There is life after chocolate in Belgium

July 16, 1995|By Jana Sanchez-Klein and Mike Klein

When we told friends we were going to spend 10 days in Belgium, we got one of two responses: "Can you bring me some Belgian chocolate?" or "Why?"

It might be a mistake to skip Belgium, since there's so much more there than just chocolate. Belgium is a small country with well-preserved medieval towns, bustling cities, art museums, huge portions of French food, more than 300 brands of domestic beer, and perhaps most importantly, street vendors selling warm wafels and frites (french fries).

And it is easy to see a great deal of the country in a short time, because three of its tourist centers, Brugge, Brussels and Antwerp, are all about an hour from each other by train.

Belgium is an uneasy alliance of economically depressed French-speaking Wallonia, known for its natural beauty, with prosperous Flemish-speaking Flanders, known more for its architecture and art museums.

There is tension between the two regions. "The French [the Walloons] are all on the dole. We support all of them," said one Flemish bartender in Brugge.

Brugge, a city in the heart of Flanders, is made for meandering walks down winding streets and along canals, But don't get off on the wrong foot by speaking to the otherwise friendly locals in French.

Brugge's weaving business made it an economic powerhouse during the late Middle Ages. Merchants traded within the Hanseatic League, which stretched from the Baltics and Scandinavia to the English Channel. But in the 15th century, when its lifeline, the River Zwin, silted up, the city was deserted. Today's tourists are treated to buildings largely preserved in their original condition, particularly in the city's two central squares, the Markt and the Burg.

The massive Belfry, a secular tribute to the power and riches of 13th-century Brugge, dominates the Markt. We climbed the 350 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the city's canals and streets lined with rowhouses. After we recovered, we treated ourselves to a large cone of frites with a dollop of mayonnaise at the friture stand in the square below.

The Markt is lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and even banks where U.S. automated teller machine cards can be used to get Belgian Francs (BEF).

The Burg is attached to the Markt by way of a short cobblestone street, Breidelstraat. The most massive and ornate building on the Burg is the Stadhuis, the former city hall. In the adjoining Heilig Bloed Basiliek's (Holy Blood Basilica) Upper Chapel is a vial reputed to hold a few drops of the blood of Christ -- a relic from the Crusades. Across the Burg is the Tourist Information Office where friendly and efficient staffers will make hotel reservations, sell you maps and tourist brochures and answer questions.

Although almost every street in Brugge leads visitors back in time and through expensive boutiques that cater to well-heeled tourists, the Zuidzandstraat is probably the ritziest, with leather goods, fine linen and rich chocolate shops on almost every block. Brugge is still known for its lace-making, and women in medieval attire sit in the front windows of many shops, making lace by hand.

If you follow Zuidzandstraat from the Markt, you enter the t'Zand plaza full of outdoor cafes, touristy restaurants, modern Flemish sculpture and luxurious hotels.

And because Brugge is commonly known as the Venice of the North, an English-language, guided boat tour through its canals is a restful way to see many of the city's sites.

Inexpensive refreshment

Another popular way to rest is in a bar with one of Belgium's many beers. You might want to try Kriek, brewed with fresh cherries and raspberry-flavored Framboise. Ducking into a pub for lunch is also a way to keep expenses down, because many bars offer lunch and hearty snacks at considerably lower prices than do restaurants. Taverne de Jakobijn, at Langestraat 54, has a menu of lunch foods from cheese trays to steaks. The bar, owned by the pony-tailed Augustin Chopin, was full of locals eager to explain the country's political intrigues. To get there, follow Hoogstraat out of the Burg until it becomes Langestraat.

Today Brugge is one of Belgium's most popular tourist destinations, and the throngs of tourists can diminish its charm. During peak tourist season, hotel rooms might be hard to come by unless you reserve, but visitors can always make it a day trip from nearby Ghent or Brussels, using Belgium's elaborate and inexpensive train system.

There are two ways to make train travel even more affordable. The "Belgian Tourrail Pass," allows unlimited domestic travel for five days out of 17 for 1,980 BEF, or about $70 in second class. The Verminderingskaart 50%, or half-fare card, is 570 BEF and provides a 50 percent discount on domestic fares in first and second class.

With our half-fare cards, our ticket to Antwerp from Brugge was less than $8.

Although we had images of diamonds, Orthodox Jews and Gothic architecture, we were almost shocked by how exquisite Antwerp, the capital of Flanders, is.

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