Surprise Trip to Belgium

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday – I only found out I was going to Belgium when I was already at the airport! I revisited cities like Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent and visited Leuven for the first time. Best gift ever!

 

Brussels

Interesting facts about the city:

Belgians do not share one common language. In fact, there are three official languages in Belgium. In Brussels, people mostly speak French, but all public signs and documents are in French and Flemish Dutch. The third language is German.

The city is home to 40,000 EU employees, 4,000 NATO employees and hosts about 300 permanent representations: lobby groups, embassies and press corporations.

Opened in 1847, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels are the oldest shopping arcades in Europe. Today the Galeries remain one of the most visited spots in the city, where one can find beautiful stores like Meert and Tropismes Libraires.

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday and I didn’t know where we were traveling to – I only found out the surprise destination was Belgium on the departure day, already at the airport!

We flew to Brussels Charleroi, which is located in the south of Brussels and it’s not the main airport. Since we arrived at night and our idea was to go straight to Bruges the following day, we stayed close to the airport, at the Hotel Ibis Charleroi Airport.

After coming back from Bruges, we stayed for the last two nights at the Marivaux Hotel, which was much better! It is very well located, I recommend it.

On Saturday night, after coming back from Bruges and Ghent, we went out for some beers and explored Brussels nightlife. Famous bars like the Delirium Bar are overrated in my opinion, as they are always too crowded and noisy. We just bought some beers at a mini market and some waffles on the street and walked randomly around the city, visiting famous places like the Grand Place, Manneken Pis (the famous peeing boy) and Jeanneke Pis (the peeing girl).

On Sunday the weather was terrible because there was a storm passing through Europe. It was super windy and rainy. We ate brunch at Le Pain Quotidien. This is a sweet, nice place where one can enjoy coffee and bakery goods. To be honest I didn’t like what I ate that much. Alejandro ate a salmon and avocado sandwich which was really good though. I liked the fact that they seemed to be ‘bio’ conscious in everything they do.

Then we spent that entire day with our friends, Florian and Kostas. They used to live in Malta as well, and last year they moved to Brussels. It was so nice seeing them again! It’s nice to see that even though some time has passed, the friendship stays the same 🙂

The four of us went for a walk around the city and stopped at Mont des Arts, amongst other famous touristic spots.

We had lunch at a food court called WOLF Food Market. I really liked this place, especially on a rainy day! Taking its name from the street, the Wolf complex provides space for 17 different restaurants to dispense their gastronomic wares to the public in a magnificent hall that used to be the public banking hall.

One can have anything from anywhere – Asian, Syrian, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese and more. I ate a very good pizza from the Italian place and the guys ate at the Syrian place. Flo and Kostas didn’t have any problems with the food, but Alejandro had to wait a long time for his, despite the fact that he was the first one to order! That was not cool, so I do not recommend the Syrian place.

After eating, we all went for a couple of beers at Bar des Amis, close to our hotel. This pub had a great atmosphere and decor. The music selection was also great!

On our last day in Brussels, we had lunch at Beat. I ate a mushroom toast that was divine and Alejandro ate a burger that looked like a waffle. Very nice!

After lunch, we headed up to the Charleroi airport to catch our flight back to Malta. We had to pay 17 euros for a shuttle bus from Flibco, but if you reserve your tickets online in advance they are cheaper – around 14 euros.


 

Bruges

Interesting facts about the city:

Thanks to its large number of canals and bridges (more than 80) Bruges is often referred to as Venice of the North and was considered one of the major commercial centres of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The city is known for its exquisitely beautiful lace products. Bruges makes some of the most luxurious lace pieces in the world.

There are more castles per square inch than any other country in the world. About 50 of the 470 castles in the Flanders region are based around Bruges.

The famous pop singer Gotye, the author of the hit song Somebody That I Used to Known, was born in Bruges. This is also the city where the movie In Bruges was shot. The main roles were played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes.

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As I mentioned before, we landed on a Thursday at night and decided to take our first full day to visit Bruges. So we took a train from Brussels to Bruges on Friday, which takes approximately 1 hour and costs around 15 euros each way.

I had visited Bruges before, back in 2014, and it has been my favorite city in Europe ever since! It’s very charming and beautiful, with its well preserved medieval architecture. When you’re in Bruges, you feel like you’re in a true fairy tale. I’m glad I got the chance to introduce Alejandro to this beautiful place.

We stayed one night at the Hotel Ibis Brugge Centrum. This Ibis was way better than the one in Brussels. It was very well located and I really recommend it.

We started by visiting the Burg, the main square of the city, where the Town Hall and the Belfort are located. The Belfort was erected in the 12th century and has been rebuilt several times due to fires. During the past four centuries, the 83-meter-high belfry lurched to the left by as much as one meter. To reach the top, you’ll have to climb 366 steps, but we decided not to do it.

I don’t remember seeing the Halve Maan (the half-moon) brewery last time, but this time it really caught my eye! This place has built a pipeline from its Bruges brewery to its bottling plant 3 kilometers away. The brewery was facing criticism as beer lorries struggled to get down the narrow streets to transport the beer. There were suggestions that the brewery should move out of its central Bruges home. However, they were there since 1564 and up until very recently, it was the only brewery left inside the city walls.

The current owner didn’t want to lose that historical connection with the city and came up with a unique solution – a pipeline! Completed in late 2016, it takes forty minutes for the beer to make the journey along the pipeline, which cost 4 million euros to build. Really interesting story!

We continued our walk around the city and visited the Basilica of the Sacred Blood. This church is famous for having a venerated relic of the Holy Blood of Christ. Last time I didn’t enter, but this time we paid two euros to see the relic. After that, we walked all the way to Jan Van Eyck Square.

Another place I loved seeing again was Rozenhoedkaai, a part of the main canal with amazing views of the city. I think this must be the single most photographed place in Bruges! Next to this place, we discovered a really cool shop with Belgian products and comic strips merchandising and a cool bar, with a wall full of beer bottles, called 2be Beer Wall.

Another touristic spot I revisited with Alejandro was the Beginhof. This corner of Bruges is out of bounds to men after 6.30pm. In the 13th century, groups of women – often those who had been widowed by war – founded these places around Belgium. These were enclosed communities designed to meet the spiritual and material needs of these women. Today a group of nuns lives in some of the houses, while other houses offer social housing for women who are by themselves.

I didn’t want to leave Bruges without visiting my single favorite place there – the Bonifacius Bridge. This bridge is kind of hidden, but we managed to find it. It is right next to the Church of our Lady – that one is hard to miss, with its huge tower.

After visiting the entire city we were extremely tired, so we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. We were getting really hungry, but it was so cold outside that we were feeling lazy to go out. We ended up walking to a restaurant located close by and ate a seaweed pizza at La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant.

The following day we had breakfast at That’s Toast, before catching a train to visit Ghent. This place was AMAZING! I give it 5 stars and really recommend you go there for breakfast if you have a chance to visit the city!

There was a huge queue when we got there, so the place must be kind of famous already. Amazing food, nice staff, cool branding. Loved it! After that, we headed to the train station and said goodbye to Bruges.


 

Ghent

Interesting facts about the city:

Back in the 11th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Northern Europe after Paris, with its growth driven by its leadership in cloth production and trading.

Ghent promotes a meat-free day every Thursday called Donderdag Veggiedag. Vegetarian food is promoted everywhere and Ghent is said to have the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.

Ghent’s medieval architecture remains well preserved and cars are banned in the city center, which is Belgium’s largest carfree area. The streets are filled with people biking. Much like it’s neighbor, the Netherlands, everyone has their own bike and most short-distanced trips are done with it.

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After visiting Bruges, it was time to visit another beautiful Belgian city – Ghent. I had also visited Ghent before, back in 2016, on my own. I remember it was the first and only time I traveled alone. I had forgotten how amazing and lively the city is!

We took the tram from the train station to the city center and did the same walk as I did last time. This time we paid to climb to the top of Belfry of Ghent, the huge clock tower. The 91-meter-tall belfry is one of three medieval towers that overlook the old city center – the other two belonging to Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church, two other places we also visited. The belfry of Ghent is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

We went to Korenmarkt, crossed the bridge Vleeshuisbrug and walked all the way to the Gravensteen Castle or the Castle of the Counts, which is a medieval castle situated in the middle Ghent. While the top of the castle offers superb views of the city, the inside today houses a torture museum. We didn’t pay to go inside the castle though.

There is also a special graffiti street that I missed last time. It is called Werrengarestraat and it is a legal graffiti street. It’s full of great art which means that the wall paintings change a lot.

Lastly, we went to my favorite place in Ghent, called Korenlei. From there you have the most amazing view to a canal with several beautiful medieval buildings and to Saint Michael’s Church. The views from there, especially from the bridge Sint-Michielsbrug, are just breathtaking!


 

Leuven

Interesting facts about the city:

Leuven hosts Belgium’s biggest university – Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and it is Belgium’s #1 student town: 1 out of 4 citizens are students.

Leuven is home of the world’s largest brewery group, Anheuser-Busch In-Bev. Their portfolio includes Stelle Artois, Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s, Hoegaarden and Leffe.

AB InBev Ends Beer Blockade

On our last day, despite the fact that the weather was still not amazing, we decided to take a train to visit Leuven. This was my first time there.

Leuven is located very close to Brussels – around 30 minutes by train – and it houses the oldest university of the Benelux. Having the highest student density of Belgium (1 out of 4 inhabitants), it can’t be a coincidence that Leuven calls itself the ultimate beer city. Leuven’s soul is young, hip and vibrant.

We walked from the train station all the way to the Town Hall (Stadhuis). Built in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, it is Leuven’s most impressive building by far. Whilst the city suffered heavily from both world wars, the town hall survived. During WWII, an Allied bomb barely hit the façade.

In front of the Town Hall and also in the city’s Grote Markt, is the amazing Saint Peter’s Church. Built mainly in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style, the church has a cruciform floor plan and a low bell tower that has never been completed. It is 93 meters long.

The Academic Library is another gem in the city. Actually, it’s not that old, because it was destroyed and rebuilt twice. But Belgium wasn’t Belgium if they wouldn’t rebuild the masterpiece in the same authentic way.

In Leuven, one can also enjoy the longest bar in the world. At least that’s what Belgians call the Oude Markt (Old Market). It’s a market place where almost every building is a bar; You will find at least 37 bars, and each bar has something unique to offer. Leuven will keep you busy at night.

On our way back to the train station we walk along a shopping street named Diestsestraat. Once we were back in Brussels, we went back to our hotel to get our stuff and then we went to Charleroi Aiport to catch our flight back to Malta. I loved this extended weekend! Since Monday was a public holiday in Malta, with only 1 day off, we managed to stay there from Thursday evening till Monday evening.

This was the best birthday surprise ever, and the best gift someone could ever offer me! I love traveling, and it was amazing feeling the thrill of not knowing where I was going to till I was about the get on the plane. Thanks for the surprise feito – I LOVE YOU ❤

Bruges, the fairy tale city

In the summer of 2014 I went to two Belgium cities: Bruges and Brussels. Without a doubt I preferred Bruges, a medieval town very charming and beautiful. It reminded me of fairy tales and great love stories!

 

BRUGES

Facts about the city:

The history of the swans dates back to the middle ages. People from Bruges were unhappy with Emperor Maximilian of Austria and his adviser Pieter Lanckhals. The two were captured and Lanckhals was executed in front of Maximilian. He escaped and punished the people from Bruges decreeing that they would have to keep swans on the canals and lakes forever to remember what they did. Swans have long necks, which in Dutch means lanckhals, the last name of his executed adviser.

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I loved Bruges! It is undoubtedly on my top favorite cute places in Europe. Bruges is an old medieval town, full of cute waterways. Ricardo and I stayed at the Hostel Bruges Inn Center (now called Hostel 28) on Dweersstraat 28. We paid €104 for two nights, so €26 a night each.

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I loved the Burg or Markt, which is the main square of the city, which also has the Town Hall and the Belfry. In the center of the market stands the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck.

The Belfry is a medieval bell tower and one of the city’s most prominent symbols. A narrow, steep staircase of 366 steps leads to the top of the 83 m high building. The building is a central feature of the 2008 film In Bruges and is also mentioned in the novel Cloud Atlas.

 

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I loved the other square where there is the Basilica of the Sacred Blood. Originally built in the 12th century as the chapel of the residence of the Count of Flanders, the church houses a venerated relic of the Holy Blood of Christ.

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I really liked the area of Beginhof, which is a collection of houses surrounded by beautiful water channels with ducklings. The entrance bridge is from 1776. The beguinage used to be like a small city. The women had everything they needed in there, such as plantations and church. The place had its own rules, the women living in there were protected within the beguinage in case they committed anything illegal outside of its walls.

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I really liked this area too, Quay of the Rosary (Rozenhoedkaai). Being one of the most photographed sites throughout the city of Bruges, the Quay of the Rosary is one of the most beautiful sights of this Belgian city with its canals and classic buildings.

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The Onze Lieve Vrowekerk (Church of our Lady) is also beautiful. I took pictures of a bridge with this church in the background that look amazing. Its tower, at 115 m, remains the tallest structure in the city and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world.

 

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I enjoyed the walks we did to the Jan Van Eyck Square area. Here we had dinner at an Italian restaurant and also went to some bars to drink some typical Belgian beers, with red fruits. The square is named for noted Northern Renaissance painter Jan van Eyck.

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In Simon Stevin Square we also drank some beers. As we went there during the World Cup 2014 games, we went to a square to watch the game Belgium vs. Germany and it was crazy. We ordered the most expensive beers, all fancy, and then we ran away without paying in the middle of the crowd.

We then saw the second part of the game for some sort of giant outdoor pavilion with giant screens. Belgium lost and was eliminated but even so it was super fun. Another typical thing we did there was eating chips with a special sauce. And waffles, of course.

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I loved the fact that we rented bicycles and rode all over the city like that, past all the canals, parks, lakes and picturesque mills.

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BRUSSELS

Facts about the city:

The city is home to 40,000 EU employees, 4,000 NATO employees and hosts about 300 permanent representations: lobby groups, embassies and press corporations.

Many walls on houses in Brussels are covered with comic book references – so look up when you walk the city.

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After Bruges, we went to Brussels for two days. The trains in Belgium are really modern, with two floors and everything. I liked Bruges much more than Brussels. We were not lucky in Brussels because it was raining a lot. In addition, in Brussels, Ricardo and I had some fights. The city is nothing special. We stayed at Hotel Sabina. We paid € 47 for one night in a double room, so we paid €23.50 each. It is on Rue du Nord 78.

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I liked the Grand-Place, with its nice buildings. We had dinner in a Greek restaurant close to this square.

This is the central square of Brussels. It is surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city’s Town Hall, and the King’s House or Breadhouse, a building containing the Museum of the City of Brussels.  The square is the most memorable landmark in Brussels. It is also considered as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998.

We visited the Manneken Pis. This is a landmark small bronze sculpture with 61 cmdepicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. It was designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy and put in place in 1618. The statue embodies the sense of humour of people from Brussels and their independence of mind.

We went to the Cathedral of St. Michael and Sta. Gudula and the Galleries Royales Saint-Hubert. The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is Europe’s oldest shopping arcade.

We visited the church of Notre Dame du Sablon. Close to the church, there’s the Petit Sablon square and garden, very beautiful decorated with some nice statues.

In this trip we also went to the Palais Royal, which is the official palace of the King and Queen of the Belgians. However it is not used as a royal residence, as the king and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. The palace is situated in front of Parc de Bruxelles.

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Close to the Royal Palace, you have the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church. In front of this church, you have Mont des Arts. I really liked Mont des Arts. We sat there watching the sunset, with the silhouette at the bottom of the buildings of the Grand-Place.

To give the area, situated between the Royal Palace and the Grand Place, a better look during the Universal Exposition held in Brussels in 1910, the king ordered the landscape architect Pierre Vacherot to design a ‘temporary’ garden on the hill. The Mont des Arts offers one of Brussels’ finest views.

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Finally, we visited the Parlamentarium, very interesting and interactive. The Parlamentarium is the visitors’ centre of the European Parliament The official opening was in 2011. The permanent exhibition contains hundreds of multimedia components, explaining the European Parliament and other European Union institutions. All content in the Parlamentarium is available in the 24 official EU languages.

The European Parliament has three places of work – Brussels (Belgium), the city of Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Strasbourg (France). Luxembourg is home to the administrative offices (the “General Secretariat”). Meetings of the whole Parliament (“plenary sessions”) take place in Strasbourg and in Brussels. Committee meetings are held in Brussels.