While visiting my wife during her extended business trip in Oxford, we decided to take a weekend holiday to Belgium. Choosing a travel book for a four day, three night excursion wasn’t too challenging at Oxford’s Blackwell books with their extensive selection of European travel books. I decided to go with the Eyewitness Travel book that covered Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp because it provided a broad coverage of each of the four cities with several maps and brief historical coverage of the country’s architecture. Our planned trip was to only cover Brussels and Bruges but the book was slim enough that the Ghent and Antwerp coverage wasn’t too overbearing.
Eyewitness Travel isn’t a travel book that I’ve seen before on US bookstore shelves, but it looked like a common book for UK travelers. It was filled with several mini maps and color pictures that made it an enticing and eye-pleasing guide for our short trip. Traveling from London to Brussels was remarkably easy via the Eurostar bullet train that traversed 225 miles in just under two hours and made me envious with the ease of travel within the European continent and I could see why there are plenty of slim weekend travel books to choose from for the European traveler.
The first night in Brussels I found myself staying right in the heart of the Grand Place Grote Markt with a gorgeous full moon behind the stunning backdrop of the square’s ornate 17th century architecture. During the late night arrival into Brussels the market square was abuzz with youthful drunken excitement with a vibrancy that that was welcomed after a week in the sobering studious atmosphere of Oxford. The apartment on the square was on the forth story of a three hundred year old building and climbing the narrow winding stairs was a bit overwhelming for my acrophobia, but a night at the Delerium Cafe helped ease my concerns.
The following day we explored the streets of Brussels, strolling through Europe’s oldest domed glass roof of the Galeries St-Hubert, wandered around the Parc du Bruxelles Warande, and enjoyed the Magritte Museum. Brussels definitely has a quirky artistic sense, and the most memorable sight was the famed Manequin Pis, a small fountain statue of a urinating boy that is routinely dressed up in a new costume each day. We stumbled onto a ceremony with several film crew cameramen gathered around the small fountain as it was being dressed in the Belgian FIFA soccer jersey. I had learned the previous night at Cafe Delerium that the Belgians had recently qualified for the World Cup, so dressing up the fountain was quite the celebratory event with 20-30 older Belgian men with awe-inspiring facial hair singing in celebration as the fountain would shoot 30 feet into the crowd each time they hit the final note as they sung Man-Ah-Kin-PISH. It was bizarre and laughable and a great time.
After a full day exploring Brussels, we took the train to the northern coastal town of Bruges, a quaint and quiet medieval city. I found the cobblestone streets and winding canals utterly charming. We had a full two days to sightsee and taste the flavors of Belgian chocolates and beers to our heart’s content. Our first full day started with a boat ride through the canals and we were pleased to learn we arrived on the first day of the boating season, just as the weather was warming up.
The canal boat ride was an excellent opportunity to orient ourselves to the city. After our ride we took a several hour walk through the streets, taking the sites in and exploring the interior of some of the 15th century churches. We also fit in a tour of the Brewery of the de Halve Man, the only brewery still currently brewing within the city’s internal perimeter (although they did admit that they bottle just outside of town). We also had a great time sampling several “pubs” sampling several beers that I’d never seen or sampled in the US. My favorite place was the Staminee, which was hard to find since it was located off a nondescript alley near the main market place. Once we entered the cafe Craenberg we stumbled up a narrow stairwell to sit above an open balcony that viewed the drinkers on the ground floor. The place was probably four or five hundred years old and while sitting back and enjoying a beer with some cheese I felt transported to a simpler time of long ago.
On our second and last day in Bruges we enjoyed my favorite pastime, biking! Riding over the cobblestone streets was quite bumpy but it allowed us to quickly reach the city perimeter and view the wooden windmills and many of the old stone guard towers that protected the city during the medieval years. After our bike ride we enjoyed some beer and cheese and then my wife climbed up the 272 foot 13th century Belfort tower to gain an astounding view of the city that I enjoyed from the screen of her camera.
The two full days in Bruges was just enough time to take in the city and I don’t think that my belt could have lasted any more time consuming all the chocolates, cheeses, and beer that I enjoyed. There is something to be said about traveling with a travel book to help guide your adventures. Using a paper book with pictures and maps instead of an electronic guide on the phone definitely helps this traveler forget the novelties of modernity and absorb the culture and tangible history visible on the ground of my explorations. The Eyewitness Travel guide for Brussels and Bruges was a simple but likable companion to our weekend adventure and I’m glad to have picked it up.