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Trip report - Brussels & Bruges, September 2016

At long last I have written up my trip report for our September trip to Belgium, Scotland and Iceland. I'm posting in 3 parts.

  1. Belgium - this post
  2. Scotland - here
  3. Iceland - here

Stop 1: Belgium
September 10 We flew Boston – Reykjavik – Brussels on Friday night (the 9th). We were delayed leaving Reykjavik due to an air traffic control issue, so we arrived at our Brussels hotel around 3:30, about 2 hours later than expected. The delay seemed helpful, though, because it gave us less time to struggle to stay awake our first day. As expected, our US chip cards did not work in the train ticket kiosks at Brussels airport, so we found an ATM and got cash, only to find out the kiosks also did not accept paper bills – only coins. We decided to be entertained by this instead of frustrated. There was a ticket counter at which a very helpful Belgian woman sold us train tickets, gave us a tourist map of Brussels and generally welcomed us to Belgium. The train to Brussel-Centraal was PACKED! But our suitcases fit in the overhead and the ride was short – 20 minutes or less, though I can’t recall the exact length. Lots of people got off at Brussel-Nord station and then many more got off with us at Centraal so exiting the train with our luggage was easy. Our hotel (Hilton Grand Place) was right above Centraal station. We checked in, showered and set off in search of adventure.
All 4 days we were in Belgium were HOT. 80s and 90s, though not terribly humid IIRC. The locals were remarking on how unusually hot it was. At the last minute the afternoon of our departure I had thrown a pair of shorts into my suitcase and ended up wearing them for 4 days straight. Though I only packed shoes suitable for wearing with pants, so I may have looked mildly ridiculous. That’s what I get for discarding all my older walking sandals in June. Lol.

We wandered around the Grand Place and surrounding streets, getting a feel for the layout of the center of the city, then had an early dinner at Arcadi, at the north (?) end of Galeries Royales St Hubert. We shared a bucket of mussels and a mushroom tart. Plus beers – we were finally able to put our summer-long training into use! And we performed quite well! Tried Juliper and Oud Geuze Vielle (our rigorous training consisted of trying a different Belgian beer every weekend from May – August). Then back to the hotel for bed, where we found housekeeping had left us a little box of Dandoy Speculoos cookies. More on those later.

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September 11 Sunday – Sunny, high-80s
In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel – a very good spread! As Hilton Honors Gold members we had access to a smaller area off the main dining room with a view of a big Smurf statue, and we could order anything we wanted from the staff. The spread on the “regular people” ;-) buffet was really good though so all three mornings we were there we just ate that. Fresh fruit, including passion fruits, scrambled eggs, sausage, cold meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal and a wonderful selection of breads to choose from. After breakfast we walked to the Belgian Comic Strip Center and spent a couple of hours there. The most interesting part for me was the grown-up comics which seem to have a much longer history in Belgium than graphic novels here in the states. Then we sat at a sidewalk café and had lattes and watched the carriage horses wait for passengers. Only when they brought the bill did we discover we were sitting at the Haagen-Dazs store. Good coffee though!
At 1 we met old friends Marc and Veronique and headed to the Grand Place to look around and then stopped at Le Roy D’Espagne for a couple rounds of beer (Chouffe and Leffe), rabbit stewed in kriek lambic, and stoemp with sausages (schtroumpfs jokes ensued). The food was good, the beer very good. We were sitting in a side room and it took a while for the wait staff to come see us. Once a waiter finally appeared service was “relaxed” and he seemed to enjoy bantering with our Dutch friends about his slowness.

Our friends then led us around to see the Mannekin Pis and the Jeanneke Pis, then we stopped off at Delirium Tap House (truly great selection of beers but I can see what Rick means about a “frat house” atmosphere. It was quiet in the late afternoon but the décor reminded me of bars from my college days) for Brugse Zot beers, more touring of the Grand Place & photo taking, then the Golden Bar for more beers (Orval, Omer, Lindemans Geuze, Barbar) and a lot of conversation and people watching. One gentleman appeared in the intersection several times and seemed very eccentric. The staff at all the restaurants seemed to know and like him. In the US we probably would have assumed he was homeless and crazy but that didn’t seem to be the case with this man. We parted ways around 8pm, and Ben & I picked up a salad, quiche and beer (Ramee Amber) at Exki and watched a little TV in our hotel room. We opened the Dandoy Speculoos and ate a couple – they were very good. Buttery, crisp, a bit crumby like shortbread. 5 stars. Would eat again. We passed a Dandoy shop somewhere in our wanderings in Brussels – if you like cookies I can recommend you check them out. We also realized we had no churchkey. We were already in our pajamas and didn’t want to go down to the bar to get the bottle opened, so we improvised using the door lock. And reminded ourselves to travel with a churchkey. At home we each have one on our keyring but we didn’t bring all our normal keys with us.

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September 12 Monday – sunny, mid-80s
Breakfast at the hotel again. We noticed little shot glasses of fruity stuff as we walked in the breakfast room. Blueberry? Acai? Not sure. They seemed to be pureed fruit and were yummy though a little lumpy. Then we headed to Centraal train station and bought tickets to Bruges. Train came in about 6 minutes and we hopped aboard. Once in Bruges we picked up maps at the train station TI and then walked to the Markt square and sat down for lattes and looked over our maps. Since most museums across Belgium are closed on Mondays we could cross most of the museums off our list of possibilities, which was actually quite convenient. Our first sight was the Bell Tower, which I did not climb. I learned years ago that it isn’t cost effective for me to pay admission to towers because I almost invariably chicken out half way up. I’m very afraid of heights! So I have lots of photos on my travel companions on the top of towers and they have lots of photos of me down on the ground waiting for them. After the bell tower we wandered around the Burg Square and surrounding streets, then took the first boat ride we came across – Rick’s book says they are all pretty much identical. A really wonderful view of the city, I recommend it. It was around 12 euros IIRC. On the boat tour we could see a few different places where people were eating and drinking on patios on the canal, so we decided to find one of them and have a drink and/or lunch. We found [2be Bar][1] and sat for quite a while, watching the boats go by. We had two samplers – the dark sampler and the light sampler. Each came with 4 4-oz beers and a little sausage, cheese and cracker. Then we each chose a full size beer. From there we walked to the De Halve Maan Brewery and arrived in time for their last tour of the day. The tour was really interesting and fun (except for the part where they led us out onto the roof – terrifying!) and ended with a free pint of Brugse Zot Blonde unfiltered, which we drank in the courtyard. According to our guide the unfiltered is only available at the brewery. Their food menu looked good but we decided to wander back toward the Markt Square so we could pick up chocolates at the Chocolate Line before it closed. We picked out tobacco, fried onion, chili, as well as some more normal flavors like hazelnut and raspberry. Then we had Flemish stew and beers at a café right on the Markt. Prices were high but the food was decent and the view was stellar, so we felt like we got a good deal nonetheless. Our philosophy is that sometimes you’re only paying for the view, and that’s OK. Train back to Brussels, speculoos and bed.

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September 13 Tuesday – Sunny, high-80s
We decided to stay in Brussels rather than head to Ghent or Antwerp, since we hadn’t seen much of the city yet. Breakfast at the hotel again, then we spent several hours exploring the Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the Magritte Museum. The Fine Arts museums were nearly empty so we (quietly I swear!) amused ourselves making up back stories for the people in the paintings. At one point we had lattes at the museum café to recharge and rest our feet. I loved that wherever we went in Belgium they gave us little cookies with our coffees! The Magritte Museum had an elevator with seating for 10. It was very odd. After the museums we headed to the Fish Market area intending to get a late lunch but we arrived just when most of the restaurants were closing for the break between lunch and dinner, so we bought some Belgian cheese and bread at Cremerie de Linkebeek. Sad to say I do not remember what the cheeses were called. Each had been washed in a different variety of Belgian beer. We headed back toward the hotel and ate waffles from the Waffle Factory with Nutella. So good! Then a little browsing in the shops. Ben picked up a bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 12 for 20€. Yikes. But it is probably the only opportunity we’ll have to try this particular beer. We then had beers at A La Mort Subite . We had a couple of rounds of their kriek and their gueuze. Our waiter didn’t seem particularly happy we were sitting at his tables, but he was also a little crabby with some people who seemed local. I think he may have been having a bad day. After drinks we hit Chez Leon and shared a Formula Leon (bucket of mussels, frites, a beer) and two starters (a shrimp-stuffed tomato and a pickled herring plate) and another couple of beers – Biere Leon and Cuvee des Trolls. After dinner we headed back toward the hotel, stopped in at the Smurf store, had a photo op with the giant Smurf our breakfast table overlooked, then returned to our room to pack, drink the Westvleteren (we had to run down to the bar to ask them to open it for us – they loaned us the appropriate glasses for it) and eat a few Chocolate Line chocolates.

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September 14 Wednesday – Onward to the UK via Eurostar. We got up stupid early and took a cab to Brussel-Midi. We debated taking the train but at the last minute decided to get a taxi. That’s a thing nice hotels are really good at – conjuring taxis at odd hours seemingly out of thin air. At Brussel-Midi we went through passport control and sent our bags through the x-ray. The bag of UK coins I had looked odd to the screeners so they had me pull it out and show it to them. I can’t remember if we did EU passport control, baggage screen, UK passport control, or passport, passport, screening. I guess it doesn’t matter.  After we were through there was a waiting area, smaller than I had envisioned. I guess I was expecting more or an airport-sized space. We got coffees and croissants at the little café, and waited about 30 minutes for boarding. Boarding was super easy. We stowed our bags above our seats and settled in for the approx 2 hour train ride to London.

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Thank you for the trip report on Belgium. Going next year so it is always nice to hear what others thought.

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Yes, thanks! I'm going in April and was planning to see Bruges and Gent as well. I'll have to try all the sweets you talked about. It's too bad I'm not a beer drinker though 😉

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Ah, your report brings back such fond memories. How were you able to acquire Westie 12 outside of St Sixtus? I thought that was strictly verboten.

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@Bill - Apparently stores can sell it but they have to jump through the same hoops as everyone else to obtain it - make an appointment, drive to the monastery, buy only the amount they're allowed, not come back (at least not with the same vehicle) before the waiting period has elapsed, etc. That's probably why it costs 20€ for a 12 oz bottle in a shop!

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This is a great trip report. We fly into Brussels next June and are trying to decide whether to just home-base there for 3-4 days and day trip to Bruges and Ghent, or whether to transfer somewhere else before moving on to Germany. The train to Bruges seems quick and painless. I've also considered staying at that Hilton with points. Is the location good for both seeing Brussels and day-tripping?
Thanks!!
Celeste

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@celeste - We found Brussels to be a good home base, since it's a quick & painless (and usually direct) train ride to other major tourist towns such as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp.

The Hilton Grand Place is superbly located for both daytripping and exploring Brussels. It's literally right above Centraal station (metro and intercity rail) and a short few blocks from the Grand Place, several major museums, restaurants, etc. It's a little pricey around $200/night but not hideously pricey, and if you can use points instead it makes a super convenient and nice home base also a good financial deal. :-)

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Thanks for the report. You have given me great ideas for a planned trip next year