Monday, May 13, 2013

Last minute change of plans from Burgundy to Belgium and from wine to beer... (Part I)


"I just spoke with someone at Le Boat. They had to cancel our reservation because the water level in the Nivernais Canal is too high. Can you find somewhere else for us to go?"

My heart sank when Stéphane called last Monday to tell me that our much anticipated boating trip in Burgundy with our daughter had been cancelled. Gone were visions of the three of us cycling to quaint villages for lunch and leisurely sipping red wine on the deck in the evening. Instead, I was charged with the task of finding an affordable last minute alternative during one of the busiest travel weeks in Europe. Even after hours spent scouring the internet, Sara and I couldn't find a getaway that cost less than 1,790 euros per person. In desperation, I called Stéphane and told him that we were going to have to get creative, to think outside the box. "How about driving to Belgium?" I proposed.

The idea of traveling north instead of south must not have been as wildly imaginative as I thought because Sara and I spent most of Tuesday trying to find accommodations. As it proved to be impossible to book more than one night in any of the hotels, we wandered from city to city like nomads for the next for five days. It turned out to be a marvelous experience. Here are a few of the highlights:


Ghent:

Larger than London and second only to Paris in size, Ghent was one of the most important cities in Europe from 1000 until 1550. With one of the largest car-free areas in Europe, it's currently a pedestrian's delight. Historical buildings line the canals, while the impressive medieval Castle of the Counts dominates the center of town. Wander down one of the picturesque cobblestoned streets and you're sure to discover yet another cozy café or enticing restaurant. The multitude of interesting culinary options has made Ghent one of the top destinations for foodies in Belgium.

Bed and Breakfast: Angels on the Water, an idyllic spot for a relaxing getaway
Lunch: Vintage for a delicious two-course lunch with coffee for 17 euros
Stores: Tierenteyn-Verlent for mustard and Home Linen at Korenlei 3 for a large collection of handmade Belgian linen.
Reasons for me to return: To see "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb". According to art historian Noah Charney, "The Mystic Lamb is without a doubt the world's most besieged and coveted artwork. In Paris it would easily knock the Mona Lisa off the throne."

I also want to try a Mastellen, a local speciality made from a bun topped with cinnamon and sugar before being heated with an iron. After an entertaining talk with the enterprising young owner of Mastelle and Co., I regret being overly full to try one of these local specialities. I'll definitely sample one the next time I'm in Ghent!


Antwerp:

As the global hub of the diamond trade, Antwerp has an impressive train station that was named the fourth most beautiful station in the world by Newsweek. It spans four levels and is known as the the "Railway Cathedral" because of its stunning architectural features. After marveling at the vaulted ceiling, we left the station to do some window shopping in the thriving diamond quarter. Once the exclusive domain of Jewish families, the diamond trade is now a melting pot of diverse cultures that includes Indians, Africans, Armenians and Lebanese. The neighborhood is a great spot to have a spicy curry or traditional Jewish kosher specialities.


Not knowing very much about Antwerp prior to our visit, it was interesting to learn that the city was ruled by the French from 1794 until 1814. In addition to ordering the construction of Antwerp's first lock and dock, Napoleon Bonaparte made the Palace on the Meir into his personal residence during the French occupation. Napoleon's former kitchen is now the domain of Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who makes innovative creations such as caramelized onion, bacon and cannabis truffles. A chocolate bust of Napoleon oversees the sale of chocolate lipstick, pills and other confections in the the opulent salon.

Hotel: 'T Sandt Hotel is in a beautifully transformed neo rococo mansion conveniently located near the historic center of town.
Reasons for me to return: The waffles at Wafelhuis Van Hecke and "Bonaparte at the Scheldt" at the MAS. Using paintings, prints, maps, model ships and archive records, the temporary exhibition examines how 20 years of French rule altered the appearance of Antwerp. Best of all, Antwerp is only two hours by train from Paris!

(Stay tuned for the highlights of Ypres and Bruges in Part II of this post.)

Still not convinced that Belgium is a great destination? Please click here to read Sara's 10 Reasons to visit Flanders, Belgium.


13 comments:

  1. Thanks SK! Am looking forward to a trip to Brussels with my husband and both of my daughters later this year. GM x

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    1. It's due to one of your daughters that I've had Belgium on my mind for the past couple of months! Gwan's posts about Brussels were a real inspiration. It's great that you'll be able to go there together. Please let me know if you're anywhere near Paris - I would love to meet you!

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  2. MK, your post made me miss Belgium! I was just thinking today that I miss being able to hop on a train in The Hague on a Friday evening and be in Brussels in 2:03 by regular train for next to nothing! The first time I went to Brussels I was a bit underwhelmed as I kept comparing it to Paris... once I stopped doing that, it started to grow on me. Now I love Brussels (and miss it!) in its own right!:)

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    1. Even though we didn't make it to Brussels, I can easily understand why you miss Belgium. It's a great country full of beautiful cities, delicious food, easy access to french fries (!!!), funky cafes, really friendly people and amazing beer. I hope that you're able to return in the not-too-distant future! One of these days, I'm going to have to go to Brussels. It's really fast with the TGV.

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  3. Nice to hear you made it to Belgium, sounds like a great trip! The Adoration of the Lamb is definitely worth seeing.i was only in Ghent on a day trip once, I wouldn't mind going back either.

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    1. It was your posts about Brussels that have had me thinking about Belgium. Sara and I were planning to take the train to Brussels next week so I wasn't too disappointed when our Burgundy trip morphed into a Belgium one. Next on my list - Brussels! Thanks to you, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do there!

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  4. Loved the 2 visits I made to Belgium in the past few years. And what of your visit to Bruges?
    As for the Adoration of the Mystical Lamb, I visited while in Gent. It is amazing and surely a great reason for you to go back.
    Add Brussels (and nearby Waterloo) and Lier to your visit next time. Both worthwhile and very different from eachother.
    The Centraal Station in Antwerp is truely as masterpiece. If you have a few minutes, watch the "flash mob" that was filmed there (You Tube.

    Can you tell that I am a HUGE fan of underappreciated Belgium?

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    1. Thanks for all of your tips on Facebook about what we should do and drink (!) while we were in Belgium! We've already told Philippe that we'll try to take him the next time that he's in Europe. He was pretty sad to have missed out on all the beer sampling. Hopefully we'll be able to visit Brussels, Waterloo and Lier. And, for obvious reasons, Spa is also on my list!

      Now that I've been to Belgium, I have a greater appreciation of the profile pic of you with your glass of Westmalle Trappist Dubel. No wonder you have such a big smile on your face!

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  5. We once went on a most enjoyable road trip through Belgium and even caught the mussel festival in Antwerp! Where else did you stay? If it's any consolation, even if your boat trip hadn't been called off, there wouldn't have been much cycling. In most of France, it was too chilly (even on the Basque Coast most of the time). I would be interested to know how much a boat trip in Burgundy costs.

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    1. A mussel festival - that must have been great! We tried, without success, to eat some while we were in Belgian but it's not the season. We also spent one night each in Ypres and Bruges.

      Our 4 night one-way, self-drive trip with Le Boat was going to cost approximately 964 euros, not including the fuel. They offer special deals if you go off season. Here's the link: Le Boat. There are also quite a few B&B barges that look lovely but they're considerably more expensive than driving yourself.

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  6. How perfectly fitting, Mary Kay! We're hoping to take a long weekend in Belgium, so to read both your and Sara's highlights is especially fun. Look forward to your imminent Bruges post, too!

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    1. I really hope that you're able to spend a long weekend in Belgium, Daisy! It's a very interesting/fun country. If you're planning to go to Bruges, my one word of advice would be to go when it's low season because it attracts a lot of tourists. I read online that it's best to spend the night so that you can enjoy the city with fewer crowds, so that's what we did. It would also be a good place to visit in the fall.

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  7. Just came back from Paris, Brussels and Bruges. I wanted to go to Ghent and Antwerp but it will have to be next time.
    Didn't you love Bruges? We did.
    Can't wait to travel again!

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