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Picture postcard from… Bruges, Belgium

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St. Bonifaciusbrug in Bruges*

One of the most photographed bridges in Bruges, St Bonifaciusbrug bridge is actually one of the youngest in the city, dating back to the early 20th century. You’ll find it in a particularly charming area with cobbled streets, historic buildings and the sound of horses hoofs clip-clopping passed pulling carriages full of tourists, as are the little boats that pass under the bridge. It’s a very romantic spot and the perfect place to it sit down on one of the hidden benches and watch the world go by.

The Church of Our Lady, seen here in the background, took two centuries (13th-15th) to build. It has many lovely art treasures, most notably a beautiful Carrara marble Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. One of only a few of Michelangelo’s works that can be seen outside Italy.  While currently being renovated, this lovely church is still well worth a visit and the 1 Euro fee to see the famous sculpture.

*Image courtesy of Flanders Tourist Board


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Celebrating at Europe’s biggest free festival in Ghent

When we told people we were going to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary in Ghent we got very mixed responses: from those that had been “It’s amazing you’ll love it!”; from those that hadn’t “Where?”. It’s true that Ghent isn’t on most people’s bucket lists of must see places, but it should be. We had a fantastic three nights in this beautiful city, made even better by our trip coinciding with annual The Ghent Festivities.

Festival by night

We’d originally planned to return to Dubrovnik for a few days where we’d honeymooned ten years earlier during Dubrovnik’s own Summer Festival, however the infrequency of flights and the cost of the hotel meant this really wasn’t practical. We only wanted to leave the children for two or three nights and so we had to consider other options. Whilst at work (for Great Escapes) I’d seen a free third night offer at the Sandton Grand Hotel Reylof in Ghent – the hotel looked ideal with nice rooms, a spa and champagne bar. Plus, I remembered reading about the ten-day festival that takes place each July. When I suggested it to my husband I got a blank look and the same response “where?” but when I mentioned Belgian beer and mussels he was convinced.

mussels

As it turned out I’m glad we chose Ghent over Dubrovnik, the city was equally beautiful, the hotel just as nice and the festival was a great addition.

 

We travelled by Eurostar in the Standard Premier cabin which meant we got food and drinks on board and it’s great value as the ticket entitles you to onward travel to any Belgian city. Ghent (Gent) was only one stop on from the Eurostar terminal in Brussels and once we’d figured out which platform we needed to get to (it can be a little confusing) we managed to get straight on a train and were in Ghent in around 25 minutes. One tip – the trains often refer to the station’s name rather than the city itself. We were panicking slightly after our train departed and the announcements failed to mention Ghent in the list of destinations – listen out for Sint Pieters.

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The hotel itself is quite grand with an impressive entrance hall and reception area. Whilst checking in we realised we’d made a good choice – a similar standard of hotel in Paris or London would have cost a fortune. It was the first time we’d left the children (now 9 & 6) for this long and we wanted a little luxury.

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After unpacking we headed out to explore, it was just a couple of minutes’ walk over St Michael’s Bridge to the medieval city. Walking over the bridge provides an impressive first glimpse of the city centre with its gothic towers and medieval buildings – National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Ghent as the most authentic historic city in the world, and Lonely Planet called it “Europe’s best kept secret.” We wanted to discover its secret.

Ghent

 

The Ghent Festivities

Below St Michael’s Bridge is the River Leie and on opposite sides of the river are the Korenlei and Graslei – probably the two most picturesque and most photographed areas of Ghent. Whilst we were there the historic buildings were partly hidden by outdoor bars and stages that had been built on the riverbank and pontoons on the river itself, but for us this only added to the atmosphere. Although I’d read about the festival I never realised quite how big it is – it dominates the city with around 10 stages set up in squares all over Ghent.

POle Pole

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Each day we’d stumble across new areas we hadn’t discovered before and listen to some different genres of music. Most of the bands are Belgian and little known to the UK market but there are some international bands and we saw a Jamaican Jazz Orchestra, a British Blues band, a rather dodgy rock band and Black Elvis amongst many others.  Slade were performing whilst we were there, but luckily we missed them. It’s said to be Europe’s biggest free festival and also incorporates a circus acts, puppetry, comedy and street performers.

Festival from bridge

Exploring with the Ghent City Card

It wasn’t all about the festival though, there’s a lot more to this little city, the centre of which is virtually all pedestrianized. We got a Ghent City Card which costs 30 euros for 48 hours or 35 euros for 72 hours and gives free access to most of the city’s attractions, bus and tram travel and a boat trip. We climbed the Belfry which gives great views of the city but the 365 tiny winding stairs did make me a little nervous, luckily there’s a lift which we took on the way down.

Jo by river

The card also gave us a complimentary 40-minute boat trip with an English-speaking guide. We’d followed a walking tour independently the previous day so had seen much of the city but the boat trip gave a different view from the river and it was useful to have a guide, even if his accent made it a little tricky to understand every word. If you’re travelling with children there are boat trips aimed specifically at families with river monsters, pirates and witches giving the tour. I’ve no idea if these are included with the City Card, I’m just relieved Ben (my husband) and I didn’t end up on one of these by mistake! During our 3 night trip the weather was beautiful – in the late 20s – so we’d headed out early on our last day for the boat trip. Before boarding the boat we were offered a complimentary Belgian beer but as it was only 10am we’d declined. However whilst sat on the boat waiting to depart, the guide came round again confused why we didn’t have our beer. My will power remained, as you can see my husband couldn’t refuse!

Free Beer

Eiffel Tower lit-up by night, Paris


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Picture postcard from… Paris, France

Eiffel Tower lit-up by night, Paris

The Eiffel Tower by Moyan Brenn

Located on the Champ de Mars in Paris, France, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most well-known structures in the world.

It was named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower with Eiffel himself paying 80 percent of the tower’s construction costs. It was originally planned to stand for 20 years after which it was intended to be sold as scrap metal. However, in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna on top of the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy. The tower proved enviable in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower send radio and television broadcasts around the world.

More great shots from Moyan can be found on Flickr.

Antwerp by night, Belgium


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Picture Postcard from…. Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp by night, Belgium

Antwerp is described by Lonely Planet as “the country’s capital of cool, a powerful magnet for mode moguls,
club queens, art lovers and diamond dealers.”

It is Belgium’s second largest  city and is reputedly the most fashionable,
with great restaurants, bars, theatres and shops. The heart of the city is its historic medieval centre
with quaint narrow cobbled streets and a stunning cathedral.

 

Image courtesy of VisitFlanders

© Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet


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Belgian beer and a belfry in Bruges

Thanks to Richard Field from ‘A bit of culture‘ for this great guest post from Bruges...

The number one must-do attraction for any visitor to the Belgian city of Bruges has to be a climb to the top of the belfry in the Markt, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. Also known as the Belfort, this 83-metre high medieval bell tower with its distinctive octagonal lantern can be seen from pretty much all over town, so is a helpful reference point.

© Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

Bruges Markt © Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

© Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

view of the belfry from nearby canal © Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

On a previous visit I was put off by the massive queue to get in, so when I knew I was going back to Bruges I made it my priority and got there shortly after the 9.30am opening time. I walked straight in after shelling out my €8 entrance fee, and set off up the 366 steps. A sign by the entrance says that a maximum of 70 people are allowed inside the belfry at any one time, explaining the usual queue. Fortunately for me, there were closer to 7 people inside rather than 70, so climbing up (and back down) was a doddle.

I started off at a fast pace, taking two steps at a time eager to reach the top and enjoy the famed panoramic views. There are several rooms to stop off in on the way if you need a breather or fancy seeing the bells themselves. Information plaques by each room tell you how many of the 366 steps you’ve still got to go – the first 300 are fine, but the staircase suddenly becomes very narrow and steep as you approach the viewpoint.

As there is only one staircase, you will pass people coming down as you climb to the top. There really isn’t a lot of room for manoeuvre and the climb wouldn’t be very comfortable for the obese. Finally, you’ll be rewarded with a 360º view of beautiful Bruges and surroundings. On my visit it was cold, windy and wet at the top so I didn’t fancy hanging around for too long. I spent ten minutes getting my breath back and taking selfies with Markt below until it was time for the long descent to ground level.

The belfry is open from 9.30 – 5 every day, with last entrance at 4.15. Go as early as possible to avoid the queues.

After all that jelly-leg inducing exercise, you’ll be in need of a beer and a sit-down, and you won’t need to stagger far to find one of Bruges’ newest bars.

Tucked away in the far corner of Markt, behind the bus-stop, is the Duvelorium Grand Beer Café. It’s located above the Historium museum and although it’s in the same building, entrance to the bar is free and open to all regardless of whether you have been to the museum or not.

The main selling point of Duvelorium is its balcony overlooking Markt – there can be few better places in Bruges to sit outside with a Belgian beer and watch the world go by. Although there were patio heaters, it was far too cold for al fresco drinking when we visited, so we grabbed a window-side seat and enjoyed the view from indoors.

Being the official bar of the Duvel Moortgat brewery, I had a feeling it might only sell Duvel. Not a problem at all, as I love the magical golden ale – although I know it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact there’s a decent choice of beers here with Vedett, De Koninck, Liefmans Kriek Cuveé Brut and La Chouffe on tap, with plenty more bottles to choose from as well as both classic Duvel and Duvel Tripel Hop.

Duvelorium is only open until 6pm (9pm on Thursdays), so remember to get here early and give yourself enough time to browse the beer gift shop before moving on.

© Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

© Bruges Tourism, Jan Darthet

You can read more from Richard on his blog, A bit of culture and follow him on Twitter @RField75

Place du Vieux Marché ©Rouen Tourist Office


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Rouen, the jewel in Normandy’s crown

Travel writer, Barbara Hopkins, shares her love of Rouen…

Densely packed with half-timbered houses, architectural gems and soaring spires, the medieval city centre of Rouen is a meeting point for both art and history with a flourishing cultural vibe as well as great restaurants, shopping and nightlife.

Sprawled along the banks of the river Seine and like Paris divided into Right and Left Banks, Rouen is the capital of both Upper Normandy and the Seine Maritime départment and cherishes the importance of the heritage  that secures its place as a jewel in Normandy’s crown.

Rouen

Rouen © Rouen Tourist Office

The Right Bank is the main area for exploring the city centre and it’s where most of the monuments, as well as restaurants and accommodation can be found. The Place du Vieux Marché is a good starting point and it’s here that St Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431; the public square is marked with a plaque and 20-metre high cross. Nearby is a contemporary architectural masterpiece, the memorial church dedicated to her and whose stunning wooden-roofed interior is said to represent the flames at the stake.

Church of St Joan of Arc Rouen

Church of St Joan of Arc Rouen © Barbara Hopkins

From the square, the cobbled Rue du Gros Horloge leads towards the soaring grandeur of Notre Dame Cathedral, immortalised by Monet in his series of over thirty paintings. The clock (‘horloge’) which gives the street its name is a beautiful one-handed timepiece which shows the hour, the week and the phase of the moon. Climb to the top of the belfry to see its workings as well as outstanding city views.

Rouen Cathedral: A ToutFrance/Hervo Le Gac

Rouen Cathedral © A ToutFrance/Hervo Le Gac

Gros Horloge Rouen

Gros Horloge Rouen © Barbara Hopkins

Victor Hugo allegedly called Rouen ‘a town of a hundred spires’ and while he may not necessarily have counted every one, the city certainly  boasts the most classified monuments in France, with a lengthy list which includes examples of the Gothic and Renaissance masterpieces which adorn the streets. As well as the Gros Horloge and the Cathedral, take some time to admire  the Parliament of Normandy Court House, the église Saint-Maclou (often noted as the most flamboyant and spectacular example of Gothic architecture in France) and by contrast the Abbey Church of St-Ouen, whose simple lines have a beauty all their own.

The town is also known as the capital of antique bargain hunting, centred on the Damiette-Saint-Maclou district. Antique dealers occupy the half timbered houses which huddle together and cater to every taste and budget, while ceramicists, art gallery owners and bookbinders along with many other craftsmen open their doors to the public. Look out for ‘faience de Rouen’ decorative tin-glazed ceramic ware as well as ‘les coffret de Rouen’ small hand-painted wooden boxes for truly artisanal holiday mementoes.

Near rue Damiette and St-Ouen Church take a detour to the charming Rue Eau de Robec, where a small stream is crossed by a number of footbridges, recalling the era when wealthy cloth merchants lived in the area. Some of the timbered houses have attic workshops where skeins of cotton as well as fabric would be left out to dry.

Rouen timbered houses

Rouen © Barbara Hopkins

Rouen’s timbered houses and cobbled streets are lit with the particular quality of natural light which has fascinated painters and attracted writers to the town. It was in Normandy that Impressionism was born and Monet, Renoir and Sisley were among those who were fascinated by the discovery of the play of light on water, viewed from the banks of the Seine at Rouen. Art lovers may follow in the footsteps of these then-revolutionary artists, details from the tourist office (which is the oldest surviving renaissance building in Rouen) at 25 Place de la Cathédrale. The Musée des Beaux Arts (Esplanade Marcel Duchamp) makes for an absorbing visit to view one of France’s premier art collections with works dating from the 15th century to the present day.

For those in need of some retail therapy, the pedestrian streets near the cathedral are packed with familiar names as well as individual boutiques; the chocolatiers and macaron makers can make for very slow progress!

Eating out in Rouen is a delight with menus to suit all budgets. Regional products are showcased, especially those ‘from the farm’: cheeses, cream, eggs and apples.  Renowned cheeses from the region include Camembert, Pont l’Eveque and Neuchatel, while liqueur lovers will appreciate Calvados, the apple brandy which is produced across Normandy. The regional cider is also very popular. There are plenty of restaurants around Place due Vieux Marché and market stalls are a great place to pick up food to enjoy as you wander.

Place du Vieux Marché ©Rouen Tourist Office

Place du Vieux Marché © Rouen Tourist Office

Night-owls are well catered for too with a number of clubs and bars staying open until the small hours as well as concerts, cinema and theatres. There are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy classical music, opera and ballet in a wide variety of venues.

Rouen offers its visitors a richness and diversity of experience which pays homage to its past, while also firmly keeping an eye to the future.

Barbara HopkinsBarbara Hopkins is a freelance writer of features and articles on a wide range of topics, also producing business editorial content across diverse sectors including education, health, lifestyle and beauty.

“My passions include independent travel (top of my bucket list would be a trip to Antarctica) — that’s after the lottery win —  and closer to home I’m passionate about Paris, with an ongoing urge to leap onboard the next train bound for the City of Light.  My French language skills are however a poor second to my husband’s (even the French think he’s French), so I’m trying to catch up.

Family and friends, the Arts, real ale and great vegetarian food in any combination are favourite ways of spending down time and for an instant lift, a walk by the sea never fails to deliver.”

Barbara blog’s at thefeaturewriter, tweets @bhwriting and you can also find her on Google +.

Picture postcard from… the Castle of Carondelet, Belgium

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Castle of Carondelet, Crupet, Belgium

Castle of Carondelet, Crupet, Belgium by Henri Haneveer

A 13th century castle in the village of Crupet, between the towns of Dinant and Namur in the Wallonia region in Belgium.
Although it is now privately owned it is possible to walk around the castle which looks as if it comes straight from the pages of  fairytale.

More shots from Henri can be found on Flickr.