Belgian waffles. Belgian chocolate. Belgian beer. Belgian champagne. Belgian shrimp fishing? Taking a cue from Sesame Street - Which one of these just doesn’t belong?
Actually, that is a trick question because every one of these things can be found in Belgium! And to prove it to you I invited Marco Frank who is the Trade Manager for Visit Flanders which is part of Belgium’s Visitors Bureau to chat with us about all that and more. Marco is my contact to everything on the ground in the Flanders region of the country. He is the one who gives me the inside scoop on everything that I need to know to curate the perfect itinerary for you.
So, grab some chocolate or a waffle or a beer or – yes – champagne - or sparkling wine (you’ll understand that better later) and prepare to indulge in the bounties of Belgium!
Getting There: My east coasters will be happy to know that you are able to get to Belgium very easily - and directly - from New York, Newark, Washington and Atlanta – and from Chicago as well. And one beautiful thing is that because they are so super close to everything else in Europe like Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne – and all these four major cities are less than two hours away - you don't have a direct connection to Brussels. You can easily fly into one of them, hop on the train and in under two hours end up right in the heart of Europe! And that is a really great point - because Belgium can be easily be combined with other countries within Europe for a multi-destination adventure!
Geography: So, you may be wondering where - or what - is Flanders. And as Marco cheekily pointed out a lot of people think “Oh yeah that's Flanders from The Simpsons!” and while that is not incorrect Flanders is actually also a region in Belgium. And if you are wondering just what a region is – Marco compared it to what we know as a state here in the US - as Flanders consists of six major cities - Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen. The population of Flanders is about 7.8 million people and that would put it roughly about the size of the state of Connecticut.
Art and Heritage: If you've ever wondered “Why should I travel to Belgium? What's there to see? Why should I go there?” Marcos assured us that it is NOT for safaris or for climbing the Alps. You visit Belgium for so many other reasons – and a huge one is for the art and heritage that is so prevalent there. Here you get to see and experience Old Europe in a very positive sense - where history is still very much omnipresent and is very well-preserved. It is here you can see the Grand Place in Brussels, you can take boat rides through the canals of Bruges and so much more.
You might also come for the old artwork that you can view in the numerous museums and churches. For instance, here you can see the Ghent Altarpiece that was actually made famous – as Marco put it AGAIN – since it was already famous thanks to being one of the first northern renaissance paintings – by the 2014 Hollywood The Monuments Man. Which I must say is a really good movie based on facts of what really happened when the Nazis were trying to destroy artwork and other culturally important pieces to destroy it and the American GI's came in to find and save them. Here you will also find artists like Peter Paul Rubens who was considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. But even though old artwork is very prevalent in the art gallery's found in Belgium – there is also plenty of modern art and modern architecture to be found as well – such as the Port House in Antwerp – giving you an eclectic mix of the old and the new.
Gastronomy: Guys when I say Belgium is truly a gastronomy adventure I am not kidding! As Marco said – when we travel, we have to eat and there is no better place to travel and eat then Belgium where they feed you well! Of course, they are known for their Belgian waffles – but there are a lot of other foods – and beverages - they are known for in this foodie’s paradise. Among them are beer, chocolates, Belgian French fries, Mussels in Brussels and shrimp just to name a few!
And remember we talked about the art history – well they actually have a chocolate shop in the very historic building in Antwerp which just happens to be Napoleon's former residence. So, you see – you have all these chocolate experiences that you cannot have in a domestic supermarket! Fun Fact: In Belgium when they eat and cook with chocolate, they are also using it for its health benefits and wellness. Now that is my kind of wellness!
And how can you experience the beer culture here? Well, I am glad you asked. You can visit and tour breweries – there are 160 of them - as well as brewery museums. You can participate in beer and food pairings or beer and chocolate pairings. Or you can attend beer festivals.
Marco noted that there are those people that do not like beer – that they are into wine or whiskey or what have you – then he jokingly added that is primarily the case because they've only tasted Bud Light in the past. He assures us that Belgium beer is quite different and since there are so many different types and styles – from sweet beers to sour beers from hoppy beers to non-hoppy from fruit beers to wine beers to champagne beers and more – there is sure to be one they like. And for my beer aficionados out there - let's talk and get you a trip coordinated because this is absolutely one of the top beer adventures you can have!
Now, many are not aware of where the Michelin star guide comes from, but it actually has a historic background. To answer your first questions – yes – it comes from that Michelin – yes, the tire company. But how and why? So, the Michelin Guide that we typically talk about is the Michelin Red Guide and it has been published since 1900 and - Michelin being a French tire company - the first ones were published in France. Why? Why to boost tire sales of course! How? Well, you have to drive around to wear out your tires and how do you get people to drive around – you tell them where to eat! What an ingenious idea. So anyway - the Belgium edition has been around since 1904 and inspectors were – and still are - completely anonymous - even within the organization itself.
The star rating was actually developed a little bit later on and these are the original meanings:
Now - what does it take to be a Michelin starred restaurant? Well naturally it takes a lot of persistence, a lot of effort, a lot of dedication and a lot of skill - as they are really extremely strict in the analysis. Getting these stars is exceedingly difficult. As many of you guys know I went to culinary school and I studied in Switzerland for hospitality management, so my background is in food and beverage and how to attain one of these stars. I vividly remember all of the work that went into it and the passion of the people in the kitchen to make it a reality. And why so many Michelin starred restaurants in Belgium – due to the infrastructure. They have 22 hotel management schools, so a lot of talent is groomed there.
Marco also pointed out an especially important to point - it does not cost an arm and a leg to eat in one of those restaurants in Belgium as say in the US. He told the story of how he ate a one-star Michelin restaurant in California last year and the cost was $800 – or $400 per person. However – his last one-star Michelin dinner in Belgium came in at just a little bit over $65 per person.
Finally – many of you know that one thing that I love to do in terms of my itineraries is
to create either a private cooking class or some type of opportunity for you to get cultural immersion via the local food. What a great place to pair you up with a chef in their home or in their restaurant and have them teach you one of their specialties!
Wellness: As Marco so diplomatically put it – “Because we eat a lot - we also gotta burn off the calories!” Now we know that wellness can take on many different forms, shapes and sizes. There is the wellness experience where you go to spa and get pampered – or there is the wellness where you get your heart rate up and your adrenaline going. As Marco said – sure there are spas in Belgium – but it’s not what you go there for – not like say the Caribbean. Fun Fact: The word spa actually does come from Belgium more specifically the town of Spa in south Belgium. Home to thermal hot springs this town actually gave name to the word spa!
So, what kind of wellness is Belgium great for? Active wellness – in particular, cycling! Cycling is extremely popular in Belgium simply because it's something every skill level can participate in. Meaning - depending on what type of cycling you do – you can do it here - whether hard core, road biking or leisurely rides along the canals - it's flat so it's super easy.
Plus, there are different types of bikes available like electrical assist bike, city bikes, touring bikes, racing bikes – whatever fits your bill. Which means you don't need to bring your bike with you from the US and we can organize it so that once you do arrive in your hotel, you actually have a bike waiting for you – and can do so in each different destination you visit.
Once cool thing Belgium has are dedicated cycling road networks that are signposted and super easy to navigate. The entire network is about seven and a half thousand miles long and you can plan your routes in advance by using an app, a good old classic map or you can just like start peddling and get lost and explore the neighborhood! Or you can take a thematic bike tour that have focuses such as bike routes on beer, architecture, art history, castles and more.
And if my avid bikers want to do some long-distance cycling where you start in one area and end in another – I can arrange to have your luggage transported to where you end up. The long-distance network in Belgium is actually part of the Pan European cycling network so for the those of you that are really doing this hardcore - Belgium does ten routes - it’s almost 1000 miles long. And if you want to connect to something in France or in Holland or Germany the whole European network is really interconnected. Plus, the infrastructure is great as there are about 400 hotels that are bicycle friendly which basically means there's storage there for your bike, there are maps and there are tools there for you to repair or service your bike if needed.
History: There is one amazing piece in Belgium that many of the other countries don't have and those are historic World War I sites and so I requested that Marco give us some information on this for all my history buffs!
As you probably know from world history World War One happened between 1914 and 1918
In memoriam, Belgium held a big centenary from 2014 to 2018 but of course everything is still there for you to see today - the infrastructure, the museums and the trenches. Marco noted that in the last couple of years many people that were visiting were combining World War II and World War I because of the anniversary of the Normandy landing beaches. Unfortunately, many of the victory celebrations didn’t happen due to the pandemic. But what a great idea to combine these different destinations within the same area in Europe. And thanks to the train system you can easily hop over and do a day trip into Luxembourg where you have the Battle of the Bulge historic sites - so you can have a little bit of both sides so to speak.
Off The Beaten Path Experiences: Even if you have already been to Brussels or to Bruges you certainly haven’t see it all! Apart from the cities Belgium also offer countryside as in the coast and the Ardennes.
The coast also offers the opportunity to experience shrimp fishing on horseback which is actually was actually named to the UNESCO World Heritage intangible list – which by the way – the beer culture in Belgium is on as well! And you guys know how I feel about traveling as a family to family friendly areas where the kiddos can attend “life school” as opposed to learning from a textbook. Experiencing life as it is today - as well as things that happened in past history firsthand are lessons your children will never forget.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Belgium.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for Belgium click here.
So, what do you think? Pretty cool country – huh? Ready to make those plans for 2021? If so, now is the time to start planning, creating those itineraries and taking the first steps to make it happen!
For more details on things to see and do in Belgium, where to stay, it’s price points and more - contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!
During the shutdown of Covid19, Loulu Lima began interviewing many tourism boards, destination management companies and suppliers whom BHGH works with in the curation of your itineraries.
Here you will find the videos as well as written summary of each. Summaries are transcribed by Carole A. Peck.
Video post production managed by MotionDash.Media
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