Air Baltic has strict limits to one small carry-on piece of luggage so we spent quite a bit of time paring down what we would bring (now that we are here, we wish we hadn't been so spartan in our packing). Landed in Brussels and picked up our small Citroen at the rental place. Onto the Brussels "ring" outside the city and then onto the E 40 towards Ghent........except I was in the wrong lane and missed my turn-off.
Not sure of what to do (the inset map of Brussels on the Belgium map is not very detailed) we took an exit to E 40 that took us directly into the city center. An hour and a half later we finally were headed off in the right direction on a busy highway.
Our first impression of Belgium is that it is densely populated. Traffic on the major highways are a bit harried. Based upon our experience in Brussels, we decided to bypass the city center of Ghent and, instead, went to the small town of Zelzate and stopped at a local pub for lunch.
Unlike Latvia, the menus are only in one language (Dutch in the West Flemish region) and the town is not a major tourist destination so we struggled with the one waiter who had some English to discern what we were going to order. We settled for Monsieur and Madame croque - Ham and Cheese toasted sandwiches, the latter was topped with a fried egg. Of course we each sampled a local beer that isn't available in our area (we are striving to stay away from those that we know). Lunch was not a great introduction to Belgium cuisine, but the beers were quite nice. Jo suggested I take notes, I wish I had as I can't remember what it was we had.
We stopped at a local grocery market to buy water (getting through security at the Riga airport was slow so we had to run to the gate without filling our water bottles - and Air Baltic charges for everything) and I was stopped by the variety of Belgium beers that were available for cheap (1.50-2.00 euro for .25/.33 liter bottles).
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We couldn't find our first stay, Hove Spreeuwenburg, a bed and breakfast on a working farm near the Holland border situated between Ghent and Bruges so we asked directions at a local eatery. They didn't know how to get there but, fortunately we had the phone number and had purchased a sim card at the airport. The waiter talked on the phone and, within 5 minutes our hostess Marijke drove up and we followed her 5 km to the place.
The old brick out buildings are over a century old on the farm. One has been converted into three bedroom units as well as feed storage for the chickens that run free and roost in the low branches of a tree. Every morning we are awakened by a cacophonous symphony by three
We borrowed our hosts' electrically assisted bicycles for a ride to the same cafe we stopped for directions for dinner and, used to Riga prices (specifically lunch special prices), we had a bit of a sticker shock. Looking for lower prices Jo settled for some odd fish croquette dish and I ordered a meat dish - which turned out to be an all you can eat ribs thing - neither were very good. Oh....and fries. It seems that Belgium's national dish (at least in the Flemish region) are frites which are served with nearly everything. With a very (un)healthy dollop of good mayonnaise. There are friteries with mounds and mounds of fries dumped above the deep fat fryer, just waiting to be browned and served. There is even a Friet Museum in Bruges. Truth be told though, we weren't that thrilled and would have preferred a bit more salad fixings with our meals.
Looking to supplement our diet with some raw vegetables, we asked Marijke about grocery markets. Unfortunately for us, rural Belgium hasn't embraced the 24 hour supermarket model. Stores were closed on Sunday and, in one small town the only grocery store was closed for lunch on Monday when we arrived.
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We toured the canal ringed old city of Bruges. Quite lovely with old windmills next to the canal. There was an old house of mirrors that looked quite intriguing but, unfortunately, it was closed on Sunday. We had come early-ish Sunday morning so the crowds weren't too much when we walked to the market square. By mid-afternoon, however, the throngs of tourists were a bit overwhelming. With all the tour guides holding up differently colored umbrellas and the tourist boats with amplified tour guides on the several canals, the medieval city seemed a bit like a section of Disneyland.
There was a Picasso museum and another museum with a Dali exhibit that we would have loved to have explored but the day was too nice to spend it inside. We joined the line making its way up the
For lunch we decided to skip the Belgium waffle vendors and, not knowing the ever present servings of frites, got a large portion of fried potato at a popular friterie. After exploring the various sites we went to t Brugs Beertje a wonderful little beer pub featuring nearly 300 different brews from various regions of Belgium. For beer hunters like us this is the way pubs should be: all about the beer. Locals lined the small bar and there were only a few tourists amongst those filling the tiny tables crammed into the small space - perhaps seating as many as 35.
As we hadn't been able to pick up groceries (there was a market we passed in Bruges that was open in the morning but, by three in the afternoon was shut for Sunday afternoon/evening) our hostess went to a local restaurant to pick up fish pots baked in large clam shells for herself and us. Not the specialty eel dishes but only half the price. And, of course, our dinner included mounds and mounds of frites.
Our last day in the village of Waterland-Oudeman we borrowed the bikes again and pedaled into Holland on bicycle trails that seem to line every major road up to the sea. We also took very small, tree-lined roads that seem to be remnants of an ancient time. Dikes surround the lower fields. Flax is an important crop here and the blue flowered fields accented by bright red poppies along the ditches were quite lovely.