Our original plan was to go to Strasbourg to see the world-famous Christmas Markets, but after we realized the journey was nearly 8 hours one way, it was time to implement “Plan B”elgium. Fabien has never been and I can’t say the country was on my list of places to see before I die, but no doubt there would be some fun things to do and see.
Therefore, the Thursday before Christmas we hopped in our little European roadster, “Papi Rene’s Clio” and headed north. After a quick stop in Lille to spend the afternoon, we were greeted in Brussels with Parisian style traffic. It took us 2 hours to go 3 miles. In typical European fashion, all of the metro, bus and tramway workers were on strike just in time to cause enough holiday chaos and have their demands met the next day. Our GPS joined them in the strike leaving us totally lost in the city. Fortunately, we were going so slow, there was enough time to stop and ask several people if we were headed in the right direction. A great test of my french speaking and listening skills!
Eventually, we found the apartment we rented through Airbnb. This was the first time we had used the service, but if you’re not familiar, you should definitely check it out. Basically, you rent a room or apartment from a person. It can be anything from pull out couch, a private room or your own apartment. This is a great way to travel in Europe as it helps keep costs low and gives you a chance to live like a local. In Brussels, a crappy downtown hotel room would have cost us at least $125 a night, but instead, we got our own, nice downtown apartment for $60. Not to mention, the host gave great recommendations on places to see and eat. All around, a win-win.
Our host alerted us that Brussels is more beautiful at night so we were eager to head out and visit immediately. We walked a few blocks and around every corner were surprised to find something more visually stunning than the previous block. The Belgians have the most architecturally beautiful cathedrals and know how to make a grand display of them with lights, music and sparkles. In Liz Broad’s, Travelogged website, she declares Brussels to have one of the most spectacular Christmas decoration displays in the world and so far it is the most mesmerizing I have ever seen. Here is a video of the show at La Grand Place. Honestly, I think it will go in one of my top 5 favorite travel moments.
After leisurely walking around La Grand Place and seeing other street spectacles, we popped into the restaurant our host recommended for a typical Belgian cuisine – mussels, fries and beer. I can’t say I’m in love with the combination, but “when in Rome…”
Post dinner we stumbled on an amazing Christmas Market. It was the biggest and best I have seen to date. The rhythm was gift shop, gift shop, bar, gift shop, gift shop, bar. Works for me.
The next day, we woke up early and visited the city’s shopping street, the Manneken Pis and the spectacular Palace. From there we hopped in the car and drove an hour north to the picturesque city of Bruges. Famous for their canals, bridges and chocolate, being in the city is a tourists dream. All the buildings, streets and shops were perfectly cute and we spent the afternoon walking around with no destination or agenda. Before heading back to Brussels, we made another quick stop in Gents for a view of the square and their beautifully lit churches. I hate to say this, but the Belgians churches blow Frances out of the water. Sorry guys.
All and all, my first impression of Belgium was fantastic. While I’m no expert on Europe, I view it as a laid back and underrated country. Also, a tad easier on the pocketbook than France, but what is saved will just end up spent on chocolate and beer.