It took awhile, but we finally found the Ireland we came for. Now, it was another trip across the sea, this time to Belgium. Here's the final segment of our trip.
Finally, the food service truck is called back and commandeered to lift us up into the plane. The flight only leaves 1.5 hours after schedule.
We’re lucky in one sense, that’s just about how much our next flight at Heathrow has been delayed so we didn’t miss that flight.
I will not willingly fly Aer Lingus again.
The next flight is British Airways to Brussels. This is a short, uneventful flight with a professional and courteous staff.
It’s Tuesday and we’re in Belgium!
We pick up our rental car and head out. Our first stop is a mecca for beer drinkers, at least a number of American drinkers, the little village of Hoegaarden, about 40 minutes east of the airport.
It takes us awhile to find the old brewery (a very large modern one sits at the edge of town) with it’s charming courtyard pub. The villages’s signage is very low key but we eventually make our way in and enjoy the best beer I can remember having. Along with the Witbier (which is as pervasive in Belgium as Budweiser is here), we enjoy the splendid dark Grand Cru that is not available in America.
I grab a pack of the Grand Cru to take to the hotel for later when we leave.
We have come here to Hoegaarden straight from the airport. It’s now time to head back to Brussel’s and find our hotel.
The arrival in Brussel’s puts us right on the street where the EU headquarters are located at the peak of rush hour. I have no idea where we are or how to get to our hotel. When I get a chance, I duck onto a side street where I can pull over and study our map.
I’m armed with several street maps of the city, none of which show the city as a whole. They all come in two parts. I seem to be on one side of the map and our hotel on the other. The big problem is that Brussels’ streets are a real labarynth. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the city is laid out.
With my wife navigating and several stops to pull over and study the map, we finally find our way to the hotel about an hour and a half later. The hotel is the Citadines St. Catherine’s, located on a time-worn but beautiful plaza dominated at one end by the St. Catherine’s cathedral and the other with a large fountain.
The Citadines is an apartment hotel, meaning a suite. We get a large suite on the third floor with a bedroom apart from the living room. It also includes a small kitchen and dining room. The bathroom has a bathtub only and is not accessible. It is separate from the toilet which is minimally accessible. The Citadines also has smaller studios which are accessible (I do not have details) but we wanted the larger suite and are willing to adapt.
Our room has three large windows, two in the living room and one in the bedroom, which offer spectacular views of the city. Parking is at an underground garage for an extra charge. There is a metro station in the plaza across the street but it is not accessible. According to the map in the station, I could only find four accessible stations on the metro system. Every bus I saw was accessible.
I go to the small market at the end of the block where 2 Euros gets me enough eggs, ham, coffee, and milk to make breakfast in our room for the next couple of days.
It’s still relatively early and the sun goes down very late this time of year, so we walk over to the Grand Place, Brussels’s old plaza. It’s about a six block walk from our hotel.
Brussels is a beautiful city with many old buildings, plazas, and cafes. It reminds me a lot of Paris with all the winding lanes and alleyways. It does have a kind of dingy glamour like a fading movie star. It’s kind of hard to describe. I really enjoyed this city, more than I did Paris, but you will be stepping around streetwalkers and junkies sleeping off their last fix. I guess this city just feels more real.
The late afternoon sun makes the Grand Place shine. This plaza is surrounded by intracately detailed buildings, each one created by crafts guilds hundreds of years ago. The guilds would be equivalent of our unions today. The ironworkers guild is in one building, the printers in another, and so on. Restaurants line the perimeter.
About two blocks beyond is Brussels most famous sight, the Mannekin Pis. Remember those cheesy fountains you see at your local garden center of the little boy relieving himself? Well, the original is here. Erected a few hundred years ago, the Mannekin Pis is just what the name says. A statue of a boy urinating into the pool.
On the way back, we have dinner at one of the many restaurants lining the streets here. A pot of mussels cooked in a garlic broth, accompanied by steak, bread, and fries (which, of course, is a Belgian invention) is what is on our menu tonight. It is all very good. We wash it all down with Hoegaarden, which at 1.5 Euros is less than my son’s coke at 2 Euros. I don’t know if it’s this way everywhere in Belgium, but a glass of water on the side also costs a couple of Euros.
It’s about an hour and a half drive to our next stop, Brugges. When coming into Brugges, you're directed to one of the many underground parking lots. Don't worry if you end up at an outlying lot, accessible shuttle buses will take you into town.
The old medieval port town of Brugges is a perfectly preserved masterpiece. The heart of the old city is spared much...but not all...of the vehicular traffice due to those underground garages. It's a strollers paradise with sidewalk cafes, chocolate shops, and museums galore.
The centerpiece is the main square where fishermen used to bring their catches via the canals that came in from the sea. The canals now stop about a block short of the square and the fish market has moved over by the city hall. Dominating the square is the tall clock tower with its hand operated carillon.
We start off with a hot cup of coffee at the first cafe we encounter upon exiting the garage and then start winding our way to the center of town.
A special note here for wheelchair users. Brugges is very bumpy. The roads, squares, and many walkways are, for the most part, cobblestones. In the Rick Steves book about accessible Europe, it is stated that there are smooth paths where cobblestones are that make for easy travel by wheelchair. We did not see any such paths, so be aware of this.
There are many chocolate shops along the way so we stop in at one and are offered many tastes of some of the best chocolate we've ever had. Of course, we have to by a few boxes to take home but it's very reasonable here and only sets us back about $20 for a pretty large assortment of sweets.
Wandering around the many alleyways, we emerge upon the gold plated magnificence of the city hall. We are looking for a restroom and find one that requires three steps up and then another three steps down. I spot a wheelchair lift at the entrance of city hall and a gentleman standing there says to come on up. It turns out that he is an artist who is having a show of his work in the lobby of the building. Good paintings and nice gentleman but we really need some facilities. He tells us that the bathroom we saw is accessible...and that the Flemish are a forward thinking socially aware people...but I cannot for the life of me see how they were accessible.
We finally had to make do at one of the restaurant bathrooms which at least was level if not fully accessible. I did not find any accessible restrooms in Brugges.
There are many beautiful canals here and many boats to tour on. All of them require the navigation of stairs so that option was out for us.
Later on, we found a restaurant on one of the back alleys that made waffles. I know that many U.S. restaurants serve Belgian waffles but I have never had one like the waffle we had this day. It was slightly crisp, very buttery in its flavors, light, and covered with melted chocolate and cream. Very sinful and delicious.
After Brugges we took a drive through the countryside. It's only a 30 minute drive to the Netherlands so we head north to add one more country to our list. The first thing we notice is when you get over the border, there are as many bicycles as cars...if not more. Every road has a corresponding bike path and many paths go beyond the roads. It's very beautiful and clean in this area.
We make a quick stop at a local pub in Ijzendijke, a pretty little town with friendly people, a windmill, and a small cannabis shop. A two hour drive across the Dutch countryside leads us back across the border at St-Niklauss, just west of Antwerp. From here, it's a short drive south back into the maze of streets that is Brussels.
One more night of rest overlooking St. Catherine's square and then we get back on the plane to go home.
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
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