Monday, August 19, 2019

Luxurious Luxembourg: The Little Rich Grand Duchy of Europe

- July 19, 2019, Friday


- One of the things that fancies me in Europe is the existence of tiny countries that most people fail to remember or whose existence people fail to acknowledge since they are usually lost between bigger and more heard-of countries in Europe. One such tiny country is located southeast of Belgium, west of Germany, and north of France. This is none other than the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg! Despite its size, it is the richest country in Europe and one of the top 10 richest in the world. As its official name states, Luxembourg is a "Grand Duchy," which means that it is ruled be a grand duke (sort of like their king.) Currently, Luxembourg is the only grand duchy remaining in the world, and despite its size, it has its own national language close to German: Luxembourgish; French and German however, as well as English, are all well understood, and only a fraction of the population speaks Luxembourgish as a native tongue. As it is a small country, it is a popular day trip from surrounding countries like Belgium. For those who wish to travel to Luxembourg, do understand that it is a country on mountains, and some parts of the country's cities will be located on a plateau, and others will be on flat ground or a lower plateau. The streets of the cities may also go up and down, so it may be difficult for whose who have a hard time walking.

- Luxembourg is a 3-hour train ride from Brussels, and stop at the country's capital, Luxembourg City. Ticket reservations are not necessary but I thought of booking in advance since it was an international trip. Luxembourg's national railway company is called the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Luxembourgeois (CFL for short, click here for the train's official site.) It also leaves from Brussels Centraal Station in Brussels, Brussels Nord, and Brussels Midi/Zuid (the central, north, and south railway stations). Do note that there is another station called "Brussels-Luxembourg"; this is NOT Luxembourg City, but a part of Brussels. When booking tickets online, also check for the timetable for DIRECT TRAINS between Brussels and Luxembourg. Some trains go directly between both cities, but most journeys need you to change trains at Arlon Station (still in Belgium, near the Belgium-Luxembourg border.) I usually avoid having to change trains since there might be delays in the first leg of the train, which will require me to wait longer for the second train in the station where I'm supposed to change trains. Since the online tickets do not have a specific time indicated (i.e. you can ride on any train that goes between Brussels and Luxembourg within the date indicated on the ticket,) just take note of the times when the trains would go directly between cities. However, as these direct trains vary in frequency (and on some days they may not have direct trains,) at least you are aware.

- Since my mom and I left Belgium early in the morning, we arrived around 10:00am, and immediately rode the cab to Casemates du Bock as it is quite a long walk from the station. Do note that there are casemates in Luxembourg, a "casemate" (pronounced as "keys-meyt" or "kahz-maht" in some languages) being a fort or in some cases an armored enclosure where guns are fired. In case you're doing your research for your itinerary, or when asking for directions or riding a cab, make sure you specify which casemate you wish to go to; Casemates du Bock is the most popular one.

- Before entering Casemates du Bock, we took some pictures of the Grund, one of the lower districts of the city. The most iconic structure in the Grund is the 17th-century Neumunster Abbey, which is not used as a cultural space and function hall. The Grund can also be seen from a famous wall at the exit of the Casemates du Bock, and closer to the city, called Chemin de la Corniche.

Welcome!!
Map of the capital.
Railway station.
Neumunster Abbey.
There are plenty of Aqueducts.
- We later went inside the Casemates du Bock after taking nice pictures of the Grund. This fortification is one of the oldest sites in the city, being built in the 10th century. It looks like a giant ant's house from the inside because of its maze-like structure. It was used until the 18th century, when Luxembourg was forced to demolish parts of it to assure its neutral stance in Europe. Luxembourg's fortifications, especially the Casemates du Bock, made the country earn the title "Gibraltar of the North."

Inside the Casemates du Bock.
Looks like an ant's house.
Fire!!
At the bridge connecting the casemates to the old city.
Fortification.
Another view of the Grund and the Neumunster Abbey.
- From the exit of the Casemates, which again is a wall called Chemin de la Corniche, we visited a church right behind the wall. Built in the 10th century, the St. Michael's Church, a quiet church in a quiet part of town, stands as the oldest religious site of Luxembourg.

Inside St. Michael's Church.
- We later walked to the downtown, passing by the Grand Ducal Palace and to the main square called Place Guillaume II. The whole square was being renovated so I did not get to appreciate it that much. However, the tourist information center at the square may be important especially those who wish to purchase tour tickets to the Grand Ducal Palace; the palace is open to the public during summer, when the royal family is away.

Luxembourg City is one of the cities that will really bring you back in time.

The church at the center is the St. Michael's Church.
The Grand Ducal Palace, but more on that later.
- Near the square, to the south, is one of the most well-known churches in Luxembourg. The 17th-century Gothic-style Notre-Dame Cathedral, stands as the only cathedral in the whole of Luxembourg.

The spires of the Notre-Dame, as seen from Place Guillame II.
It's a giant cathedral in a tiny country.
Main hall.
I like the paintings on the walls.
Back door.
Spires and roof from the back. Also notice how the Dutch flag is almost identical to the Luxembouger flag. The only difference is that the flag of Luxembourg has a lighter shade of blue.
Lion fountains.
- Across the street from the cathedral is the Petrusse Casemates with its small amusement park. There, one can find a memorial statue called Gelle Fra, made in 1923. Today, this statue honors the Luxembourgers who perished in the two World Wars, and later on, the Korean War. My mom and I also ate lunch there, as there were numerous food stalls beside the Gelle Fra.

Musee de la Banque from afar.
Gelle Fra.
- After lunch, my mom and I slowly made our way back to the Grand Ducal Palace for our guided tour. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside. What I can tell you, however, is that visitors can see some of the actual furniture that the royal family uses, precious gifts like vases and jars and other works of art from different countries - including two heavyweight malachite vases that were gifts from the Romanov family of Russia. The Grand Ducal Palace was built in the 16th century, and first used as a city hall before becoming the residence of the royal family.

The Grand Ducal Palace from the outside.

- We learned a lot about the life and advocacy of the royal family of Luxembourg, and becoming more curious, we actually wanted to know more about the significance of this tiny country. After all, this is also one of the headquarter/main cities of the European Union. However, since we did not want to go back to Brussels too late in the day, we had a leisurely stroll back to the train station for our train back to Brussels. I also understand that we only saw a fraction of Luxembourg City, and more so the entire tiny country. However, there are bigger and nicer castles and historical sites scattered all over the Luxembourger countryside. Maybe next time, if I have the chance to go back to Luxembourg, I might consider staying a few more days just so I can see how this little country can surprise me further!

- Please don't forget to read all about my other adventures in the Netherlands, and Belgium, here!!

THE NETHERLANDS

Part 1, Amsterdam: here, and here

Part 2, Zaanse Schans: here

Part 3, The Hague/Den Haag: here

Part 4, Haarlem: here

Part 5, Hoorn: here


BELGIUM

Part 1 and 5, Brussels: here

Part 2, Ghent/Gent: here

Part 3, Bruges/Brugge: here

Part 4, Antwerp: (coming soon!)

Sunday, August 18, 2019

(Part 3) Belgium the Premium: Bruges the Breathtaker

- July 18, 2019, Thursday.


- "Do not leave Belgium without going to Bruges!" I heard this a lot while asking around for Belgium travel tips from friends and the online community when I was planning for this trip. If this city was that beautiful, why had not I heard about it in the past like other must-see cities in Europe? I suppose that as Belgium itself is an underrated country to visit, and that most people just pass through Brussels before hopping over to a different country, it does surprise many people to see that Belgium is indeed more than just the city center of Brussels with the tiny Mannekin Pis. Bruges itself is quite underrated that many non-natives don't even know how to exactly pronounce the name of this city. For the record, the city's French name "Bruges" is prounced as "broozh," while its Dutch name "Brugge" is pronounced "broohuh" (the first "h" is guttural so it sounds like you're letting some phlegm out.) So why is it a must-visited place in Belgium? Like Ghent (click here), Bruges has also been an important city of trade, thanks to it being a port city and likewise, a city of canals; it is one of the European cities that was given the nickname "Venice of the North."

- Bruges is a bit far from Brussels, and it takes around an hour more or less by train. Some people visit Ghent and Bruges on the same day since the trains that go to Bruges also stop at Ghent. However, I will not suggest this as there are plenty of things to see and do in each city, and visiting both cities in a day will definitely be tiring. My mom and I bought day return tickets from Brussels Centraal Station since we were returning to Brussels on the same day.

- Bruges' train station seems far from the city center when looking at a tourist map, but trust me it isn't. It is fairly walkable (my elderly mom who has some problem walking was able to do it!) and since there are many must-sees along the way, the frequent stops make the walk to the center all the more bearable.

- The first place we checked out for the morning was Begijnhof Brugge, or simply called the benguinage or begijnhof ("beg-eye-n-hof") as it is the only one of its kind in Bruges. A benguinage or a begijnhof is usually a compound where lay religious women would live together in a house or group of houses. The compound would also have a small church run by nuns, and the lay women living in the compound would need to follow certain rules and regulations, including a few religious regulations. (Think of a benguinage as some sort of religious dorm or pseudo-convent for women who are not necessarily nuns.) This one in Bruges was originally built around the 13th century, and built more houses in the compound in the succeeding centuries. Currently, it functions as a convent for Benedictine nuns.

Benguinage. Oh, and look, there's a Benedictine nun.
Inside the church of the benguinage.
- We later passed by the 13th-century Onze-Lieve-Vrouwkerk (Church of Our Lady) henceforth will be referred to as "OLV" as many Belgians and Dutch do, a towering structure that remains to be the tallest building in the whole of Bruges. I'll mention more of this later, but for now I just brought this up because based on the map, the OLV seems to be the midpoint between the train station in the south, and the city center a bit north. So in case you get lost, just look for this big church and you'll know you're somewhere in between the city and the station.

OLV.
Streets of Bruges.
Another photo of the OLV.
- While walking through this UNESCO medieval city found our way to the prettiest spot in Bruge- the Rozenhoedkaai, or the Quay of the Rosary.  This quay is located near the entrance of the two squares of Markt and Burg. The name "Quay of the Rosary" appeared in documents around the 18th century though the quay itself had been there since a few centuries back, because at that time there were stalls selling rosaries near the quay. Today, this spot is usually the "it spot" for Bruges to take photographs; that is, the spot in a particular place that tells people that "OK, you've been to Bruges."

The tower you see there is the Belfry of Bruges.
See the swans and geese at the back?
There were early morning painters too.
The belfry from afar.
- Later on, we had a walk inside Markt and Burg Squares. The Burg Square to the east is where one can see the old city hall (currently a museum) and the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The basilica was an unusual church for me since it is located at the second floor, and it doesn't look like a church from the outside just like all other churches in the city. This 12th-century church is called as such because it "allegedly" has a container that has the literal blood of Christ in it. Whether this blood is really Christ's or not, it is still worth to go because I found its colorful interior quite cozy and charming unlike most churches and cathedrals that are usually painted with neutral colors and compete with each other in gargantuan proportions.

Old city hall.
Basilica of the Holy Blood.
I love how the colors blend with each other..
Plenty of stained glass windows. The church is actually quite spacious, because it looks so small from the outside.
Silhouette.
- Markt Square on the other hand is where on can find the bigger public square and the 13th-century Belfry of Bruges. The belfry is not only impressive in its appearance, but also in its ability to chime full songs (including classical music!!) through its numerous bells!! Just imagine, me walking through Bruges while the belfry was playing Bach's Prelude; it made me feel like I was in a medieval period film, or a travel show! Apart from the belfry, the traditional houses that line the main streets also add to the medieval ambience. However, just like in Ghent, there were people in Markt Square setting up for a public event, so taking photos in Markt Square was difficult. Despite this, I appreciate how there were still many open spaces where people can "breathe," unlike my encounter with the preparations for Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festival) the day prior, where all public spaces were being used for the festival.   

Belfry of Ghent.
Markt Square.
Tried my best to take photos of the houses; it was difficult to do so since there were many people and trucks in the square setting up for a certain event.
- A bit north of the center via a street called Vlamingstraat, one can find an unusual museum that talks about one of the things Belgium created, is famous for, and has contributed to world gastronomy: french fries!! Founded in 2008, this museum tells you everything you need to know about one of the world's favorite side dish. I won't tell you much, but I'll tell you one of the things I learned in the museum: why it's called the "french" fry. One story states that during World War I, French-speaking Belgians shared this dish to American soldiers. The Americans, thinking that the Belgians were French because of the language they were using, called the dish the "French" fry, when it should be Belgian after all! The museum also talks about the history of potatoes and how it spread to the world, how french fries were created, and the different types of machines used through time in making french fries. The best part is that each visitor gets to have a 40% discount stub that can be used inside the museum restaurant. Meals in the restaurant at the basement are burgers and sandwiches with fries (of course!) on the side. The fries served at the restaurant, though not as tasty as fries outside, was one of the best that I've had. This is because their fries, based on the potatoes they have and the cut that they do, absorb around 50% less oil than the usual fries, so it was less guilty to eat.

You'll see this building.
Here we are!
The earliest potatoes were harvested in the Andes region in South America!
As documented in early books.
Pretending to sell fries.
Just imagine if we had fries as large as these.
Lunch! (I had a burger actually, but I wanted the to highlight the fries.) 
- After lunch we headed back to the OLV Church, which, as mentioned earlier, is the tallest structure in Bruges. The back part of the church serves as a museum showing medieval art. My favorite part of the church were some ceilings and walls, since they show parts of the original medieval paintings and murals that dressed the walls and ceilings and were later painted over.

OLV.
12th-century wall paintings that were later painted over.
Medieval ceiling paintings.
Medieval graves.
Michaelangelo's "Madonna and Child," his only work that isn't in Italy!
With the OLV.
- Next to the OLV Church is the Sint-Janshospital, or the St. John's Hospital. This 12th-century hospital, which is now a museum. I was keen on visiting this museum because it was different from the usual art-focused museums everywhere in Europe. Though still art-heavy with exhibit pieces related to medieval art, a portion of the museum shows medieval medical books and tools, which made me realize why people have developed this fear of going to the doctor through time (the syringes, for example, look like they could suck the life out of you!) The only problem I have with the museum, however, was that the exhibit pieces were not arranged by number, which makes going around a bit confusing. Still, I enjoyed looking at the medieval medical paraphernalia. You also need to hold on to your hospital ticket since you will also need this ticket to enter the medieval pharmacy beside the old hospital. The old pharmacy showed what types of herbs people used for their medicine before. If you ask me it sort of reminds me of the Chinese pharmacies selling strong-smelling medicinal plants and animals/animal products near my house. 

Sint-Jahnshospital.
Inside the museum.
Longggg syringes!!
A manual ambulance.
Medieval....gall stones and kidney stones.
I wouldn't trust this doctor - how can he operate on someone's eye without looking at the patient!!
Entrance to the hospital's chapel.
Scary hospital attic.
Medieval pharmacy.
My makeshift medieval Belgian attire fits in.
- Just before finishing our day, we had one last stop: De Halve Maan Bewery, along Walplein Street. Opened in the 1800s, this brewery has been owned by the Maes family for 5 generations. The brewery gives hourly tours, but since it is a highly-recommended brewery, make sure to reserve your slot earlier. My mom and I were fortunate to have had slots for the last English tour for the day. One important thing that should be noted is that there are plenty of steep stairs during the tour, and visitors need to go both up and down. I was glad my mom's legs did not act up, and she was able to complete the tour without any problem. After the tour, visitors can also get a free glass of beer. I am not a beer fan, but I was impressed by the clear taste and smooth texture of De Halve Maan's beer.

Fermentation.
Patron saint.
Old beer-brewing machine.
With the brewery's logo and hop plants (a plant used in giving flavor to beer.) 
This mannequin scared the hell out of me.
Newer beer drums.
Free beer!!
It was surprisingly yummy!! (Thank you Facebook filter for my hate, brows, moustache, and bowtie.)
It was a nice experience - I just hated that I had to go up and down a lot.
This is what the brewery's facade looks like.
- From De Halve Maan Brewery, the train station was just a short walk away. Bruges was a fantastic city, and a day was surely not enough to explore this medieval city. There were other museums, churches, and even ancient windmills that I failed to see because of time constraints, but I not understood what the fuss about Bruges was - it was a time-defying experience as it brings people back to medieval Belgium!

See my pet. HAHA.
One of Bruges' endless canals, with the OLV at the back.
- Please don't forget to read all about my other adventures in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg here!!

THE NETHERLANDS

Part 1, Amsterdam: here, and here

Part 2, Zaanse Schans: here

Part 3, The Hague/Den Haag: here

Part 4, Haarlem: here

Part 5, Hoorn: here


BELGIUM

Part 1 and 5, Brussels: here

Part 2, Ghent/Gent: here

Part 4, Antwerp: (coming soon!)


LUXEMBOURG: here