brugesplaza

During my time in Europe I visited five countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. But one of these countries was an enormous surprise to me: Belgium. I was very excited about France and Spain, but didn't think much of Belgium until I was there. Of the places I have been, it is definitely a favorite. I first visited Antwerp and was lucky enough to have met a local on the train who agreed to show me around for a few hours until I had to catch the next one.

From what I could tell, Antwerp has the energy of a city as metropolitan as New York, the opulence and grandeur of a city like Paris, but with the charm of a quaint Dutch city like Amsterdam. The train station alone is worth a visit, with its iron skeleton vaulting overhead and daunting main lobby, which looks more like a baroque palace.

From there it was on to Ghent, a city that has sprawling old-world cathedrals and churches at every turn and feels like something out of a fairy tale. Then I spent three days in Bruges, a city that typifies the small European town cliche in the best way possible. Cobblestone roads, large pedestrian plazas, the whole package.

Then there was Brussels. Imagine New York being several hundred years older and you'll get an idea of what Brussels was like. The old structures are as numerous - if not more numerous - than the modern ones, and they are all still in use. The architecture covers everything from gothic to art nouveau, the nightlife is as lively as Madrid's and the food is as unique and delicious as Italy's.

While there I stayed at a hostel owned and operated by Carl. A Brussels native, Carl ran the hostel right out of his own home. Every morning I woke up and shared breakfast with him, and at night - on more than one occassion - I shared dinner with him. He made us feel at home more than anyone else on the trip.

Belgium is well worth a stop on your next European tour. As a matter of fact, it easily stands on its own as a location for travelers. There's no need to couple it with the Netherlands or Luxembourg, as is often the case. Belgium merits a trip all its own.