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Review: Belgium

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Belgium

Belgium

  • By SilverTraveller Terry

    114 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • June 2017
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37 people found this review helpful

Belgium is one of the best destinations for the independent “silver” traveller on a budget. We travelled by Eurostar from St Pancras to Ghent and there are several reasons why this is preferable. First of all, you don’t have to get to an airport at some ungodly hour and queue for ages without having time for a sit down or refreshment. Secondly, rail travel on Eurostar is more comfortable than being squashed into a sear on an aircraft and not allowed to move around. Most significantly the fare from London (or other cities in Britain) to any station in Belgium is competitively priced.

We chose Ghent as a base, not just because it is an attractive city, but also it is in the centre of Belgium where one can take day trips to other places easily. In Belgium, you do not need to pay for a Senior Railcard as you can simply buy your discounted ticket at a machine in the station. Just tap the Union Jack symbol for English and the button for over 65 years. Each return journey from any station in Belgium costs just £6.50 Euros. Remember to carry your passport.

There are many good hotels in Ghent and we chose the budget option Ibis Centrum Ghent Opera. It has the advantage of being close to the No.1 tram stop, which takes you either to other parts of the city or directly to the railway station Gent-Sint-Pieters. One can buy a 10-journey ticket at the office by the station. The hotel was typical Ibis – clean, comfortable and efficient. We had an excellent view of a building site from our bedroom window, but as we don’t spend much time there it didn’t matter! We decided to have our breakfasts at a nearby Illy cafe – the service and the food were very good.

I travelled with three friends whose main purpose was to sample the beer and there is certainly plenty of variety to be had! For the less able, some of the “brown cafes” have steep spiral staircases if you want to use the loo! For the sweet tooth, however, there are many chocolate shops and delicious Belgian waffles to sample…

Ghent itself is a beautiful city with canals, 18 museums, 100 churches, 400 historical buildings and a friendly “laid back” feel. The squares are full of students, but I found that they were very respectful of the older person by giving up seats etc.In the majestic cathedral of St Bavo is the polyptych by van Eyck “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. There are many good places to eat but one of the best is the Amadeus Rib Restaurant in Plotersgracht 8/10. It is best to pre-book as it is so popular. There are many good bars of course, but not to be missed is the Jenever Cafe ‘t Dreupelkot overlooking the Leie river. Jenever is a gin-based drink and here you have a choice of 215 flavours – but don’t try and sample them all! We found that the weather was warm enough to sit outside until late at night.

Every traveller to Belgium goes to Bruges, but in many ways, it is better to go independently as you can pick a day when it is less crowded with tourists. We picked a Tuesday and this proved to be more relaxing. Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a wealth of historic buildings and traffic-free streets making it ideal for exploring on foot. Of course, my friends were on a beer quest so we went to the Halve Maan Brewery to sample the famous Brugse Zot beer. They were in “beer heaven” when we visited the 2BE shop in Wollestraat 53 with its famous beer wall, several floors of every bottled Belgian beer, a variety of chocolates, Smurf stuff, Tin Tin objects and other souvenirs. Then of course we had to have a drink and choose a beer from the 16 available on draught. The Kwak in its unique-shaped glass in a wooden stand had to be sampled. We sat on the terrace overlooking the Groenerei canal and historic buildings. Overall a great day out.

Our next trip was to Antwerp a city of art and diamonds. The first impression when arriving by train is the amazing architecture of Antwerpen-Centraal station and I can understand how it was voted the most beautiful railway station in the world. The centre of the city has many mediaeval buildings and modern landmarks. While we were there we visited the Cathedral of Our Lady with the tallest church tower in Belgium it is on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. It is famous for 4 Rubens altar paintings and other works of art. There are also amazing wood carvings, confessionals and two organs. It is well worth the 6 Euro admission charge.

Mechelen was the next destination and it really is a lovely place to visit. The beer quest took us first to the Hetanker brewery, which started life as the hospital of St Bernardus (brewing medicinal beer I suppose!) The city itself has more than 300 listed buildings and many baroque churches. It is famous for the carillon school and wherever one walks you can hear the delightful church bells. Walking around is easy by following the unique signposts. We found a charming bar called Cafe het Zotterhot tucked away behind the main Grote Markt square and serving the excellent Carolus beer. It is in a pleasant courtyard shared with the Zorba Greek restaurant. Whiling away the time and listening to the carillon of 98 bells was infinitely relaxing.

We combined our next trip by first visiting the town of Poperinge. The area is famous for growing hops – surprise surprise! They even have a hop festival and parade. We visited the Hop Museum – an informative building (and it has a lift to the upper floors which is good) The town inspired many poets such as Chaucer and Baudelaire. During World War 1 it was a safe haven for British troops and on the outskirts of the town are a number of military cemeteries. From there we went to nearby Ypres, which was completely rebuilt after the war. Amazingly the Cloth Hall stands today as an exact copy of the original 13th century building and the whole complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We witnessed the poignant ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate, which takes place every evening at 8 o’clock. Siegfried Sassoon the poet said, “Who will remember, passing through this Gate, the unheroic Dead who fed the guns?” The town is noted for being the centre of peace negotiations and hosts the international campaign called Mayors for Peace whose aim it is to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2020. Ypres maintains a close friendship with Hiroshima which experienced the first nuclear attack while Ypres suffered the first chemical warfare.

Our final day out was to Brussels, a bustling metropolis, with yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Grand Place originally built in the 13th century.On taking a walk around the city we stopped alongside a crowd of tourists to see the Mannekin Pis, the small bronze statue/fountain of a little boy relieving himself. We also went to a selection of fascinating hostelries – A la Becasse on Rue de Tebora 11, Moeder Lambic Fontanes in Place Fontanes 8, La Fleur en Papier Dore in Rue des Alexiens 55 and of course the famous Estaminet Toone on Petite Rue des Bouchers 6.The latter is part of the Theatre Royal de Toone the age-old puppet theatre and one can sit at the bar area with Don Quixote and other puppets looking down – a bizarre experience.

All in all, Belgium has a lot to offer it’s not just beer or chocolate, but a lot of culture too.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • ESW
    about 3 years ago
    It sounds as if you had a wonderful time. I'd never thought seriously about Belgium as a tourist destination, but will now have to reconsider...