Years War. The Waterloo exhibit was mostly uniforms and weapons of the different sides. There were Belgian regiments that had fought in the French army before 1813 but were on the Anglo-Allied side in 1815. We had just about finished with the exhibit when there was an announcement that it was closing for an hour. I don't know why, but we had to leave.

The rest of the museum was still open, and so we went into the hall dedicated to Belgian military history from 1830 to about World War I. This was very much an old-style museum hall. It was filled with glass cases, each one crammed with artifacts. The walls were covered with paintings and photographs, and Belgian flags hung from the ceiling. It was overwhelming. We couldn't properly look at everything, especially because we had to listen to the audio guide each time. So we tried to sample and move on. We next went into the hall covering World War I. It had glass cases all around the walls with manikins for what seemed like every country that participated and every branch of service. We went around a corner and found ourselves in a room filled with artillery pieces of all kinds. Near the end of the room we found tanks, including the iconic oblong-shaped ones (I don't know which mark), a Whippet, and a Renault FT-17.

We finally left World War I behind us and walked into the aviation hall. This is a hanger filled with aircraft of every kind, from one-person powered gliders to passenger jets. However, we didn’t linger there. Aircraft don’t hold my interest as well as tanks, and we were ready to move on. The museum’s modern tanks are in a courtyard that you’re not allowed to enter. All you can do is stand in the entryway and look. The collection wasn’t large. It was mostly American models from the Cold War era. I took some pictures, and then we moved on.

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I turned in the audio guides and retrieved my driver’s license. We left the museum and headed for our next destination, the tower at the Porte De Hal, southeast of the city center. We decided not to use up any of our time by stopping for lunch, instead resorting to Clif bars. After retracing our steps for a while we reached the ring road that follows the trace of the old city wall. Since our destination was once a gatehouse for the wall, this was a good way to find it. Some of the streets we passed were now blocked by taxis, as the drivers were holding a protest against Uber. The rain continued on and off, and sometimes we resorted to umbrellas. On our way down we noticed ranks of helmeted riot police off to our right, in the direction of central Brussels. This was apparently related to the taxi situation, but nothing much appeared to be going on. The area we passed through was mostly office buildings and upscale shopping. We saw regular people going about their normal daily business.

The tower is surrounded by a little park. As we approached, a crew was engaged in cutting back the trees. Naturally, we stopped to watch for a while, and Fran took some pictures of her fellow workers. There was a cherry picker, and the guy on the platform was trimming back the twiggy branches with something like a brush trimmer on a stick. It seemed pretty haphazard. Another person on the ground was gathering up the cuttings into piles.

We went to Porte de Hal because we had seen a poster advertising a special exhibit of toys from the World War I period. The structure is a circular tower with a spiral staircase in the center. We worked our way upwards. The first few floors deal with Brussels history. There are displays of the regalia that the guilds carried in the city processions and an elaborate painting (really a diagram) showing one of the processions taking place. Other floors have display of medieval weapons, such as longbows and crossbows, and some good armor displays.

The toy display was worth the visit. There were toy soldiers, of course, but also tanks, ships, aircraft, trenches, board games, and even an ambulance team. One section was set up so that you could peer at the arrangement as through the embrasures of a fortification. There were also examples of boardgames. Many of the signs were in English, which was helpful.

We followed the spiral staircase all the way to the top of the tower. The top chamber is a big playroom, with art supplies, toy soldiers, medieval armor, and video games. I imagine that it had some educational purpose. The beams holding up the room of the tower are exposed, so that we could see how it was constructed. There was also a walkway on the outside that gave a view of the city.

Our last stop of the day was to be the Horta Museum, the former home of art nouveau painter Victor Horta. However, we just couldn’t find it. We had maps and an address, but, try as we might, we kept getting turned around and into “this can’t be right” situations. Fran suggested we give up, but I wanted to keep trying. Eventually, though, I had to admit defeat. It’s down there somewhere, but we’re not going to see it soon.

We started our walk back towards the city center, this time by the southern route. We passed the southern train station (the Gare Du Midi) and continued. Then we got a bit lost again. Fortunately, we knew the general direction we needed to go and eventually started to see familiar landmarks. On the whole, it was a tense ending to the day.

After reorganizing at the hotel, we went out to find the Maison du Crepes for dinner. It wasn’t our day for direction finding, though, and we had trouble with that, too. We were at the point of saying, “We’ll go one more block in this direction before giving up,” when Fran spotted the sign. It was a small, homey place. Naturally, we had crepes, savory for the main course and sweet for dessert.

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Our evening was not without adventure of its own. The walls in the hotel were very thin, and it was possible to hear ordinary conversation in the next room. Conversation is one thing, but a screaming baby is another. That’s what we got for much of the night. Every time it quieted down and we thought it was over, it would start up again. Finally, we turned on the television because we were not going to get any sleep. We watched a news program in French. It was an odd experience to see someone speaking English but dubbed in French. We’d catch the first few words of what he said before the voiceover. Similarly, we flipped channels and stumbled into “A Man Called Horse,” also dubbed in French. Richard Harris and a bunch of Native Americans conversing in French. Things finally calmed down, and we were able to get some sleep.

Walking miles: 10.0

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Thursday, September 17, 2015 (Brussels)

After breakfast, our first task was to find a supermarket, as we were out of toothpaste. We got some vague directions from the front desk and set out. First we took a slight detour and went around the corner to see the Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels. We had seen it on our trip, and it’s not that much to look at, just a little statue of a boy. Even early in the morning, there was a tour group snapping pictures. Having checked that off, we went west and a little north, crossing Boulevard Anspach in the vicinity of the Bourse. The store we found was part of the Delhaize chain. We always like looking around in ordinary stores when we travel. This was a cramped but well-stocked supermarket. The cheese and meats seemed particularly well stocked. The toothpaste selection included some familiar brands, although not the one we usually use. We decided to try an unfamiliar one (it was fine). There were a lot of self-serve check out stations, but we didn’t want to push our luck and annoy people in line while we tried to figure out how they worked. The checkout using a person went about the same as it would in an American supermarket.

It was still pretty early, and so we continued walking down the street and found ourselves in a square dominated by St. Catherine’s church. We didn’t go inside, but we took pictures of the area, including the fish market that was just opening. Then we walked back in the direction of the Central Place. After some casting around, we found the location of the Royale Toone Theater, which we would be attending that evening. We proceeded in the direction of the museum area. In the process we passed through the park where statuary from various EU counties is displayed, including a Don Quixote from Spain that looks remarkably like Sean Connery and Rodin’s Balzac. We also noted a city bus whose direction sign said it would take us to NATO.

Our first real stop of the day was the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). It is housed in the former Old England department store building, a structure that couldn’t be more art nouveau if it tried. Upon entering the museum, one is issued with headphones that automatically play the sound of the exhibit when you stand in front of it. You start in the basement with the music boxes and other automatic devices and proceed upward, floor by floor, through folk instruments, early music, more modern orchestral instruments, electronic devices, keyboards, marching bands, accordions, Asian, African, South American, and so on. As with many of our museum visits on this trip, we got overwhelmed by it all. We realized that we couldn’t listen to the entire sample of each instrument and finish in a reasonable period of time. We had to content ourselves with listening to just enough and then moving on. It was pretty dark for photography, but I set my camera on aperture priority and let the ISO push upward, so that I did get quite a few shots at a decent shutter speed. I couldn’t do as much about the reflections off the glass cases, though. It helped me realize that I was there to see (and listen), not just to photograph.

The museum had a nice gift shop, although it was hard to find books in English. I was looking for folk music recordings. I did found a book about the British recording label Topic that included six CDs of folk music, but nothing of Belgian folk (that I could identify, anyway). At the top of the building is a café, where we stopped to have some lunch. The view is so nice from its windows that the staff asks if you are there to dine or just look around. It was raining (what a surprise), but that added some character to the views of the old buildings in the distance. We could also look down and see the tour groups scurrying around festooned with umbrellas.

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We next headed for the complex of art museums around the corner. We hadn’t had a lot of art on this trip (not since Bruges, really), and so it was nice just to go from room to room and see some of the masters’ works. We looked at the Ancient Art (really, old masters) and Fin de Siecle sections, skipping the headliner Magritte museum (neither of us has much interest in surrealism). We spent the rest of the afternoon there, stopping at the gift shop to pick up a few things on our way out. The sun finally came out, which added a nice touch to the late afternoon.

Because we had tickets to the puppet theater, we didn’t want to hunt around for a restaurant. We went back to Le Lombard. The waitress recognized us, which was nice. I had a croque madame, which is a sandwich of ham, cheese, and fried egg. Naturally, it was accompanied by frites, salad, and beer.

Despite our earlier scouting, we had some trouble finding the toon theater. The trick was that you have to walk through the café, including the open-air courtyard, to the entrance in the back. It was a pretty bare-bones theater, as befits a puppet show. The walls of the theater were hung with marionettes from previous (and for future) performances. The show this night was Romeo and Juliet. It was all in French, but we know the story well enough that we could follow what was going on. From the audience reaction, I think they took some liberties with the script—I believe I caught a reference to the Manneken Pis at one point. The puppeteering technique was different from the show we had seen in Prague. This one made use of solid sticks attached to the puppets’ heads and arms, while the Czech one had used strings. It was interesting to see them stage the fencing scenes.

As we left the theater/café, we saw that the street had been transformed. It was now full of people, sitting at tables, drinking, squeezing between the bars and cafés that practically filled the streets. People say that Brussels is kind of a dowdy city, but this was the opposite of our experience in Antwerp, where the main shopping district was deserted by 7 PM. After wandering around in the tumult, we made our way back to the hotel. We were concerned that the experience of the night before was going to be repeated. However, it seemed that the family in the adjacent room had moved on. Late that night I did overhear the new occupants engaged in what one might characterize as an earlier stage of the parenthood experience. Fortunately, it didn’t last as long. Of course, when you think about these experiences, you realize that if you can hear them, they can probably hear you.

Walking miles: 8.8.

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Friday, September 18, 2015 (Brussels and Waterloo)

This was our day to visit Waterloo. After breakfast in the hotel, we walked back to the Gare du Midi, this time with more confidence that our trip from the Porte de Hal. We had good directions about what we needed to do. The first stage was to catch the “W” bus, buying all-day passes onboard. Then off we went, rolling south through the Brussels suburbs and into Wallonia again. Using public transport is an interesting experience, because you get to see the ordinary infrastructure of life in another country. It also can be a little nerve-wracking, especially if you don’t know the language. There are a lot more stops on bus lines than on subways or trams, and so it’s easier to make a mistake. Be that as it may, we made our first stop without incident, at the Wellington Headquarters Museum in Waterloo town. We bought passes that would get us into the battlefield exhibits as well as the museum. The headquarters guides through the battle as you move through the different rooms. We had already had a couple of battle summaries, at the national library and the military museum, but it takes a while for all of the pieces to fit into our mental maps.

After finishing with the museum, we caught the next bus south towards the battlefield itself. Although we had clear directions, we still missed our stop. Fortunately, we got off at the next one, and it wasn’t much of a walk back. That gave us a chance to see what some upscale housing looked like. Then we crossed the main road onto the “plains of Waterloo.” It was more rolling hills, but who am I to argue about it?

The main features of the battlefield are the museum, the panorama, and the Lion Mound. The new museum is entirely underground. It’s pretty high-tech, and they issue you with headphones when you enter. I don’t usually like all the flashy features of museums, preferring just to see real artifacts. However, this was well done. It had plenty of uniforms and weapons, but it included some ongoing activities that kids could follow through the museum. The first exhibits start way back, explaining Napoleon’s rise to power, through to Moscow and Elba, and then his return. Thus, you got a good understanding of the context of the battle. The different stages of the campaign and aftermath are covered in more detail. The final exhibit is a 3D film of the battle. Again, I usually don’t find the little movies in museums to be all that interesting, but this one was gripping, if a bit loud. It was well worth the time.

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The Waterloo Panorama is a large circular building that contains a cylindrical painting depicting the battle in panels 40 feet high. It was painted in 1912 and can be considered to be an earlier attempt to do the same thing that the 3D film accomplished (how long before that is replaced by holograms or virtual reality?). The foreground of the painting is blended with some solid scenery, to make it difficult to see where the painting actually starts. It is highly detailed, with good use of depth to show action in the distance as well as close up. We happened to come through at the same time as a large youth group, which made it difficult to contemplate the details, but it was good that kids were being exposed to this history. (We later saw that they were part of a Scandinavian tour that was traveling around by bicycle!)

The Lion Mound, or Butte du Lion, or Leeuw van Waterloo, is a large conical hill that marks the spot where Crown Prince William (later William II) of the Netherlands was wounded and knocked from his horse during the battle. The mound is topped by a pedestal and a statue of a lion; hence its name. The Duke of Wellington was not happy with this memorial, as it alters the landscape of the battle, but it provides a great vantage point. First, of course, you have to walk up the steps, all 226 of them. When we were there, it was relatively dry, if overcast. There was quite a stiff breeze up at the top, though. Fran took pictures on the sheltered side, behind the pedestal, while I tried to set up some panorama shots in the face of the winds of war.

After climbing back down the staircase, we walked a bit to the east and looked at the memorial to the Belgian soldiers, on the road to Brussels. We also got a look at the outside of La Haye Sainte, one of the fortified farmsteads that stood in front of the Anglo-Allied lines and slowed down the French for much of the day. Then we went back to the area of the museum and panorama, in order to have a Waterloo Beer and a waffle in the Wellington Pub. We also went into the museum gift shop for some t-shirts (Wellington, not Napoleon), a Wellington Christmas tree ornament, and a model of the lion on his pedestal.

While we still hadn’t seen Hugoumount (which the British defended all day) or Placenoit (where the Prussians threatened to envelop the French), it was getting late and starting to rain. We headed for the bus stop, eating a couple of Clif bars as we waited in the shelter. When the bus arrived, it was the most crowded public transportation vehicle I have ever squeezed onto. It was full of school children on their way home. When I say full, I mean we could barely get in the door. Every time the door pivoted open, I had to shift a bit in order to keep from getting hit by it. Off we went. When we got to the next stop, there were people waiting to get on. I thought that they would surely wait for the next one, but they didn’t. The driver didn’t seem concerned that we were spilling well over the line, beyond which no one was supposed to stand. This was just a normal weekday afternoon. The students exited in their ones and twos as their stops came up, and eventually the squeeze diminished. We were able to get back to the area of the seating, where a couple of kids actually stood up so that the old people could sit down. Who was I to demur?

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We exited where we started, at the Gare du Midi, and walked back to our hotel. By this time were getting pretty good at navigating Brussels—what a shame that our time was running out. For dinner, we decided to try for La Villette, which was highly recommended by the guidebooks. The books also suggested that reservations were a good idea, but we decided to go as soon as it opened and try our luck. After looking at the map, we realized that it was on the same square as St. Catherine’s, where we had been the previous morning. When we got there, a lot of people were standing outside. At first we thought they were waiting for it to open, but then we realized it already was. So we walked right in, and we were whisked to a table for two. The server, who I believe was one of the owners, gave us some good recommendations for beer to accompany our food (guinea fowl, in my case). It was a pretty tiny place, with a few tables on the ground floor and some more in an upstairs room. We saw some parties of four turned away for lack of space. I imagine that if we hadn’t been a party of two, or if we had arrived just a little bit later, we would not have gotten in. There are advantages to dining unfashionably early.

Walking miles: 7.1.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015 (Brussels)

Time goes by, and one always comes to the last day. We didn’t have any special sites that we wanted to visit on this day. We wanted to poke around and do a bit of shopping. We also knew there was going to be a folklore festival in the Grand Place, and so we wanted to take a look at that. It being early, we first walked up the Boulevard Anspach, taking our time and looking at the architecture along the way. We went into a big shopping mall, but it was filled with things that you might want to buy in ordinary life, not anything special that said “Brussels” to us. So we walked back down to the city center and came across a toy store that looked small on the outside but seemed to go on and on (up and up) on the inside. We found a couple of presents suitable for newborn relatives. There were a number of Euro-style boardgames and even a few light wargames, but I didn’t want to have to pack such bulky things in our already-bulging luggage. Passing through the Galeries Royal Saint-Hubert, we had our choice of many vendors of chocolate and other exotic foods. Both of us bought some chocolate and other food for our coworkers and for ourselves. My big indulgence was to go into Monsel and buy a grey flat cap, to add to my collection of exotic headgear. I was treated well, without any condescension.

By this time, the folklore festival was starting up, and we went into the Grand Place to see what was up. The plaza was filled with people, and there were booths all around from different organizations, including one dedicated to the Mannekin Pis and another to mustaches. We bought some sausage sandwiches from one booth while wandering around the displays and floral market. Then there was a round of shouting and applause. We looked around, and there was a wedding couple standing in the balcony of the town hall, waving at the people below. We had another beer at a different booth and then bought some chocolate from an organization related to Belgian veterans or militia. There was an organ grinder playing tunes. He was also allowing other people to crank the machine, while their friends (of course) recorded the event on their phones. Fran found a booth selling rather good bonsai, although it was out of the question that we could take any home with us. An Asturias heritage group started playing tunes and dancing, recalling the days when this area was part of the Spanish Netherlands. A costumed toddler upstaged the dancers by trying to participate in the grownups dancing, until her father whisked her away. About that time it suddenly started raining heavily, and everyone ran for cover.

While the rain didn’t last very long, we went back into the galleries to try out a chocolate shop. We shared an assortment of truffles and biscuits with hot chocolate. The latter was served with separate pitchers of chocolate and milk that you mixed together in your cup. It was probably the best I’ve ever had. Everyone who visits Belgium should have the experience of sitting in a café with such a decadent snack, just watching the world go by.

We left the shop and went up the street, where a street market was selling all sorts of things. There were a couple of booths devoted to antique clothing, including military uniforms and hats. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to browse. We then went to the railway station and got our tickets to the airport for the next day, so that we wouldn’t have to take the time in the morning. Heading back to the hotel, we passed a souvenir shop that didn’t seem as tacky as most of them, and so we went in for a browse. I found a nice heavy pullover hoodie that read “Belgium: Where rain is typical.” It seemed a good summary of our experience.

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We had dinner at the Arcadi Café. I had poivre steak . After dinner, we returned to our room and packed up everything to go home. I sat down with my tablet and made a list of everything we’d bought for the customs form. We worked out when we would have to leave to catch our flight and decided that we wouldn’t have time for breakfast.

Walking miles: 10.3.

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Sunday, September 20 (Brussels-Alexandria)
We got up early, checked out, and walked to the railway station. The train trip went smoothly. Check-in at the airport was very confusing, though. Somehow we got in the wrong line. We then tried to use express check-in, but it wasn’t working—it couldn’t find our reservations. We got in the long manual check-in line for people going to New York and Washington. Somebody was trying to get to JFK with a ridiculous amount of excess baggage. It was a long walk to the gate. By the time we got there, they were already boarding. At least we didn’t have to wait.

The flight was typical. It was uncomfortable. The food was pretty good. I spent most of it listening to music from my tablet while starting this report. Eventually we landed and had the enchanting experience that is Dulles, mobile lounges and all. We went through automated passport control, which at least sped up the process a little bit. We found ground transportation with less difficulty than usual and were soon in a shuttle. The only other passenger was a woman who was transferring between Dulles and National. She got off first. Finally, we were at our front door, and this year’s adventure was over.

Walking miles: 1.2.

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Special Topics
Gear

We used the same equipment that we have been for the past few trips. On independent trips, we travel lighter than on cruises, since we know we’re going to have to carry our luggage around. Each of us has a small rolling suitcase and a small backpack. On the plane, we check the suitcases and use the backpacks as our carry-ons. It carries our emergency change of clothes, our cameras, and other things we might want as soon as we step off the plane. I have a small shoulder bag that has lots of compartments, which I use when we are moving around during the day. It has room for my umbrella, a guidebook, some Clif bars, and so on. In addition to my camera, I carry a GPS unit and a small pair of binoculars. I don’t recall ever using the GPS on this trip, not even when we were lost. The binoculars were handy now and then. One good use for them is to read street signs from across the street.

Our one new gadget was a smartphone. We don’t use cellphones at all most of the time, but travel-related services are beginning to assume that you have a smartphone. We installed some apps for the rail and bus systems, and those helped a bit. It worked well enough with the WIFI in the hotels, but we never worked out how to enable the cellular internet access. That probably saved us some money, but it would have been nice on trains and the bus, to be able to monitor the sequence of stops. We also took a few pictures with it: at restaurants (the outside, not our food) and the toon theatre, when we were traveling light, without our cameras.

Money
I’ve described in the narrative how we had some trouble with ATMs. It wasn’t that our card didn’t work; just that we were limited in how much we could withdraw in a day. We didn’t need a lot of cash. Most of the time we were able to use credit cards. It’s a toss-up whether you want to carry cash or put up with the exchange fees when you use your credit card. We prefer the latter. We did carry some American currency as a reserve, but we never needed to use it.

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Food
While we certainly like a good meal, we are not foodies. Dining is not a main purpose of our trips. Thus, we don’t sit down for four-course dinners with different wines at each. We’re usually looking for a main and beer, perhaps with dessert. We are beer fans and interested in trying different styles. Belgium is great for this, with many bistros having dozens of beers available.

We’re not very good at selecting restaurants. I don’t mean that we select bad ones; we enjoyed all of our meals. However, we dither a lot. We peer at menus, trying to figure out what they say. We look into restaurants and try to gauge whether we would be welcome there. We wonder if maybe we’ll find something better on the next street. It can be stressful and cause friction between us after a long day. The list of places to dine that we compiled from the guidebooks was helpful on the days we used it. We don’t make reservations. We generally skip the restaurants where the guidebooks say that reservations are essential. That may mean we are missing the best dining, but it means we can be more flexible in our schedule.

As you may have understood from the narrative, a typical Belgian brasserie or café meal consists of a main course with frites, beer, and a bit of salad. We could certainly have ordered starters or wine if we wanted it, but we can’t eat that much in a sitting. Sometimes we had dessert, either individually or splitting something. Restaurants as such generally open at 7:00 PM, but it’s not difficult to find a brasserie or bistro at any time (Namur being an exception).

Our time is our most important resource on vacation. Sometimes we just don’t want to spend any of it with a sit-down meal. Thus, we usually carry a supply of energy bars with us. If we are too busy for lunch, we eat them on the move. It’s sometimes amazing how a few hundred calories can restore your mood.

Crowds
We time our vacations for early September because by then children are back in school but the weather is still mild. That works pretty well, but some crowds can’t be avoided. Bruges is wall-to-wall during the day, but at night it’s a much more relaxed place. The Grand Place in Brussels is another spot that is probably filled most of the time. From time to time we ran into tour groups. One disadvantage of waiting until school starts is that there are groups of students being lead around. All that being said, we encountered fewer crowds on this trip than we did in our July trip in 2014 (when we were part of those tour groups).

Selfies and Smartphones
Time for a little rant. I take a lot of photographs on my trips. I can’t complain about other people taking them. That said, I think that the merging of the camera and the telephone has done more to degrade the travel experience than any other development. Everywhere you go, you are confronted by clouds of people holding up their little rectangular boxes at arm’s length. At specific events, such as the Last Post in Ypres or the folklore festival in Brussels, one can hardly see the action for all of the phones being held over people’s heads. People think nothing of walking in front of you in order to make sure they get a shot. The other part of this is the selfies. Most people don’t want to record what they see; they want to use all the places they visit as stage dressing for pictures of themselves. The advent of the selfie stick makes it even worse. And why is it so important to take pictures of your food?

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Language
Belgium is a bilingual country, with (roughly) half speaking Dutch (Flemish) and half speaking French . Every aspect of the country is divided by language. I speak neither but found Dutch to be a little easier to puzzle out than French. Both have some cognates that are similar to English words. Fran can read and speak some French. Most of the time we got by in English. One couldn’t automatically assume that everyone spoke English (and one should never approach a person that way), but most people did have at least some English, particularly in hotels, transportation, and other areas where foreigners like us were to be expected. We had a little more trouble with language on this trip than we have had on others (such as in Norway), but we never had a real breakdown in communication (well, except for that tour in Namur).

Transportation
We moved between cities by rail and got around locally on foot. We did take the tram in Ostend and the bus to Waterloo. We did not have any serious problems. There was confusion about how to buy tickets and where to board the trains or busses, but that’s normal when you’re not familiar with a system. We either figured it out ourselves or asked someone, who was always polite and helpful. As noted in the narrative, we did miss our bus stop on the way to Waterloo, and the bus was amazingly overcrowded on the way back. The tram at Ostend was also crowded. It just shows you how useful those routes are. We did not buy rail passes. Our research before we left indicated that they weren’t cost effective for the trips we were taking. We did get all-day bus and tram passes, just to avoid having to make another purchase for the return trip. We did not use the Brussels underground. It might have been a good idea for the trip from Parque Cinquantenaire to Porte de Hal and back into the center of the city. Those were long walks. On the other hand, we did get to see more of the city from above ground.

Weather
Well, it rained a lot. I don’t think we had any days when it didn’t rain at least a little. We didn’t have any constant downpours either, although there were days when there was a light sprinkle the whole time, punctuated by cloudbursts. There were a few days when the sun came out and stayed out for most of the time, such as when we were in Ostend. The weather was never bad enough that we changed our plans. The temperature was generally cool, in the 50s or 60s. We didn’t overheat in our raincoats, and sometimes we wore sweaters.

Entertainment
We don’t party into the night. We get up early, have breakfast, and go out for the day. By the end of it, we usually just have dinner and return to our hotel. The one exception on this trip was the puppet show. I did try to find early music or folk music events to attend, but I was not successful. They always seemed to be happening on days when we would be in the wrong city. The “shoulder season,” after the peak but before the winter, is not a good time for festivals or special events. The fact that we would be looking for folk music or classical music doesn’t help. Had we been interested in jazz or pop music, there would have been a wider selection.

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Really enjoyed reading your trip report! Thank you for sharing! I totally enjoyed a visit to Bruges about 7 years ago.

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Terrific report! Thanks for the details. I love that you found your grandmom/ great grandmom ( sorry - forgot which generation!) on the passenger list. What a connection..along with your name being plastered everywhere!

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My compliments on an extremely enlightening, captivating, enjoyable, and most thorough report. If you had had more time, say another day, at Ypres (called Wipers by the British, Ypern in German) and the immediate area, where you have to gone to see which presumably you didn't get to because of the time factor ? Would you have seen more?

On the historical "stuff"... Interesting to read your observations on Waterloo. It is over 30 years since I was there in Aug. '84. You went at the right time since it was the bicentennial of the event. Normally, to get a good comprehensive visit of the battlefield plus all the museums, exhibits, and other pertinent sites and villages connected to the three momentous days, you need two days using a rental car. It is also very easy to get saturated with all the Waterloo "stuff".

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Thank you for a wonderful and thorough trip report. I felt like I was right there with you.

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A nice detailed report. I too am not a fan of the selfie stick. Last year in the Louvre a gentleman was standing off to the side about 6 feet away from a large painting. Then a couple went in front of him to take a selfie w/the stick and displaying the peace sign w/their fingers. He just reached out and grabbed the cellphone and pulled it down and just looked at them. They just walked away. I loved it. One thing I noticed at Disneyland (the original) is that they have signs at the entrance stating selfie sticks are not allowed in the park. I will be in Paris next May for 8 nights & I am planning a day trip to Bruges, on my own, no tour. Looking forward to it, walking around the town and seeing the Madonna & Child.

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If we had more time in Flanders, we would have tried to see the museum in Ypres when it was open. We would have also tried to tale alone at Kortrijk, now that we know the family connection.

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This was a great trip report. Thanks!

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That is a trip report! Loved every word.

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I had original written it as a 40-page PDF, but this forum's rules don't allow posting or linking documents. I'm glad so many people waded through all the posts. The only thing you didn't get were the maps.

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Thanks for taking the time to write and post this!

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Thanks for taking the time to write and post this!

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27723 posts

I really really really enjoyed reading all this.

It was really worth you taking the time to write it, and it was really worth us taking the time (me, over 3 days) to read it.

Anybody looking for more than the overview most give will find lots of gold nuggets here.

I love that part of the world, and my wife and I really enjoy all the time we have in Kortrijk. Don't say it too loud though or others will want to go there.