Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Travel around Christmas in Belgium with Chocolate, Beer and Art

With a spirit of the approaching Christmas and New Year, we travel to Belgium on a cold early morning in December. We only pray that the weather does not play spoilsport. After landing at the airport we see that the clouds appeared lower than normal with a shade of very elegant gray! After our exit from the airport, we catch a comfortable and clean train that takes us in just 17 minutes straight to the Central Station (Brussels Central).

While I got lost myself in thoughts on the way, thinking about the comics and the museums, I found a cozy country where Christmas was already felt in every corner of the city, in the windows as well as squares. The palaces were adorned with red bows and chocolate pralines were created especially for the occasion.

The Bed & Breakfast where we stay about 100 km south of Brussels was very cute. It was located in a village made of wood and stone houses between streams and small bridges called Rochefort. At the end of the day, we were in Rochefort in a typical little place. Here we ate omelet and ham with cheese that was really delicious, all served with a fantastic Trappist beer of more Rochefort Brewery and the dessert in the first of a long series was the Gauffre (or Wafel).

With the colored lights, the coaches and the beautiful Burg dressed up, Bruges, towards the sea appeared to me like a little pearl of great price, to discover and savor slowly. Brugges is perhaps the most envied cities in Belgium, that is a step away from the sea, and is crossed by many channels, all navigable of course. In fact, in the Middle Ages, it was a favorite even by the Venetians, who circumnavigated the entire Mediterranean to reach this Fiorfiore in the era of trade. Everyone said that if there is one thing that truly deserves to be seen in Belgium is Bruges and they were right! A great little romantic town.

From Brussels Central Station the train takes about 50 minutes to take us to this authentic northern European gem that seems to literally come out from fairy tales with seventeenth-century houses with richly decorated facades that overlook small village channels filled with ducks and swans, tranquility and picturesque covered streets of cobblestones hosting cozy brasserie and ancient pubs.

The two magnificent main squares are surmounted by high towers and piers of the Cathedral and the Town Hall that rise above the roofs of houses.

To enjoy the most of the atmosphere of the places we preferred a typical B&B in place of the hotel and the choice was perfect. The one we chose was a building dating back to the Middle Ages, completely renovated and furnished with great taste, where the hosts take care of their guests to make them feel at home.

The rooms were decorated with a canopy bed, breakfast under the crystal chandeliers in the living room downstairs with classical background music, an indoor garden complete with a greenhouse and smell of decayed nobility. We follow the complete path of the channels, where every view is magnificent until you come to Rozenhoedkaai, the most photographed place in the city where the channel makes a dramatic curve. The light for photography is perfect in the morning.

Among the many treasures of the city, echoing through all the guides was the presence of the Diamond Museum, which of course we visited. Undoubtedly it was very nice. But back to serious matters, the chocolate! Bruges is full of chocolatiers, and chocolate! Many streets even smell saturated with chocolate and chocolate with one store after another to lose your head.

Brugges is certainly the most charming city in Belgium. We were also very close to Holland here, and a shop of typical hooves reminds that. We entered the most delightful shop in the entire Bruges, all decorated with Christmas garlands, Christmas trees and thousands of different decorations and crafts to lose your head! We headed to the sea, and finally what a surprise, as there was a festival of sand sculptures.

From there we continue to the Begijnhof, the neighborhood where once lived lay women who wanted to serve God without retiring from the world. Often they left wives of men of war who joined to get help from wealthy benefactors. We then return to the two magnificent main square to the Grand Place, and the Burg.

In the afternoon, after exploring just about everything, we rented bikes going to see the four mills along the canal that surround the center, then have dinner that was distinctive with excellent food at affordable prices, unlike other places in Belgium.

Next day it was a trip to the greenest region of Belgium, between channels and dense forests driving from village to village, reaching abbeys and brasserie where you can taste the delicious craft beers after parking the bike. The Walloon Region is a great place to plan a motorcycle trip amidst dense forests, dotted with canals and streams and brasserie where you can taste the famous local beers.

From Arlon, the start of the journey, we continue to Orval between green hills and small villages. Here there is already the first stop with the Abbey of Orval which is famous for producing excellent Trappist beer. In the park, there are also the ruins of the abbey founded in 1070 and destroyed in the eighteenth-century. From Orval tip toward the front Boullion, through Florenville, before a restaurant that invites to stop especially for the chocolate spreading its aromas from the central square.

Walking through the side streets they follow beautiful curves in the green, from which check the castle of Boullion and continue along the slopes and winding roads. Stop in Rochefort in the Abbey of Notre Dame of Saint Remy, where it produces another Trappist beer. In strict adherence to tradition, the public is not admitted to the brasserie.

Following the course of the Aisne, we are in the midst of thick woods, lush green meadows for grazing and a wet mist that presages the sun. We reach Dinant, where the city is dotted with huge saxophones reminiscent of Adolphe Sax, whose story you can read and follow in the small museum. For beer then we move to Purnode. The Brasserie du Bocq here allows you to visit local production out of the Trappist rigor. We close the round in Namur, the capital of Wallonia, to visit with calm and stopping at night in one of the brasserie, where we have a light toast with a beer, of course!

We started from Wallonia, to arrive in the Flemish Brabant, which is in the region of Brussels. Brussels is huge and vast. Everywhere you look there are houses, buildings, life, people, and color. The corners of the city are dotted with manicured and beautiful murals. They are themed, colorful and fun. We decided to visit the European Parliament first, taking into account that Brussels has three viability rings around the old town, which is already huge and another 30 museums to visit.

So, armed with fresh legs, pointy shoes for trekking, we started walking towards the Grand Plaza after having left the car at the edge of the first ring. I cannot find words or exclamations of amazement in entering this square that was large, colorful, historical, beautiful, golden, and full of life.

Brussels is also the capital of chocolate, the now known Wafels or Gaufres, the embroidery, and doilies. We have seen people of all colors and all races, all peacefully go to work together, walking in parks, all together, without hate or pride. In short, it is the capital of Europe, and beyond. The curious thing is that its symbol is a peeing baby or a statue placed in a corner near the Grand Plaza.

In Brussels there is a beautiful cathedral, as well as many other beautiful gothic churches, into which you may be lucky enough to hear the massive organ as happened to us, where was played for the occasion by a large Maestro, that was incredibly good and the sound inside was clean and grandiose.

Finally, we left the city, or at least the three ghostly rings to arrive in what is perhaps the best-known symbol of the city, the Atomium. It's as big as a building of 34 floors, made of aluminum that is reminiscent of the Russian Sputnik that went into space, which was built between 1954 and 1956. Upon entering, we were greeted by the draft of Garfield. In about 15 seconds, at a lightning speed, we found ourselves on top of the highest sphere! Since the view is breathtaking.

After the visit, we went to the central sphere. Here, in fact, is the Atomium museum, where there were the original designs of the structure and several multimedia installations. There were also huge balls dangling on wires like those of guitars which amplify the sound. Also, there were various technical and optical artistic works that deceive the visual perception.



Next day we were in relaxation mode, and in fact, we dozed until noon, so we decided to start with something more exciting. We headed to Gent, where you can feel the air of a quiet village, that was a small Flemish jewel. The whole city is Gothic, with a beautiful church, and a river running through it, creating a quaint and romantic atmosphere. It is possible to move in a boat or even in a carriage, but we were too lazy and there we made by feet. In the city, you can make so many purchases, and even here, there are plenty of lace and embroidery shops, even the classic Flemish pillow.

Wandering on foot, however, you run the risk of stumbling into a giant Wafel. This Wafel was before the Wafeleria and was the best of Belgium. We had read on the internet that Gent was some sort of Bruges but that was more authentic, non-touristy and therefore recommended by many. Given the proximity to the latter, which is only 20 minutes by train, we decided to have a go before returning to Brussels. Arriving late in the morning we took the tram that connects the station to the city center.

The idea of bicycles is an option that would be perfect for visiting the historic center in no time. Even on foot, though, it took less than two hours to see everything, from the magnificent Castle of the Counts, an excellent example of medieval fortification, especially with the bad weather that commands respect and awe like few others, the Saint Bavo Cathedral (famous to host the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the altarpiece of the van Eyck brothers), the tower of the town hall and the Saint Nicholas Church, which follow one another giving a really interesting urban perspective. Gent looks more like a Dutch city that Belgian, Flemish and we are talking about is the channels that architecture, very reminiscent of Amsterdam.

The city center is Korenlei, the part of the main channel where is concentrated the most important historic houses and from where boats depart for a city tour, which we did not do because of bad weather. Gent is definitely not comparable to Bruges but not because it was less beautiful, but because it was a very different city and was medieval and less touristy, but still worth a visit, even for just half a day.

Finally, we would remain in Antwerp, but we could have given the proximity and excellent, frequent and punctual rail links that make Belgium one of the easiest countries to be shot in Europe!

Next day was scheduled for Antwerp, and in fact, we were there for less than one hour. Today we found out that all the rings in Belgium are numbered, but for the whole of Belgium! The Ring number 0, which is around Brussels, is only of Brussels, the numbers 1, 2 and 42 are of Antwerp, 4 and 40 are of Brugges, and so on.

So we escaped quickly from Antwerp in favor of Mechelen, another of the Flemish city of gold, located between Brussels and Antwerp itself. It is a very pretty town, typically Flemish with a bell tower with a height of 105 meters chimes. Mechelen is also the city where Charles V was there in his early ears and three historic breweries produce beer in this center all dedicated to this character from 1421.

The breakfast around here does with a lot of nice things, and gives pure energy!

Brussels was a surprise, with the Winter Pret, which fills the city with colors, sounds, and tastes of Christmas, along with many performances that animate the streets, creating plays of light, music, and animation that breathtaking and especially will be loved by children, but not only.

The Grand Place fills with music and enchanting colors, along with the Church of St. Catherine, which is surrounded by wooden houses of the classic Christmas markets that get transformed into a 3d stage with the cribs made within the fabulous cathedral from different religious communities living in Brussels.

In the morning we went to visit the incomparably beautiful caves. A train brought us to the entrance and then we covered all the caves for an hour between stalactites and stalagmites that was cool and charming. Halfway down we saw a show in one of the largest caves with ambient music and color games worthy of the most beautiful cinema in the world. It felt like being in a fairytale fantasy. The exit from the cave was really unforgettable.

After all this moisture, we did spend an afternoon tour of some of the dozens of brasserie or breweries, with which Belgium is full. In fact, we went to BOCQ, where after a guided tour in three languages, lasting 50 minutes, we did like the taste of one of their most tough beers. Not content, and being always in the vicinity of these beautiful places, we ventured out searching for the ghostly Abbey of Leffe, which stand silent on the outskirts of Dinant.

The priests there are so jealous that they do not allow visits to the abbey, and so we settled for some photos, and then we went over. During the trip, we also saw the Camino de Santiago and found that Dinant is one of the stages of the beginning of this journey. Crossing the usual small town of Dinant, we arrived in a remote brewery. In Belgium, the wood fire is still used the for the production. Here we tasted four different types of beers that were all delicious and accompanied with cheese and local sausages that were really not bad! It was time now for the caracole.

The goal next day was a visit to the city of Liege and in fact even before we get there we pass by two other really beautiful villages of typical houses and geraniums, called Durbuy and Huy. We have not yet said that the particularity of the Belgian cities is that they are all located by a river with each its own, which makes it all the more impressive. Also, the whole Belgian population cares deeply about the aesthetic care of their home, garden, and then their own land and the result is that all cities are manicured centers full of flowers.

Brussels can be divided into three areas connected to each other, developed around the main square, the Grand Place (Grote Markt), the heart of the city, where stands the tower of the beautiful Hotel de Ville (City Hall) surrounded by the most precious buildings of Brussels. It is beautiful especially in the morning as the sun illuminates its best side. The streets around, mostly pedestrian, are full of restaurants and clubs run by Arabs and frequented by young boys with northern European backpackers and tourists.

You can drink a lot of beer (which here costs less than water) and eat things of dubious origin and quality. The only surviving are the famous Cioccolaterie, which are really small temples of greed, and whose excellence cannot be questioned. Walking towards the Grand Place you can see the Saint-Hubert Gallery. This self-governing region since 1960 along the narrow streets that surround is called the Holy Island. We arrive in a moment to the Cathedral, which was built in the Gothic style and was similar to the Notre Dame de Paris.

For lunch, we suggest you eat Fish and Chips. Across the Grand Place, on the other hand, you can get to the Manneken Pis. The statue of the peeing child became a symbol of the city whose endless reproductions in all sizes and colors possible fill the windows of shops and souvenirs. The legend has it that the boy, apparently about three years, peed on the fuse of a cannon, thereby saving the city from destruction. To us, the story seems unlikely, but each draws their own conclusions!

In the streets around the place, there are also many of the famous murals and representatives from known comic book characters, which then continues in the neighborhood of Sablon and in much of the center. Ask for a mural map, go to one of the info points and go and look for them in a kind of treasure hunt that will entertain you in getting around the city.

The second area, adjacent to the Grand Place begins in front of the Stock Exchange, a homonymous neoclassical building Place de la Bourse. And the right place to have lunch or dinner avoiding the tourist sites is taking advantage of one of the many brasseries frequented by locals, wrapped around the small Gothic Cathedral Place Ste-Catherine. And the least it is an interesting area, as it is full of very nice shops and pleasant to visit.

The third area is the one that we liked the most and go from Central Station to the Royal Palace on up through the various steps and also includes the Sablon neighborhood on the left. The rooms open onto beautiful views of the city (Place de Albertine) to the bizarre Old England building with a panoramic terrace on the top and the Museum of Fine Arts.

The latter is divided into several sections and we have visited that of Old Masters where you will find a lot of Flemish art, including Bosch, Rembrandt and several members of the Bruegel family, as well as one dedicated entirely to Magrit. Even for those not fond of painting, it deserves to be endorsed even in the case of rain.

Opposite the Museum, on the square, there is also the Royal Palace and on the left, is the Parc de Bruxelles. A relaxing five-minute walk leads to Place de Luxemburg, the branch of the European Parliament. It has recently been set up Parlamentarium, an interactive museum dedicated to the history of the European Union, and is very suitable for students or anyone who is not particularly well informed about it.

Leaving the museum and heading right into Rue de la Regence, begins the Sablon neighborhood with chic antique galleries and restaurants. The center of the district is the square du Grand Sablon where is the cathedral of Notre Dame du Sablon and in front of it is the beautiful Parc d'Egmond garden. For lovers of special decorative items, there is the Rue Blaes.

The road and the neighborhood end up with the gigantic Palace of Justice ruling the entire city as well as one of the most scenic spots. You can get off the public elevator (immediately below it is also one of the most beautiful murals of Brussels) and climb the narrow streets filled with art galleries, antique shops, and many restaurants. We have tried a delicious one where we ate one of the best Foie Gras ever.

In short, time apart, Brussels is denigrated and snubbed by many. Although it may not be memorable, you must see it at least once in your life which is not any less interesting than much more popular destinations. In addition, we found a capital that is multicultural and international, probably due to the influence of the neighboring Netherlands.

The food is not much, except for the ubiquitous waffles and chocolate. In the center, suggestive glimpses at times alternate with closed shops or abandoned houses. As soon as the sun comes out, though, the city changes showing all its serene beauty. And then, in addition to being the true polyglot, here everyone speaks English.

Once in Liege, which seemed small, we ran into a stream of people. The city was very nice, clean and orderly. It's like a huge shopping center with shop windows full of tempting lights, sounds and colors and people who buy, buy, buy and buy! Returning to the historical part of Liege instead that goes unearthed amidst much pomp and trade, we wanted to visit the Palace of Bishops, but being closed to tourists, we folded towards the classic Cathedral that instead, was magnificent!

One of the habits of the natives here is to fry everything from potato, meat, pasta, sausages, hamburgers, fish, and in short, everything! In fact, every city has its Friterie that remain open until late at night, and provide chips and ice cream cone! Many cities literally stink fried. So, to follow this local tradition, we stopped to take raw potato chips and for dinner, we buy lots of fruits! Our next day is scheduled for Brussels, where we will move to the nearest Bed & Breakfast.

So, after more than a week, we finished our trip to Belgium and visited (almost) all over the country!

Belgium is one of the most vibrant places in which to spend the holiday season from Village de Noël de Liège to the Christmas markets, nativity scenes scattered among the villages of Wallonia and Flanders (Mechelen, Diest, Hasselt, Ypres, Antwerp, Brugge, Gent, Leuven, Ostend, Turnhout), passing through the capital, the whole country is decked.

Christmas in Belgium is rich in tradition and magical customs, first of all, for the famous Christmas markets and the decorations. There are two characters in the celebrated Belgian Christmas, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel (Father Christmas).

St. Nicholas visits the children who belong to the Walloon Region, and this happens twice. The first visit takes place on December 4, when the saint looks for all the children who have been good, distinguishing them from those who have not been so. The second visit takes place December 6. St. Nicholas will return here to celebrate with the good children with gifts and to the not good children with twigs, which is generally left in their shoes or in the front door.

Santa Claus (Pere Noel) visit is always accompanied by Pere Fouettard, an ugly, sinister and bearded figure. Here, too, tradition has it that Santa Claus dispense the gifts to good children and twigs Pere Fouettard gifts to bad children. The celebration of St. Nicholas is also observed with religious services and meeting family with large banquets and traditional desserts.

In Flanders, the festivities include both the celebrations of St. Nicholas (which however is not related to the Holy Christmas) and the Natale Cristiano. On the eve of Christmas Belgian (Flemish and Kerstavond The réveillion de Noël in Wallonia), the country celebrates the advent with typical regional traditions. Christmas in Belgium is rich in traditions, customs, and influences, which vary by region. Let's start with the culinary aspect. The Belgian Christmas meal begins with an appetizer, followed by an appetizer, usually seafood, and turkey.

The dessert is perhaps the most anticipated of the day. The Christmas cake is called the Kerststronk in Flemish or Bûche de Noël in French. It is in both cases with minor variations, a sweet sponge cake rolled in chocolate, filled with a gentle cream and covered with a butter cream. A typical Christmas cake is the Cougnou also called Cougnolle, a croissant-shaped brioche bread in the shape of baby Jesus.

To bring the gifts are St. Nicholas and Pere Noel (Father Christmas). The first mainly is related to the tradition of Wallonia, and the second to the French. St. Nicholas appears before December 4 to search for deserving kids, then on December 6 to complete his work and bring the gifts to the good ones and a twig (which generally leaves on the front door or in their shoes) to the bad ones. His arrival is celebrated with religious ceremonies and banquets.

Pere Noel visits the homes accompanied by an ugly, bearded character named Pere Fouettard, who has the task of dispensing the twigs to small that you do not deserve the Santa's gifts.

Do not miss the Christmas in Brussels with the huge decorated tree and the giant crib Grand Place of Brussels, the capital market and the skating rink at Place Sainte-Catherine; Christmas in Bruges, with the Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival in Bruges; Christmas dinner at the Gaasbeek Castle; Christmas in Antwerp with numerous treasure hunts for children; Hasselt cribs; a carriage ride in Beerse town illuminated by the torches; New Coldplay New Year in Leuven for aspiring artists; the torchlight procession of Santo Stefano in Middelkerke; the spectacle of fireworks in Mont des Arts on the New Year's Eve.

And yet, jazz, folk, and rock in Gent, but also wine and carols offered during boat trips. Lovers of classic and gospel music will find choirs, dancers and philharmonic orchestras in all the major cities.

After a lunch of Galettes Breton. we stand very close to the border with Holland, we decided to venture to the land of tulips and bicycles.
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