Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges

If you're in London and you want to travel to the Continent, take a Eurostar train. With all the aggravation these days of airline security, traveling by train to Paris or Brussels is a piece of cake. The trip is much easier and it only costs about $100 round trip. You check in about an hour before departure, scan your e-ticket at the entrance, put your bags on the security scanner then pick them up, clear customs/immigration, drink a cup of coffee until they announce your platform, and then you board, put your bags in the rack, and relax in your seat. In less than 2 hours, you're in Paris or Brussels. It really is amazing and well worth doing.

Unfortunately, when SVH and I arrived in Brussels, we were a little disappointed. DE had said to us beforehand "It's not Paris," and now I understood what he meant. Not only is it smaller, but it's lacking the pristine beauty that lies at the heart of Paris. We checked into our hotel and wandered around town. It was noisy, full of screaming youths and gals drinking lots of the ubiquitous Stella Artois beer. Tourists poured into the Grand Place, the main square surrounded by historic buildings decorated in gilt that, upon reflection, still is nothing compared to the Louvre in Paris or even the Piazza di Signoria in Firenze. The more we walked around, we couldn't understand why there was trash everywhere and why there were no flowers. London's parks are already bursting with flowers. There was nothing here. We quickly made the decision to take a guided coach tour the following day to Ghent and Bruges. It turned out to be a fantastic day.

Ghent is about 45 minutes outside of Brussels, with Bruges another hour heading northwest, just near the border of The Netherlands. Both cities are absolutely charming and reflect exactly the atmosphere we thought we'd find in Brussels. Ghent is an old university town from the medieval period, and the architecture is simply delightful. Normally I wouldn't advocate taking guided tours, but this one was relaxing and gave us plenty of free time to wander, which helped. The major highlight for me in Ghent was going to St. Bavo's Cathedral and seeing the large triptych of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (image: Web Gallery of Art). It's historically important and simply beautiful. The center panel with the representation of God the Father has been a source of inspiration for numerous artists over the centuries. Both Ghent and Bruges have man-made canal systems dating back to the 1400s, and although once used for shipping and commerce, they now serve mostly for tourism. Terraced roofs on facades is classic Flemish-style architecture, so it was lovely to see so many of these beautiful houses of the old guilds lined up one after the other on the canal (see picture at top). Bruges, unlike Ghent, is more of a tourist city. It's obvious that if Brussels is a business center, then Bruges is where people come to relax. Another artistic highlight there was Michelangelo's sculpture of the Madonna of Bruges, which had been brought by its patron to the city in the 1500s.

We were back in Brussels on my birthday, and the more we wandered the more we realized that the beauty of the city is outside the Grand Place area. We found gardens, public sculpture, and exquisite Art Nouveau-style townhouses. We went to the Musée Magritte to see the work of René Magritte, the native Belgian Surrealist. We also took the long walk to Rue Americaine to visit the Musée Horta, one of the earliest Art Nouveau-style homes designed by the architect Victor Horta for himself ca. 1900. Art Nouveau has a tendency to seem outdated when one looks at it in reproductions, but seeing it as an architectural space makes you realize how incredibly modern it was with its exposed ironwork and open floor plan. The Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts had large portions closed for renovations, so I decided I needed to come back and visit that museum on a future visit.

As for food, we definitely indulged. We ate Belgian chocolates from numerous high-end chocolatiers such as Pierre Marcolini (all simply delectable), we had dessert crepes as a birthday indulgence in Brussels, and we had a Belgian waffle with raspberry coulis in Bruges. We ate lunch in a restaurant overlooking the city from the top floor of the Museum of Musical Instruments, a fabulous ca. 1900 Art Nouveau building. We had dinner one night at Falstaff's brasserie, an historic restaurant where I drank Belgian beer and ate moules (mussels) cooked in white wine, with a side order of pommes-frites (fries). I was amazed at how delicious my meal was, as you can see from my picture below. Our trip to Belgium was relaxing and enjoyable. We're glad our initial impression of Brussels changed over the weekend, which goes to show that meandering to nowhere when on holiday sometimes can turn out to bring you some of the most delightful surprises you could ever imagine.

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