Thursday, 24 March 2011

Brussels & Bruges: Do's and Don'ts!

Having only spent 48 hours there, I am certainly no expert on Belgium and its many delights. However, using the time I did have as a guide, here is a much briefer than usual list of do's and don'ts...


- Try the local speciality. Delicious and numerous, chocolate shops are on every street. Whilst all are probably great, if you are a chocolate purist, there are a couple of things you might want to consider. We were surprised to learn that of the 50 or more shops in Bruges, only 5 make their chocolate on the premises. You’ll pay more for the privilege, but it might be worth it. Speaking of cost, it’s wise to shop around – the price varies vastly from shop to shop!

- Relax. The cities are lovely for wandering around and best done at a slow pace. Take time out for sitting at outdoor cafes and watching the world go by – you’ll leave wanting more, I promise!

- Travel around by train. Fast, efficient and cheap, the train services between cities in Belgium are an easy way to see multiple areas. Trains between Brussels and Bruges departed every half hour when we visited, and the special weekend prices halved the usual cost. Definitely the best option.


- Get your languages confused! Brussels, although located in the Flemish part of the country, actually speaks French as its primary language, whereas Bruges is decidedly Dutch. English is a standard everywhere though, and a good bet if you don’t want to accidentally offend anyone!

- Miss out on visiting Bruges. I really can’t speak highly enough of this lovely little city. Easily explored in a day, I also would imagine you could spend a whole weekend enjoying its many charms. Mid-week would probably be even better, without the huge number of visitors that a Saturday typically brings.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

More chocolate. Oh yes, and some nice buildings too...

After a leisurely breakfast, Sunday was spent in a similar fashion to Saturday – that is, filled with food, even more chocolate, cafes and some sights. We hopped on the metro to the centre of the city, home to the main square, supposedly one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The architecture was stunning – gorgeous colonial style buildings surrounded the square glowing with the spring sun. We found Manneken Pis, the small statue of a young boy ahem ‘relieving’ himself into a fountain below (and, like so many sights, he was much smaller in real life than I had imagined – perhaps 12 inches tops), the lovely Tin-Tin shop to relive our childhoods, and more chocolate was purchased – after all, it must be different in Brussels and Bruges, right?!

Being a Sunday, the European Parliament was closed, so we didn’t bother going there – without a tour it is just a big glass building, although I have heard that the tour is worth attending if you are there during the week. We wandered up Avenue Louise, with its designer shops, and had lunch in a lovely outdoor cafĂ© with waffles from a street stall to finish. I would definitely recommend trying at least one waffle on a trip – with a whole list of different toppings there’s something for everyone. The metro is a quick and cheap way of getting around the city and making the most of a small amount of time.

After too few pleasant hours it was time to leave, feeling relaxed and ready to tackle another working week!

Chocolate, sun and carnival...a little slice of paradise!

So, continuing with the ‘5 days in…’ series….oh no, wait a minute. Not 5 days, just 48 hours! 48 hours to discover a new city…or two…, is it possible? Well, it all depends on how busy you want to be..

After an incredibly hectic period at work, it was time for a short break – just a weekend away somewhere close – the land of chocolate and beer - Belgium. I’d never been before, so was determined to combine some relaxing with a bit of discovery.

Although based in Brussels, we decided to spend Saturday in the nearby city of Bruges, famous for its beauty and relaxed atmosphere.

And it is beautiful. The canals winding their way through the city, sunlight gleaming off the calm water, the picture-perfect architecture everywhere, and…the crowds. Bruges is tourist heaven, particularly at the weekend, and you’re never far from couples getting away from it all, families and coach groups. However, they do tend to stick to the main areas, and wandering away from the centre, we discovered lovely parks next to the river, back streets with interesting little shops and cafes that were near deserted.

After wandering for a while (no need for a map – Bruges is tiny), we went to the Belfry and climbed up for sweeping views of the city. We were lucky to have a gorgeous, warm day with clear blue skies, and the view was lovely, even if the steep, tight steps really weren’t. After a carefully negotiated descent, balancing whilst people squeezed past us at regular intervals, it was time for a cold drink and some more exploring.

Coming back out of a maze of little alleys a while later, we were greeted with incredibly loud music in the distance, and shouted singing competing with the excited cries of children. Curious, we headed in the direction of the noise, emerging onto the main road in time to see the first floats of carnival going past.

Without even realising it, we had come to Bruges on carnival day, which, in a similar fashion to the more well-known German version, had a long parade of floats, each surrounded by dressed-up participants throwing sweets, bagful’s of confetti and singing at the top of their voices. The atmosphere is infectious – the crowd were dancing and hurriedly taking photos, we were covered in the thin, coloured paper thrown everywhere, and children were scrambling for the many sweets dropping from above. Combined with the warm weather and the lovely backdrop of the city, the parade was a real delight and we were thrilled to have stumbled upon it.

As an added bonus, as soon as we spied the final float, we disappeared into one of the chocolate shops, which had been freed of its queues owing to the excitement of the outside proceedings. Served and out again before the shop began to re-fill, we left with our prize, and after a quick stop for some ice-cream, jumped on the train back to Brussels.

A great experience, and I can’t recommend Bruges enough. Easily seen in a day, but no doubt a wonderful way to spend a whole weekend.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

New York: Do's and Don'ts!

I really enjoyed my time in New York. Great company, good food and a friendly environment always helps, but New York had far more - lots of hidden gems, plenty to do and explore and lots of opportunities for 'guess the film' games. Here are my tips for making the most of a short break.


- Catch a show on Broadway. The famous theatre district, Broadway has a huge variety of shows to suit everyone, and is a fantastic night out. A word of warning: prices are very steep, and booking in advance can set you back a couple of hundred dollars for decent seats. If there is a particular show you want to see, and one fixed date, then it might be the only option. If you are happy to be more flexible though, then don't book up. The half price ticket booth in Times Square is superb value, and offers many of the best shows. It opened for evening shows at 2pm, and we were there soon after. Queuing took about an hour and a half, so take a book (and a very warm coat if in winter!!). It was completely worth it though - we got tickets for Chicago half price, and when we arrived in the evening the seats were fantastic.

- Explore a range of transport. We walked a lot during our stay, which was essential for burning off some of the millions of calories consumed (see more about food below...), but the distances can be great. The subway is cheap and reliable, and was relatively empty during the day and early evening. Hailing cabs became second nature quickly, and there was nothing like racing through traffic, dodging cars and swerving to avoid pedestrians to really experience driving in NY!

- Experience plenty of local cuisine. Pretzels from street stalls, huge breakfasts from diners, one of the nicest burgers I've ever had, Italian desserts, bagels... food in NY is delicious, massive and reasonably priced. We ate until we were stuffed, and had hardly even made a dent in our plates. The idea of a doggy bag (or 'wrapped') makes so much more sense here. Whether the portions are generous or wasteful is a debate in itself, but you'll certainly never go hungry!


- Pay a fortune for accommodation. When asking around for pricing for staying in NY, most answers were the same 'expect at least $100 a night'. $100?? Per night?! I've never paid that much anywhere and didn't intend to start! A few searches later, and $22 a night got us twin rooms, heating/air con, with a shared bathroom (but when we arrived there were three bathrooms per floor, cleaned twice a day, and none of us ever had to wait to use one) in a good location Uptown. The place itself was lovely, the rooms spacious and clean, flat screen TVs and a nice atmosphere. It is possible to get a real bargain, just search around!

- Expect New York to reflect the rest of America. In fact, I think this probably goes for all the cities in the US - people living in NY may be very different, and the city itself has a distinct atmosphere. I don't consider that I've 'seen' or 'know' America from visiting the one city.

- Be surprised at the cost of visiting museums. Probably many visitors aren't, but coming from a culture of free or subsidised museums and public attractions, my joy at saving so much on accommodation was swiftly destroyed by seeing the pricing around the city. Having said that, I don't regret stomaching the cost - they were great experiences.

So, that wraps up a short stay in the big apple, somewhere I would definitely visit again in the future. Next up, a final short break in a new city before it's back to some more exotic adventure!

Getting out of the city...

After stuffing ourselves full of the pleasures of the city - the sights, food, lots of walking, food, parks, food...well, you can see the pattern, we decided that we should spend at least one day outside of the centre, and experience a little taste of living around the New York area.

Luckily, a very good friend lives in Long Island, providing us with the perfect opportunity. Heading out to the suburbs was interesting and enjoyable, even after getting off at the wrong train station in the morning, surrounded by snow and huddling for warmth waiting for our lift, rather embarrassed...

We had a wonderful, relaxed day, shopping, more eating (even bigger portions if that was even possible!) and a glimpse of the welcoming, surprisingly large homes that surround the city. I would definitely recommend using the trains to travel around - efficient and on time, we found the whole process easy.

After a few days of frantic sight-seeing, it was so lovely to slow down, catch up with good friends and discover some local gems. Every trip should have a day like that.

I know you so well...or do I?

The funny thing about New York (and some other major cities as well), is that you feel as though you know it before you even arrive. We are flooded continuously with familiar buildings/statues/areas and iconic images through TV and film, so that being there can feel like an ultra-HD version of it's on-screen alter-ego. Wandering though the city, we could identify particular streets and squares, the famous yellow cabs and school buses, famous faces staring down from their stone or metal commemorations.

Yet, although a part of us felt like we 'knew' New York before we'd even arrived - knew what was situated next to what, recognised what we would find around the next corner, it is the atmosphere, the people and the life of a place that creates and identifies it. There were, of course, some aspects that we had hoped to find: the smells from the delicious street stalls, the liveliness of Little Italy and Chinatown, the bustling inside Grand Central.

But there were also some surprises. The city, as a whole, was no-where near as crowded as I had imagined. This may partially have been a result of the weather, and the wide pavements and roads certainly help, but step away from the main tourist sites, just one block down a side road, and we could hear the birds, the leaves rustling in the wind and a truly peaceful atmosphere.

Then there was the friendliness. Usually, in bigger cities, people keep their heads down, getting on with their day. Admittedly, the guidebook and cameras might have helped, but we found residents chatting to us in all kinds of places. Lifts, museums, shops...many people we met had a kind word and a helpful manner. It was lovely.

Anyway, back to the sights, and the best tip of all. It's not a secret anymore, but I will confirm that using the Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty was by far the best choice for us. If we had visited in the summer months, we may have taken a trip to Ellis Island and spent some time exploring. However, the last thing we fancied was shivering in the cold, and we'd seen the skyline from the top of the Empire State building, so the ferry it was. Comfortable, free and easy, we had a good view (sharpen the elbows in advance - everyone will be crowding on the small outdoor viewing platforms, cameras at the ready...) and an enjoyable ride. We had no problems boarding a ferry, and the whole thing from start to finish was less than an hour and a half.

The biggest shock? How small the Statue of Liberty actually is in real life. Then again, everyone told me it would be, and I didn't really listen. Too much Ghostbusters in my youth had somewhat unrealistically skewed my view... TV? Film? Perhaps not quite as close a representation as we might think...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

5 days in New York

Another year, another girly break. And this time we decided to head for the bright lights of the Big Apple. For me, it was not only a new city but a new continent - of all the places I've been to, I'd never set foot in the US! New York seemed a great place to start, and a perfect short break.

Unfortunately, when we booked our flights, we hadn't anticipated the harsh, long winter that the US (and everywhere else) would experience, and touched down in below freezing temperatures with snow on the ground and 60 mile per hour winds. On the flip side, the icy weather gave us clear, blue skies and bright winter sun, glinting off the buildings and skimming across the frozen lakes. At times we were almost able to forget about our numbing fingers and toes.

Arriving late in the evening, after a comfortable night's sleep we were ready to do some exploring. One of the wonderful things about the city was how easy it was to navigate - a true pedestrian's dream. There's nothing quite like going from organic, unstructured cities to a perfect grid layout, where I would argue that it is literally impossible to get lost (not that I didn't try). Need to get to 31st? I'm on 50th, so that's 19 roads away. Easy. Once I'd worked out how the roads intersected, we were away!

First stop was the Empire State building, to get the iconic view over the city. It was here that perhaps our decision to ignore the forecasted winds probably let us down, although at least the queue was relatively short and groups were moving through quickly - watching some families holding their children down as they blew around the viewing platform it became clear they didn't intend to stay up there too long!

After some wind-swept 'here's a picture of me on the Empire State, although you can only see my hair as it was constantly getting whipped over the face' type photos,we admitted defeat and went back down, warmed up, and began exploring.

Completely by accident, we stumbled across the Public Library. Impressed by the exterior, we made one of the best decisions of the trip by deciding to step inside for a look around. Not only was the interior just as beautiful, but the free exhibitions, wonderful artwork and an interactive exhibits room (where we tried out our best calligraphy...or rather, traced our best calligraphy...) were definitely worth an hour or so's attention.

Continuing on (and realising along with our aching feet that whilst the city is very 'walkable', the distances are greater than they looked) we finished our 'sights' day with a visit to the Natural History museum. Despite being a little disappointed that the T-Rex wasn't in the entrance hall (and subsequently seeking it out immediately), we thoroughly enjoy our visit and I'd definitely recommend it. The panoramas were beautiful, and the exhibits spacious and interesting. Although we had a minor heart attack at the entrance fee, I would go again.

After a short rest, it was out for dinner, and our first real experience of American portions. Try as I might, I could hardly make a dent in my meal (this was to be a recurring theme over the next few days), despite it being delicious and my being very hungry (or so I thought!). A few drinks, a catch-up with a great American friend, and it was time for bed.