Belgium: home of the Flemish Masters, amazing cobbled-streets in medieval villages, Belgium fries, old and ornate churches, and some of the nicest people.
Never heard of Belgium fries? My tourist map conveniently placed a symbol of French fries at all the locations at which they are made fresh in the old city, with is practically on every corner! I stepped right up and ordered a basket, knowing I wouldn’t be able to finish it because I normally don’t eat fried foods or potatoes. Later I made the mistake of telling my Couchsurfing host I tried the French Fries. Whoops! She politely informed me that they are not French! These fries are a proud Belgium specialty, cut to just the perfect size, washed first in cold water, dried, deep fried once, cooled a bit, deep fried a second time, served very crunchy with a perfectly soft squishy interior potato, and piping hot. They’ve got this fries gig down, they were killer good, if you can ignore heart health. Plus I ordered mine “American,” meaning with ketchup. Everyone else locally eats them with mayonnaise or some sort of sausage goulash topping. Mayo on deep fried foods? Whoa. Ick, even if they are the world’s best fries!
I didn’t visit any art museums in Belgium despite their being many that feature the great Flemish Masters, although I did pay to see the famous multi-panel altarpiece painting of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent by the van Eyck brothers. I find I otherwise have little patience any more for entire museums unless they house my favorites like Monet or Michelangelo. Those I’d pay to see again and again.
Needlework in a Belgium church.
I do, however, love the old churches in all their splendor, kept alive for century upon century. Within these grand edifices reveal our unfailing belief in God’s presence and faith in life after this life. The decades of devotion can be felt. I light a votive candle and say a prayer. Gazing at the painted portraits of the priests who presided over the church through the many centuries I see pious faces, sincere eyes, and maybe even some that had a self-serving story (one got beheaded). Old churches tell stories; stop and listen. The voice of God always whispers.
I also had to at least do a few typical tourist activities, like climb the 267 step bell tower in Ghent, watch the video on how the artisans of old made and tuned those huge bells, and admire the view of the old city from on high.
I also reclined next to the other tourists in the little boat that plied the canals, snapped pictures and listened to the guide’s stories of local history. I paid my 10€ ($12) to walk around the 12th century castle along the canal, imagining all the uses each room had been used for over the centuries (royalty, grain storage, prison, torture chamber, you name it).
I enjoy just walking around the old cities and getting lost a bit, discovering something besides the chocolate shops (which was admittedly my first stop….you can’t visit Belgium without trying your favorite flavors). After a day and a half of all that I craved a quieter experience away from the shoulder-bashing throngs of obnoxious tourists.
I signed myself up for an afternoon bicycle tour of the countryside starting in Brugge with Quasimundo Bike Tours. Cycling might not be for you, but it’s easy, flat, relaxing, informative and fun. We rode along long canals built by Napoleon (go figure – as a way to sneak up with his boats and surprise the British). We cycled to the little village, quant and quiet, of Damme. Climbed up another bell tower for the view, learned about the area, and generally experienced more of real Belgium life as we rode along the popular paved bike paths. Our bike group of six (ages 25 to 60) was friendly and rode along as a little family for a few hours. I loved it.
Canal built by Napolean that we biked along.
Have a look at my post about cheapo travel also. I share there about my staying in the home of a local woman and her son, adding greatly to my wonderful experience of Belgium.
Take in some sights, connect with locals, find inspiration in the old churches, get lost in medieval city streets or take a quiet gander in the countryside. Whatever you decide, Flemish is fun!