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Belgium 12/01
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I had a vacation opportunity in Belgium in conjunction with a business trip to Maastricht in southern Netherlands. This trip was originally planned starting September 12th, but was canceled due to the 9/11 attack. December did not hold the same promise of good weather I had anticipated for September, however, I got sunny 45F days which did not impede my sightseeing a bit. The Belgian franc was in its last weeks of existence prior to Euro deployment, and was weak against the dollar (45BF=$1US), making most everything inexpensive. Although the official languages of Belgium are French and Flemish, people were helpful and I had no trouble anywhere communicating in English.

Saturday December 8th - Brussels

I arrived in Brussels in the early morning and took the Airport line #12 bus headed for the Renaissance Brussels, just south of the ring road near the EU Parliament. The bus cost under $3 US and dropped me a couple of blocks from the hotel. The hotel allowed me to check in early, so I was sightseeing by 9am. I bought a one day metro pass for about $4 US and jumped on the subway to the center of town, metro Bourse. The Bourse is the Belgian stock exchange, shown below left. It is a short walk from there to the Grand Place, a beautiful square with outdoor cafes and impressive buildings (above and two pictures below right).

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Eating in and around the Grand Place presented a variety of options. Belgium is known for its beer, chocolates and mussels ("eat mussels in Brussels"). The first picture below shows a typical street just off the Grand Place. The second picture below shows a crowded outdoor cafe on the square. In the late morning when this picture was taken it was around 35F - hardy folks. I ate mussels (best I've ever had) and beer just off the square inside at Leon's, which was recommended in travel books. The Manneken Pis, a few blocks off the Grand Place, is a small statue with significance to Brussels' attitude of defiance (third picture below). Travel books warned to be disappointed and they were right.

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Sunday December 9th - Brugge

Most travel books agree that Brugge is the jewel of Belgium, and it didn't disappoint. I met a former client, Les Stewart, who was on assignment in Europe and we drove the 50 miles to Brugge. Brugge is the picture of a well preserved thriving medieval city, even though most buildings were actually rebuilt more recently. The streets of Brugge (below left) were touristy, but quaint, leading to the squares and sights of the city. Market Square (second and third pictures below), gives a sense of the fairy tale castle atmosphere. We ate lunch (mussels and a really big beer) on the square and headed to Burg Square (fourth picture below) a few blocks away which has six centuries of architecture standing side by side.

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From Burg Square we walked along Brugge's beautiful canals (first and second pictures below) to the Groeninge Museum, which had an interesting collection of Flemish art (below right) spanning the past five centuries. 

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We then walked down to the Begijnhof (below left), a cluster of white washed houses built to house war maidens and other women who did not take a nun's vows, but were without husbands. Heading back to the car we stopped for a beer at the Straffe Hendrick brewery and to pick up some chocolates at Leonidas. On the walk, I snapped sunset and after dark canal pictures (second and third below).

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Monday December 10th - Oostende and Brussels

I caught a morning train from Brussels Midi to Oostende, which is on the north sea coast of Belgium facing Dover, England. Oostende was recommended to me as a beach town with an active, wide promenade called the Albert I. It was also the home of an interesting expressionist artist, James Ensor. The Albert I promenade and the beach were dead on a cold Monday (first and second pictures below), however there were some interesting walk streets through the town (third picture below) with plenty of activity. On the main square I grabbed lunch at the Cafe Leffe and got to see some of Ensor's work (fourth picture below) at the Museum Voor Schone Kunsten. Regrettably, the Ensor House was closed on weekdays in the off-season.

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I got back to Brussels in the early evening and decided to take a walk to see the sights I had missed on Saturday. The first picture below shows a fountain near the Parc de Bruxells. The second shows the sqaure in front of the Palais Royale. The third picture below shows the Grand Sablon, an expensive shopping area around a nice square.

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From there I walked through Ave Louise, a mainstream shopping street where I grabbed a great Belgian waffle from a Haagen Daz window. I then walked the rest of the ring road back to my hotel, taking in the Christmas decorations and city frenzy.

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