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February 2018

Belgium as a Holiday Destination

A welcoming country to visit

One of the reasons for its boring, unpopular image probably stems from its capital, Brussels being a dreary collection of administrative offices and its associations with E.U. bureaucracy. Another reason is Belgium’s identity crisis. It is Flemish-speaking in the north and French-speaking in the south and there has always been a considerable clash of cultures between the two, both competing for a definition of what is the real Belgium.

However, if one delves beneath the surface of this uninspiring portrayal of Belgium, it soon becomes apparent that the country has much to offer. For a start, it is actually packed full of absorbing history; from both before and after its separation from the Netherlands in 1830. Beautiful historical buildings and architecture abounds in nearly every city. Ghent provides a fascinating example of a medieval port and has the most number of historical buildings to see. Bruges however, is the most attractive from a scenic point of view. It is a beautifully preserved 14th century Flemish town whose narrow cobble-streets, canals and gabled houses demand at least a day’s visit and preferably a longer stay there.

For a lively city with plenty to do, head for Antwerp which as well as being Europe’s diamond capital and a hotbed of modern fashion, still manages to reveal its impressive past through places like the house where Rubens lived and worked for thirty years.

Although much of Belgium’s countryside is flat and lacking in scenic appeal, the Ardennes region is mountainous and offers a beautiful wooded landscape of wild crags and ravines where one of the most famous battles of World War 2 was fought.

Belgium’s people are generally some of the most welcoming you will find anywhere. They are noted for their love of good food in large helpings. The word Gourmands (meaning big cuisine) rather than Gourmets (meaning fine cuisine) describes the typical Belgium very well. Another cliché often used to describe Belgium cuisine is; French food in German sized helpings. It is very apt!

When to visit

The warmest time of the year is April through to September but Belgium weather is inclined to provide days of grey skies and rain at any time.

A popular tourist attraction takes place at the beginning of July. This is the Ommegang Pageant, a spectacular medieval festival dating back to 1359. The colorful procession through the streets of Brussels is followed by a flag and horse parade. Next, crossbow men surround a statue of the Virgin that the procession has escorted from the Sablon Church. Finally everyone settles down to enjoy an incredible fiesta of games and entertainment.

Getting to Belgium

The UK has several discount airlines operating flights from many of its airports to Brussels, Antwerp and other cities. Visitors from other European countries will usually travel by train or road. U.S. and Canadian tourists will probably need to consider flights to France or the UK rather than finding a direct flight.

Safe Travel Tips

Traveling is one of the most enjoyable and interesting things we can do, but with traveling comes some risks. We all know that it’s not always safe to travel and that some of the things associated with it, such as money and hotel stays bring with them some additional risks as well. There are some top ten safe travel tips that you can use to make your travels more safe and enjoyable.

Everyone should take the time to learn the top ten safe travel tips for those who are traveling summer or winter.

1. Keep your self and your children seat belted at all times when the car is moving. Keep your young children or toddlers safely secured in a rear facing car seat. The reason this is a top ten safe travel tip is obvious. The kids are our number one concern when it comes to traveling.

2. Keep your cash stashed out of sight. When you stop don’t display large amounts of cash and don’t flash it in a store. When you can use travelers checks as opposed to carrying large amounts of strictly cash. When you do carry cash, keep some in the car, some on you and some on your spouse so that your trip is not dependent upon just one person. One of the top ten safe travel tips that can keep your trip safe if one of you is injured, or your car is stolen, is this one.

3. Keep a first aid kit in your car at all times.

4. Don’t visit an ATM machine at night or when alone.

5. If traveling with children, keep things to occupy them so that you can keep your attention focused on the driving, where your attention should be. This top ten safe travel tip is one of the most important.

6. Be aware of how is around you at all times. Make sure that you are paying attention to where you children are, and where others are located in relation to them and to you.

7. Keep your luggage or pda/palm pilot close to you. Don’t permit strangers to come near your luggage or ask them to watch it while you enter a restroom or other areas where you are not able to see the things you will be carrying onto an airline or train/automobile. Paying close attention to this one of the top ten safe travel tips will assure that you not only keep yourself and your family safe, but also others who will be traveling with you if you are using mass transportation.

8. Keep your regular medication handy and on your person as opposed to packaged all separate from you.

9. Don’t carry your most valued jewelry or your most expensive coat with you on vacation. Its in open invitation.

10. Don’t take your children with you or travel to parts of the country where advisories have been issued. If it is truly a vacation, then why put yourself into a position to be in danger.

Spring Garden Destinations

Millions of tourists flock to the Netherlands each spring to take in the beauty of the tulip fields. Most have no idea that further south, Belgium is a garden lover’s paradise.

The following list contains 10 spring garden and nature destinations in Belgium that are not to be missed. I hope you find one that inspires you to enjoy Belgium’s natural beauty.

Vredehof Tulip Garden

While definitely not as large as the Keukenhof Bulb Gardens in Lisse, The Netherlands, The Vredehof is no less special. This garden, in Kessel, was started by one man, Fernand Geyselings, when he retired in 1987, as a tribute to his late wife. Geyselings planted over 200,000 different bulbs, by himself. There are 200 different varieties of tulip and 185 other spring blooms, from daffodils to hyacinths. There are also a number of flowering trees and garden decorations.

Address: Torenvenstraat 28, Kessel

Groot-Bijgaarden Castle and Gardens

The Groot-Bijgaarden is another must-see for tulip and spring bulb lovers. The grounds of this castle are open to the public for a month in the spring. As well as the stunning castle grounds, there are also indoor displays by local growers. The Garden is open this year from from 8 April until 6 May.

Address: Is. Van Beverenstraat, 5 – 1702 Groot-Bijgaarden

The Japanese Garden of Hasselt

Although you wouldn’t expect it, the largest Japanese Garden in Europe is in Belgium. The Japanese Garden of Hasselt is magical in the spring as its 250 cherry trees burst into bloom. The garden is based on 17th Japanese Garden architecture and was constructed with the help of Hasset’s sister city in Japan, Itami.

Address: Gouverneur Verwilghensingel – 3500 Hasselt

Cherry Blossoms in Brussels

If you can’t make it all the way to Hasselt to admire the Japanese Gardens, you can enjoy the cherry blossoms in Brussels. Although there are cherry trees in bloom at various locations around the city centre, one of the best places to view them is in Park Leopold, near the European Parliament. There are various spring blooms in this little park, which is a hop skip and jump from the larger Parc du Cinquantenaire, also in full bloom in the spring.

Address: Park Leopold, 1040 Brussels

Belgian Royal Greenhouse at Laeken

One of the most anticipated spring garden events in Brussels is the opening of the Royal Greenhouses at the Palace in Laeken, Belgium. The palace is the main residence of the Belgian Royal family and their private grounds are only open to the public for several weeks in the spring. The Greenhouse complex was built between 1874 and 1895 and is 2.5 hectares. The plant collection includes giant palms and ferns from Africa, azaleas, geraniums, orchids and bleeding hearts among many others.

Address: Domaine Royal de Laeken, Avenue du Parc Royal, Brussels

National Botanic Garden of Belgium

The National Botanic Garden of Belgium is located just outside of Brussels in the town of Meise. The garden is 92 hectares and holds 18,000 varieties of plants from magnolias and rhododendrons to medicinal plants and wild roses. There is also a large glass house with tropical and dessert plants, a traditional farm house and garden and a garden shop. At the centre of the Botanic Garden sits Bouchout Castle which is often open to the public and is available for receptions.

Address: Domein van Bouchout, Nieuwelaan 38, Meise

The Grand Béguinage of Leuven

The Grand Béguinage (Groot Begijnhof van Leuven in Dutch) is not specifically a garden destination; however it is a quiet oasis in the centre of the Flemish city of Leuven. The Béguinage is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates from the 13th century and was a refuge for unmarried semi-religious women. These days the Béguinage is owned by the university and houses visiting students and professors. You can wander through the quiet cobbled streets and admire the small gardens and climbing roses that decorate the living quarters.

Address: Schapenstraat, Leuven

Hallerbos, The Blue Forest

Hallerbos is a beech forest near the town of Halle. Throughout the year it is a haven for walkers, cyclists and horseback riders. In spring however, the forest acquires a magical carpet of blue, created by millions of Bluebell flowers covering the forest floor.

Address: Near Halle in Flemish Brabant

Villers Abbey Medicinal Garden

Belgium is famous for its many abbeys and the wonderful beers brewed in them. Because the monks were often the area’s physicians, many abbeys had medicinal gardens. One great example can be seen at the Villers Abbey (abbaye de Villers) in Wallonia. In addition to the garden, there is a working vineyard as well as the ruins of the abbey which are stunning to wander through.

Address: Rue de l’Abbaye, 55, B-1495 Villers-la-Ville

Ronquières Inclined Plane Boat Lift

I admit that a boat lift may seem like an odd choice for a post on gardens and nature. You can’t however discuss gardens in Belgium without a nod to the country’s agricultural heritage. Farming remains a mainstay in this country and what better place to admire the fields of Belgium than 70 metres in the air. The observation deck at the boat lift offers panoramic view of the countryside as well as the Brussels-Charleroi canal.

Address: Ronquières, 7090 Braine-le-Comte

Belgium is often overlooked as a travel destination in Europe. For garden and nature lover’s, however it has many hidden jewels just waiting to be discovered.

The Taste Of Travel

Culinary journeys give my clients a feast of local flavor. I always incorporate favorite restaurants, street food vendors and cooking classes if of interest in my European travel itineraries.

One of my favorite ways to experience culinary travel is wine tasting. So many countries offer fabulous wine roads and fun small wineries to enjoy a taste of the grape.

While Napa Valley is the US comparison for wine travel, European wine tasting is very different and offers a great new experience.

Foodie Festivals are also notable ways to a divine culinary experience and I like to make sure I offer this fun way to really taste the country your are visiting!

Make sure you include cuisine in your travel plans, it is such a natural combination and immerses you in the culture of the country you’re visiting in a such a delicious way!

Europe’s political capital offers much more than Art Nouveau architecture or impressive art collections-what I focus on (always!) is the culinary offerings in this most beautiful of places in France. Did you know that Belgium invented moules frites (mussels & french fries) and you won’t find better mussels in the world-gently cooked in white wine and garlic broth (my mouth is watering, is yours?). This is also the place to get your fries fix, served in cones and dipped in mayonnaise, all washed own with one of the 500 different varieties of beer. Not to mention chocolate!. Beyond these great culinary feasts, this destination has Michelin-starred gourmet cuisine for those so inclined. Brusselicious! kicks off in 2012 with culinary events scheduled throughout the year. Just next to the Grand Place, one of the prettiest squares in Europe, you will find the beautiful Hotel Amigo. Having hosted dignitaries and stars and the award winning Italian restaurant, the Bar Amigo, a great gathering place.

Take a seat at one of the many “sidewalk” cafes in the Galleries Royales Saint-Hubert and order a cafe creme before the crowds arrive. Rain or shine, the covered shopping arcade is a sublime spot, surrounded by luxury boutiques, for a cup of coffee (the original Neuhaus chocolate shop is located here). Enjoy the cast-iron columns and glass-paneled roof of the Galeries. Next, stroll up the Place Royale to the Magritte Museum which opened in 2009 to much fanfare. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium renovated one of its buildings, powering it with green electricity and transforming it into a cutting-edge temple to Magritte, the world’s most celebrated surrealist and Belgium’s native son. Follow a chronological journey through some 200 works by this mater. TIP: Pick up the Brussels Card for city exploration and you will get free admission to 30-plus museums and free use of public transportation.

Stave off your hunger with a sugary pick-me-up at Laurent Gerbaud’s chocolate shop. After all, Belgium is the world’s chocolate capital and its citizens consume an average of six kilograms (over 12 pounds to us). Even the pickiest of chocoholics will be drooling over Gerbaud’s artisanal creations.

Now its off for lunch to the trendy Chatelain neighborhood, perhaps eating at La Quincaillerie, a lively brasserie housed in a former iron monger’s shop complete with brass fixtures and an enormous rail-station clock. The fabulous oyster bar here is not to be missed, as are the seafood specialties and gourmet classics, such as honey-glazed duck.

Comic book fan? Check out Brussels’ Belgian Comic Strip Center. It is fun to see Belgium’s beloved comic-strip hero, Tintin, with Snowly the dog. But the building alone is worth it, a masterpiece in glass and steel created by architect Horta who championed the Art Nouveau style at the turn of the 20th century.

OK, the day is winding down, it is about 6 PM and Sante’ – aperitif hour/ Forego wine for one of Belgium’s famous beers. A rich brewing tradition with hundreds of diverse varieties, each served in its own unique glass to maximize the flavor. Try a pale ale made by the Trappist monks.

Dinner attracts a fashionable and fun crowd at the Belga Queen, a restaurant that occupies a landmark 18th-century building with stained glass ceiling and a Cigar Lounge Bar in the former bank vault. The cuisine highlights the best of Belgium, even the Arabica coffee beans are roasted locally.

As always, I can give you the culinary additions to your European travel plans that will take your vacation up to the next level and guarantee your vacation memories will be most vivid for a long time.