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For my first weekend trip outside of Netherlands, I thought I should go somewhere close, some place where I can take the train to. It turns out the obvious choice is Brussels in Belgium. I like the idea of going there, since it is not anybody’s top choice of European destination, but I didn’t know much about Brussels. I only know that it is the capital of European Union. Then someone from the office mentioned that Bruges, a city not far from Brussels, is a popular tourist destination as well. So my plan is to stay in Brussels for the weekend, with a day trip to Bruges. Skimming through some of the guidebooks I got from libraries, they seem to suggest spending one day in each city, so I figured I can just follow the books without much planning.

Day Zero – Train to Brussel-Noord:
Hotel, Grand Place and St Catherine Square

Train ride from Amsterdam to Brussels takes about 2 hours, but the fare was a little more than I expected; just a bit cheaper than plane tickets. I caught a train early in the evening, which is probably the busiest, with many workers going back home for the weekend. But by getting there early, I could do some sightseeing that night.

8:30pm Hilton Brussels City Hotel
Hilton Brussels City
The Hilton hotel I stayed at is walking distance from the train station. It seemed new, and everything looked great. It doesn’t have a lounge like most other Hilton hotels, but it has an area that serves pretty good breakfast.

9:30pm Grand Place and St Catherine Square
Brussels Town Hall
After wasting a bit of time in the hotel, I headed out to probably the biggest attraction of the city at that moment, the Christmas Market. I had never been to any Christmas Market in Europe. I have heard of them, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. For Brussels, their Christmas Market spanned from Grand Place to St Catherine Square (or the Fish Market district.) So when I got there, I was overwhelmed, with tons of people, lots of stalls set up selling food and gifts. And the Grand Place is one of most beautiful squares I’ve seen. The colors of light they use to impose on the buildings was very impressive. Over at the St Catherine Square, there was a skating rink and a Ferris wheel, with just as many people. Even though it was supposed to be just below freezing point, it felt a lot colder. (And I remember reading reports about Toronto having a warm December.) After spending an hour or so, I figured I don’t need to see these places in day light; I can’t imagine it being more fun than Christmas Market in night time. Before going back to the hotel, I went to look for a restaurant the book recommends. It is an old restaurant that serves traditional Belgian food, although I can’t really tell how is it different from other western food, I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Day One – No trains to Bruges:
EU area, Arcade du Cinquantenaire, St Gilles and Ixelles, and Place Royale

On Saturday, bright and early, 8 in the morning, I walked to the train station I got off the night before, planning to take a train to Bruges. What I saw when I got there, was a small crowd of people standing around outside of entrance to the platforms. The person at the ticket office told me the train operators went on strike for the day, so there won’t be any service and they hope it’ll resume on Sunday(!) So I had no choice but to go back to my room, and to rethink my plan for the day. My plan for Brussels, originally for Sunday, was to sleep in, relax and just chill out in the Grand Place square or somewhere. But since I was up early already, I thought maybe I should just walk around and explore some of the neighborhoods.

10:00am Subway to EU area
Berlaymont Building - European Commission HQ
I decided to follow a walking tour in the Lonely Planet book. I thought this one is a bit interesting as it includes a little bit of the EU area. But there is really not much to see, other than a few big EU buildings at the beginning of the tour.

11:00am Arcade du Cinquantenaire
Arcade du Cinquantenaire
Another nice place I walked by on this tour is the Cinquantenaire (Golden Jubilee) Park, and there is the Brussels’ version of Triumphal Arch. I definitely enjoyed this part of the tour the most, but a big part of this walking tour is the architecture of the Art Nouveau era. I did not even know the term until I first saw it in the Lonely Planet book, and even now, I do not know how I would describe it. It has an nice unique style on the exterior of the building, mostly with the frames and the actual windows or doors. I saw three of those
Art Nouveau buildings in this walk.

12:30pm Walking in St Gilles and Ixelles
Maison Camberlaini
After finishing the walk close to the EU area, I decided to follow another Lonely Planet walk in some residential neighborhood, with even more Art Nouveau buildings. I did this mainly because I wasn’t so interested in the main attractions of the city (although I wish I knew about the Atomium.) In the beginning, I had some difficulties recognizing the buildings with Art Nouveau style. I guess as I followed the second walking tour, it gets a little easier for me to spot them. (I have to say Lonely Planet has listed street name and number for those buildings, with great maps for reference.)

3:30pm Place Royale
Place Royale
While I was getting to the start of the second walk, I was riding on a streetcar, and we passed by a busy square, with palace and museum surrounding it. Then I realized that is where most other attractions located. So after finishing my second walk (for about two hours), I took a streetcar back to that square area, called Place Royale. There is a few attractions near the square: Palace of Justice, the Royal Palace, and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. It was getting late, so I didn’t get to go inside any of those places, but it is nice to walk around these places, taking some pictures.

6:00pm Back to Grand Place
Maison du Roi - providing spotlights to Town Hall
After wandering around in Place Royale area for an hour or so, I started heading back to the Christmas Market in the Grand Place. It’s not exactly a short walk, and there is not much to see on the way, other than this little landmark called Manneken Pis. Not really sure what was the big deal about this little fountain sculpture, but many tourists seem to enjoy taking pictures with it. While I was at it, I couldn’t resist trying the Belgium Waffle. It really can’t go wrong, it gets kinda messy eating it. The main reason for going back to Grand Place is to catch a performance they have on Saturdays during the Christmas Market. This time they have Italian Opera from the balcony of the Town Hall. It was actually a little early when I got to Grand Place, so I went to a small street nearby, called Rue des Bouchers, where they have door to door restaurants. I ended up going to a popular restaurant that is famous for their Belgium mussels. It was a quick meal because I ordered the everyday special: mussels, chips, and beer. After dinner, I went back to the square and watched a bit of Italian Opera. It was another freezing cold night, but it didn’t affect the outdoor performance by the singers. This was truly an unique European experience.

Day Two – Trains to Bruges back on:
Belfort and the Markt, the Burg, Rozenhoedkaai, and Biking to Damme

Not entirely sure if there is train service, I went to the train station again the next morning, and I was relieved to learn that service was back on that day. Train ride was about one hour from Brussels to Bruges. While on the train, I was reading the travel guides on Bruges, and one of them highly recommends a bike ride to a village called Damme, not far from Bruges. Since the train station is not exactly in the city, I figured I could use a bike to get to city center, and give myself an option of going to Damme.

10:00am Belfort and the Markt
View of Bruges from Belfort
It took me about 15 to 20 minutes to bike from the train station to city center. There is basically two main squares in city center, one is the Market Square (the Markt), and the other is the Burg. Most of the Markt was occupied by their Christmas Market. But I was really early there, so not much was going on. The biggest landmark there is the bell tower (the Belfort) and I climbed its 366 steps to the top, to have a bird’s-eye view of Bruges.

11:00am The Burg
Stadhuis (Town Hall)
The other square, the Burg, is just a few steps from the Market Square. The most interesting feature of this square is that you can see different style of buildings in architecture history, all in one place.

12:00pm Rozenhoedkaai
Rozenhoedkaai, The Quay of the Rosary
Rozenhoedkaai, the quay of the Rosary, has to be the most photographed image in Bruges. I was really on my way to a church and a couple of museums, and only steps away from the Burg, I was pleasantly surprised this beautiful scenery. With the help of a guidebook, I was able to visit several other different places in two hours or so. It was rather rush, but I have decided to bike to Damme, and I wanted to do that and come back before sunset (not too comfortable biking between towns in darkness.) Since day was getting short (pretty dark by 5pm), I needed to go in early afternoon.

3:00pm Biking to Damme
Just outside of Damme
I got a map with bicycle routes to the towns near Bruges, even to the extend of borders with Netherlands. I’m not sure if I had bike in a prettier setting than this country side, with trees lined on both sides of a canal. This is the case where the statement, “it is not the destination, it’s the journey,” applies. (But then of course I was not riding a Harley.) It’s about 7km between Bruges and Damme, but I was taking my time biking (and taking pictures). So it took me almost an hour to get to Damme.

4:00pm Damme
View of Damme from Church Tower
There is not that much to see in Damme, which is basically a one main street town. One of the more interesting buildings there is this big church with a tower standing next to it. Normally there is no access to the church tower in winter, but they were having some kind of bird-watching event, so I get to go up on the tower, while the people were watching birds with telescopes, I was there to look at the surrounding area with the setting sun.

4:30pm Leaving Damme
Damse Vaart canal
It was getting a bit later than I wanted, but timing couldn’t be any better, to catch last bit of sunset over the canal. There were even some windmills on the way; it feels more like Dutch than Belgian.

5:30pm Back to the Burg and the Markt
The Burg
By the time I got back to Bruges at 5:30pm, it was pretty much all dark already. I took some more pictures of the same places I’ve been in the morning, had dinner at a restaurant in the Market Square, took a train back to Brussels, where I spent one more night before going back to Amsterdam the next morning.

One Response to “Brussels and Bruges December 2007”

  1. Andy says:

    Hi. Absolutely love the sunset pic over the canal – beautiful. You’ve managed to squeeze in most of the impressive sites of Bruges and Brussels in the space of two days, which is amazing. Next time you go, we’d also recommend the Atomium in Brussels and the quiter canals of Bruges. My wife and I write our own free city guides with recommendations of what to see….have a look at these…