In the States we refer to those bustling couple of weeks at the end of August as “back to school”. It means the return of aisles and aisles of notebooks, gel pens and Elmers glue. A plethora of cheap plastic furniture, mini-fridges, and box fans make their way to front of Target, ready to furnish the dorm rooms and apartments of college kids everywhere. While “la rentrée” can refer to the return to school for kids here in Belgium its also used as a general way to say “welcome back to real life” at the end of the summer holidays. Brussels is all but a ghost town (other than the tourists) during summer, as the much of the population says “au revoir” to the grey skies and rain of Brussels and “bonjour” to the warmer climes of Italy, southern France, Greece or Spain. On top of this mass exodus, or perhaps because of it, many of the local businesses are shut down as well. As the city slowly wakes up in those last days of August you’re apt to hear and see tidings of “la rentree” in more places than school hallways. Continue reading
We try to use every weekend to our best advantage, as our time here is limited and we don’t want to waste a moment of it. However…we’re still leading normal busy lives during the week. My husband as a financial auditor of things I don’t understand, and me as the busy mom of a little whirlwind of a two year old. So sometimes our planning is a little lacking. Or non-existent. So it came to be that one evening we realized we had no plans for the following weekend and needed to figure something out asap. On a whim we opted for a weekend in Champagne country. Continue reading
Ghent, home of the famous (to Belgians) Cuberdon. If I did indeed judge the city by it’s candy I’d tell everyone I know to stay far, far, far away from Ghent. I took one bite of that little cone of goopy, purple, sickly-sweet nastiness and threw the rest out the window. Gross. Just gross. And in defense of my Cuberdon hate, the other 3 adults in the car shared my convictions. The only fan was my two year old daughter…because sugar. Cuberdons aside, Ghent is honestly a great city. We’ve visited twice now and I think its a bit of “hidden” gem. So here are a few of my favorites from Ghent! Continue reading
An hour after low tide on a beautifully sunny and warm September day I kicked off my sandals and walked quickly through the sand to the shoreline of the North Sea. Just down the beach, about 20 feet off the shore, I could spot the bright yellow slickers of two fishermen mounted on stocky Brabant draft horses. Shoulder deep in the cold water, the horses walked with apparent ease as they steadily dragged their nets along behind. Perched on simple wooden saddles, the fishermen smoked cigarettes and joked with each other, just a classic couple-of-dudes-fishing situation. Except for that whole part where they are the last of just 15 people who are carrying on a 500 year old tradition. No biggie.
I’ve traveled a fair amount. Not nearly as much as some people I know, but I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen more of the world than your average Joe. That being said, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to the planning and execution of any sort of travel. So while the idea of meeting my husband in Valencia for the weekend sounded delightful…deep down it stirred up a big ole batch of anxiety. I’ve never flown alone. I’ve never even taken a subway alone. And I’ve certainly never done any of it while pushing a stroller with a toddler in it and dragging a suitcase behind me.
If you are in Belgium you are no more than 3 hours from Bruges. So you have no great excuse not to get your ass there and see it. Situated in West Flanders about 20 minutes from the shores of the North Sea, this little gem is often referred to as the “Venice of the North”. If you’re in Brussels it’s about an hour and 15 minutes via car, and slightly longer via train.
We spent a whopping 4 days/3 nights in a charming Airbnb just outside of the city center. I’ll be honest, I initially thought this would be far too much time to spend in such a tiny city, but it actually worked out quite nicely. We had time to discover the city at our own pace and just relax and enjoy some quiet time away from the hustle & bustle of Brussels.
Normally I’m all about the architecture (which was stunning, and I will discuss in another post) but the highlight of this trip had to be the shopping. SO many wonderfully quaint and unique little shops fill the town center it’s practically impossible to leave the house and not come back with another souvenir. So here is how we spent an absurd amount of cash in a short amount of time.
1) The Bear Necessities
This tiny shop is located a little off the beaten path, just south of the heart of the city. If someone told you Belgians aren’t friendly they haven’t met Frank Devlieghere, the shop owner and I’m assuming sole employee. Dressed in his sharpest suit, Frank took the time to explain to us that all the teddy bears we were looking at had been handmade by his wife Maria. Made with mohair and stuffed with wood shavings, each bear was unique and clearly of the utmost quality. We chose a little fellow named “Quince”, and he’s the 4th of only 7 bears of his kind. It’s something we will always treasure and a unique and truly “Belgian” souvenir. The price tag was a tad shocking but most definitely worth every euro.Because Quince was clearly not a toy, we also got E this adorable stuffed bunny. It was made in Italy, so nothing decidedly Belgian about it but I thought it was pretty darn cute and she was such a good little traveler that we wanted her to have a souvenir as well.
2) Bubbles at Home
Conveniently nestled between the Bruges Beer Museum and the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments you’ll find Bubbles at Home. I don’t know exactly why but as soon as I saw it I had a burning desire to own some Belgian soap. So I had my husband make a mental note of it (he is much better at remembering, well…pretty much everything) and we returned the next day. It’s a small shop but they had a lovely assortment of handmade Belgian soaps, as well other cute bath trinkets, bath salts, bath bombs…you know, lots of bath-y stuff. I got a bar of Mango scented soap and it’s heavenly. There really is such a difference between commercial soaps and those made by hand with quality ingredients.
3). ‘t Apostelientje
If you know me at all you know I’m OBSESSED with lace. Because basically I’m an 80 year old lady in a 33 year olds body. If left to my own devices my house would be a shrine to all that is lace, floral, and antique. But I live with a man. And apparently I love him enough to care just a little that he would hate it. So I try to keep a fair 75% “old lady”, 25% “Dru approved” ratio in all decor-related decisions. I mean, I AM an interior designer. So clearly I still get to call most of the shots. Needless to say, the lace shop was a big highlight for me. It was a tiny little place but packed full of the most beautiful lace you’ve ever seen. I found a lovely framed bit of handmade “point de rose” lace from the late 1800’s for me and the most perfect handkerchief with an embroidered “E” to give to our little girl on her wedding day.
4) B by B
I’ve always been more of a Sour Patch Kids kind of gal. Until I had Belgian chocolate. Game over. So of course our trip wouldn’t have been complete without trying some new chocolate. The company was started by Michelin-star chef Bart Desmidt, whose Babelutte-style praline desert was so popular he decided to make his own brand of chocolates. B by B has a beautiful store and we opted for the “make your own” box, which included 5 different types of chocolates (5 pieces of each). Dark Chocolate/Raspberry/Lemon, Dark Chocolate/Ginger, White Chocolate/Raspberry/Roses, Dark Chocolate/Rhubarb/Violet, and Dark Chocolate/Babelutte/Seasalt. We’ve tried 3 of them so far and…they. are. delicious.
5) The Chocolate Line
I mean if a place has “fried onion” flavored chocolate you just have to give it a go. Run by a husband/wife duo, these passionate chocolatiers actually own a plantation in Mexico where they grow all their own cocoa beans. We have yet to dive into this box, I guess an edit to this post will be necessary!So happy with what we found and can’t wait to get back to Bruges again with any guests we have!
At least once and sometimes many times a day I stop and wonder if this is all real. There was so much paperwork and planning and stress before we got here that there was no time to contemplate what was coming. As the plane touched down in Brussels after a long and extremely exhausting flight with a screaming child I had a moment of pure panic. What the hell have we done? My nerves settled quickly but that doesn’t mean those first couple of weeks weren’t stressful. Things that were effortless back home sometimes seemed like insurmountable tasks here. Finding milk that actually tasted like milk (aka “Ellia approved”). Using the oven. Using the washing machine. Finding an apartment. Making a package of noodles. Buying chicken at the meat counter. Continue reading
I always worried that Paris might be a disappointment. There’s a LOT of hype. The fashion. The culture. The food. The art. The archictecture. It’s probably on 80% of the populations bucket list and every travel website will tell you that you must go there at least once in your life. That’s a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the world has not been lying to me all these years. It truly is an incredible, beautiful, must-see city. Ideally, one day we will relax at coffee shops with croissants in hand and enjoy romantic candle-lit dinners in this city for lovers….but this time around was the Paris-with-a-two-year-old version. She’s equal parts adorable and infuriating at this particular stage in her life but we’re getting the hang of the “terrible twos” and we feel pretty lucky to share these experiences with her.
The Eiffel Tower
The view was so good that we ended up having a drink at the bar to soak it all in. E enjoyed some absurdly overpriced fruit and reveled in staying up WAY past her bedtime. All in all it was pretty easy to get around with a kiddo and E thoroughly enjoyed the entire evening.
Saturday morning we got up bright and early (well, we got up at the normal time a person gets up with a 2 year old) and headed to the Louvre. This was the part of the trip I looked forward to most and Dru probably looked forward to least. Well, in reality E would have looked forward to it the least, had she known what was coming- more on that later. After some confusion as to what line we should be in we ended up getting in with no wait (buy tickets online in advance, that was our saving grace). We had pretty meticulously planned out what we wanted to see; I spent a couple hours on this but it was well worth it in the end. You could literally wander around for 5 or 6 hours and that 16th century Flemish engraving you’ve waited your whole life to see may slip right through your fingers. So choose a handful of key pieces you must see and stick to a route. Unless you actually have ALL day. Then go ahead and wander my art-loving friend.
My 3 Tips for The Louvre:
#1 Wear whatever makes your feet the happiest. I don’t care if it’s Bugs Bunny slippers or those weird toe-glove shoes…you do you. You are going to walk A LOT. The floors are hard and there’s a ton of stairs. Which leads me to item #2…
#2 The Louvre is NOT stroller friendly. There were elevators…but 90% of them were mysteriously broken. We hauled that contraption up at least 12 flights of stairs. So get crunchy and wear that baby if it’s small enough or just be prepared to burn some extra calories.
#3 If you own a toddler – you may have envisioned your tiny, cultured little Michelangelo sitting quietly in their stroller and planning their next fingerpaint masterpiece for 3 hours. So I’m just gonna bring you back to earth daydreamer – your kid doesn’t give a shit about art. About an hour in (if you’re lucky), they’re going to want a cookie. Then it’s crackers. Then they’ll holler to get out of the stroller so they can smear their cookie/cracker encrusted fingers on Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette. Then they want to be held, but only for 8.37 seconds. Then they throw themselves on the floor. Then we lick said floor for good measure. At this point you will pray that no one is following your trail of cookie crumbs to kick you out before you’ve seen the Mona Lisa. So bring a lot of non-messy snacks, patience, and maybe some Benadryl (I kid, I kid).
Notre Dame Cathedral
Next on the agenda was Notre Dame. I zipped my little purse up tight against the pickpockets and we wove our way through the throngs of people inside the church. It was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but the exterior is honestly more impressive than the interior. If you are short on time I’d skip the loop around the interior and just soak up the Gothic-goodness on the outside.
Sainte-Chapelle is a lesser known church quite close to Notre Dame. We headed there next and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. It’s quite unassuming on the outside, it’s actually tucked inside another building, but this little church was well worth the visit. After winding our way up a very narrow stone staircase (no strollers allowed here but they have a small area to leave them downstairs) we emerged into a small chapel with soaring ceilings and stunning stained glass. Dating back to the 13th century, 6,458 square feet of stained glass completely surrounds you. It depicts over a thousand scenes from both the Old & New Testaments. Well worth the $12 ticket. Another perk here is there was no line when we were there and it really only takes as long as you wish to stay and stare. So we were able to get in and out before E could start screaming about her sudden and desperate need for peaches. Score one for the parents.
Picnic at Luxembourg Gardens
Sunday we did our best to embrace the Parisian lifestyle by having no plans other than a relaxing picnic at the park. We used Paris Picnic (www.parispicnic.com) and would highly recommend it. We made our way to Luxembourg Garden, our food was delivered, and we staked out a nice spot to enjoy lunch. The food was delicious, the wine was refreshing, and the day was beautiful. It was a perfect end to a lovely weekend in the City of Lights.
Since we’ve arrived in Belgium I’ve found myself in a stunningly beautiful city with an overwhelming number of pictures on hand – but not a lot to say. I could point out some attractions and tell you about the delightful food for days on end. But it wouldn’t be anything Rick Steves couldn’t tell you just as easily (and probably more eloquently). It wasn’t until last night as I was sitting on our couch literally sobbing over having to choose an apartment here in Brussels that I realized I had something that would be good for me to put into words. My obsession with all things “old” and the crazy it can apparently bring out in me. Get ready kids…I mean some real crazy.
We’re finally here!!!! We got in yesterday morning after a long (and thanks to E, somewhat nightmarish) overnight flight. We took yesterday to settle in to our temporary housing and sleep off some of the jet lag. After our shipment of belongings arrived today we hopped on a bus to the city center and took in some of the sights…and the waffles…and the frites.