belgium: bruges, brussels, antwerp

Yep – Antwerp is centered around a guy throwing the hand of a giant

I have a friend who orders mussels everywhere we go. Has for years. To me, they always seemed like a huge bowl of piping hot, black …shells. However, I was lured by the promise of fries served with mayo. Who knew, she’s been right all this time – but, I had to go to Belgium to discover it.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I had previously only spent a little over a day in Bruges (this time last year actually) and I fell head over heels in love with it. So, 6 months later, I returned with a friend for her birthday. She wasn’t sure about spending an entire week in Bruges (that’s fair), but I’d looked into Brussels and Antwerp and I didn’t want to spend 1/2 a week in either, so we compromised – we’d hit all 3, with Bruges being the grand finale. It was a rousing success – each stop held something enticing, but Bruges truly was the icing on the cake.

Brussels: HQ for the EU. Major metropolitan city. Home of Mannken Pis. We stayed at the exquisite Hilton Brussels Grand Place, which is directly in front of Central Train Station. I’ve praised the power of brand loyalty before, but here it REALLY paid off. Most of our accommodations on this sojourn were covered by my friend’s points. Not only did Hilton have rooms for us at no charge, as the Hilton Honors program promises, but they upgraded us in honor of her achieved level. That’s a very square deal. Loyalty pays off – there are lots of times that I want local flavor and something truly unique, but give serious consideration to establishing consistency for the benefit of points if nothing else. This Hilton location was ideal for getting around on foot as we were easily walkable to Grand Place (shocking – since it’s in the name….). You’ll scoff a little when I tell you that Grand Place at night, when it’s all lit up, people are milling around with beer & wine in hand, and there’s live music wafting in the air….it feels a little like St. Mark’s Square. I know, I know – but, TRUST me. I didn’t say full-on reminds me, just is a little reminiscent of. Anyway, on the square, we were directed by our concierge to ‘T Kelderke for mussels and frites. Word to the wise, don’t call them “french fries” in Belgium. Who exactly invented them is still somewhat contentious – so, just call them frites. Nonetheless – we wanted the whole spread – mussels, frites, the fabled mayo on fries (which I fully endorse), and flemish asparagus. We were in heaven – the aroma, the flavor – garlic, white wine – we ate our fill and BARELY had enough energy to drag our satiated bellies back to our stylish hotel bar, which was showing classic films. #heaven

Seriously, I just accidentally happened into Europe’s first shopping mall?

I’ll be frank – if you’re not going to Brussels with shopping in mind, just go somewhere else. Built in the mid-19th century, this shopping mall draws you in with the promise of extravagance. Each window is expertly adorned. The shops are perfectly curated for a mix between clothes, chocolates, restaurants, home decor, hand-made leather gloves….I could go on. There’s something beautiful to see, or taste, at every turn. Then, there’s the Place du Grand Sablon. I had every intention of buying myself a diamond necklace in Antwerp because 84% of the world’s diamonds travel through Antwerp. However, walking around Grand Sablon, I happened onto a jewelry merchant with whom I connected and came to trust – that’s key when you’re buying jewelry. FYI: There are no amazing deals out there on jewelry – the internet’s just about everywhere….everyone (wholesalers and retailers) knows what everyone else is selling and for how much….. But, do you love the piece, trust the person you’re buying from and did you do your homework? If the answer is yes to each one of those and you’re happy with the price. Buy. Having worked in the jewelry business myself and having seen people get taken in the past, I was so far beyond skeptical – and, I always am.

If you’re thinking of buying diamonds abroad, here’s my advice:

  • Verify the store on the GIA website
  • Don’t get talked into stones that are TOO clear or TOO colorless
    • Unless you just have SO much money to spend that it doesn’t matter; that’s cool, too.
    • Personally, how close are people going to get to my neck? – an H, I, J is plenty white for me, and SI 2 clarity was perfect – the main inclusion is actually hidden by one of the prongs
  • Make sure the stone comes with a GIA grading report
  • I compared the details they gave me with the GIA grading report that was posted on-line (there’s a tracking #); they matched
  • The GIA grading report has a # engraved on the girdle of the stone – I made the poor guy read me the number AFTER it was set to ensure I got the same stone that had been graded by GIA
  • Walk away even if for just a second and ask yourself if you’ll be more happy having the piece or the cash – if you’re ambivalent, just keep walking.
  • IGI (International Gemological Institute) is not GIA
Waterzooi at Sir Anthony Van Dijck – I’ll be sad for you if you don’t go here

Shall I spare you all the clothes shopping we did in Antwerp? Alright, but there was much. Why don’t I tell you about Peter Paul Rubens instead – Would that be a nice change of pace? If you don’t like religious art, then I’m afraid you’re still out of luck. However, the artistry is nothing short of extraordinary. I know nothing formally about art, but I know that when I look at a Rubens next to a piece by another artist, his use of perspective, human emotion and warmth set him apart. There are several places to see his work in Antwerp, but Cathedral of our Lady offers at least 3 that you won’t want to miss. If you have to economize your time, I say go to that one and THEN start hitting the beer scene in Antwerp. You will have covered all your bases.

The water tours of Bruges are touristy, but enchanting.

I’m convinced that I’ll never get all of Bruges down in only one post. I’ve praised the lodging in an earlier post: De Castillion Hotel Bruges. Everyone I send here is knocked out of their socks. I exaggerate you not.

In the Martin McDonagh movie “In Bruges“, which incidentally isn’t entirely well-received here, Ralf Fiennes repeatedly says that Bruges is ‘an effing fairytale, it is’…… and, that’s absolutely true. It’s a medieval village. Wander its streets, its squares, its river banks, eat its chocolate, see the actual blood of Christ. Bruges is a popular weekend destination for Europeans. If you have the option to avoid Friday-Sunday, I recommend it. If you’re trying to decide between Bruges and Ghent – they’re probably similar – yet, Bruges has decided to NOT allow commercial water traffic, so that seems a little better preserved in my opinion. Not judging, just saying. That’s my $0.02.

There are 3 things you must see in Bruges:

  • The Bruges Madonna
  • Old St. John’s Hospital – it’s an art museum, garden, and pharmacy museum. You’ll be glad to learn that ambulances have advanced since the 1100s. Their pharmacy served the community from the 17th century to the 1970s. Yeah, you read that right. And, there’s a painting there that shows the pharmacy in its early days – it hasn’t changed much. Doesn’t that trip you out when you see a painting of a room you’re standing in, yet the painting shows it filled with people in garb centuries older than your own? Same ROOM – it’s the closest we can come to actual time travel. I love that.
  • The Begijnhof – So peaceful, so serene – it’s silent. Literally. Do you know what a Beguines is? Read about them – it’s interesting. After the crusades, many women were left without men to provide for them, so the communities had to do something. They lived in these convent-ish settings like nuns, but didn’t take vows. The Beguines are gone now and it’s an actual convent. I wandered in while they were chanting their prayers in the chapel one day. Mesmerizing.

Wonder why I skipped over any elaboration of the Bruges Madonna above? That’s because there’s no better way to understand why you have to see her than to watch “Monuments Men“. It’s a movie directed by and starring George Clooney. (Is that enough – shall I just close now?) If you like history, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The movie itself isn’t a great work of art – I doubt it will become a classic, but if you’re heading to Bruges, it’s a must see. You have to appreciate the power of art over time – whether the ‘good’ guys or the ‘bad’ guys, people have vied for it and fought over it since its inception. This particular piece also happens to be the only Michelangelo sculpture to have ever left Italy during his lifetime. Art and how it has been received over time, its place in the world, and how its world intersects with my own moves me. I hope it does you.

Sublime

“I’m half-Irish, half-Dutch, and I was born in Belgium. If I was a dog, I’d be in a hell of a mess!”

Audrey Hepburn

4 countries / 4 days

England – France – Belgium – Netherlands:

Starting from within Europe springboards a long weekend – just add trains. The idea hit from around a conference table when a new idea offered potential: We’d all be in the idyllic village of Marlow (near London) at a meeting ending on a Thursday afternoon.  Why not head out by train and see a little?  Checking the rail lines, and tapping into personal experience from UK-based colleagues, we put together the following itinerary:  London, Lille, Bruges & Amsterdam.  Easy….well, sorta.

What we’ll discuss in this post:

  • Planning an itinerary; with fall-back plans
  • Tips on travel tools
  • Restaurant & Cocktails advice
  • Hotel recommendations
  • Sights to consider

Why don’t we take a few extra days and REALLY see some stuff? That was the question on the table.  Essentially, my boss never takes vacation, so we wanted an itinerary that even she would agree was economical (time-wise).  And, another in our 4-man crew, that didn’t actually include any men, was diametrically opposed to just spending a weekend in Paris (we’ve since addressed and resolved that opposition – more to come later).  So, there you have it – we set out.

Have you ever been to Marlow?  I’d never heard of it before I started traveling there for work.  When you arrive in London, you’re really in the thick of a busy, modern travel frenzy.  But, about 1 hour by car, you leave all that behind and fall back at least a century to Marlow.  This is a 700+ year-old town along the Thames where an unassuming little bridge connecting our hotel to shopping and dining is passable by only 1 car at a time – each just patiently waits his turn.  It’s very civilized – we never fail to remark on how that scenario might play out in New Jersey (…no judgment). 

View from the Compleat Angler in Marlow

There are several options for lodging in Marlow, but my favorite is the Compleat Angler.  Situated along the water, you can sit and think, read, have a glass of wine or a peaceful breakfast (highly recommend their breakfasts).  Goal #1:  Work hard – but, when you have the chance to forget you’re at work TAKE IT.  Anyway – it’s an adorable, quirky hotel with twists and turns everywhere you go.  You’ll take several stairways just to get to and from your room – some might be 3 steps, others might be a whole flight.  There will be many. Pack your strength for hauling luggage.  Quaint comes at a price and this one is well worth it.

Breakfast with a View….must I really work after this? (Yes)

Anyway – Marlow was our jumping off point.  Nonetheless – I’d highly recommend visiting these villages around London (e.g. Windsor, anyone?) – each has its own unique charm.  In my opinion, we don’t pause long enough to appreciate the little differences: 

  • Towel warmers in every bathroom even in the most meager accommodations. 
  • Nespresso is pretty standard fare in European hotel rooms, whereas it’s pretty luxe in the states. 
  • Have you ever noticed how unbelievably efficient electric kettles can be?  I really marvel over the stupid little things. 
  • I digress…..

Country #1: United Kingdom

Our official first stop was London – and, this brings me to one of my FAVORITE hotels, the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell.  I’ve stayed here about 4 times since a good friend from college revealed this little gem to me.  Each room is different and perfectly appointed.  I’ve recommended it now to dozens of people – many of whom stayed, as well as drank, here and RAVED about it.  The service is very warm and personal. I’ll admit – I love when a hotel pretends to know me – I say pretends because:  Do you really think that seeing me once a year stands out in their memories?  No – but, they make me THINK it does. 

Zetter Townhouse Lounge & Lobby – tea and snacks by day; cocktails by night

At the stay that launched our 4C/4D, to toast ourselves and our journey – we requested bourbon. The bartender came over and gently asked why we weren’t drinking Scotch whilst in England.  We confessed that we didn’t much care for Scotch, so we opted for its American cousin.  We quickly consented to a lesson on the varieties of Scotch and enjoyed it very much!  In what is often listed as a top cocktail destination in London, this staff took the time to teach us – warm and personal.  Definitely enhanced our evening.  Note – when you check-in, reserve a table in the lounge for later in the evening – you won’t be sorry.

There’s so much to do within walking distance to the Zetter, which I’ll revisit in a future post.  Right now, I must be hungry because I really just want to tell you about food.  The Quality Chop House is craving-worthy and casual – not fussy, but make reservations (they’re on OpenTable).  Seems to be locally sourced, which tells you the menu varies throughout the year.  I’ve visited several times and always bring friends who share in my delight.  Wine options are good and the meat – obviously; it’s their heritage.  Adaptable chefs – I’ve seen them cater to dietary and preference requests without jeopardizing any quality at all.  Dessert – I once ordered a dessert there that was basically vanilla ice cream with olive oil and crunchy salt – don’t knock it.  I’ve been making it myself at home ever since and I’ve won over many a skeptic.  

Let me just say – it was SUPER easy getting to St. Pancras Station from Clerkenwell. Farringdon Station is walkable to Zetter Townhouse, but the advantage to St. Pancras is that it’s international – you can launch your train through The Chunnel and come out in Lille (first stop in France). So, from that perspective, a short cab ride to St. Pancras is worth its weight. Speaking of wait…….security is tight there. Plan to be in a long queue, but it’s reasonable (given international air travel these days). Plan about 75 min prior to boarding (which is about 5-10min prior to departure) and this way you won’t stress. It’s a great train station – not like a regional terminal at all – here are a few tips on how to spend your time. I’m pretty low-maintenance in the morning – black coffee and a bag of breakfast crisps if I’m splurging – but there are MUCH better options to be had there!

IF ADVENTURES DO NOT BEFALL A LADY IN HER OWN VILLAGE, SHE MUST SEEK THEM ABROAD. ”

JANE AUSTEN

Do you have the Citymapper App? This app revolutionized things for me when I discovered it could get me all over NYC and BACK to New Jersey again using NJ transit (no other app could reliably do that……because…..Jersey, I guess). Nevertheless, when I started using this app, they only had New York, London and Paris. I was equally impressed with it in London. It’s SO many places now. You’ll find this to be an indispensable tool. (Digressing again…)Back to Eurostar, there are an average of 9 trains per day going from London to Lille starting from St. Pancras (so you have options) and you arrive in only 1h 22m. I like to arrive in my new destination by lunch, so I backward plan it. In this case, we left our destination the following morning to have lunch in the NEW place, so there was a LOT of backward planning – and, if you wanted to have ANY time to see things……well, you get where I’m going with this.

I like the Trainline App, although I see online, there are dissenting opinions. I’ve used several different apps, but this is one I’ve used most recently (within months) and have found it to be most serviceable. Previously, the various train lines required me to use different apps based on country – this seems to be a little more universal. As with anything, try it out for yourself. And, when it comes to buying train tickets, do the math, map out your itinerary, check arrivals and departure options and THEN ask for a quote. You might tweak your plans based on cost. And, I’d recommend 1st class (shocking) if you can swing it only because it will be less crowded and you’ll more likely have a place to stash your bags (practical). Also, you won’t have to vie for a seat – often, it will be assigned. Either way, they don’t oversell and you can have your tickets in your app. If you plan ahead, train travel is VERY economical – several months out (3-ish).

Lille, France from my hotel room

Country #2: France

Lille, France. We arrived with no expectations – We really knew very little about it except that lots of people from London head there to go shopping for the day. It’s FRANCE. And, it’s only ~1.5h away – for a girl from Texas, that’s extraordinary. I’ve seriously been more than 1.5h away from a MALL before, so the idea of popping over to France for lunch and shopping…?

We chose to stay at Hotel Carlton Lille. The price was right, the accommodations were very nice and the location ideal (as you can see from the pic above). It’s opposite the Opera in the Grand’Place and Old Lille, which is to say many walkable stores, cafes, and restaurants. Have you read The Alice Network? Female spies in WWII….takes place in Lille. Good frame of reference. We didn’t engage in any espionage, but we did treat ourselves to some Longchamp tote bags. Even my fuction-over-form husband agrees that keeping one of these in my suitcase all the time is one of the smartest travel tools ever. Here’s my advice for dinner in Lille – we wandered, got tips, checked TripAdvisor and ended up at a VERY nice place a little earlier than was customary in France (maybe 7-ish?….we’d been traveling). The hostess literally told us to wait outside for 15min until she was ready to open. As I recall, when she opened, she merely flipped the sign….she didn’t even open the door and greet us. After being allowed to sit, she didn’t warm to us, but she did start enthusiastically greeting other patrons…..so we left. We discovered that little side street nooks and crannies had FUN places to go – so, we popped into one that offered home cooking and it was WONDERFUL. My advice – wander around Lille until you see a place where people are having fun and the food smells and looks delicious to you…..and, do it at a decent French hour, like 8. Evenings go long here – being a college town, and with quite a large balcony on my room, I can tell you – there was spontaneous and uproarious singing well into the wee hours. If you’re uptight about that sort of thing, staying in the heart of the city might not be right for you. With the right attitude, though, young people breaking into song, rather than sirens and honking was a refreshing reminder that I wasn’t in any other city I’d ever visited before. That’s my unique ‘sound of Lille’.

Next stop: Bruges – this is an adorable row of restaurants situated near our hotel

Country #3: Belgium

Would you forgive me if I left Bruges to another time…? I have so much I want to tell you about Bruges, that it really must be reserved for my telling of Belgium as a whole. Suffice it to say, Bruges has become one of my favorite places – one that I have yet to get enough time to fully explore. If you look this up geographically, you’ll see that the whole place is more or less walkable in 10min. But, it’s so much more than that.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make Belgium a reference only to hotel and train travel.

Hotel De Castillion has become my new favorite hotel – it’s not average by any stretch.

We arrived in Bruges along with a gaggle of LOTS of other Europeans looking to enjoy the last vestiges of summer in Bruges (it was late September). On the train from Lille, we worried about having only 15min to change trains (with luggage, having to locate tracks, dash through the station, etc) but, they schedule these trains with tight connections for a reason – they’re doable. We changed in Brussles Midi and signage is excellent. Made our train without worries and it was PACKED (as I said before). We didn’t opt for 1st class this leg. Note, weary travelers – don’t discard your train tickets or receipts until you’re safely in your hotel room. All throughout Europe (and, the US for that matter) different stations have different rules. On this trip, Bruges was one where you have to swipe your ticket to get out. So, file this tip aways even if you discard everything else. And, there’s no hope of walking to Bruges proper, so hail a cab – they’re plentiful outside.

Upon arrival at the hotel, we did another last-minute assessment of our itinerary for the next day. Knowing that we’d have to loop back to Brussels Midi to get to Amsterdam, we determined that the early morning departure would be better suited (for us) by car – when there are 4 of you, that’s an option. Single or even double travelers struggle with whether a car is worth it – while the $$ was about the same, the hassle was not – the hotel arranged a car for us, which freed us up emotionally to stay out a little later and sleep a little longer the next day.

Oh, so THIS is an Amsterdam canal.

Country #4: Netherlands

Last, but not least: Amsterdam

If anyone, including me, tells you that they can see Amsterdam in 1 day….they’re kookie. But, I wouldn’t change having stopped over here. It was easy to reach by train and the canals are beautiful to walk around even if you don’t have much time to explore shops, shows, and ALL of the history that Amsterdam has to offer. With VERY limited time, we chose a tour that focused on the Jewish immigrant experience in Amsterdam. It ended at the Anne Frank House. Entrance must be scheduled in advance and it’s very crowded, so plan ahead. The self-guided audio tour is well-paced and engaging. It’s not to be missed – one of the real benefits to travel is getting to expand your perspective – by combining these 2 activities, we were each individually moved. So, while I will eventually go back to see some Van Gogh and Rambrandt, I’m glad that I spent my first trip doing something very real that I can carry with me everywhere.

“Practise what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”

Rembrandt van Rijn

And, with this being our last night on a short, but long, journey, we nestled into our lavish hotel – it was a bit of a splurge, so we doubled up to afford it. Each rooms was spacious with a private balcony on the canal. It’s literally not to be missed. The Ambassade Hotel is a work of art in itself. Everywhere you turn is another original piece (literally, even the stairwells). Their Library Bar is exactly that – over 5,000 books signed by the authors, each one having once been a guest of the hotel. Being a little too tired to explore dinner options, we accepted their invitation to make reservations at their in-house Brasserie. This was no ordinary brasserie – it’s an extraordinary French dining experience. The food was excellent, the service was exceptional. Upon making our reservation, I informed them that I’m Celiac. The waiter greeted us later that evening acknowledging that aspect of my reservation and guiding me in my selections throughout the evening. I can manage on my own most anywhere – but, knowing that they take your health and comfort so seriously is a worthy consideration.

I said my room was on the canal, right? This is the view from my balcony.

A hotel that I did not choose this time, but one that I’m following on Instagram for future consideration is The Toren. If you’ve stayed here before, I’d love to hear about it. Also – any tips you have for a future Amsterdam trip are appreciated.

So, I’ll close this LONG (first) post by promising – they won’t all be this lengthy. But, I hope I’ve inspired you to think about how EASY it is to arrange a long weekend that can touch 4 countries in 4 days – It was a teeny bit exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Not only did I get to know some of my favorite work colleagues in ways that you can only achieve at 7am on a train…with a 5min connection…on only 5 hours of sleep…..for 4 days in row. I also saw parts of the world I’ve ALREADY gone back to visit again – and, I might not have ever seen them at all if they hadn’t been on the train line out of St. Pancras on a long weekend.