Monday, February 25, 2013

Why I’m Now in a Fight with Rick Steves (aka Where to Sleep in Brussels)

The Belgian city of Brussels was a lovely trip for 24 hours.  My only complaint with this town was where we stayed.  In fact, I’m now in a fight with Rick Steves, the author of dozens of popular guidebooks, over the situation.

Here, the Rick Steves’ Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels book let me down tremendously (this also happened in Milan, which is pretty much my least favorite city ever).  The book said because Brussels, being the capital of the European Union, is so busy during the week with business people, rates drop tremendously on the weekends.  Rick Steves recommended going through a travel website (like or Orbitz) or booking in person at a tourist information desk (called a TI).  Before we went to a TI, we went to Hotel ‘la Madeleine and they quoted us at €90 per night.  At the TI, we were quoted €100 per night, not any better than what we found on our own!  So, strike one against Rick Steves on this trip.

Strike two came when we got into the elevator of Hotel ‘la Madeleine.  The elevator was like an inch big and had no walls!  I will ask in advance for your forgiveness of my awful recording skills.

I’m usually up for an adventure, but all I could see was us free-falling the five stories from our floor.  And then came strike three.

The hotel room actually sucked.  Frank proclaimed it was one of the worst rooms he ever stay in, and he has stayed in a $3 a night hotel in Nicaragua.  I don’t know if the room was just plain awful, or if paying $120 for it was the bad part.  Or maybe the bad part was the small-ass window that made me claustrophobic.

The room wasn’t dirty though, so that was a plus.  Also, the bathroom, though as small as a shoebox, was updated.

On the up side, there was a free breakfast in the morning that was decent.  And the staff was nice enough, but I’ve had better service at a Holiday Inn.  Luckily, the location was great, right on Agora square, which is just a few hundred feet from the Central Station, where most trains stop.

Our hotel is around the right corner, the train
station is around the left corner

This hotel touts itself for business people, but if I were a business person in this room, I would blow my lid.  Luckily, I am a pretty laid-back tourist, so I’m just going to get into a silent argument with a guy who writes guidebooks.

Total Cost: €90 ($120)
Best Deal: Here’s a not good deal: you had to pay for Internet access!  I don’t know how the alleged business people who stay here do it!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

24 Hours in… Brussels – The Holidays in a Town Famous for a Peeing Boy

The holiday season in Europe is unlike the holidays in the States.  People in Europe love Christmas.  Each town has a different festival to celebrate the season and it puts the people in a town in a great mood.  I think my favorite city for Christmas in Europe was Brussels, Belgium.

I mean it when I say 24 hours in Brussels is all you need.  Even during the holidays, though your time will be gloriously jam-packed, when you leave, you won’t have missed a thing.  What you will have done is enjoyed Winter Pret, the winter festival here.

We certainly enjoyed Winter Pret!

In Brussels, everything starts and ends at the Grand Place.  This is the most popular square in all the city.  It’s where you’ll find Town Hall, and most importantly, during the holidays, this is where you’ll find the city’s light show: Les Nuits Electrabel (Electrabel Nights).

The Grand Place is packed with people during any time of the year, but especially during the winter holidays.  Even from blocks away, you can see the action going on at this square.

A look at Grand Place from our hotel a few
blocks away

To see the most notable landmark in all of Brussels, take Rue de l’Etuve to Manneken Pis.  What is Manneken Pis you ask?

This is an approximately two-foot tall statue of a peeing boy

This statue has been around since the 1600s and there are several legends surrounding this very unusual landmark.  Did it come about after a little boy relieved himself on an invading army’s gunpowder, thereby making the explosives useless?  Maybe it was from a man who could not find his son and when he did, he gifted this statue to the city.  Whatever the story, Manneken Pis loves the holidays.

In fact, Manneken Pis loves lots of days, and has different outfits to prove it that you can see by clicking here (Personally, I’m a little sad that I didn’t see him dressed up as Santa Claus).  In fact, he has about 800 outfits, sent from embassies, tourist offices, and people around the world.  You can see them all at the Musèe de la Ville de Bruxelles, also known as the Museum of theCity of Brussels.  It costs €4 to enter the museum (which I did not go to). But I digress, I was talking about the holidays in Belgium, not little peeing boys.

Laughing at how little it is.  The statue,
people!  Get your minds out of the

The Winter Pret continues throughout the city, but you’ll find the most to do in the area known as the Fish Market.

There you’ll find merry-go-rounds…

I didn't see one horse on this merry-go-round.
I did see rockets, boats, and tigers though,
which is so much cooler!

A ferris wheel…

And an ice skating rink.  Which Frank was dead-set on going to.  Luckily, it was pretty economical at only €5 to skate.

It was really fun for a few laps!

Then we remembered we weren’t much of ice skaters and our ankles hurt.  So we did what any normal person would do and found a bar.

And we didn't even have to take off our skates!

We had to convince a lady at a nearby stand to bring us the beer to the actual ice, but she was down.

There, much better!

This part of the Winter Pret also has about a mile worth of booths in what is called the Christmas Market.  You could find shirts and candles for sale, as well as food.

This is why I love Europe!  I ordered fried calamari and sparkling
wine from a fair stand!  It cost less than €20!

As you walk the streets through the Winter Pret, you’ll see some cool features unrelated to the holidays.  For example, a comic strip on a wall:

This is just one of the 50 comic strip scenes
painted on the walls of buildings in Brussels

In the “things I didn’t know until I got here” file: Brussels is home to many famous comic strips.  The one Americans are most familiar with is The Smurfs!

According to Wikipedia, there are more than 100
Smurfs based on different adjectives.  Here,
I am "Freezing Cold Smurf."

Brussels also has awesome bars like Le Cirio, complete with a gilded age-esque interior.

For two beers, our tab was €7.90 and we got a little dish of snacks.

Winter festival or not, Brussels is a great place to spend a day.  If you have more time, do yourself a favor and go to Bruges as well (about an hour away) for a complete taste of the Belgian experience.

Ice skating: €10 for two people
Drinks at ice skating rink: €8 for two
Food from the booths: €18 for calamari and champagne, €10 for sausage sandwich and beer
Drinks at Le Cirio: €7.90

Total Cost: €53.90 (that’s about $72 for drinks and entertainment)
Best Deal: Getting a drink on the ice!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Weekend in Bruges, Belgium – Four Things You MUST Do and Two You Can Skip

Last summer, I went to a glorious medieval town in Italy. Barely six months later I found myself in another town dating back to the first century BC – Bruges, Belgium.

Economical is not the first word I think of here, but you can save by cutting out the attractions that aren't worth your money... or time. Here are four things you must do in this picturesque city and what to skip.

Getting There

Since Bruges doesn’t have an airport, you'll no doubt arrive to this town midday via a train from Brussels. Your first stop: The central part of Bruges, where you'll find…

Four Things to Do

1. Walk the Markt (no "e")

Stores and restaurants reminiscent of gingerbread houses line the Markt, which, during the holidays, is bustling with booths selling everything from Irish coffee...

To stuffed animal gator hats.

You wouldn't think he would actually buy this... 

...but he did.  And he proceeded to walk
around the city with it on his head.

The Belfort is the biggest architectural attraction on the Markt, built in the 13th century.

As you walk around Markt, take in the sights and sounds of a little town with lots of tourists. But most importantly, take in the smells, as there are delicious scents on every corner. And the best thing is, walking around is free.

2. Visit the Chocolate Shops

Bruges is most well-known for its chocolates.  From the usual...

To the unique...

This store, The Chocolate Line, sold Cannabis chocolate, along
with other unusual flavors like Havana cigar, wasabi, and saffron.
Just so you know, I'd stick to the more normal flavors like hazelnut
chocolate - called Brugges Biscuit - as it's a little strange to have
your chocolate tasting like yellow rice.

To the flat out weird.

Sample away until your stomach hurts. The wasabi chocolates can be found at The Chocolate Line, just a few blocks from the Markt, but I thought the best sweet stuff was sold at Dumon, right behind the Markt.  That's where we got chocolate dipped orange slices.

Eating gourmet chocolate in his gator hat!

As you walk the streets, you’ll find lots of clothing stores as well, and many a lace shop, as Bruges is known for the intricate lacing work.

You’ll also find weird warnings about pickpockets.

Someone was actually manning this booth.
That's a very unusual, and perhaps boring, job.

As long as you watch your wallet literally, you’ll only spend about €8 on a bag of chocolate, even at the more expensive places like The Chocolate Line.

3. Bike Around Bruges

This is by far the best way to see this medieval city. 

You can bike along bike paths, canopied trails, and bridges around this medieval city.  The paths will take you past windmills…

By medieval watch towers…

And through the Koning Albert I Park (that’s King Albert if you don’t speak Dutch).

If you’re up for a longer journey, you can cycle the approximately seven kilometers (that’s four and half miles) to the city of Damme.

The road to Damme is a bit empty, but it provides lots of
opportunities for plays on the town name - God Damme!
Damme Bike Ride!

In Damme, you’ll find a cool church with very interesting architecture.

The trees surrounded the church look like something out of The Wizard of Oz.

Word of warning: in the winter time, Damme is just a little dead (Damme city!). 

Not a soul in sight!

Even the windmill was closed for business.

Take that windmill!  We will drink wine
out of our bota bag instead!

If you do decide to embark on a bike ride during the winter months (we were there in January), BUNDLE UP!

It is freakin' freezin' out here!

But besides frostbite, the bikes were only €12 per day.

4. Eat!

The food in Bruges will not disappoint you.  We went to several awesome restaurants, but no place had better food than De Windmolen.  Mainly because it felt colder than 30°F outside, but also because of this:

The Belgians do not play when it comes to Belgian waffles.  You can by them from stands all around the city for about €1.50, but we shelled out €4 each for this delicious treat in a restaurant, complete with whipped cream and powdered sugar.  The view from this restaurant couldn’t be beat either.

Just staring out at a windmill.  Not something
you'd traditionally see where I'm from!

The Belgians also love them some seafood.  Mussels are the specialty.

These were more mussels than any normal human being
could eat, but I certainly tried!

They also like escargot…

And even rabbit.

And you can’t forget frittes, better known as French fries (actually invented in Belgium, so they should be called Belgian fries, but I don’t think that has the same ring).

The mussels, escargot and rabbit came from the restaurant on the Markt called The Belfort.  The food was delicious, the service was less than desirable.  Plus, we pretty much had to take out a loan to eat here… the grand total of the bill at the Belfort was €112.50 (that’s $150!).

Food = Delicious
Service = Poor
Value = Very Poor

Just a few blocks away, we found superior service along with delicious food at t’ Fonteintje.

Yep, that's my husband in the gator hat!

There, we got seafood gratin (me) and sausage rolls (Frank)

This meal at t’ Fonteintje only cost €59, almost half of our first dinner at The Belfort!

And you can’t forget the drinks.

Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Chimay, Duvel and Palm are just a few of the
many, many beers we sampled

Each beer runs about €4, but some are more expensive because the alcohol content is higher.

Two Things to Skip

Salvador Dali

If you’re short on time or money, take the Salvador Dali exhibit  off your list.  It is in the Belfort in the Markt area of Bruges.  As far as Salvador Dali exhibits go, the one in St. Petersburg, Florida is much, much better.  But, this one does have a lot of Dali’s illustrations based on various books, so it provided a unique perspective that I have not seen before.

These etchings were covered with a 24-
karat gold substance.  Dali designed
them based on poems by Tristan Carbière 
I like this crazy, broken giraffe

The price is a little steep in my opinion, you’ll have to pay €10 to get in.  The museum is open from 10am – 6pm.

Church of Our Lady

A maze of trees right outside the church

This church claims to have the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy in his lifetime.  Apparently it was a Madonna and Child work and I would have loved to see it, but I could not find it.  I did see some of the other very intricate work of the church inside.

You’d think a person could find a giant Michelangelo statue, but Frank was rushing me to get outside.

That explains the rush!

Still, it's free to get inside this church, so you only have to spend your time if you're interested in going.

Where to Sleep

We arrived in Bruges with no place to stay (I should write a post on procrastination during travel in the near future!).  It was getting dark and we were getting anxious.  Also, every single street in the city looks exactly alike.  After checking with a few small hotels, with only five or six rooms, and seeing that there were no vacancies, we decided to pay the price to sleep at a larger hotel.  Unfortunately, there were really no vacancies there either, so we ended up at Hotel ‘t Zand.

This hotel was nice and clean, but very simple.

The bathroom was the nicest part, and I can’t be certain, but I think it had a heated floor.

There was a small breakfast each morning, with eggs and toast.  Unfortunately, while those smaller hotels were charging about €70 per night, we ended up spending about €110 per night, for a grand total of €221.

Leaving Bruges

When we were departing Bruges, we tried to buy two tickets to Brussels at a kiosk at the train station for €27.  For some reason our card would not work though, so we went to the counter where we purchased two tickets for only €19.80.  To that I say, check with both the counter and the kiosk before making any purchases.

Chocolate: €8 per bag
Bikes for two: €24 per day
Salvador Dali Museum for two: €20
Lunch of Belgian waffles for two: €8
Dinner 1: €112.50
Dinner 2: €59
Beers: €4 each times approximately 12 for our time there = €48
Hotel: €221
Train tickets for two: €19.80

Total Cost: €520.30 (that’s $696.52 – not our most economical journey)
Best Deal: Renting a bike for the day and seeing the entire city