When we told friends we were going to spend 10 days in Belgium, we got one of two responses: "Can you bring me some Belgian chocolate?" or "Why?"
It might be a mistake to skip Belgium, since there's so much more there than just chocolate. Belgium is a small country with well-preserved medieval towns, bustling cities, art museums, huge portions of French food, more than 300 brands of domestic beer, and perhaps most importantly, street vendors selling warm wafels and frites (french fries).
And it is easy to see a great deal of the country in a short time, because three of its tourist centers, Brugge, Brussels and Antwerp, are all about an hour from each other by train.
Belgium is an uneasy alliance of economically depressed French-speaking Wallonia, known for its natural beauty, with prosperous Flemish-speaking Flanders, known more for its architecture and art museums.
There is tension between the two regions. "The French [the Walloons] are all on the dole. We support all of them," said one Flemish bartender in Brugge.
Brugge, a city in the heart of Flanders, is made for meandering walks down winding streets and along canals, But don't get off on the wrong foot by speaking to the otherwise friendly locals in French.
Brugge's weaving business made it an economic powerhouse during the late Middle Ages. Merchants traded within the Hanseatic League, which stretched from the Baltics and Scandinavia to the English Channel. But in the 15th century, when its lifeline, the River Zwin, silted up, the city was deserted. Today's tourists are treated to buildings largely preserved in their original condition, particularly in the city's two central squares, the Markt and the Burg.
The massive Belfry, a secular tribute to the power and riches of 13th-century Brugge, dominates the Markt. We climbed the 350 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the city's canals and streets lined with rowhouses. After we recovered, we treated ourselves to a large cone of frites with a dollop of mayonnaise at the friture stand in the square below.
The Markt is lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and even banks where U.S. automated teller machine cards can be used to get Belgian Francs (BEF).
The Burg is attached to the Markt by way of a short cobblestone street, Breidelstraat. The most massive and ornate building on the Burg is the Stadhuis, the former city hall. In the adjoining Heilig Bloed Basiliek's (Holy Blood Basilica) Upper Chapel is a vial reputed to hold a few drops of the blood of Christ -- a relic from the Crusades. Across the Burg is the Tourist Information Office where friendly and efficient staffers will make hotel reservations, sell you maps and tourist brochures and answer questions.
Although almost every street in Brugge leads visitors back in time and through expensive boutiques that cater to well-heeled tourists, the Zuidzandstraat is probably the ritziest, with leather goods, fine linen and rich chocolate shops on almost every block. Brugge is still known for its lace-making, and women in medieval attire sit in the front windows of many shops, making lace by hand.
If you follow Zuidzandstraat from the Markt, you enter the t'Zand plaza full of outdoor cafes, touristy restaurants, modern Flemish sculpture and luxurious hotels.
And because Brugge is commonly known as the Venice of the North, an English-language, guided boat tour through its canals is a restful way to see many of the city's sites.
Another popular way to rest is in a bar with one of Belgium's many beers. You might want to try Kriek, brewed with fresh cherries and raspberry-flavored Framboise. Ducking into a pub for lunch is also a way to keep expenses down, because many bars offer lunch and hearty snacks at considerably lower prices than do restaurants. Taverne de Jakobijn, at Langestraat 54, has a menu of lunch foods from cheese trays to steaks. The bar, owned by the pony-tailed Augustin Chopin, was full of locals eager to explain the country's political intrigues. To get there, follow Hoogstraat out of the Burg until it becomes Langestraat.
Today Brugge is one of Belgium's most popular tourist destinations, and the throngs of tourists can diminish its charm. During peak tourist season, hotel rooms might be hard to come by unless you reserve, but visitors can always make it a day trip from nearby Ghent or Brussels, using Belgium's elaborate and inexpensive train system.
There are two ways to make train travel even more affordable. The "Belgian Tourrail Pass," allows unlimited domestic travel for five days out of 17 for 1,980 BEF, or about $70 in second class. The Verminderingskaart 50%, or half-fare card, is 570 BEF and provides a 50 percent discount on domestic fares in first and second class.
With our half-fare cards, our ticket to Antwerp from Brugge was less than $8.
Although we had images of diamonds, Orthodox Jews and Gothic architecture, we were almost shocked by how exquisite Antwerp, the capital of Flanders, is.
We got a close look at the history and workings of Antwerp's famous diamond industry by touring the Diamant Museum, in the heart of the diamond district (Diamant Museum, 31-33 deKeyserlei).
We also got a good look at the Jewish quarter during a quest for kosher deli foods for a picnic.
The most poignant moment was when we stumbled upon a kosher deli with the words "Since 1933" on the awning. Although the now vibrant Jewish community of Antwerp sustained heavy losses during the Nazi occupation, many Jews escaped or were hidden by using the international network of the diamond industry. Many Jews also survived because the Belgian Catholic Church openly opposed the mistreatment of Jews during the occupation, and its voice was powerful in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Squares in the center
Several large and sometimes confusing squares dominate the center of Antwerp. One of the most impressive is the Grote Markt with the statue of the mythical Roman soldier, Brabo, who saved Antwerp from the giant Antigonus by cutting off the giant's hand. The tourist office is there and even has an electronic machine with tourist information available after hours.
We spent hours wending our way through the cobblestoned streets in Antwerp's center. Almost every corner held a delightful surprise, like the antiques shops along Minderbroederstraat, or the busy Spanish imports store, El Valenciano on Stoelstraat.
The biggest surprise came when we were looking for the waterfront and stumbled upon a neighborhood block where scantily clad women were displaying their human wares in picture-box windows along Schipperstraat. The area had the feel of any red-light district, but a friendly bartender assured us it was safe. "It's a big tourist attraction," he said.
One of the sweetest areas we visited, Vleykensgang, or "Pie Alley," is a narrow winding path through one of the oldest remaining parts of Antwerp, just off of Pelgrimsstraat. We sat for a rest on the benches, listening to the cathedral bells ring, while the intoxicating scent of apple pies wafted through the air. For research's sake, we verified that the aroma was from the famous Antwerp bakery, Popof, just behind the wall.
A taste of Flanders
For dinner we wanted a non-touristy, authentic taste of Flanders. And boy, did we find a big taste of it. Locals recommended the Gouden Ecu, at Sint Michielsstraat 11. The restaurant attracts patrons from the literary community, and its owner, the effusively self-promoting Bert De Bruyne, is a poet and bon-vivant. He's also a master chef. We ate creamy Waterzooi, a chicken stew, and partridge cooked in Kriek with cherries. The portions were almost grotesquely huge -- each dish was enough to feed two hungry tourists -- and the bill, including beer, was less than $50 for two.
Our disappointment at leaving Antwerp faded when we found Brussels' Grand Place, the city's main square and center of its pedestrian center, Ilot Sacre.
The Grand Place is even grander than either Brugge's or Antwerp's main squares. Its ornate guild houses were rebuilt after a 36-hour French bombardment in 1695 that destroyed the original buildings. On the Grand Place is the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), Maison du Roi (the King's House), numerous guild houses including the Butcher's guild house where Karl Marx and Friederich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1847, the Brewer's Museum, and -- of great importance to today's tourists -- a Godiva chocolate shop.
At the Tourist Office in the Hotel de Ville, we picked up a "Brussels Guide & Map," (70 BEF) which guided us on several walks through the city.
Commodities old and new
The alleyways leading away from the Grand Place are named after the commodities once sold on market day, including Rue de Bouchers, (butcher's street) now lined with dozens of mostly French restaurants. One landmark is Restaurant Leon, which serves bottomless bowls of steamed mussels and frites for a low fixed price. The even cheaper alternatives are around the corner on Petit Rue de Bouchers, including three falafel stands whose proprietors aggressively vie for customers with friendly smiles and promises of the best "Belgian" pita snacks.
The Rue de Bouchers leads to Europe's first enclosed shopping mall, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. This glass-roofed passageway houses many of Brussels' elite shops and several sidewalk cafes.
From here we joined the parade of tourists walking past shops selling rows and rows of replicas of the Manneken Pis, the famous statue of a urinating child. We were surprised to see that this statue, said to show "the defiant spirit of the Bruxelloise," is only about 2 feet tall!
Following Rue du Lombard up to the Rue le Beau, we found a trail of antiques shops that leads the way to the Place du Grand Sablon, an up scale pedestrian area with antiques, restaurants and the Wittamer shops, which sell chocolates and pastries.
A real find on our way back down the hill was the bar La Fleur Papier D'ore at 55 Rue de Alexiens. There we enjoyed huge bowls of hearty French onion soup, hearty Belgian whole-wheat bread and large glasses of Brussels' own thick, dark Geueze beer.
For information, call the Belgian Tourist Office (212) 758-8130