If you read my first blog about Belgium, you already know that I had some struggles on my trip there this past weekend. But enough about that, I’m ready to tell you about this awesome, diverse country that often gets lost among its more famous and larger European neighbors.
First off, you should understand that Belgium is made up of two primary areas: the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders to the north, and the French-speaking region of Wallonia to the south. There is also a small region of German-speakers in the far east side of Wallonia. The capital of Brussels is officially bilingual, with all signage in French and Dutch. This was extremely helpful for me since I can understand French but have zero knowledge of Dutch. Brussels serves as the capital of Belgium and the European Union.
The city of Brussels is centered around the Grand Place or Grote Markt in Dutch. The history of this famous town square goes back to the 11th century when an open-air market was established in the area. Throughout the centuries, the Grand Place continued to grow in size and importance, reaching its height in the 14th century. In 1695 the French launched an attack on the city, destroying much of the Grand Place. Over the next four years, the square was reconstructed in a harmonious blend of Gothic, Baroque, and Louis XIV styles.
The Grand Place remained a working market until 1959. It is now considered the most beautiful town square in Europe. The town hall stands as the main focal point for the square and is surrounded by guildhalls. A visit to the Grand Place is probably the first and most important stop most visitors to Brussels make. Restaurants, small stores, and chocolate shops dot the area providing extra enticement if the view alone isn’t enough to keep you interested. I stopped into one of these chocolate shops, Bruyerre, and grabbed a delightful assortment of famous Belgian bonbons. What makes Belgian chocolate so fantastic is the strict adherence to traditional manufacturing techniques and superb ingredients. Unlike many American-based candy companies, Belgian chocolatiers refuse vegetable-base fats, and instead use only the real deal: cocoa butter.
After my sweet treat I was ready for a salty snack. When in Belgium, there really is no better salty snack than frites. What we call French fries (believed to have acquired this name from American soldiers in WWI falsely believing they were being served the dish in France rather than Belgium) have been native to Belgium since 1680. Frites are traditionally served in cones and accompanied with mayo, although ketchup is readily available. Delighted with the product, I ended up stopping by the same Frite stand Sunday evening for dinner and tried them house-style with onions, ketchup and mayo. My Frite stand was in a cute little square that houses an flea market on the weekends. I enjoyed a quick walk around, with the freezing weather determining my need for a new scarf and gloves. There was also an awesome old man playing a fantastic selection of American rock classics on his guitar. One of my favorite moments in Brussels came when I was enjoying my delicious frites and listening to his rendition of Sweet Home Alabama – he earned a large tip for that.
My other favorite moment in Brussels came when I was walking back to my hotel Saturday evening. I had frozen for so long that I wanted to stop in the cathedral that was conveniently on my way home to warm up (and let’s not forget my slight obsession with ancient churches too). It just so happened that as I was approaching Co-Cathédrale collégiale des Ss-Michel et Gudule, or in Dutch: Collegiale Sint-Michiels- en Sint-Goedele-co-kathedraal, I heard the bells chiming. I stepped inside and quickly noticed that the fantastic organ was playing and signaling the start of 5:30 Saturday mass. What perfect timing! I didn’t understand much of the French service, but the visions inside this 13th century Gothic masterpiece would have made paying attention difficult even if I could speak fluent French.
I pre-booked a guided full day trip to Ghent and Bruges for Sunday. In my research, I had concluded that a stop in Bruges is absolutely necessary for anyone traveling to Belgium. Ghent was fabulous as well and provided an excellent Medieval apéritif for Bruges. We started out bright and early Sunday morning with a bus full of travelers and an excellent tour guide that was fluent in 5 languages! Apparently this is nothing out of the ordinary in Belgium. He instructed us that in the Flemish region of Belgium (where we were headed that day) the primary language is Dutch. Students begin learning French at age 12, English at 14, and German at 16. Our guide added Spanish to his repertoire, giving the tour always in English and Spanish, and sometimes adding in German or French for some of the patrons.
I made friends with many fellow English speakers on the tour. There were three separate American couples that I conversed with for a while, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, Detroit, Michigan, and the Chicago area. My seat mate was an Egyptian man who spoke excellent English and was on a business trip with his boss. I made friends with an Iranian man who also spoke perfect English and took a few pictures for me. There are challenges to traveling alone but benefits as well. I was forced to make friends where I might have been more reserved if I had a fellow travel companion.
Situated on the Scheldt and Lys rivers, the area of Ghent has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Trade with England and Scotland in the Middle Ages saw Ghent become one of the largest and richest cities of northern Europe. Until the 13th century, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe, only behind Paris. Because of the flat topography of Flanders, medieval Ghent constructed a series of tall watch towers to protect the city from attack. The belfry, St. Bavo Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church are the only three remaining of these “towers”. The medieval architecture of Ghent has remained surprisingly in tact. It is a small city, with the old town square and harbor easily accessible on foot. Visiting on a Sunday morning, I was treated to snippets of Dutch mass in a few of the historic churches, making for a memorable experience.
Another hour drive on the bus deposited our group in Bruges. Bruges is one of the best preserved examples of Medieval Europe. The reason for this was unfortunate at the time, but has made it a city of immense cultural significance as a result. Bruges received its city charter in 1128 and saw a period of intense growth following a storm in 1134 that opened a channel to the North Sea. Trade was now possible to much of Europe, placing Bruges in the center of a lucrative Flemish cloth business. By the 15th century, Bruges was home to a population of over 200,000, including Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Around the start of the 16th century, the channel that connected Bruges to the North Sea started silting. Additionally, the high quality cloth produced in Flanders now had competition from equal quality-less expensive English cloth. Almost overnight, Bruges fell off the financial cliff. Though devastating at the time, this froze the city in a time warp of Medieval culture.
Not until the 20th century would Bruges be important again, this time as one of the first tourist destinations in the world when wealthy French and English migrated there on holiday. Since 1965 Bruges has invested in restoring its ancient buildings and cultivating and protecting its place as a tourist destination. In 2002 it was designated “European Capital of Culture” and an estimated 2 million tourists visit annually. Unlike most historic European cities, I can not name a specific building that you absolutely HAVE to see. Bruges is more of the entire picture. Just walk around, or better yet take a canal cruise, and soak in the overall atmosphere. It is a modern city with people living and working within its walls but its protected status keeps the old part of Bruges a monument to days-long-gone-by. By all means, if you find yourself anywhere remotely close to Belgium, take a day trip to Bruges!