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In 2015, we went to Belgium, plan that had been in the back of our minds for months. Indeed, given that J.R. had been living in the Paris region since 2013, that charming small country is easily accessible to him for a short stay. Besides, he had succumbed to the temptation twice on his own, and the memories he had reaffirmed our wish to go there together and to fill out our list of visited countries in the process. That's why I went meet him before I leave with him to have an extended weekend in late May in the beautiful region of Flanders, from which we had the luxury of an excursion in the Netherlands, more specifically in Breskens and Sluis.
We notably visited two must-see cities filled with history that vie to outdo each other in beauty: Brugge and Gent. We've been amazed by a green and very flowered countryside under the spring sun, where very typical barns, castles, abbeys run along, as well as dikes and channels. Some mills that stood the test of time rise majestically there. That's why we consider the term «flat country» is very reductionist. First, only the northern part of Belgium – mainly made of plains - is concerned. The southern part is hillier, even mountainous in some places. But above it all, it's likely to give a negative perception of those lands filled with beauty and character. But the Belgian people seem to put up with it, because they are very humble and have a great sense of humor and self-mockery, which doesn't alter in any way the pride in their origins. There, we met simple and hospitable people, warm and sincere smiles.
And then, we went to Brussels in mid-October for another extended weekend that ended in Mons, European Capital of Culture 2015. Sincerely, we liked the capital less than Brugge and Gent, but everything is relative: it's undeniable that it pales in comparison with the two cities of the Flanders, but it's full of treasures, the most publicized is naturally its sumptuous Grand Place.
In any case, those two short stays tempted us to go back there regularly, because even though it's a small country, Belgium is very rich and varied in many areas. Its regions all have their character and their history, sometimes tormented. That's why you can discover it in various steps over time.
The city of Charles V is an undisputable beauty which matches Brugge. They have in common their historic centers with cobbled lanes, their gabled-end brick façades with dentils and their channels which gives them an undeniable charm. However, Gent is more student so more lively, and less touristy. It has not the «museum city» side of Brugge and consequently it's less appreciated. Yet, historical buildings and culture institutions abound. It has two medieval fortresses, churches and abbeys, beguine convents and many museums. It's even more beautiful at night when its superb illuminated façades reflect on the smooth water of the channels. Its wide squares surrounded by typical lanes are sumptuous. Gent is resolutely multicultural, modern and eclectic. You discover it the best on foot or by bike, as well as its surroundings. It tempts to stroll because even though it's very lively, you feel like lingering in every corner to enjoy the moment and immerse yourself in its atmosphere.
The Belfry, built in the 14th century, dominates the Historic Center with its height of 91 meters. Its carillon has 53 bells, the whole actuated by an impressive mechanism. On its base, the Sheet Market from the 15th century was yet only completed in the 20th century. It's Late Gothic style. Nearby is the Royal Dutch Theatre. You can see on its beautiful Renaissance façade the Goddess of Harmony as well as Apollo and the Muses. The Saint-Bavon Cathedral, Brabant Gothic style, houses a Roman style crypt. Altars are numerous, but its main attraction remains the famous painting «the Mystic Lamb». It has other artworks, notably paintings and sculptures. Its tower is almost as high as the Belfry, which it used to overtop when it still had its spire. On the top of the Masons’ House, Moorish Dancers seem to jiggle gracefully. The Castle of Gérard le Diable is an amazing building from the 13th century in the city center. It houses nowadays the National Archives. The Herbs Quay and the Seeds Quay face each other around a channel, displaying their superb façades. According to us, it's the most beautiful place in town at night, when it's illuminated with a soft light that tempts to contemplation and dreamlike.
In the De Zuid district, the SMAK (Contemporary Art Municipal Museum) is a must-visit. We understand why it's the pride of the city. The most popular contemporary artistic movements are represented and prestigious exhibitions take place. Nearby, the MSK (Fine-Arts Museum) is very functional, in addition to its impeccable estheticism. It includes among others an amphitheater and a library. The University Botanical Garden, one of the numerous green areas in Gent, has a wide variety of plants. The Saint-Pierre Abbey was built in the 17th century on a former Roman abbey church from the 7th century. The site includes ruins, as well as gardens and vineyards. Its Center of Arts offers many temporary exhibitions. Finally, the Ruelle de Verre is the unusual place in the district, or even in town: covered with a glass dome, you can see there prostitute making lascivious eyes to you behind windows.
It's hard to miss the Gravensteen when you take a walk in the Patershol district. Like the Gérard le Diable Castle, it's an imposing building located in the center of the city. Fortified castle from the 12th century with crenellations and turrets, it houses an unusual collection of torture instruments. It's possible to walk on the enclosure wall and enjoy an unrestricted view of the city. The Alijn House is a set of nice houses with immaculate façades that houses the Museum of Flemish Popular Traditions, a miniature beguine convent and a puppet theatre.
The Saint-Bavon Abbey, located in the Portus Ganda district, was founded in the 7th century. Charles V had it destroyed almost completely to have the Spanish Castle built. However, the former abbey church was built again.
We stayed in the Maalte Chalet hotel, in the pleasant green setting of Maaltepark, located in the south-west entrance of the city. The very typical building is filled with an old-fashioned and very authentic charm. In the entrance hall stands an old piano. Inside our room stood antique armchairs, a chessboard and a bookcase with an old encyclopedia. We were surprised, especially since it was a 2 star hotel. We got a right warm welcome. The breakfast and the service were high quality. We also enjoyed the idyllic park, haven of peace with soft and varied colors which allowed us to disconnect from the city while we wandered.
The «Northern Venice» is often considered as the most beautiful and the most romantic city in the country. As soon as you enter its city center, you understand why. Strolling in the heart of its sumptuous medieval times setting is like travelling in time and is a real change of scenery. The numerous channels tangled up there give it a fairy atmosphere, especially at night, when it's adorned with a soft light under the dimmed lighting. A ride in boat will allow you to see it from a different perspective as you pass under its countless bridges filled with charm and to discover its secret gardens. Obviously, it's the victim of its own success during vacation, weekends and fairy days, and you see an almost permanent parade of pedestrians, cyclists and carriages. Nevertheless, it kept an authentic charm. Its historic and cultural buildings seem to have stood the test of time and the throes of mass tourism. People in Brugge are nice, helpful and cheerful. It adds to the impression of sweetness of life of the city. Contrary to Gent, it's not a student city. So, it has not the same exuberant nightlife. Catering there is high quality. Obviously, the unavoidable chocolate shops and lacework shops are numerous, as well as antique stores, curio shops and art galleries.
The Historic Center, which is built around the Grote Markt and the Burg, include naturally most of monuments. It's on the list of world heritage of UNESCO. It's full of museums, but be aware that they close rather soon. The Belfry rises on Grote Markt to dominate the city with its 83 meters. Its carillon has 47 bells. Climbing it is physical, but it’s worth because the panoramic view of Brugge is unique. The Burg is the other must-visit square in the city. Its City Hall from the 14th century is a Flemish-Brabant architectural treasure. It's gabled with turrets and beautiful coat of arms decorate the façade on which are numerous high and narrow windows. Feel free to enter and visit the Gothic Room adorned with sumptuous frescoes from the late 19th century. Nearby, the magnificent Neo-Gothic style Saint-Sang Basilica, houses the Roman style Saint-Basile Chapel. Also on the Burg, Franc de Bruges is a Classic style building which includes the Courthouse and a sumptuous Renaissance style room. Like the capital, Brugge has its own Chocolate Museum. Nevertheless, its Fries Museum is just as instructive in addition to being playful.
The Beguine Convent, real village in the city, enjoys an incomparable bucolic setting. Overall, it's quieter than the city center but it draws crowds almost as much. Like frozen in time, it takes you to a bygone era from centuries ago. Its traditional whitewashed façades give it a quite particular character you only can find in Northern Europe. Its little garden, haven of greenery pleasantly shaded is absolutely peaceful and quiet. The romance and the dreamlike coming from the Lake of Love Park and its superb wooded paths essentially planted with poplars will certainly seduce you.
East of the city, Sainte-Anne – its oldest district – is located between the Historic Center and the Gand-Ostende Channel, along which run preserved mills. There are four, the only saved among those built along the ramparts from the 13th century to the 19th century. It's an under-visited residential area, which earned him the nickname of «forgotten corner». But its peace is precisely appreciable and its atmosphere is conductive to long walks far from the beaten tracks of tourism. Nevertheless, it includes some attractive museums and places of worship, among others the Lace Center and the English Convent.
West of the city, 't Zand, yet lively, is lesser known by most of visitors. Indeed, they come there in the beginning of their stay to use the services of the Tourism Office, and then they leave it in favor of the Historic Center and the Beguine Convent. It is especially famous for its wide square lined with cafés and restaurants and its theater: the Concertgebouw.
Located in verdant polders a few kilometers North-West of Brugge, Damme is a small picturesque small town. It was previously on the edge of the former Zwin estuary and linked to the North Sea by a channel. It was an outer-harbor of the «Northern Venice» and developed simultaneously with it. It started to decline as a result of the Zwin sanding. In spite of its small size, it has many monuments: the Gothic style Town Hall on the Market Square, the Saint-Jean Hospital built in the 13th century, the Big Star House which now houses the Tourism Office, the Uilenspiegel Museum and Our Lady Church. To these are added the former herring market, the former ramparts, the windmill, and old barns with an old-fashioned charm. The setting there is natural and enchanting. Verdant polders and fruit trees are next to fields of flowers and natural creeks. Along the main channel, a paddle boat slides peacefully through the water.
- De Haan (Le Coq sur Mer)
Let's face the truth: the Belgian coast is excessively urbanized. It stretches on almost 70 kilometers, and blocks of flats run along it almost completely. There are a series of seaside resorts, linked by a tramway which serves each one on no less than 70 stations! Rather ugly modern buildings swallowed up the few left style buildings. Fortunately, a nature reserve extends near each borderline (French and Dutch). They allow you to enjoy preserved coastal areas.
Besides, two seaside resorts stand out for having kept an undeniable authenticity: Knokke and De Haan. We visited the latter on a beautiful sunny Sunday. And we must admit we were enchanted. It seems that time stopped in the 1930's there. Villas proudly rise among flowered and verdant gardens, witnesses of an era that seems to remain in that enchanting coastal small town. The site is classified and makes room among others to Anglo-Norman buildings like the Grand Hotel Belle Vue, or Art Deco style buildings like Hotel Astoria. The tramway station displays its beautiful Belle Époque façade.
The «Capital of Europe», cosmopolitan and welcoming, makes part of the cities that cannot be missed. People come from every corner of the Old Continent – sometimes of the world – to visit it and immerse themselves in its unique atmosphere. Multicultural, multilingual, its extraordinary diversity is undeniable. Its Historic Center, which is built around the Grote Markt - with a remarkable architectural richness – abounds with other must-sees like the legendary Manneken-Pis, the Saint-Michel Cathedral, the Saint-Hubert Galleries... However, the other districts also worth the visit and enjoy as well a certain animation, given that the former inner suburbs of the cities are very wide. If you're interested in architecture and if you are not indifferent to the opulent and unbridled curves of Art Nouveau, be aware that Brussels and its outskirts include many buildings in this style, notably in Ixelles and Saint-Gilles, where stands the Horta Museum dedicated to Victor Horta, one of the undisputed master of this movement. Green areas are not left behind, with parks and gardens, and above all a forest at the edge of the city. Obviously, chocolate shops and estaminets or breweries where beer flows abundantly are numerous. Also rooted in the country's heritage, the comic strip is honored in the whole city, as well in dedicated establishments like the Belgian Center of Comic Strip as on the numerous murals dispersed in all districts.
- Historic Center and surroundings
Classified UNESCO World Heritage, the Grote Markt is a real architectural gem. It displays its façades that rise proudly to shape a perfect rectangle within which an admiring and enthusiastic crowd come to stream in close rows at peak times. The ensemble has a remarkable harmony. The Town Hall, built in the 15th century in Gothic style in three stages, is the main building. Its stunning 96 meters spire seems to overlook the town and is used as a landmark. Its façade has no less than 150 statues! Feel free to cross the carriage entrance to enter its beautiful courtyard. Another Gothic building, the King's House, includes the Brussels City Museum, which traces its history through many artworks, scale models and others. It also houses the extensive collection of the Manneken-Pis' costumes. The other buildings of the square – notably the Corporations House – are a harmonious mix of Italian Baroque and Brabant-Flemish architecture.
Nearby, beautiful medieval streets and alleys get tangled up to shape the «Îlot Sacré», classified UNESCO World Heritage. Gabled-end brick façades with dentils multiply to the delight of marveled visitors. Generally, there are many cafés and restaurants in the very typical small streets of that district with an old trading history.
In the close surroundings, you will find the Manneken-Pis, famous bronze statuette that needs no introduction. Maybe you will be surprised by its small size: it's hardly more than 50 centimeters high. Iconic sculpture of the city, it's sometimes disguised and the water in the fountain is even replaced by beer! However, few people know its female version Jeanneke-Pis which stands in a small dead-end street on the other side of the Grote Markt, and even less its canine version, the Zinneke-Pis that you will meet in the Saint-Géry district.
The Cocoa and Chocolate Museum – renamed Choco-story Brussels – will reveal you all the secrets of chocolate manufacturing and origins, all that in an old-fashioned setting. Obviously, demonstrations and tastings are also part of the program to the greatest delight of taste buds. On a different register, the Costume and Lace Museum is worth a visit as well.
The Saint-Hubert Royal Galleries, covered with a splendid glass roof, house on two floors theatres, shops and cafés, the whole in a remarkable Renaissance style.
The Saint-Nicolas Church, built between the 11th and the 12th century, honors the patron of merchants. It's modest size, so that it seems to mix with the old houses placed by its side. Nearby stands the Stock Exchange, imposing building from the late 19th century which columns remind the Greek architecture.
- Other districts
In the Monnaie district, the Monnaie Royal Theatre displays its Néo-classical façade. Inside, a beautiful crimson and golden decoration surrounds the stage where very famous shows take place. Nearby rise the towers in Brabant Gothic style of the Saint-Michel-et-Sainte-Gudule Cathedral, built in the 13th century on the remains of a Roman Church, as evidenced by the crypt. Its stained glass of the «Judgment Day» is sumptuous. Not far stands the Belgian Center of Comic Strip. It's an Art Nouveau style building from the early 20th century we owe the famous Victor Horta and its so particular style. The history of the 9th Art is traced, and the Belgian Comic Strip is naturally honored, especially Hergé and Tintin. The great library contains a priceless collection. The center also houses nice scale models.
The Sainte-Catherine district was built on the former basins of the city. The place is now full of restaurants specialized in fish. However, there are still some old houses that enable it to keep its character, as well as its church, harmonious mix of Renaissance, Roman and Gothic influences. Saint-Géry is one of the most lively districts, with its numerous trendy bars. Its Halles, where the covered market used to take place, are Flemish Neo-Renaissance style. Nearby, the Rue des Riches-Claires and its surroundings take you to medieval times. Its red brick Baroque style church is a masterpiece. Not far, Dansaert has become lately the district of young innovative fashion designers after it sank into oblivion. Cafés are numerous, as well as very eclectic restaurants and art galleries.
Place Royale, Place du Musée, the Park and Rue Royale make up the Royal District, beautiful Neo-classical ensemble. It was built on the ashes of the sumptuous Palais de Bruxelles, which was built in the 11th and the 12th century, and which burnt in the 18th century. Not far, the Mont des Arts, with its impressive finely-worked stairs, seems to link this district to Old Town District. Its gardens and its water jets give it a very pleasant atmosphere. Don't miss on observing the details of the clock with carillons supported by its arch. As the name suggests, cultural institutions are represented there, among others the Fine Arts Royal Museum, the Belvue Museum, and the Musical Instruments Museum, superb Art-Nouveau style building (former «Old England» shop from Victor Horta).
The Marolles popular district is especially famous for its Sunday flea market always very bustling. The Hal Gate and its impressive tower, which offers a panoramic view of the city, dates from the 15th century. Those are the last remains of old Brussels fortifications. Now, they house a museum and temporary exhibitions.
The Sablons stylish district has many restaurants, chocolate shops, antique stores and art galleries. The Grand-Sablon enjoys nice houses built from the 16th century to the 19th century that gives it an asserted character and an old-fashioned charm. Its main attraction is naturally the antique market that draws crowds every weekend. It is worth to linger in the Petit-Sablon Square. That Neo-Renaissance style garden includes many statues, notably the ones on the wrought iron railing that defines the square.
In the European District, the European Parliament divides the inhabitants of Brussels: some see a modern architecture masterpiece in it, others see an eyesore that spoils the panorama. The visitor center (Parlementarium) offers original and fun exhibitions, notably a map of Europe in 3D. The contrast with the Parc Leopold, very preserved haven of greenery created in the mid 19th century in the best tradition of landscape gardens, is striking. As for it, the wide Parc du Cinquantenaire dates from the late 19th century. Its wide lawns are much appreciated as soon as the sun comes out. It includes three remarkable museums: the 50th Anniversary Museum, the Museum of Army and Military History, and Autoworld.
You will see the Atomium from a distance as you join the Heysel district and the park with the same name. Grandiose project aimed at building a frame that represents an iron crystal molecule enlarged 165 billion times, it’s part of the must-visits in the city. The inside can be visited and you can enjoy an unrestricted view of the city from its highest sphere. Various exhibitions take place there. Finally, don't hesitate to make a stop at the Miniature Europe and to bring eventually your children. It's both a very original and a very fun way to learn about the Old Continent.
Mons was built in the 7th century on a hill, on top of which the Sainte-Calixte Chapel (15th century) testifies what was the old fortified town. Its Grand Place is wide and colored, given that some façades were plaster-coated the old way. It also includes a fountain. Every year on Trinity Sunday takes place there the famous «ducasse», real popular traditional festival that draws enthusiastic crowds. The City Hall, built in the 15th century is Gothic style. It has an astronomical clock, a luminous dial and a bell tower that was added in the 18th century. You will notice with amusement many people heading for a specific location on its façade, right next to which is placed the metal statue of a little monkey. According to the legend, caressing its head with your left hand will bring you luck. Take the time to enter the main courtyard after you passed under the porch, and then cross the small tunnel to have access to the nice Mayeur Garden to linger there a few minutes and enjoy its tranquility.
Contrary to some cities in Belgium, the Mons Belfry is not located in the Grand Place, but within a stone's throw of there on top of a small hill, which increases its dominance. To get to it, we took a detour entering small streets where beautiful trompe-l'oeil murals picture scenes of «films noirs» from the 50's, to reach the pleasant flowered Saint-Germain Square which has a decorative bowl. From there, you can see it overlooking the town with its 87 meters. Built in the 18th century in Baroque style, it's gabled with onion-shaped domes that add to its beauty. Its carillon includes 49 bells. It's surrounded by verdant and wooded gardens.
The Sainte-Waudru Collegiate Church makes part of the monuments in town that worth a visit. Built from the 15th century to the 17th century, we owe its sumptuous alabaster decoration to Jacques du Broeucq, figure in the Renaissance in Northern Europe. It houses beautiful silversmith collections, sculptures, paintings and manuscripts.
Mons has very interesting museums: the François Duesberg Decorative Arts Museum will impress you with the richness of its collections, notably its incomparable collection of clocks. Various bronze artifacts, porcelain and silversmith are not forgotten. The Natural History Museum is distinguished especially in the field of zoology, introducing species from all around the world, even though most of them come from Europe. The BAM (Musée des Beaux-Arts), the Military History Museum and the Mons Memorial Museum, open in 2015 on the occasion of «Mons 2015 – European Capital of Culture» worth a visit as well.
Published on November, 23rd 2016