In 2003, my husband, Don, and I received a Christmas card from a daughter of one of my friends. Katie Nelson (Juneau-Douglas High School class of '91) and her husband wrote, "We'd love to hear from you, or even better ... have you visit us in person in Belgium."
I'm not sure she really expected her former English teacher to take her up on the offer, but I e-mailed her and we added Brussels to our itinerary.
About two weeks before we left Juneau, I made e-mail reservations at the B & B Guilmin in Brussels. Lonely Planet's description included a warning: "Don't be put off by the lackluster faade ... the four rooms are gorgeous."
Despite the warning, we were rather "put off by the lackluster faade." However, the interior of the 19th century house is a work of art created by Monsieur Guilmin, who has decorated the rooms with art, much of it his. Most of the furniture is "shabby chic."
The most striking feature of our chamber was the floor-to-ceiling canvas painted to look like masonry with two pictures painted as if each were small canvases. One of these small "canvases" featured a nude sitting in an open window, and the other was a still life of the slightly rusted graniteware pitchers and pots sitting on our writing table. Also painted on the large canvas were faux pillows painted at bed level. A faux wall light switch was also on the canvas, and directly under the faux switch was the real one.
Several hours after we checked into the B & B Guilmin, Katie and her young son picked us up and took us to the Grand Place. On one side of this large square in the heart of Brussels are restored guildhalls (medieval labor union halls) from the 1500s. On another side of the square, the large city hall stands tall, looking much like a Gothic church. The more modern and dark city museum broods on a third side of the square. The guildhalls and the city hall glitter with gilding.
A famous chocolate shop, Galler, sells its temptations in a modern shop in an old building tucked into one corner of the Grand Place. In addition to being famous for its beer, Belgium is also famous for chocolate.
Just off the square is the reclining statue of 14th century hero Everard 't Serclaes, whose torso is rubbed for good luck. The famous Manneken Pis stands proudly just around another corner.
Katie's husband joined us for dinner at Chez Leon, famous for mussels and frites (better than fries). Because parking is almost nonexistent, we took a taxi to the restaurant that has been serving meals for about 100 years. Don and Seth loved the mussels and frites, but the traditional stewed chicken in white sauce disappointed Katie and me.
The next morning, Katie and Jackson picked us up at 9:30 and drove us to the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts. I wanted to go to this museum because I wanted to see the Breugels, the paintings of Pieter Breugel the Elder and his two sons.
Later in the day, Katie gave us a tour of her favorite places. Katie loves Brussels and wants to stay as long as her husband's work visa allows. Guidebook authors are not too excited about Brussels as a tourist destination, but Katie's enthusiasm for the city definitely influenced our positive view of Brussels.
We fell in love with Bruges in 1999 when we celebrated the New Year in northeastern France with our English friends. Bruges was an easy day trip from their holiday home in the tiny village of Sainte Marie Kerque.
Before we left Juneau last March, we made reservations to spend a night in Bruges at the B & B Dieltiens-Debruyne, which is housed in an 18th century building. After we checked in, our hostess told us not to miss the Begijnhof, the nunnery, on the other side of town.
After our experience in 1999, we were unprepared for the number of tourists in Bruges (population 120,000) during the five days before Easter. Bruges was like a big cruise ship day in Juneau. Three million tourists visit Bruges each year.
Don suggested that we follow the canals around the perimeter of the old town. His plan was excellent! The streets were clean and quiet and the old houses were charming. The canal route took us to the old gate where we entered Bruges five years ago. We admired the old, brick gunpowder tower. We came to Minnewater Park where daffodils, tulips and pansies bloomed.
We found the Begijnhof, community of Beguines or nuns. Hof means "garden." Two-story, gabled houses painted white with black trim and red tile roofs surround a grassy square filled with daffodils, tulips and other spring bulbs among the scattered trees. Signs, posted on brick walls, asked for "Stilte - Silence" and universal signs requested that dogs not litter the grounds. In four languages, another sign read, "Permission from the prioress of the monastery must be obtained before taking photographs for commercial use."
One of the little white houses is a museum. The name of the monastery in French is Monasterium de Wijngaard or Monastery of the Vineyard. According to Lonely Planet, the monastery began in the 12th century when large numbers of men went on Crusades but never returned. The nuns took vows of obedience and chastity, but not poverty and "devoted their time to the elderly and sick, and work such as lace making."
Don surprised me by asking the black-robed nun at the admission desk if he could take the sister's photo.
She surprised me more by agreeing if he sent her a copy of the photo. We did send her a copy, and she sent us a thank you note. Our B & B hostess was right; the Begijnhof is a "must see."
We continued to follow the canal route and admired a beautiful gatehouse and a large, old, gabled brick house built out over the canal. It was filled with at least 100 large white swans - the symbol of Bruges. In the area near the Begijnhof, nuns are also used as a symbol by the many shops and restaurants.
We finally wandered into an area of Bruges that we recognized from our day trip in 1999. Outside the closed Church of Our Lady, two men on stilts in green copper makeup and long copper-green, Pilgrim-like robes and tall hats slowly played a game of chess.
At first glance, we thought that the men on stilts were statues. The main canal in this area is extremely picturesque; old brick cottages with red tiled roofs are built right along the curving canal that reflects the cottages and trees.
After an elegant breakfast the next morning, we walked back to the Church of our Lady and admired Michelangelo's Madonna and Child, the only Michelangelo to leave Italy during the sculptor's lifetime. From the church, we wandered narrow, winding alleys until it was time to meet our English friends.
Before we left Bruges to spend the Easter weekend with our friends, we ate a remarkable, two-and-a-half hours lunch at De Pepermolen, which is definitely off the beaten track.
We are still in love with Bruges.