Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Traveling in Belgium

One striking thing about my just-completed trip to Belgium was that I never once needed to take a taxi. I arrived at Brussels International Airport at 8 am this past Thursday, and all I had to do to get to Leuven (about 20 miles away) was go down a couple of levels in the airport and take a train. They're available every 20 minutes or so and only take 15 minutes to get to Leuven. From there, with Google's help, I was able to walk to my hotel.

A few days later I traveled 70 miles, from Leuven to Bruges, and once again the train was all I needed. Then to return to the Brussels Airport, arriving 2 hours early for a 9:45 am flight on Sunday, train travel made it far easier than the equivalent in most other travel destinations that I've known.

True, the U.S. is a lot bigger than Belgium, and New York is not especially small. But imagine if there were high-quality, fast, and direct rail links that made it easy to get from, say, Penn Station to one or more of the 3 major NYC-area airports.

Both Leuven and Bruges are very pleasant cities with the classic medieval / Renaissance era churches, town halls, etcetera. The best art museums are in Brussels, where I didn't get a chance to go, but Bruges has one in particular (the Groeningemuseum) that I rather liked - highlights of local artists from the 1400s through almost the present. The Flemish portion of Belgium (where I was throughout) also has good beer, as well as tasty white asparagus prepared in the Flemish style with vinegar (and plenty of fish and beef), plus the inevitable (not that there's anything wrong with that) chocolate shops at all touristed locations. I didn't get to try the surprisingly prevalent Asian food in Leuven.

Easy to get by speaking English there, though if you speak in French (which would require greater fluency than the bare rudiments I still have) you might run into feelings associated with the country's big cultural divide, which lies between Flemish and French speakers. Though leave it to the U.S. (with its red and blue states) to have (worse?) regional tensions despite a common language.

In Bruges, the central touristic high points are built more or less at the scale of parallel sites in London, except that the rest of the town is, well, a bit smaller. Tough break for Bruges when the Zwin Channel, which gave it sea access and made it a trade center, silted up in the early 1500s. Perhaps there is a global warming scenario in which the Zwin is restored without burying all of Belgium and Holland underwater?

No comments: