Travels in Belgium
by proxam2 on August 25, 2011
I recently took advantage of a special offer from Superfast Ferries and sailed to Belgium, the intention being to do a bit of shopping and spend some time in Bruges. As we were staying overnight, we needed a hotel, and the hotel we chose was the IBIS BRUGGE CENTRUM.Booking this hotel is simplicity itself. The website is very easy to use and once you complete the search for your chosen property, just fill in your details and three clicks later your room is booked.It's also easy to cancel - we had to change our booking due to a fff...fowl-up with the ferry company. Within a few minutes, I typed in my confirmation number, cancelled, and booked a room for the following night.The hotel has a good position in the historic city centre (hence the name!), close to the Béguinage, the Sant Jean and Gruuthuuse museums, and a 5 minute stroll from the canals. It's situated at Katelijnestraat 65A, which is around 750m southwest of the Burg. Sharing a paved square with some offices and the Novotel, just off a busy shopping street, it's relatively easy to find as the Begijnhof car park - directly beneath the hotel, is well sign-posted and, as it's a straight drive of a few hundred metres in from the Katelijne Poort, there's no need to attempt the horrendous one-way system.Ibis hotels are usually in modern, characterless buildings but this one, although modern, is partly housed within the brick façade of a 15th-century convent in a peaceful, landscaped square.The immediate entrance area had quite a tropical feel about it - whether this was the profusion of potted plants placed in every conceivable space, the sunlight streaming through the large, glass doorway, or the fact that the heating seemed to be cranked full on, I don't know. Anyway, we hacked our way through to the open-plan reception area and, after handing over our booking reference number, the necessary paperwork was done in seconds flat. This was just after noon but there were no problems with the room being ready.As you'd expect in a city where the official language is Flemish, the staff were multi-lingual and spoke perfect English.The hotel has 128 rooms on 3 floors with elevator access.If you've ever stayed in an Ibis, you'll know exactly what the room was like as they are all much the same. For those of you that haven't, let me describe it.The room was spotless and decorated in an off-white colour which keeps it fairly bright. We had two twin beds with bedside cabinets - phone, clock/radio etc. - a work station/desk/dresser with internet link and adequate lighting, and a decent sized wardrobe with shelves and space to stow away the luggage. The room had cable TV with around 30 channels in a variety of languages but the good thing is (and we've found that all hotels in Belgium are the same), we had the British terrestrial channels. This meant that although far from home, we didn't have to miss any of the rubbish served up on a nightly basis!The carpet, curtains and bedspread were typical of Ibis hotels, a swirling, green and amber design - it's not quite as bad as it sounds. I can't remember if the room had A/C, but as it was early March this wasn't really a big consideration. It did have individually-contolled heating.The bathroom was pretty much standard with the usual furnishings (including bath tub), a decent shower, adequate toiletries and plenty of towels on the heated towel-rail. The bathroom was, as with the bedroom, spotlessly clean and tiled throughout with a spacious, well-lit vanity area and a large mirror.A nice feature of this room was the fact that we were on the corner at the rear of the hotel and had windows on two sides - overlooking the square and a quiet backstreet. Most of the buildings adjacent to us were low level and, although we were only one floor up, no-one overlooked our room. The room was also very quiet with minimal traffic on the street outsideRestaurants in Ibis hotels tend to be themed and in this one, the theme was that of an Estaminet - a sort of French café. It certainly had that café look to it with tiled floors, small, rickety, wooden tables and chairs and a high ceiling. The large windows meant that it was very bright and airy and it looked quite inviting - not quite inviting enough it seems, for we chose to eat elsewhere!There is also an adjacent bar which I did venture into. It was well-stocked with a large range of beers which I investigated with some interest.Hotels in Bruges are not known for their low prices and in high season, this can be a very expensive city to stay in. We were therefore very pleased to come across this hotel at the rate of 59 euros (breakfast is not included). A hotel so close to the Grand Place in Bruges for this price is a real bargain. From the end of March the price per room rises to 90 euros so it was good timing on our part.We have stayed in quite a few Ibis hotels, mainly because the standard is constant and the prices are usually pretty good. This one was no different.If you're looking for somewhere special, romantic, or maybe a hotel with a touch of luxury, then the Ibis Brugge Centrum is probably not for you. But if you're looking for an inexpensive, decent hotel to lay your head after a busy day seeing the sights of this city, it's perfect.
by proxam2 on August 27, 2011
IN FLANDERS FIELD MUSEUM is located on the upper floor of the Cloth Hall in the Grote markt, Eiper, or YPRES.The museum opened in 1998, replacing the dated WWI museum that had previously occupied the building. THE CLOTH HALL itself is a magnificent medieval edifice, but what is all the more remarkable is that it was only finally completed in 1962. It's actually a replica of the original town hall that, along with the rest of Ypres, was vapourized during the titanic struggle that took place here from 1914-18.A walk through the courtyard of the Cloth Hall brought us to the staircase (there's an elevator for disabled visitors) and as we climbed I couldn't help but marvel at the ancient craftsmanship - then I reminded myself that this was all modern. The re-building of the Cloth hall is very authentic and it really does look like it has stood here for 800 years.At the top of the stairs is the ticket booth where you are given a swipe card. These cards have details about real people who were connected with the city during those dark days. There are 150 different personalities. At strategic points around the museum you can swipe the cards and details about this person's life are displayed on a screen. It helps form a personal affinity with the people and the events of that time.We stepped into the museum proper and........BOOM!The walls are covered with the ragged remnants of tattered wallpaper with patches of bare brick and old cracked pictures on the wall - it feels like you've stepped into the bomb-ravaged ruins of a town under siege, with convincing sound effects to match.This museum is by no means a stuffy and sterile collection of artifacts. It's not about the commanders and battle strategies (what strategies?). It's concerned more with the ordinary people who suffered this war - soldiers, civilians, medical staff and children.Computers and videos, interactive models, clever lighting techniques and sound effects - crashing artillery, the rat-ta-tat of machine guns, songs, shouts and screams - all are employed to great effect. There are films continually playing and images are projected onto walls.One of the most poignant moments, I think, is in the area concerned with poison gas. There are large perspex columns with plumes of smoke bubbling and billowing upwards and all the time changing colour from putrid pink to bilious blue to ghostly green. Images are projected onto walls depicting gas attacks and there are various gas-masks adorning the walls. As if that's not enough, you're subjected to a faint, but continuous background noise of laboured breathing, coughing and spluttering. On through the replicated trench system and into a sealed room where, somehow or other, they've managed to simulate a battlefield in a confined space. You enter the room in almost total darkness then .... BOOM! Explosions rent the air. It seems as though the breath is being sucked out of your lungs in the fetid, smoky atmosphere, then...FLASH! The world erupts in a cacophony of stroboscopic, bright white lights, starkly illuminating what at first you thought was a normal floor, but is in fact a glass panel covering over all the debris you could ever imagine would litter such a scene of DEVASTATION and CARNAGE.Again there are films played on the walls. Images of men charging towards their destruction....men falling....explosions....mud and dirt erupting - spewing death everywhere. Then you hear the pathetic cries of the wounded. Many of them no more than boys who, in their dying agony call out for their "MUMMY".There are many other points of interest and exhibits: Ypres before the war, how the war began, paintings by Paul Nash, the plight of the 7.5 million POW's, newspapers of the time, the evacuation of refugees, life behind the front line, the 1914 Christmas truce, and much, much more.There's quite a substantial display of the medical services, the care administered and the medical advances made.The last area deals with fact and figures - casualties etc, and examines who, if anyone, exactly won the war. This is where you'll find an electronic counter which tallies the wars that have occurred around the world since the end of THE WAR TO END ALL WAR. I can't remember the exact figure when I was there but it was well over 100 - and rising.....This leads to the staircase down into the tourist office - which incidentally has some pretty good displays as well, not to mention an excellent book shop.But wait, there's one other thing.Descending the stairs, there are glass cabinets stuffed haphazardly with hundreds of old sepia photographs --- Groups of Tommies posing with their mates, proud Highlanders in full regalia, Anzacs grinning from under a slouch hat, big strapping Canadians, Indian Lancers, Caribbean soldiers, Frenchmen, Belgians, Portuguese, Africans, Asians - men from every far-flung corner of the globe. Some in groups and some with a local sweetheart - some intended as keepsakes to send to family at home. These were all handed in to be developed at local photography studios..........but none of these men ever came back to collect them.This is not what you might term a 'fun day out'. But it is extremely interesting and very sobering. The museum is arranged in such a way as to give maximum effect and some of it can be shocking, but not in such a way that is sensationalist or gratuitous.I've been there twice, once a few years ago with my wife, and again last year with my son. It loses some of its, I hesitate to use the term 'shock value' - novelty perhaps, second time around, but I still profited from the second visit.I would recommend a visit here for anyone who has the slightest notion that there's any glory in war.To get the most out of the experience, combine your visit with THE LAST POST ceremony at the Menin Gate. This occurs at 8pm every night of every year.It's not all doom and gloom though, you can pass the time between the museum visit and the Last Post in the Grote Markt, or Grand Place. Ypres is a charming little city with any number of quality restaurants and as for the beer - well that's another review.....
Libramont is in the heart of the Ardenne, around 2km from the A4/E411 motorway. The hotel is on the main road leading into town (1km) so it's almost impossible to miss it.It's a modern, 3-storey building with 24 rooms, a restaurant and bar inside the main building, and a separate brasserie/bar next door.We arrived around 8.30pm and had a little difficulty finding a parking place as the hotel's restaurant is very popular (as is the brasserie). We managed to squeeze into a tight space eventually and proceeded to reception.The reception area is inviting enough, if a little on the small side, but there's a large lounge area off to the right - there's also a bar next to this. We had pre-booked so there was very little fuss in doing the necessary paperwork, although the young girl dealing with us didn't speak much English. She was, however, very pleasant and friendly and there were no real misunderstandings. We soon had our key and were on our way to our first floor room by way of the elevator.Our room was decorated in a sort of peach-colour, which wasn't quite as bad as it sounds, with a dark maroon carpet. The walls could've done with a fresh coat of paint - they were clean enough, bit a little tired. Though not a large room, it was adequate without being spacious. We had a comfortable, king-size bed (although we'd requested twins), but the pillows were pretty useless, and there were bedside cabinets either side of a nice, teak headboard - one of which housed a clock/radio.The good-sized TV (30 channels in all the major European languages) sat on top of the desk-cum-sideboard with mini-bar. The mini-bar was empty but this wasn't an issue as it didn't, in fact, work. We also had a large wardrobe with oodles of storage space although as we didn't check-in till quite late, and were heading off first thing, we didn't need it! There were a couple of easy chairs and a small coffee table with a welcoming basket of fruit and a dish of sweets and chocolates - very nice.The room also had an abundance of small lamps dotted around, but no big, central light in case you needed it.We were at the back of the hotel and had a pleasant view over open countryside, but we couldn't open the window because there were swarms of mossies queuing up to feast on my beer-infused blood. We could've done with opening it and letting some fresh air in, as the room didn't have AC and it was a little on the stuffy side.The bathroom was completely tiled, but as with the bedroom, it was also due for a bit of attention although it couldn't be faulted for cleanliness. As well as the usual furnishings, we had a bathtub and shower, which was powerful enough and had plenty of hot water. The room was well-lit, with a good mirror and vanity area, and was supplied with a hair-dryer. A good xpelair fan made sure the mirror didn't steam up too much, and there was a heater if we needed it. All the toiletries came in a lovely little basket and consisted of small bottles of shampoo, bath foam etc. The towels , while nothing to write home about, were fine.As I said at the start, the hotel had plenty of eating options, but we settled for a snack in the brasserie/bar next door. The meals looked gorgeous, but we weren't all that hungry. I did manage to knock back a bottle or two of Orval though (it's almost a local brew as it's produced not far to the south-west), and that's practically a meal in itself!Breakfast (a few short hours later) was included in the price and consisted of a fairly extensive cold buffet. It was fine, but there was far too much emphasis on cheese at the expense of anything else and the only flavour of yoghurt available was peach. Still, my usual breakfast consists pretty much of coffee and a cough so I wasn't totally devastated.The hotel is well placed, being close to the junction of two motorways which dissect southern Belgium, and is conveniently located for using as a base to explore the Ardennes.
by proxam2 on August 26, 2011
We were booked into our hotel by 12.30pm and, as we had already showered etc. on the ferry, it was a case of dumping the bag in the room and heading off. Obviously the term bag refers to my luggage and is not a derogatory term for my beloved Mrs m.Our hotel was about a 5-minute walk to the Markt along a route lined with chocolate shops, lace shops, souvenir shops and even more chocolate shops. You could literally smell the chocolate as you passed by the doorways. I like chocolate (who doesn't) but I'm not really passionate about it. If you are the type of person who thinks chocolate is better than sex, this place will have you organizing......just how much chocolate you can take home. It's a chocoholic's paradise.Bruges is very touristy and anyone shopping for the three main souvenirs: Lace, chocolate and beer, will be well catered for.We arrived at the Markt around lunch-time but we weren't tempted into any of the cafes and opted instead to share a portion of frites from a kiosk in the square.Our first port of call was supposed to be the tourist office but we somehow or other got sidetracked and we never did find it...no matter, we had guidebooks and there are large maps strategically placed around the town so there wasn't the slightest chance of getting lost. Naturally, we got lost.We ended up practically back at our hotel.So, while I'm getting my bearings, you can peruse the following section.Here are a few selected highlights to the city. It is not exhaustive, but should help to illustrate the kind of cultural attractions on offer. Bruges is quite a small. compact city and so lends itself well to a tour by walking or by horse-drawn carriage. As it's sometimes known as The Venice of the North, there are lots of companies offering canal-boat tours. There are also tours by mini-coach and it's possible to hire bicycles. We walked.•• MARKT -- The Belfry dominates the main city square - where markets were held from 1200 until 1983. The Belfry tower is 86m high, has 366 steps and leans southeast. It has a 4-octave carillon of 47 bells which marks the quarter hour - that gets old fast. -- You can climb the tower for some spectacular views across the city...you can, we didn't.•• BASILLICA of the HOLY BLOOD -- A double chapel with Saint Basil's Chapel (1139-1149) on the ground floor. The upper chapel was rebuilt (19thC) in neo-gothic style. A museum displays the reliquary of the Holy Blood. -- The chapel building and interior is pretty amazing.•• CHURCH of OUR LADY -- Dating from the 13th century, it has a 400ft tower. The church is famous for its art treasures: paintings, wood sculptures and especially, the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. It is also home to the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy. -- Very impressive.•• BEHUINAGE -- Founded in 1245, it is no longer inhabited by Beguines, but by Benedictine nuns. -- Although this was close to our hotel, we didn't visit.•• THE CITY GATES-- Blacksmith's Gate, Ghent Gate, Cross Gate, Donkeys Gate - old city gates that were part of the medieval fortifications constructed in Bruges in the 13th - 14th centuries.•• GROENINGE MUSEUM -- This museum houses Dutch and Belgian paintings from the 15th to 20th centuries. The centerpiece of this collection are masterpieces by the Flemish Primitives, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling.•• GRUUTHUSE MUSEUM -- In the former palace of the Lords of Gruuthuse, this 15th century mansion displays a collection of historic furnishings, kitchen ware, silver, tapestries, glass, ceramics and weapons, as well as musical and measuring instruments.•• OLD ST. JOUNS HOSPITAL and MEMLING MUSEUM -- The hospital, 13th century church, and the adjoining chapel house six masterpieces by Hans Memling.•• STADTHUIS -- Dating from 1376, the Town Hall is the oldest civil building in Belgium. This is one of the grandest and most richly ornamented of all Flemish Town halls. A spectacular staircase leads to a Gothic Hall with vaulted ceiling and historic wall paintings. -- Spectacular.•• FOLKLORE MUSEUM -- This has authentic reconstructions of period interiors such as a cobbler’s, hat maker’s and cooper’s workshops, kitchen, grocery store, pharmacy, confectionery and a museum pub. -- This was was good, but it wasn't great. The museum pub was authentic but I didn't bother with a beer while there - you've got to have some self-control, after all.So what else did we do?- Not a lot actually. I managed to persuade Mrs m to visit a brewery but she made me pay her back later.• De Halve Maan (half moon) Brewery Tour •The brewery has been in operation since 1856, although records show beer was brewed here in the 1500s, and even though the brewery has been modernized, the building itself is old and rickety. It's an adventure on its own just wandering the narrow passageways, steep staircases and bumping your head on the low ceilings. One of the rewards of this assault course is the roof-top view which gives you a fantastic panorama of the town. Another is the welcoming glass of Straffe Hendrik at the end of the tour. I'm not greatly interested in the processes of brewing, my passion is for the end result, but it was fairly interesting and I enjoyed it. The tour lasts about 35-40 minutes and cost 3 euros, which includes the beer.De Gouden Boom is another brewery in the old Town, but I wasn't allowed to visit that as well. They are responsible for Tarwebier (a wheat beer), and Brugse Tripel, an excellent beer which I sampled later on.TIP: If you're interested in sampling the local, or a speciality beer, don't be afraid to ask. Most cafes and bars do not display the wide range of beers on offer and you may find just 3 or 4 taps. If they don't have a menu, check the glasses on the gantry to find out what they sell. Failing that, ask for a recommendation, they'll be glad to help.If you don't stipulate, you'll end up with Jupiler, Maes or something similar.By the time we'd finished our meal we took a slow walk back to the hotel by way of Kemelstraat - which was actually in the opposite direction of our hotel - and stopped in at 'T BRUGS BEERTJE. It's a bit of a dump from the outside, in fact it's hardly the Ritz inside, but it's classy. Dark and brown, the walls are covered with old tin-plate adverts for beer while it seems every shelf around the bar is groaning under the weight of the myriad beer bottles.What a choice!300 different beers to choose from...and every one a classic. I came over all giddy.The next day was a bit of a blur - partly because there was so much we wanted to do and so little time to do it - but mainly because one of us had went totally over the score and wasted it for everyone....again.So, after a bit of touristy stuff in the morning, it was a mad scramble to load up with goodies to bring home. These mostly consisted of beer it has to be said, but Mrs m (selfishly) wanted to do some shopping for herself.No, not chocolates. She wanted a windmill. Not a full-size one obviously - that would be ridiculous - but one about 3 feet high as a garden ornament. (Don't get me started)You would think it would be a simple matter to come across such an item in Flanders - the home of the windmill. Think again. Anyway, long story short, she got her windmill....and I got mine.TIP: Bruges is infested with shops selling beer but, although these are good for obtaining some of the rarer brews, the beer is relatively expensive with prices similar to the UK. Supermarkets can supply a huge range of classic brews, including most of the Trappists, for around 25% of the price.OVERALL: I liked Bruges. There were enough cultural attractions and places to visit, and the city had a friendly, safe atmosphere. It's not somewhere to go for a wild time - the night-life seemed very sedate, but there's no shortage of restaurants and bars and it has a romantic feel.It was extremely busy during the day, but very quiet and uncrowded in the evening. I think it might be a bit unbearable in high season though when it also gets more expensive.
by proxam2 on July 11, 2012
The Atomium is to Brussels what the Eifel Tower is to Paris, the CN Tower to Toronto, the Gateway Arch to St Louis. No, I don't mean a big useless obelisk, but the city's most famous landmark.It was built in 1958 for the World Expo which was hosted by Brussels that year. It represents a crystal molecule of metal, magnified 165 billion times, with nine electron spheres (each measuring 18m across) which are linked by thick tubes containing walkways and escalators. It has exhibitions and viewing areas inside, as well as a top-floor restaurant. The Atomium dominates an area on the northern fringes of the city called BRUPARCK - a vast park which is home to such attractions as the Planetarium and the Heysel Football Stadium. Then there's the Océade, an aquapark complete with flumes and wave machines, palm trees and sandy beaches, and bars by the poolside. There's also the Kinepolis, which claims to be the biggest cinema complex in the world with 29 theatres, including an IMAX theatre.As if that's not enough, there's an International Trade Fair, an Exhibition Centre, and Botanical Gardens. Not to mention acres of parkland.Hungry? --- The Village, next to Mini-Europe, has around 20 different restaurants and bars offering a wide variety of ethnic eating experiences.You can casually walk around most of the major landmarks of the EU's member states in an hour ortwo.The United Kingdom is represented by a North sea Oil Rig, Bath's Royal Circus, The Chunnel and many other models and sites. Why not listen to the chimes of Big Ben as you gaze wistfully at the Mother of Parliaments and wonder exactly what (if anything) goes on in the real version.Any area concerning France would not be authentic without the Eifel Tower, and it's no different here. There's also models of the Arc de Triomphe, the Sacre-Coeur, the Castle of Chenonceaux and a working model of the TGV, as well as many more.Italy is well represented with the leaning tower of Pisa, the Palazzo Dicale from Venice and a model of Vesuvius complete with eruptions - the platform next to Vesuvius actually vibrates when the eruptions take place and can be quite a shock when you're not expecting it!Germany has the Brandenburg Gate, Trier's Porta Nigra, various castles, and a Berlin Wall which is demolished and rebuilt at regular intervals.Greece has the Acropolis; Portugal has the Torre de Belem and the Algarve; Denmark, a Viking village as well as Copenhagen; Sweden is depicted by Stockholm's City Hall; Finland has Olavinlinna Castle; The Netherlands is portrayed by Amsterdam, Veere and windmills galore; Eire has Cashel; Spain - Seville and Barcelona; Luxembourg by the Pont Adolphe; Austria the Abbey at Melk.Belgium?Not surprisingly, Belgium is featured more than any other nation here. There's Brussel's Grand Place, Middelburg, Dinant, Liege, Celles, Antwerp, Ghent and of course, Bruges.In total, Belgium has a disproportionate number of exhibits - 15 to Finland's 1.The preceding list is by no means comprehensive, merely a taster of the better-known landmarks. Of course, there are a great many landmarks that you might expect to be there, but which aren't.For example: The UK has Longleat House but not Buckingham Palace and Italy has the Villa Rotunda but not the Colosseum. I suppose there are limits to what could be included - or maybe the Colosseum was just too hard to make a model of?Some of the more fastidious visitors might wonder why somewhere like Edinburgh Castle isn't included, but wouldn't dare broach the subject for fear of entering into a political rant about the inequities of a 'United Kingdom' display that only has models from England, and none from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.Of course, the reason might be because the inhabitants of those places don't pay the same level of taxation to fund the UK or the EU as others ..... (aye right) or it could just be sheer ignorance.I suppose lots of people from all over Europe could feel aggrieved at the lack of representation from their part of the European Empire ..... with the possible exception of the Belgians!Another thing - how come the Denmark area doesn't have a model of Legoland?One of the advantages of visiting a place like Mini-Europe is the ability to compose photographs creating the illusion that the models are the real thing. The trouble is, once you're ready to snap that piccy of your loved one seemingly posing in front of the Eifel Tower, or, cliche of cliches, holding up the tower of Pisa, it spoils the setting somewhat when a group of grubby little oiks from a school outing come clambering over Stratford-Upon-Avon.That's not the only problem in composing that perfect illusionary shot. Almost anywhere you look in this Lilliputian landscape, the view is dominated by the giant Atomium, giving a totally surreal mélange of the scaled-up and scaled-down. If you'd been paying attention earlier, you'd remember that the the Atomium is an enlargement of an iron atom, which puns neatly into my next statement.It's ironic that a site of miniature versions of monumental landmarks is dwarfed by an enlarged model of something microscopic.In conclusion, Mini-Europe is quite an enjoyable way to pass an hour or two. If you have any interest in architecture, or you're impressed by the craftsmanship of the model-makers, then you can't fail to be impressed.Children might get bored rather quickly, but then that's nothing new.I don't think I'd make a special journey just to visit Mini-Europe, but there are so many other attractions in the Bruparck that combining two, or more, can make for a good day out.
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