Belgium: Bruges and Brussels

In this program, we start in Bruges to check into a medieval hospital, savor the exquisite art of Memling, and climb a bell tower, getting up close and fortissimo at a carillon concert. Then we ride the train to Brussels, where passionate chefs — creators of French fries and Europe's finest chocolate — give us a taste of their art.

Travel Details

Bruges

Dumon Chocolate Shop

Perhaps Bruges' smoothest and creamiest chocolates are at Dumon, where Madam Dumon and her children (Stefaan and Christophe) make their top-notch chocolate daily and sell it fresh just off Market Square (Eiermarkt 6, tel. 050-346-282). The Dumons don't provide English labels because they believe it's best to describe their chocolates in person.

The Chocolate Line

Locals and tourists alike flock to The Chocolate Line for their "gastronomique" varieties — unique concoctions such as Havana cigar (marinated in rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves — so therefore technically illegal in the United States), lemongrass, lavender, ginger, saffron curry, spicy chili and Moroccan mint. The kitchen — busy whipping up their 80 varieties — is on display in the back (between Church of Our Lady and Market Square at Simon Stevinplein 19, tel. 050-341-090).

Bruges' Bell Tower Carillon

Most of the bell tower has presided over Market Square since 1300, serenading passersby with carillon music. An octagonal lantern was added in 1486, making it 290 feet high — that's 366 steps. Climb the tower to the carillon room; the 47 bells can be played mechanically with the giant barrel and movable tabs (as they are on each quarter hour) or with a manual keyboard (as they are during concerts). The carillonneur uses his fists and feet rather than fingers.

The Flemish Pot (a.k.a. The Little Pancake House)

Just off Geldmuntstraat at Helmstraat 3
Tel. 050-340-086

Gruuthuse Museum

Once a wealthy brewer's home, this 15th-century mansion is a sprawling smattering of everything from medieval bedpans to a guillotine (Dijver 17, Bruges museums tel. 050-448-711).

Memling Museum/St. John's Hospital

This renovated medieval hospital contains some much-loved paintings by the greatest of the Flemish Primitives, Hans Memling. His Mystical Wedding of St. Catherine triptych deserves a close look. Catherine and her "mystical groom," the baby Jesus, are flanked by a headless John the Baptist and a pensive John the Evangelist. If you understand the Book of Revelation, you'll understand St. John's wild and intricate vision. The St. Ursula Shrine, an ornate little mini-church in the same room, is filled with impressive detail. The former monastery/hospital complex has two entrances — one is to a welcoming Visitors Center (free), the other to the Memling Museum (across the street from the Church of Our Lady at Mariastraat 38, Bruges museums tel. 050-448-711).

De Halve Maan Brewery Tour

This fun, handy tour is a great way to pay your respects. The happy gang at this working family brewery gives entertaining and informative 45-minute, two-language tours. Their bistro, where you'll be given your beer (included with the tour), serves quick, hearty lunch plates. You can eat indoors with the smell of hops or outdoors with the smell of hops. This is a great place to wait for your tour or to linger afterward (1 block past church and canal, take a right down skinny Stoofstraat to #26 on Walplein, tel. 050-444-223).

Brussels

Museum of Ancient Art

Part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Museum of Ancient Art features Flemish and Belgian art of the 14th–18th centuries. It's packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by van der Weyden, Brueghel, Bosch and Rubens. The nearby Museum of Modern Art gives an easy-to-enjoy walk through the art of the 19th and 20th centuries from neoclassical to surrealism. Highlights here include works by Seurat, Gauguin, David and Magritte. The Magritte Museum, in the same museum complex, contains over 150 works of René Magritte (Rue de la Régence 3, recorded info tel. 02-508-3211).

European Parliament

This towering complex of glass skyscrapers in Brussels is a cacophony of black-suited politicians speaking 20 Euro languages. It's exciting just to be here — a mouse in the corner of a place that charts the future of Europe "with respect for all political thinking...consolidating democracy in the spirit of peace and solidarity." The only way in is to take the 30-minute tour (tel. 02-284-2111). You'll learn how early visionary utopians (like Churchill, who in 1946 called for a "United States of Europe" to avoid future wars) led the way as Europe gradually evolved into the European Union (1992). From the Bourse in downtown Brussels, take bus #95; from the museums at the Park of the Cinquantenaire or the Royal Palace, take bus #27. From Place du Luxembourg, go behind the old train station and look for the Info Point sign.  

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we’ve got buckets of mussels…the best fries in Europe — with mayonnaise…monk-made beer…crunchy waffles…and dreamy chocolate…yep, we must be in Belgium!

Belgium is one of Europe’s great secrets. 500 years ago a trade boom left it with dazzling art and architecture. And today it’s reemerging as a trade capital of Europe. For travelers it’s a breeze — everything’s close together, well-organized, there’s almost no language barrier, and the people they’re wonderful.

Enjoying the highlights of Belgium, we start in Bruges — with Renoir canals, fanciful gilded architecture, serene Flemish masterpieces, and according to locals, the best beer in the world. Where else can you bike along a canal, savor heavenly chocolate, and see a Michelangelo, all within earshot of a bell tower with a hyper-active carillon? Then, we head for Brussels, home of Europe’s most magnificent medieval square and capital of the European Union.

Almost lost between Germany and France in the middle of Europe, tiny Belgium is easy to overlook. But we’ll see why it’s worth discovering. After exploring Bruges, we’ll ride the train to the capital, Brussels.

We’re starting in Brugge, as the Flemish people who live in this part of Belgium call their town. The French speaking half of the country — and English speakers — call it Bruges. However you choose to pronounce it, it comes from the Viking word for “wharf.” In other words…it’s been a trading center for a long time.

About a thousand years ago, the city grew wealthy as the most important textile market in northern Europe. Back then the city’s canals provided merchants smooth transportation. Today they provide visitors smooth photo ops. A short cruise shows off the town’s old wealth. By the 14th century, Bruges’ population was 40,000, as large as London’s. As the middleman in sea trade between northern and southern Europe, it was an economic powerhouse.

In the 15th century, while England and France were slogging it out in a 100 years-long war, Bruges was the favored residence of the powerful and sophisticated Dukes of Burgundy — and at peace. Commerce and the arts flourished.

But in the 16th century, its harbor silted up, trade moved to the port of Antwerp, and the economy collapsed ending Bruges’ Golden Age. The town slumbered for generations. Then, in the 20th century, tourists discovered the charms of Bruges.

Today this uniquely well-preserved Gothic city prospers because of tourism. Even with its crowds, it’s the kind of city where you don’t mind being a tourist. And it hides some sweet surprises…

The people of Bruges are connoisseurs of fine chocolate. You’ll be tempted by chocolate-filled display windows all over town. Locals buy their chocolates fresh daily — like other people buy pastries. They love the family-run places like Dumon where Madam Dumon and her children are hard at work. Their Ganache, a dark creamy combo, wows chocoholics.

Bruges seems to have a chocolate shop on every corner — and some are more adventurous than others. The Chocolate Line — famous for its many “gastronomique” varieties — proudly shows off its kitchen. Everything here's lovingly made by hand. Some specials come with an extra dose of creativity.

Rick:So, how many different flavors do you have?

Store Clerk:About 60 different kinds we have.

Rick: 60? What are some interesting… you must have some special flavors?

Store Clerk: We have special ones like Cuban tobacco, or Saffron curry, or ginger.

Rick: Cuban tobacco? Is that legal for Americans?

Store Clerk: Yes.

Rick: Can I try one?

Store Clerk: Yeah, sure sir.

Rick: So how is this made?

Store Clerk: It’s a layer of Marzipan, flavored by a tobacco of Cuba.

Rick: Cuban tobacco leaves? Wow. It’s probably not as good as a Cuban cigar, but it’s very good for chocolate.

The Market Square, ringed by restaurant terraces, great old gabled buildings, and the bell tower, marks the city center today as it did in its medieval heyday.

Back then, a canal came right to this main square. Farmers in the countryside would ship their wool and flax into Bruges. Before loading it onto outgoing boats, industrious locals would maximize their profit by dying, spinning, and weaving it into finished textiles.

The bell tower has stood over Market Square since 1300. Climb the 366 steps for a commanding view.

The tower houses a grand carillon. Rather than fingers, the carillon player uses his fists and feet.

[Playing carillon.]

Grab a bench in the courtyard to enjoy one of the regular and free carillon concerts.

[Playing carillon.]

The opulent square called Burg — Bruges’ historical birthplace, political center, and religious heart — is decorated with six centuries of fine architecture.

The square’s historic highlight is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The gleaming gold knights and ladies on the church's facade remind us that this church was built by a Crusader in the 12th century to house the drops of Christ's blood which he brought back from Jerusalem.

Inside the Basilica, the stark decor reeks of the medieval piety that drove those crusading European Christians on their holy war against the Muslims. With heavy columns and round arches, the style is pure Romanesque.

Stairs lead to the brighter Gothic-style upper chapel. The painting at the altar tells how the Holy Blood actually got here. Derrick of Alsace helped conquer Muslim-held Jerusalem in the Second Crusade. Here he kneels before the grateful Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, who rewards him with the relic. Derrick returns home and kneels before Bruges' bishop to give him the vial of blood.

Next door is the town hall. 15th century Bruges was a thriving bastion of capitalism and this building served as a model for town halls elsewhere, including Brussels. One of Europe’s first representative governments convened right here.

In the adjoining room, old paintings and maps show how little the city has changed over the centuries. This map shows in exquisite detail the city as it looked in 1562 when a canal connected the North Sea to the Market Square. A fortified moat circled the city. Of the town’s 28 windmills… four survive today. The mills made paper, ground grain, and functioned as the motor of the Middle Ages.

My favorite way to explore Bruges is on two wheels. Just about anywhere in Europe where the biking’s good, you’ll find handy and inexpensive bike rentals. Get lost on the back streets, away from the shopping and tour groups.

Working up an appetite, you’ll be tempted by the smell of French fries. Called Flemish fries here; they’re a local specialty. And in Belgium fries are an art form, taken very seriously.

Rick: Who made the first fry?

Store Clerk: Belgium.

Store Clerk: This potato was peeled this morning, cut in pieces, and put in that fat.

Rick: You actually cook it in the grease two times?

Store Clerk: Two times. Once in that, then it rests here, and afterwards, the second time, high temperature. Low temperature, resting, cooling, high temperature.

Rick: These are forming a skin right now?

Store Clerk: Yes. You see, these fries are swimming like fishes in the fat. See? You hear it? They are talking. You hear it?

Rick: I hear it, yes. What are they saying?

Store Clerk: Oh, that they are ready to be eaten.

Store Clerk: What do you need more? Taste one, please.

Rick: Is it hot?

Store Clerk: Use the top of the fingers, because it’s hot, yes.

Rick: Umm…

Store Clerk: Only a little bit of salt on it, and it’s perfect.

In the 1500s, rich men and women decided that lace collars, sleeves, and veils were fashionable. For the next two hundred years, lace was the rage. It all had to be made by hand, and countless women earned extra income meeting that demand. This school makes sure that traditional lace making survives in Bruges. People from around the world come here to study these 400-year old techniques.

To make bobbin lace (which originated here in Bruges), women juggle different strands tied to bobbins, “weaving” a design with the many threads. Unlike knitting, lace making requires total concentration, as you follow intricate patterns.

Nearby the Gruuthuse Museum, a 15th-century mansion of a wealthy Bruges merchant, displays period furniture, tapestries, and much more.

This region was renowned for fine tapestries. They were popular with the wealthy — colorful, great for warming up big drafty interiors, and a fun opportunity for a rich guy to tell a story. This series tells of courtship and marriage in the early 1600s.

The scenes and their old French captions subtly spin a story of youthful lustiness that upsets stereotypes about medieval piety. Scene I, called Soup-eating Lady, shows a shepherd girl with a bowl of soup in her lap. The flirtatious shepherd lad cuts a slice of bread (that’s foreplay in medieval symbolism) and — according to the text — saucily asks if he can "dip into the goodies in her lap." Nearby, another woman brazenly strips off her socks to dangle her feet in water.

In Scene II called The Dance, couples freely dance together under the apple tree of temptation and around a bagpipe — symbolic back then of hedonism. The Wedding Parade shows where all this wantonness leads — marriage. Music plays, the table is set and the meat's on the BBQ, as the bride and groom enter…reluctantly. The bride smiles, but she's closely escorted by two men, while the scared groom gulps nervously. Finally, in the last scene called Old Age, the now elderly husband is tangled in a wolf trap. The caption reads, "Alas, he was once so lively, but marriage caught him, and now he's trapped in its net."

The merchant who lived here had it all. In fact, his mansion even had a private chapel with a box seat overlooking the cathedral altar.

This was the ultimate in church-going convenience — he could attend Mass and not even leave the house.

For 600 years the Church of Our Lady has stood — with its 400-foot tall tower of bricks — as a memorial to the power and wealth of Bruges at its height.

Inside reclining statues mark the tombs of the last local rulers of Bruges, Mary of Burgundy and her father Charles the Bold.

This delicate Madonna and Child is said to have been the only Michelangelo statue to leave Italy in his lifetime. It marks the tomb of the wealthy Bruges businessman who bought the statue in Tuscany.

Mary, slightly smaller than life-size, sits while young Jesus stands in front of her. Their expressions are mirror images of each other — serene but a bit melancholy, with downcast eyes, as though pondering what lies ahead for the young child. Though they're lost in thought, their hands instinctively link, tenderly.

Just across the street, a monastery ran a hospital. It recalls how the sick were treated. It also displays masterpieces by the great Flemish painter — hometown boy — Hans Memling.

Some 500 years ago, the nave of this former church was lined with the sick and dying. Nuns served as nurses.

In many ways, this was less a hospital than a hospice. It helped the down-and-out make the transition from this world to the next. Rather than dieing in the streets, they died here…with dignity. Care was more for the soul than the body.

Religious art reminded those suffering that Christ could feel their pain, having lived it himself.

Today, rather than the sick and dying, the wards now house a handful of exquisite paintings by Hans Memling.

Memling was the master of "Flemish Primitives." "Primitive" is not an insult. It was a 19th century term for the nostalgic, pure and spiritual art of these highly skilled 15th century oil painters. Employed by and often portraying Belgium’s wealthy; they captured their world in astonishing detail.

Hans Memlings’ St. Johns Altarpiece was designed to comfort patients in the hospital. Gazing at this slice of heaven, they could imagine leaving this world of pain and illness, and joining Mary and Jesus in a serene setting, listening to heavenly music, and conversing with the saints. Memling's heaven echoes wealthy Bruges in the 1400s, showing the city skyline, oriental carpets that passed through here, fine furniture manufactured by the city, and the latest Italian fashions.

In the right panel Memling then takes us on a journey to the end of the world. John the evangelist sits on the island of Patmos — transfixed as he envisions the Apocalypse now. He writes down his vision — a revelation of the end of time — which eventually becomes the last book of the bible…Revelations.

Up in heaven, in a rainbow bubble, God opens the seals of a book, unleashing awful events — fires, plagues and wars that stretch as far as the eye can see. The dreaded Four Horsemen gallop across the dreamscape chasing helpless mortals who scramble for cover.

In the St. John Altarpiece, Hans Memling shows us the full range of his palette, from medieval grace to Renaissance realism to avant-garde surrealism. (…All in a luxurious setting somewhere between Bruges and heaven.)

Belgium is right up there with Germany, England and the Czech Republic as one of the world’s great beer countries. And when it comes to variety, Belgium is number one. If you’re not up to sampling all 120 local types, go right for the hometown favorite — Straffe Hendrik — literally “strong Henry.” The happy gang at this working family brewery gives entertaining and informative tours.

Tour Guide: For the English tour, please, for the English tour. Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome in the brewery of Straffe Hendrik. This brewery started in 1856, but we know that there was a brewery on this premises, next to the canal in 1564.

Tour Guide: In Belgium, we have 120 types of beer, and that’s because we like using all different types of natural ingredients. So if you drink Belgian beer you might recognize sour cherries, Kriek, as we say, raspberries, chamomile flowers, licorice, ginger, juniper berries, honey, seaweed, as long as it’s natural, it’s okay. We really have a beer culture. We don’t drink to get drunk, we drink to enjoy different types of beer and make quality time with friends.

Tour Guide: I’ve had people all worried on tour if Belgian beer is healthy for them, if it’s nutritious. Well, I can have a good answer to that one for you. Because it says here, on this little poster, that one-liter of the Belgian Lambic beer is exactly the same as 200 grams of bread, 180 grams of meat, and 72 centi-liters of milk. What more do you want? I mean, it saves a lot of shopping, and it’s a good excuse.

Who needs an excuse? When there’re so many types to try and an inviting tasting room with friendly people its time to drink beer like a Belgian.

We’re catching one of the frequent trains that zip from Bruges to Brussels in about an hour. Le Grand Place — Europe’s grandest square — is just a short walk from the train station.

Brussels got a late start. Six hundred years ago, it was just a handy place to buy a waffle on the way to Bruges. Then it was given free trade status and its economy took off. By 1830 it was the capital of an exuberant and newly independent country — Belgium — booming with the industrial age. Today, with over a million people, it’s the headquarters of NATO and the capital of the European Union.

Brussels’ Town Hall dominates the square. The fancy smaller buildings giving the square its unique character are former guildhalls with ornate gabled roofs crowned by statues. Once the home offices for the town's different professional guilds (bakers, brewers, tanners, and so on), they all date from shortly after 1695 — the year Louis XIV's troops surrounded the city, sighted their cannons on the Town Hall spire, and bombarded Brussels.

The French destroyed several thousand wooden buildings — but managed to miss the spire. As a matter of pride, Brussels businessmen rebuilt their offices better than ever — all within about seven years. Today, they look down over the square, tall, in stone, and with richly ornamented gables.

The neighboring street, Rue des Bouchers, is Brussels’ restaurant row. Brussels is famous for good eating — serving many cuisines. The city specializes in seafood. The most popular dish: Mussels in Brussels.

For some reason, every visitor has the Manneken Pis on his list. Even with low expectations, this bronze statue is smaller than you'd think. Still, this little squirt is a fun, light-hearted symbol of Brussels.

Traditionally visiting VIPs bring the Mannekin Pis a costume. A nearby museum displays hundreds of his outfits. Today he’s a Venezualian cowboy or something.

For higher art, I like Brussels two greatest art galleries: The side-by-side Ancient and Modern Art Museums.

The Ancient Art Museum, featuring Flemish and Belgian art from the 14th to the 18th centuries, is packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Breughel, Bosch, and Rubens… Rubens huge canvases graced palaces and churches far and wide.

The Breughel room takes you back in time. Flemish artists like Pieter Breughel the Elder were masters of everyday detail.

In his Census at Bethlehem, Breughel gives us a bird's-eye view of a snow-covered village near Brussels. It’s full of life — kids throw snowballs and sled across the ice and men lug bushels across a frozen lake while a crowd gathers at the inn for the census. Into the scene ride a man and woman — it's the carpenter Joseph leading pregnant Mary, looking for a room. Breughel deftly synthesizes religious scenes and slice-of-life detail in a local landscape — far from the Holy Land.

Pieter Breughel’s the Elders’ son, Pieter Breughel the Younger, was a fine artist in his own right. In this painting, “The Struggle between Carnival and Lent,” we see a classic battle between feasting and fasting. The robust figure of Carnivale jousts with the haggard figure of Lent. Overlooking the square the tavern and the church compete as a refuge for mortal souls.

The attached Museum of Modern Art gives an easy-to-enjoy ramble through the art of the 19th and 20th centuries: from neoclassical to surrealism and beyond.

The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte used his training in advertising to push our buttons with a collage of bizarre images. He paints real objects with camera-eye clarity, but jumbles them together in new and provocative ways. People morph into animals…or chairs…and stairs lead nowhere. The surrealistic juxtaposition only short-circuits your brain when you try to make sense of it.

And some of Brussels’ top art is edible. Many tourists consider the local waffles a cultural highlight worth traveling for.

While the people of Brussels love their fun taste treats, it’s also a city of sophisticates. As the unofficial capital of Europe, the place is cosmopolitan and hosts businessmen from around the world. Though Brussels (like Belgium) is officially bilingual, most of the people here speak French first. Bone up on bonjour and s’il vous plaît.

Brussels is the political nerve center of a united Europe — only Washington DC has more lobbyists. When Europeans have a gripe…this is where they demonstrate.

And the most impressive part of the city skyline these days is the glassy headquarters of the European Parliament. Europe’s governing body now welcomes visitors.

This busy symbol of European Unity is filled with a cacophony of politicians speaking the full range of European languages. Visitors listen to a political science lesson while viewing the chambers where the members of the Euro-parliament sit. Today hundreds of parliament members representing an entire continent are hard at work shaping Europe’s future.

For centuries, Europe’s cultural and political differences have led to war. Today’s daunting challenge: to respect these differences while building a democratic, prosperous, and peaceful Europe. And a fun part of travel today is watching this story unfold. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin’. Au revoir.

Credits:

Rick: Okay you guys are having fun, you guys are having fun.

…by spinning dying and weave it, weaving it into you know finished textiles.

Store Clerk: Do you hear it? They are talking.

I’m Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin’. Au revoir.

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