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AFAR sent Ambassador Sivan Askayo to Flanders to indulge in the rich culture of the region and to enjoy the Flemish way of life. Explore the Guide to Flanders. http://www.visitflanders.us
I'll be the first to admit, a museum of printing didn't sound terribly exciting to me, at first. Antwerp Belgium's Plantin-Moretus Museum certainly changed my mind. This is the only museum on the UNESCO World Heritage list and the recognition is well deserved. The museum is housed in the 16th century home of Antwerp's first printing company. The house itself is stunning, and the ancient printing presses (some are the oldest still in working order) are fascinating. The star of the museum's collection, however, is the family's personal collection of books and archives. The library includes an early Gutenberg Bible, the first Dutch dictionary, one of the world's first atlases, and many other treasures. If you are a book lover, interested in social history, art, design or architecture, don’t pass up the Plantin-Moretus museum. More Info: http://cheeseweb.eu/2011/05/plantinmoretus-printing-museum-antwerp/
When in Belgium, make sure to try not only the famous chocolates, but also the hot chocolate! During a tour of Bruges, we became so enchanted with the medieval city that we decided to sneak away from our tour group and explore on our own—and I'm so glad we did! The streets are lined with shops selling quintessential Belgian wares, and there seems to be a chocolate shop on every corner. The April chill was beginning to get to us, so we sought shelter at De Proeverie Tea Room just down the street from the entrance to the Church of Our Lady. This place had such character! It was very relaxed and the locals seemed to enjoy helping me with my French. We ended up ordering hot chocolate and the "assortment of chocolates" from the menu. Hot chocolate in Belgium is very different than what I'm used to. You are served hot, steamed milk with chocolate, sugar, and whipped cream on the side. You then melt the chocolate in the milk, sit back, and enjoy. Breaking away from our group ended in the most memorable experience of my trip!
Jeu de Balles is a quintessential flea market set in the heart of the Marolles District of Brussels that runs daily through the morning. My favorite time to go is on Sunday when the square is filled with the most vendors who sell anything from bric-a-brac to antique furniture. Since it is one of the city's most well-known markets, it's not always easy to find steals, but you can still manage to haggle a decent bargain. One of my favorite finds was a dealer who specialized in vintage, ceramic figurines full of quirk and character.
Traveling by train can be a wonderful way to explore Belgium. A few of the country's train stations are destinations in and of themselves. Antwerp's Centraal (or Central) Station is one of the prettiest. Renovations and expansion have restored the station to its former glory and made it accessible to international trains. The main hall, pictured here, is often home to impromptu performances, concerts and flash mobs. When I took this photo, a tango competition was taking place.
Some locals call cuberdons “priest hats” and others refer to them as “little noses.” Hard on the outside and gooey on the inside, the conical, raspberry-flavored treats slow-cook for five days in a 131°F room. Stock up at Temmerman, Ghent’s oldest sweets shop, which has been in the same family of confectioners for eight generations. Kraanlei 79, 32/(0) 9-224-00-41. Photo by Andreea Gulacsi. This appeared in the September/October 2010 issue.
My favourite building in Brussels is the Old England on Mont des Arts, just around the corner from Place Royal. It’s a striking concoction of steel and glass in the Art Nouveau style Brussels is so famous for. But what’s on the inside is just as good as the beautiful exterior. Once a department store, the Old England building now houses the Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM. This fascinating collection of more than 8000 instruments is internationally renowned. Rather than just looking at the exhibits, you actually get to experience them. An audio-guide is included in the cost of admission, but this is no stuffy commentary. As you approach particular exhibits in the MIM, your guide begins to play the music of the instrument you are looking at. It’s a wonderfully interactive approach to learning. I have one more reason to love the Old England building and that is the cafe on the top floor. The food is good, but the selling point of this particular restaurant is the view – one of the best in the city centre. In nice weather, you can even dine on the roof terrace. You don’t have to visit the museum to enjoy the restaurant (although you should). Just tell the door attendant you want to go to the cafe and he’ll load you into the period glass and steel elevator and take you to the top floor.
You could easily walk right by the entrance to the International Rose Garden of Coloma, without a hint to the beauty that waits inside. The small town of Sint-Pieters-Leeuw, not far from Brussels, is home to one of Europe's largest rose gardens, with more than 30,000 bushes and 3000 varieties of roses. Tucked behind a stately castle, this vast garden has over 200,000 roses in bloom throughout the season, organised by country of origin. On weekends, there are often bridal parties competing for photos under one of the many rose draped trellises. Bring sunscreen, as there isn't much shade, a macro lens for your camera, and a picnic to eat on the castle grounds.
Maison Dandoy has been baking delicious treats in Brussels since 1829 and you'll find their famous shops scattered around Brussels. Step inside, and you'll be greeted by the sights and smells of crunchy biscuits (cookies) looking much as they have since the shop began. The beautiful packaging makes Dandoy cookies a great gift (even if it is for yourself). Be sure to try the traditional Speculaas (or Speculoos); a spicy, crunchy gingerbread cookie, popular throughout the lowlands. While the Dandoy shops can be found all over, only one is home to the Dandoy tearoom. In my opinion, it is well worth seeking out for arguably the best waffles in Belgium. There are two types of waffle here—Bruxelles (Brussels); rectangular and flaky and Liege; rounded and baked with sticky sugar. How best to eat a waffle in Belgium is hotly contested. Locals swear waffles should be topping-free. I however am a sucker for the stewed cherries and vanilla ice-cream. However you order yours, just don't ask for a "Belgium Waffle."
In 1146 a dozen monks and some lay brothers, with the blessings of St Bernard (not the dog!) headed to what is now Belgium and founded the abbey. It had been neglected and then revitalized during its second golden age in the 1800s where some of the buildings were modernized. Now in ruins (but pretty ruins!), you can walk through over 800 years of history by visiting the abbey and its grounds and some "still standing" buildings for a few euros.
I love the National Botanic Garden of Belgium. We went there last summer when the daisies were in bloom and it looked so beautiful. This year I am looking forward to the Magnolia walk which takes place from March 30th till April 30th. It's a great, cheap way to spend your day.
For a great shopping experience, provided that you have a wallet full of Euros, is the Sablon area of Brussels. Other than the art galleries and cafes and restaurants, you can catch the brocante, or flea market, in the square. The photo is of a very beautiful art deco statue that was on sale at the market. Although this is one of the "posh-est" areas of the city, you can still find some bargains.
The Vrijdagmarkt has been held in this location every Friday since a developer started the second-hand market in 1547. Today you can still get a used anything – furniture, knick knacks, and many, many bicycles. The café on the square is a great place to watch things get started and take bets on what the bikes will sell for. If you’re here long enough, you might as well buy one!
Said to be the most beautiful square in the world, the Brussels Grand Place or Grote Markt (since it is in a Flemish city) is a 223 by 360 ft square located in "the heart of Europe". The square is at its best in the summer's when it is turned into a giant flower carpet.
If you could only do one thing in Brussels (and frankly, that would be a tragedy), it would have to be a visit to the Grand Place. Also called the Grote Markt, in Flemish, Grand Place is Brussels’ UNESCO-listed central market square. Standing in its cobbled centre and doing a 360-degree turn to take in all of the stunning architecture is a must. One side of Grand Place is dominated by the Gothic city hall building, with its dramatic spire. Opposite is the darker grey but equally ornate Maison du Roi, or King’s House, now the city museum. The two shorter sides are lined with gold-trimmed Guild Houses. These were the headquarters for Medieval Brussels’ most influential trade guilds: the brewers, the bakers, the sailors and many others. The Grand Place is also the location of many important festivals and events like the Winter Wonders Christmas market, the Flower Carpet, Floralientime, Ommegang and the Belgian Beer Weekend (All of which have individual Highlights here). Things to avoid on Grand Place: Eating and Drinking can be double or triple the price on the square as virtually anywhere else in Brussels. Photograph to your heart’s delight but head elsewhere to refuel. Pickpockets also prey on distracted tourists so know where your belongings are at all times.
Hallerbos (Flemish) or Bois de Halle (French) is a beech forest just south of Brussels. It's a popular spot for walking, cycling and horseback-riding. Every spring, for a few short weeks, the forest makes a magical transformation into a blue carpeted wonderland. Millions of tiny bluebell flowers bloom under the shade of the beech trees and people flock to the forest to catch a glimpse. Timing is everything, too soon and the bluebells aren't out yet; too late and you've missed the show for another year. But that's what makes seeing it so special.
La Mer du Nord is a cafe/seafood shop in Brussels. There isn't any indoor seating just a few stools and standing room space for patrons to quickly eat some delicious seafood fare. Over Grote Mrkt or the square in the centre of town near the train station (tourist zone), plates of mussels cost 25 Euros. You're pretty much guaranteed freshness when you see seafood being delivered as you wait for your food. Mer du Nord is definitely a favorite! Here's a more detailed blog post I wrote about La Mer Du Nord: http://bit.ly/1ajPwxD
My sister and I ducked into Brussels' Bozar museum to seek refuge from the rain and noticed that the lobby was littered with scattered pieces of hanging blue film. We were intrigued as to the meaning of the unlikely art installation and were tickled when its secret revealed itself to us when we reached the center of the room. Our experience played out just as the artist intended.
Located in a pair of centuries-old Flemish townhouses in the center of town, Hotel Julien epitomizes Antwerp today: traditional on the outside, cutting-edge modern on the inside. Antwerp has the chic feeling of a mini Paris. Korte Nieuwstraat 24, 32/(0) 3-229-0600. Photo by Cityzine.be. This appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.
With a huge community of British expats in Brussels, it's hard to believe there was no decent place to get fish 'n chips. But until the opening of Bia Mara in the summer of 2012, this was a sad fact. Seafood lovers in Brussels can now rejoice. Not only is the fish fresh (the owner regularly rejects seafood orders that aren't up to his high standard) and the menu creative (Spicy tempura salmon anyone?) but everything is sustainable. You would expect such an establishment to be pricey, but Bia Mara is made for the budget conscious. For 10 euro you get 2 large pieces of fresh fish (your choice of fish and style) with a mound of thick cut fries. You also choose of of 6 delicious sauces and a flavoured salt for your chips. Everything is made in house from organic and local ingredients. Or choose the fish tacos for only 8 euro. Vegetarians and carnivores aren't forgotten at Bia Mara either. The piri piri chicken was moist inside, crunchy outside and had a nice spicy kick. It is located just steps from Grand Place so you have no excuse not to visit.
I was told that I HAD to go to Bruges, it was a non-negotiable, must-see. I watched the movie In Bruges on my way there and decided that I had to go up to the top of the famous bell tower. It was way more than I bargained for as I was pretty sure that I developed a raging case of vertigo by the time I made it to the top. But I was beyond well-rewarded once I reached the top and spent a solitary thirty minutes admiring the beauty that is the gorgeous city below.
As Canadian expat in Belgium, one thing I miss is the sea (and good lobster), so when I saw "Lobster Six Ways" on the menu at the House of Eliott in Ghent, I had to try it. Far from the traditional 'crack it open and dig in' style lobster I was used to, this was still a wonderful meal. The varieties included a curry lobster and a more traditional herb and garlic sauce. Even if lobster isn't your thing, this quirky restaurant is worth visiting. It's a bit like dining in your crazy Aunt Nelly's attic. The homage to Coco Chanel in the lady's room is worth the trip on its own.
If you're in Brussels and like beer, I mean all kinds of beer, then the Delirium Cafe is the place for you! The cafe is somewhat tucked away in the restaurant section of the city, just off of the grand place. The short walk is worth it and while walking there, you can scout out which restaurant you want to eat at after a beer or three. The choices of beer are great with hundreds on offer. Before you head to your eaterie though, make sure you check out Janneke Pis, the peeing little girl, which is about a dozen or so foot steps from the cafe.
One of the "must visit" places in Brussels is A la Morte Subite, which is a cafe that dates back over a hundred years. It has that real "Brussels" & "Jacques Brel" feel to it. I remember the old days when there was lots of beer being poured and lots of cigarette and cigar smoke making the air blue. Walking into the cafe once upon a time was like looking out the window of a Boeing 747 into the clouds! I don't got there too often any more, just when I have visitors, but when I do, this is my usual snack!
Recyclart is an collective space that partially inhabits subway station at Gare Bruxeles-Chapelle. It's a fun place to check out underground art and the group also runs a fun bar and organizes concerts.
Even if you aren't hungry, it's worth stopping for a drink at the stunningly beautiful De Foyer cafe in Antwerp. You'll feel like royalty under the magnificent dome of the the 19th century Bourla Theater . The stained-glass, rich velvet curtains and ceiling frescos all add to the atmosphere. Come watch Antwerp's trendy fashionistas and tourists alike, while you enjoy a Belgian beer or a cappuccino, or fill-up at their extensive Sunday brunch.
Step right up and see the amazing Atomium! This monument was built for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. It never achieved the recognition of Paris' Eiffel Tower, but has its own special iconic status in Belgium.
One of my favorite European habits that I can never get enough of is the café culture. It is the first day this spring where it is warm enough to sit outside, and every café table is filled. There must be some unwritten rule that says if it is warm enough to sit outside, all office workers are released from their tasks and may unplug themselves to enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of wine on the terrace with their friends. A reverse snow day for grown-ups. Café culture epitomizes the idea of La Dolce Vita. I love watching the old man savoring the sun on his skin and the pint of ale. Or that blond girl who has the same smile as my dearest friend and making me wish that she is here with me right now. This is life unfolding. This is life being lived. Next time you are in Europe, find a table on a terrace somewhere on a beautiful day and taste how sweet it all is. No museums or tours necessary.
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