Belgium: Bruges and Brussels
In this program, we start in Bruges to check into a medieval hospital, savor the exquisite art of Memling, climb a bell tower to get up close and fortissimo at a carillon concert, and sample fresh frites and the world's tastiest chocolate. Then we ride the train to Brussels, where we stroll Europe's finest square, revel in Bruegels' country scenes and Magritte's surreal dreamscapes, then pay a visit to the bustling hub of European democracy.
Perhaps Bruges' smoothest, creamiest chocolates are at Dumon, just off the Markt. Nathalie Dumon runs the store with Madame Dumon still dropping by to help make their top-notch chocolate daily and sell it fresh. The Dumons don't provide English labels because they believe it's best to describe their chocolates in person — and they do it with an evangelical fervor. Try a small mix-and-match box to sample a few out-of-this-world flavors, and come back for more of your favorites. The family only runs the original location just north of the Markt at Eiermarkt 6. A bigger, glitzier Dumon branch is at Simon Stevinplein 11. While technically the Dumon flagship store, this lacks the family-run charm of the original. But they produce similar chocolates, offer additional types of pralines (including sugar-free varieties), and have a full coffee and hot chocolate bar. A third, less-interesting branch is farther south, at Walstraat 6.
Locals and tourists alike flock to The Chocolate Line to taste the gastronomique varieties concocted by Dominique Person — the mad scientist of chocolate. His unique creations mix chocolate with various, mostly savory, flavors. Even those that sound gross can be surprisingly good (be adventurous). Options include Havana cigar (marinated in rum, cognac, and Cuban tobacco leaves), lemongrass, lavender, ginger (shaped like a Buddha), "Deadly Delicious" (a chocolate skull filled with raspberry and hazelnut paste), saffron curry, spicy chili, Moroccan mint, Pop Rocks/cola chocolate, wine vinegar, fried onions, bay leaf, sake, lime/vodka/passion fruit, wasabi, and tomatoes/olives/basil. The kitchen — busy whipping up 80 varieties — is on display in the back. Enjoy the window display, refreshed monthly.
Most of this bell tower has presided over the Markt since 1300, serenading passersby with cheery carillon music. The octagonal lantern was added in 1486, making it 290 feet high — that's 366 steps. The view is worth the climb...and probably even the pricey admission. Some mornings and summer evenings, you can sit in the courtyard or out on the square to enjoy a carillon concert (generally mid-June–mid-Sept Mon and Wed at 21:00; schedule posted on courtyard wall).
Originally the Chapel of Saint Basil, this church is famous for its relic of the blood of Christ, which, according to tradition, was brought to Bruges in 1150 after the Second Crusade. The lower chapel is dark and solid — a fine example of Romanesque style. The upper chapel (separate entrance, climb the stairs) is decorated Gothic. An interesting treasury museum is next to the upper chapel.
This lace school lets you see lace actually being made. In the demonstration room upstairs, observe as ladies toss bobbins madly while their eyes go bad.
The church stands as a memorial to the power and wealth of Bruges in its heyday. If you like tombs and church art, pay to wander through the apse, but note that the church is undergoing a major, years-long renovation, during which different parts of the interior will be closed to visitors.
Located in the former hospital wards and church of St. John's Hospital (Sint Janshospitaal), the Memling Museum offers a glimpse into medieval medicine, displaying surgical instruments, documents, and visual aids as you work your way to the museum's climax: several much-loved paintings by the greatest of the Flemish Primitives, Hans Memling. His St. John Altarpiece triptych is a highlight, as is the miniature, gilded-oak shrine to St. Ursula.
Belgians are Europe's beer connoisseurs, and this handy tour is a great way to pay your respects. The brewery makes the only beers brewed in Bruges: Brugse Zot ("Fool from Bruges") and Straffe Hendrik. The happy gang at this working-family brewery gives 45-minute tours in two languages (lots of steep steps but a great rooftop panorama). Avoid crowds by visiting at 11:00.
This sprawling complex houses a trio of museums showing off the country's best all-around art collection. The Old Masters Museum — featuring Flemish and Belgian art of the 14th–18th centuries — is packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Bruegel, Bosch, and Rubens. The Fin-de-Siècle Museum covers art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including an extensive Art Nouveau collection. The Magritte Museum contains more than 200 works by the Surrealist painter René Magritte. Although you won't see many of Magritte's most famous pieces, you will get an unusually intimate look at the life and work of one of Belgium's top artists.
Europe's governing body welcomes visitors with an exhibit about the European Union and its parliament. You can also follow an audioguide tour of the actual parliament chamber, the "Hemicycle." The parliament's sprawling complex of modern glass buildings is a babel of black-suited politicians speaking 24 different Euro-languages. It's exciting just to be here — a fly on the wall of a place that aspires to chart the future of Europe "with respect for all political thinking...consolidating democracy in the spirit of peace and solidarity."
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 hyperactive 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 hundred-years-long war, Bruges was the favored residence of the powerful and sophisticated d`ukes 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 Madame 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 is lovingly made by hand. Some specials come with an extra dose of creativity.
Rick: So, how many different flavors do you have?
Clerk: About 60 different kinds, we have.
Rick: 60! What are some interesting…you must have some special flavors?
Clerk: We have special ones like Cuban tobacco, or saffron curry, or ginger.
Rick: Cuban tobacco? Is that legal for Americans?
Rick: Can I try one?
Clerk: Yeah, sure sir.
Rick: So how is this made?
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.
Aimé Lombaert, who's rung these bells since 1984, arranges his own music and enjoys sharing his art. Grab a bench in the courtyard to enjoy one of the regular and free carillon concerts.
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. Fifteenth-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 circles 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 the 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?
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?
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?
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?
Clerk: Oh, that they are ready to be eaten.
Clerk: What, do you need more? Taste one, please.
Rick: Is it hot?
Clerk: Use the top of the fingers, because it's hot, yes.
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 200 years, lace was the rage. It all had to be made by hand, and countless women earned extra income meeting that demand. This school [now the Lace Center] 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 a 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;s 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 [Sint-Janshospitaal, now housing a Memling Collection]. 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 Memling's St. John 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 [De Halve Maan] 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 Straffe Hendrik. This brewery started in 1856, but we know that there was a brewery here on this premises, next to the canal, in 1564.
So, 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 OK. 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.
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, it's 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. La 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. [now combined into the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium]
The Ancient Art Museum [now the Old Masters Museum at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts], featuring Flemish and Belgian art from the 14th to the 18th centuries, is packed with a dazzling collection of masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Bruegel, Bosch, and Rubens. Rubens' huge canvases graced palaces and churches far and wide.
The Brueg(h)el room takes you back in time. Flemish artists like Pieter Bruegel the Elder were masters of everyday detail.
In his Census at Bethlehem, Brueghel 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. Brueghel deftly synthesizes religious scenes and slice-of-life detail in a local landscape — far from the Holy Land.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's son, Pieter Brueghel 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 Carnival 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 [now the Fin-de-Siècle Museum at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts] gives an easy-to-enjoy ramble through the art of the 19th and 20th centuries, from Neoclassical to Surrealism and beyond.
The Belgian surrealist René Magritte used his training in advertising to push our buttons with a collage of bizarre images. He paints real objects with a 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 the united Europe — only Washington, D.C., 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.
OK you guys are having fun, you guys are having fun…
…by spinning dying and weave it, weaving it in…into…you know, uh, finished textiles.
Clerk: Do you hear it? They are talking.
I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin'. "Au revoir."