My manager was once again sending me back to Paris, so this time I decided to take a couple vacations days beforehand and go on a mini trip before heading to Paris. Since it was going to be easiest logistically to fly into Paris, I wanted to go somewhere that was relatively close. I was looking at Google Maps and checking out what the nearby countries had to offer. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go until I came across Mini-Europe. But more on that later. It was decided: I would go to Belgium.
I flew into Paris on Thursday and took a train to Brussels. I stayed in an AirBnB in central Brussels, which ended up working very well. It’s very close to the city square and was right in the middle of the Christmas market. The first thing I did after dropping off my bags was join a free walking tour. It lasted about 2hrs and was a really great way to get introduced to the city. It helped me get myself oriented and understand the area around my AirBnB. There are lots of beautiful Christmas lights all around the city.
Place #49: Brugge, Belgium
On Friday, I took a train to Brugge (in English it’s spelled Bruges). Brugge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so there are lots of protection and preservation efforts, especially in the centre of the city. It was by far my favourite stop on the trip. I was also able to get a lot done in the one day I had there. I climbed the belfry, which is a non-religious tower just off the main square. I got a great view of the city and surrounding area from the top.
I also walked through a couple of churches, one of which was the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Their ‘claim to fame,’ if you will, is a vial containing some of Jesus’s blood. Now, I’m not sure where modern Christians stand on whether this vial of blood is really Jesus’s, and to be honest I’m a little skeptical. But Justine made a good point: Jesus didn’t come to Earth and leave a vial of his blood behind for us to gawk over; He was here for more important reasons. Regardless, I saw it. And as one might expect of blood that’s 2000+ years old, it wasn’t particularly pleasant to look at. Also, it’s a Catholic church and when I didn’t do the hand cross bit during the ‘ceremony’ I’m pretty sure the priest thought I was just some tourist. Which isn’t wrong, but I’m also not not a believer.
Brugge also had a Christmas market in their town square, where I got tartiflette which is a potato, cheese and bacon dish which is delicious. I went to a chocolate museum and demonstration. The museum was mildly interesting, but there were unlimited chocolate samples throughout, so I wasn’t complaining. The most interesting part however was the chocolate making demonstration at the end. A chocolatier went through the entire process of making chocolate pralines: a chocolate with a filling made of nuts, sugar and creme (not an actual type of nut, like I once thought).
I also wandered through Groeningemuseum, which has lots of Flemish and Belgian paintings. Just before dinner, I decided to take a quick boat tour through the canals of Brugge. It was a lot of fun. Tours and guides are by far my favourite way to learn about a place. They always tell you information you wouldn’t have otherwise found out on your own. I got Flemish meatballs for dinner at a restaurant on the city square, so I could look out at the Christmas market and belfry tower while eating.
Back in Brussels, I saw the Aurora Borealis light show in the Brussels city square. It was extremely beautiful and captivating.
On Saturday, I went to Mechelen on the advice of my AirBnB host. It was a nice pit stop on the way to Antwerp. I climbed the cathedral tower, which was an exhausting 566 steps up. The tower was never completed, so the top of it is just flat. They added a glass walkway on top, so you can literally stand on top of the tower. It was another great view, and I could see the Atomium which is all the way back in Brussels! (Mechelen is a 30min train ride away from Brussels).
In Antwerp, I walked around a little bit, but didn’t see as much as I had hoped to because it was raining. I went to Rubens House, the former home of the artist Rubens. He was primarily a painter, but did a little bit of everything, including designing extensions to the house. Unfortunately the exterior is under restoration so the building itself wasn’t much to look at. The inside is a museum with a lot of his pieces and various period furniture.
I also went to Museum aan de Stroom, which is a museum focused on Antwerp as a city and its connection to the world. They had exhibits on Antwerp as a port city, power, food, and life and death. It was kind of a weird collection. I liked the building more than the contents.
On Sunday, my last day in Belgium, I went just outside of Brussels to see the Atomium. The Atomium is a molecule-shaped building that was built for the World Expo 58. Similar to the Eiffel Tower, it was never meant to be a permanent structure, but is now a well known landmark. You can go inside, and move between the spheres. The top one is dedicated to being a look out spot, where you can get a panoramic view of the city. The other spheres show you the history of the building and the World Expo.
And finally, it was time to visit Mini-Europe, the whole reason I came to Belgium in the first place. Mini-Europe is a theme park that has 1:25 scale models of iconic buildings from throughout Europe. Quite literally, a mini Europe. It was incredible. I loved every minute I spent there. It was really cool to see buildings on a smaller scale and closer to each other, so you can get a better sense of how big buildings really are. For example, the Arc de Triomphe came up to the waist, while the Eiffel Tower was still the height of a three story building.