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Stories from our Travelers

Belgium by Rail and Foot


A quiet canal in Bruges

Bicycles near the station in Ghent

Canal in Ghent
by Cynthia Pearson

[from Spring 2009]

In an idle chat with two friends last winter, I discovered that none of us had been to Belgium. That surprised us because we three women were all well traveled in Europe and the other two actually had been born and raised there. We made an impromptu decision to visit Belgium together in the spring of 2008, in conjunction with the others’ previously planned trips to Europe. We particularly wanted to see the famous old Flemish cities, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp and told each other we had no interest in Brussels. We parted with promises that each would research possible itineraries.

A month later we went to see the film In Bruges to set the mood, but by then our research dictated a change of plan. Rather than driving to and staying in each of the old cities, or even staying in one and driving to the others, it was clear that staying in Brussels and making day trips by train was the answer.

Last year’s Dollar to Euro exchange rate was very poor and, as ladies of a certain age, we were not eager to crowd together in a good hotel room or crash in a cheap pad. On the other hand, we were willing and able to walk reasonable distances. We found on the Internet a three bedroom, two bath, comfortably furnished apartment available to rent for five days at a cost to each of us of about $300. The Residence Florence is an apartment building operated by a hotel chain that caters to people visiting the city temporarily. It is located just off of Avenue Louise in the pleasant Ixelles district. Within from two to five city blocks there are: a tram (streetcar) stop, a Métro (subway) station, numerous good restaurants, several banks with ATMs and a small gourmet grocery store. All along these walking routes are high-end shops with diverting windows.

Each day we would set out on foot for either the tram stop, if going into central Brussels, or the Métro stop to get to the Gare Centrale from which the domestic inter-city trains operate. All such journeys are quick, comfortable and cheap. Second class train fares range from about $8 – 15, depending on the destination, and seniors pay only about $6.25 for any trip. Belgium’s rail system is excellent and Brussels is its hub. There is hourly or better service to and from most cities within the small country and most trips take less than 90 minutes. Many people commute from other cities into Brussels for work, bicycling to their local station and riding the train. Parking a car in any Belgian city varies from difficult to impossible but train stations have large bicycle parking lots for commuters.

We found that one long day each was adequate to explore Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Their rail stations are within walking distance of their old centers or an easy tram ride away. Within each city we were able to get around on foot to the places (main squares) and markts (market squares) with their unique architecture, cathedrals and other churches and the most important museums. This article is not meant to describe these jewels but rather to describe how we saw them reasonably, comfortably and efficiently. However, I will say that Bruges was a disappointment - not because it failed to live up to its billing for quaintness but because it was so crowded. Apparently tourists mob it most of the time, even on non-holiday weekdays. Ghent on the other hand is quiet and perfectly charming. Antwerp was a real surprise. It is a modern city with an old center, a busy waterfront and a lot of young people. It warrants more than one day. A trip to Ostend is a good idea if the forecast is for fine weather that day; otherwise, forget it. Wind off the North Sea quickly kills any pleasure of this seaside resort.

We all had a pre-visit impression of Brussels as boring (and many quarters are) but it has districts that are interesting and well worth exploring. The Lower Town has a magnificent Grand’Place and the side streets radiating off of it make a day’s worth of pleasurable discoveries. The Upper Town contains the royal palace and several excellent art museums. Brussels also is known for its art nouveau architecture. We did a self-guided walking tour of one area of Ixelles that has many such buildings and visited the Musée Horta, the lovely home of a well-known art nouveau architect.

Walking was the key to visiting the cities after arrival by tram or train. The weather in the first week of May was glorious, so spending many hours outdoors was easy. We wished we had taken along a pocket GPS device as we got lost countless times in our meanderings, despite having good maps. We were glad we left behind our husbands because we doubted they would have tolerated the time we spent in churches and museums.

Every day we had breakfast in the apartment, each person on her own wake-up schedule. We unwound in the evening with a glass of wine in our apartment and then walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The food was mostly quite good, especially the seafood. I still have the delicious memory of making a lunch out of light-as-air Belgian waffles with fresh, ripe strawberries and whipped cream in a Ghent sidewalk café. Eating was guilt-free because we walked off any superfluous calories we consumed.

Details:
Where to Stay:
In Brussels, we booked an apartment at the Thon Residence Florence (Rue de Florence 1-11, Tel. 866-358-0187)
Bookings may be made through www.thonhotels.be.

Nearby on Avenue Louise 91-93 is the Hotel Bristol Stephanie, a traditional four or five star hotel.
It can be booked through any of the usual Internet travel sites.

How to Get There:
Non-stop flights from the U.S. out of New York JFK, Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles. Coach fares in May 2009, begin at $900.

Story photographs by Cynthia Pearson. Preview photograph © MaiKai, Fotolia.com.

Cynthia Pearson traveled for many years on business for a major airline and, after her retirement, for years as an enthusiastic tourist. She has logged in 32 countries on seven continents. She says she lacks the Indian subcontinent as a major destination and plans to go there this next winter. Also on her agenda are Greenland and the western countries of the Silk Route. "So many places, so little time." When at home, she is a volunteer lawyer for many causes and a dedicated helper for refugees.

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