Friday, June 1, 2012

Good Things Come in Small Packages in Belgium

Belgium was never my final destination. I discovered it quite accidentally on my first trip to Europe, from London to Geneva, a looong journey which never seemed to end. It was before the existence of Eurostar, and the only way to cross the English Channel was to take the arduous train-bus-ferry-bus-train(s) ride: a train from Victoria Station in London to the coastal town of Dover, then a bus ride to the ferry which takes you across the English Channel to the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium, not technically to the train station as you had to get on another bus for that, and finally a train or many trains to the final destination, Geneva.

As I’m sure many backpackers have discovered, the beauty of traveling with a Euro Rail pass is that it offers you an enormous flexibility, and when I arrived in Belgium, I couldn’t bear the thought of enduring another 12 hour train ride to Geneva. So, I decided to stop and stay overnight at its capital, Brussels.

I must admit, my first impression of Brussels was not a good one. Considering that this was before I’d moved NYC, and the only inner city experience I had was driving through it on my way to the other side of town, arriving at a train station in the midst of the Red Light District, I was uncomfortable and disappointed at what I’d saw.

Fortunately, I was able to get pass my first impression, and once I arrived in the old town near the Grand Palace, I was swooned by the charm and the beauty of the city. Of course, it also helped that the restaurants in Brussels served up some of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had … especially the famous “the mussels in Brussels”.

Then, when I was living in Germany, Brussels became my go to place … well, aside from Paris … in getting a dose of cultural diversity and my ethnic food fix. Brussels may be small in size, but in comparison to other European cities, it offers a lot more variety in restaurants, museums and shops. Brussels is not one of those cookie-cutter cities in Europe, where everything is clean, orderly, and looks as if someone had cleaned the cobble stones on the street with a toothbrush (ehem! Luxembourg, Zurich, Munich) … and most importantly, it’s not homogenous.

I found this to be true for most cities I’ve visited in Belgium. Throughout the country, vibrant towns and cities are packed with Art Nouveau and medieval architecture, a wonderful array of restaurants and shops, and people of all ethnicity. It’s a country where within less than 2 hours, you can travel and experience everything from a cosmopolitan city like Brussels to Antwerp, where the fusion of renaissance old town with avant-garde design and architecture overwhelms your senses … especially the magnificent ateliers of the renowned Antwerp 6.

Then, there’s Bruges, Venice of the North as it’s called with its picturesque medieval architecture and gorgeous landscape reminiscent of the works of Flemish masters. And one my favorite little cities in Europe, Ghent embodying a wonderfully vibrant and intellectual culture that only an University town can.

Liege, Mechelen … I haven’t been to a town or a city in Belgium that I didn’t like, and every time I go back, I’m always glad that didn't pass up the opportunity to see it on my first trip to Europe.

Recommended hotels: Comfort Hotel Art Siru (Brussels), NH Grand Place Arenberg (Brussels), Hotel les Bluets (Brussels), Hotel Cavalier (Bruges)

Recommended restaurants: Dell’arte (Bruges), El Greco (Bruges), À la Mort Subite (Brussels) – The translation of the name is Sublime Death. This is one of my favorite restaurants not only in Brussels but in Europe. À la Mort Subite is one those cafes/brasseries that one can only dream about finding in Paris … but with much nicer waitstaff.


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