The Last Trip. Part 2: Belgium

The plane touched down in Los Angeles on December 14, 2019.  After a 12-hour flight from Europe, we were exhausted but deeply satisfied with our latest adventures in Paris, Belgium, and London.  We had no foreshadowing that our travels would come to an abrupt halt.  Within a month of our return, the world’s nations began shutting their borders against the COVID-19 pandemic like falling dominoes. I detailed the first leg of our trip in: The Last Trip: Part 1. Paris in December.

Part 2: Belgium

Our Paris trip was cut short due to unforeseen circumstances, which I described in A Paris Strike: Unexpected Detour. Undaunted, we extended our pre-planned trip to Belgium from three to seven days. Our original stay was supposed to be rather short, because none of my friends and acquaintances are enthusiastic about Belgium. My mother made a face when I told her I was going there. She said it was “horrible.”

In my experience, I must take negative travel reviews with a grain of salt. For instance, on a previous trip, I spent one week in Ireland and then one week in Scotland. All the Irish people couldn’t figure out why anyone would go to Scotland. They were truly stumped on that topic. Obviously, I needed to see Belgium for myself. I wanted french fries, chocolate, and the architecture of Ghent and Bruges.

Our first stop was Ghent. As we exited the tram, our jaws dropped at the sight of the exquisite, medieval city center. My husband asked me where our hotel was located. I simply pointed at the massive, gorgeous building in front of us, which was the backdrop to the city’s extensive Christmas market. I have stayed in many hotels over the years, but 1898 The Post is one of my favorites. It has a timeless feel–it melded perfectly with its medieval surroundings while still being modern. And, yet, spending an evening at the cocktail bar was like stepping back into the glamor of the 1920s.

The Hotel

Some cities have world-famous tourist sites that cannot be missed, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the Statue of Liberty in New York. Not so in Ghent. Make no mistake–Ghent has a number of museums, a rather strange castle, and a beautiful church that houses the Ghent Altarpiece, a masterpiece of European art. The real highlights of this university town for me were the people-watching, the public spaces, the awe-inspiring architecture, and the fabulous food and drink. One could imagine renting an apartment and staying a while.

From our base in Ghent, we took a day trip to Brussels. When people seem a bit put off by Belgium, it is possible they are thinking of Brussels. This large city, at first glance, seemed to lack any charm or vitality. To be fair, we visited on a cold, windy, rainy and miserable day.

We trudged through the wet city and popped into various tourist sites. The cathedral and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts were simply OK. The expensive, hop-on/hop-off tour left us confused, because the bus driver played the pre-recorded narration at any old point along the route without matching it to a particular location. The largest Christmas market, oddly, did not spark any joy in my holiday-loving soul.

Then, a travel miracle occurred to save the day. We were too tired to care anymore, so we popped into a touristy restaurant that should have been AWFUL. Yet, I ordered an extraordinarily delicious dish involving toast smothered in gourmet, creamed mushrooms. My mom made a similar dish when I was young. I am sorry to report that her American version made with canned cream of mushroom soup did not hold up well by comparison. (Disclaimer: With the exception of this mushroom problem and a rather unfortunate zucchini casserole, my mother was a good cook.)

Image of mushrooms on toast.

Good mood restored, we exited the restaurant to the Grand Place, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. As we admired the magnificent architecture, the lights dimmed and a glorious Christmas light and music show began. The City of Brussels website describes it as an 8-minute, “360° sound and light show that takes place on the facades of the Grand-Place (including the City Hall) around the theme of the enrichment of encounters.”

Grand Place

I just mentioned to my husband that I was writing about our day in Brussels. He narrowed his eyes and stubbornly declared, “I did NOT like Brussels.” When pressed, however, he agreed that the day ended well. As he pondered this idea, he slowly nodded and declared that, in hindsight, the Grand Place was worth the trip.

Bruges was the next stop on our itinerary. There is a great debate on the internet about whether Bruges or Ghent is “better.” This is a pointless debate, as both cities are delights of history, architecture, food and charm. While Ghent had a medieval, “cool” vibe, Bruges had a medieval, fairytale feel, complete with picturesque canals.

I have read that pre-pandemic Bruges was often mobbed with tourists. However, Bruges during the second week of December 2019 had plenty of room for everyone. We arrived by train, and quickly found our way to another hotel that has won a permanent place in my heart–Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce. This waterfront hotel was pricey, but worth every penny. Think elegant, historic, and oozing with Christmas spirit.

Our first few hours in Bruges were spent walking around in a charm-induced stupor. This may help explain what happened next. We planned to visit the Groeninge Museum. As the website explains, “It is one of the most beautiful collections in the world, containing many landmark works from the history of European art.” Instead, we somehow ended up at the Gruuthusemuseum, which is a museum about the history of Bruges. I did not realize my mistake until about halfway through my visit, when I grew suddenly suspicious at the noticeable lack of actual paintings. My husband had no idea what museum we were supposed to visit, so he never noticed that anything was amiss. The mix-up was fortuitous, because I learned a heck of a lot about Bruges. My favorite exhibit detailed how the city was meticulously restored in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part to attract tourists. Apparently, that plan worked.

Center of Bruges with Christmas Market

An unexpected favorite experience in Bruges was the Historium Bruges. The main part of the attraction is a rather strange recreation of Bruges history using props, sets and film. I was underwhelmed. THEN, something magnificent happened. At the end of the exhibit, visitors may add on a virtual reality tour of medieval Bruges. In all my years of traveling, I have never experienced anything quite as technologically awesome as being transported back in time via virtual reality. Medieval Bruges surrounded me, and I could look up, down and around me at buildings and landscapes that no longer exist. This technology is a game changer for history buffs and avid travelers.

Flanders Fields
The next morning, we took a small group tour from Bruges to Flanders Fields–an enormous area where some of the most brutal fighting in World War I took place. The day of our tour was shockingly cold. Even the Canadians on the tour were freezing. This weather issue made us incredibly uncomfortable all day. We tried not to complain, because you know who were more uncomfortable than us? The soldiers from the war who had to live in these flooded, rat-infested trenches in the middle of freezing Belgian winters. If we had taken the same tour on a picture-perfect, spring day, I am not sure we would have understood the horrors of those trenches. As we hopped out of the van at each new memorial or major battle site, we listened with great interest at the history of the war and then ran as fast as possible back to the tour van and its heater.

As expected, seeing the actual battlefields in person was an educational experience that cannot be replicated through a classroom or books. I was surprised to learn that the war continues to impact Belgium. During the war, more than 1.5 billion bombs were dropped in Belgium, and 30% of those bombs never exploded, including still-potent chemical weapons. The tour guide told us that it will take 80 more years to completely clear the landscape of those bombs, and that, one hundred years after the war ended, people still die from encounters with war munitions. These bombs are buried in the farmland of Belgium, and farmers are not reimbursed for the damage that the bombs continue to inflict on their land, bodies, and equipment.

Christmas in Belgium
Ghent and Bruges usually rank high on lists of best Christmas destinations in the world. I consider myself a bit of a Christmas travel expert these days, as I keep dragging my husband to foreign countries at the beginning of every December. Although I loved Ghent’s Christmas market, which spread out beneath my hotel bedroom window, I would rather have seen Ghent and Bruges for the first time in the glorious weather of early summer or early autumn. The Christmas ambiance felt like more of an afterthought in those cities rather than a reason for traveling during a cold winter. Note: My husband says I am I doing a disservice to Ghent and Bruges, and that he thought they were very Christmasy. He said he’d write his own blog post if I didn’t type this, and no one really needs that.

View of the Christmas Market from My Ghent Hotel Room

Food in Belgium
We need many more days in Belgium to immerse ourselves in the tastes of this wonderful country, but my favorites were Belgium waffles, which are much more delicious than the American version; gourmet chocolate; marzipan; mussels; and a Christmas treat called Ollie Bollens, which tastes suspiciously like beignets. Also, the Belgians have an interesting and fun sense of humor when it comes to chocolate, which comes in the shape of many graphic body parts (not pictured here). As promised, we had french fries. So many french fries. In fact, on our first night in Belgium, we went to a french fry “atelier” and sampled a variety of gourmet french fries and toppings.

Although we spent more time in Belgium than anticipated, it was not enough. With reluctance, we boarded the train for the third leg of our journey: London.

For more Christmas-time adventures, please see:

Kronborg Castle: A Danish Castle at Christmas

A Christmas Hike in the Alsace: Riquewihr to Ribeauville

Christmas in the Alsace: A One-Week Itinerary

New York at Christmas: An Itinerary

California Beach Towns: Who Needs a White Christmas?

A Very Vegas Holiday

It’s Winter: Start Traveling!

The Nantucket Christmas Stroll: A Festive Weekend in New England