Belgium – there’s nothing like it

Belgium is possibly our most favorite country. It has so much history, culture, art and each city is so wonderfully different from the other. And, it has SO much good beer! It is the holy land of beers after all and the delicious Belgian brews was our primary motivation to go on our beer pilgrimage to Belgium over the Christmas holidays.

Even if you’re not a beer lover, you will find Belgium incredibly fascinating. The buildings, the walls, the people, the culture, the food – will fill you with unbelievable joy. The Belgians are a class apart – they are quirky, bold, friendly, fun, and artistic. You will find both contemporary and medieval art in the cities of Belgium.They have deep regard for their history and struggles and yet do not hesitate to experiment and keep up with modern times. Belgium has a unique mix of culture and culinary delights owing to its French and Dutch influences.

There is something for everyone in this wonderful country – whether it is admiring art, learning about the history of comics, taking a peaceful canal ride, climbing up the bell tower for gorgeous views, walking past medieval buildings, visiting beautiful churches, indulging in mouth-watering food, or just drinking a well-brewed ale – you simply cannot get enough of this fantastic country. And, if you are visiting Belgium during Christmas, it makes it all even more special.

We spent a short 7 days in Belgium visiting Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. And, this made for the most remarkable, joyful holiday, and the perfect end to a great year filling us with lots of inspiration and energy to ring in the new year.

Take a look at our Belgian journey.

[Click the image or link below to see what these cities are like.]

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Brussels – where art and beer flow endlessly
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Antwerp – fashionable and artistic
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Ghent – rustic and charming

[Bruges – post coming soon!]

Ghent – rustic and charming

A medieval, little Belgian town filled with incredible history, art, and architecture.

When we were planning our visit to Belgium over the Christmas holidays, we knew we had to make time for Ghent (also known as Gent). It is less than an hour away from Brussels and is often overlooked for the neighboring, more popular Bruges. Bruges is of course simply amazing and we as well are absolutely in love with the city but Ghent is a Belgian gem you don’t want to miss if you are in Belgium and have a few hours to spare. The crowds are lesser, there is no insane queue to go up to the Belfry, and it has pretty canals too. While there are some striking similarities between Ghent and Bruges, they couldn’t be more different.

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A cloudy day at Ghent

And, Ghent, like Antwerp is an architectural marvel, although in different styles. Antwerp being a much bigger city has mostly contemporary styles whereas Ghent is full of older, medieval buildings. But both cities, Bruges, most of Belgium, and parts of the Netherlands all have the same distinctive crow-stepped gable style.

We got to Ghent as early as we could (considering the late risers we are) and it was a short, pretty train ride. We passed by a bit of the Belgian countryside which is nice but not as mind-blowing as the Swiss countryside or even the German countryside but appealing nevertheless.

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Gravensteen, medieval castle/fortress, Ghent

Our first stop was the Gravensteen or the Castle of the Counts. Much to our dismay, it was closed. Not sure why we were surprised considering it was the day of Christmas Eve. Although some of our plans are spontaneous, we are usually prepared at least in terms of checking out opening hours etc. but it was Christmas and let’s just say the Belgian beer and the Christmas spirit got the better of us. There were many others like us who went to the castle door, read the notice, and left disappointed. We felt bad that we’d missed it as it has a pretty cool torture chamber that we were intrigued about and wanted to see. But, we realized this would happen during our holiday as we were traveling during Christmas after all. Lifting our spirits, we headed over to the Belfry.

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Belfry of Ghent

Like the famous Bruges Belfry, Ghent has its own Belfry too. What’s cool about the one in Ghent is that it has an elevator to take you up to the top so you don’t have to struggle like poor Ken (from the movie ‘In Bruges’) to climb up those winding stairs like you’d have to in Bruges. You can also get off the elevator at each level to check out their awesome bell collection and take a look at the intricate workings of the bell tower.

The first level is the secrecy room which as the name suggests served as a hiding ground for valuable records which were kept in heavy, chained trunks. This place also served as a hideout for some of the Germans during WW II.

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The Keepers of the Belfort, guarding the tower since 1339

The construction of the Belfry is said to have started in 1313 and finished in 1380, when the first dragon was placed atop the tower. A few centuries later, the dragon was made to spit fire during big events – ah, this would have been a pretty cool spectacle. Many a dragon went on the tower and were brought down weather-beaten. You’ll find one of these former dragons at the second level.

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Dragon in action at the Belfry, Gent

Also, at the second level is the Roland bell – the rockstar bell of the Ghent Belfry, which was installed originally as an alarm bell and then became an hourly bell. This bell kept the show going until the carillon (a musical instrument comprising of multiple bells to produce a melody) was built in the 17th century. The original Roland was melted to be used as bell metal for the new carillon. A new Roland came about soon after.

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This is the third Roland from 1948 weighing 6200 kilograms!

In the next level, you’ll find many of the older bells of the Belfry – they range from little bells to massive heavy-lifters.

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In the same level, just a few steps higher, you will find this antique music box with 17600 holes in it!!

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This copper drum dates back to 1659 and is still being used today to play 54 bells
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The parent clockwork which is connected to the drum and moves it every 15 minutes

The bells sound for about 5 minutes and the entire mechanism is fascinating to watch. You can go up one more level to the see the actual bell room with all the 54 bells in action with the hammers pounding on them as the levers attached to the drum below are moving. It’s quite a riveting show! The Belfry not only served as a bell tower to announce the time and issue warnings of imminent danger but also served as a watchtower keeping an eye out for approaching enemies and offering some great views of the city.

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The St. Nicholas Church fills up the view
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Gent city view from the Belfry

We then headed on to the St Bavo’s Cathedral or Sint-Baafs Cathedral.

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View of St.Bavo’s Cathedral from the Belfry

The cathedral is most renowned for its 15th century altarpiece – the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – a masterpiece from the Van Eyck brothers. It’s amazing that the painting survived all those fires, wars, and thefts and it felt wonderful to be able to admire this brilliant piece of work. The piece has 12 front panels and each of them has a religious significance. The painting is a polyptych and has a beautiful closed view of the back panels as well. You cannot take any pictures of the original piece however you will find a smaller copy further down the cathedral.

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A smaller copy of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

The interiors of the gothic cathedral are were quite impressive as well displaying other art works including one of Peter Paul Rubens. We had seen some of his stunning work already in Antwerp and he definitely seemed to be revered in the Flemish region.

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A unique, modern representation of the birth of Christ

Now all this excitement had gotten us very thirsty and it was time to make a beer-stop. The Christmas market was still open and in spite of it being the eve of Christmas, both locals and tourists flocked the stalls.

Boy, were we pleased to see the beers in the Christmas market! Only in Belgium did we find awesome beer in the Christmas markets. It was so good to drink La Chouffe on tap. So fresh and bursting with flavor! And since it is so close to Bruges, we had some of the local Brugge beers too. We had still not visited Bruges – we’d been saving the best of Belgium for the last.. and we knew we just had to get there soon. Steve had visited Bruges before; he’d had the beers and had already set high expectations for me and I was pleased with the little I’d had in Gent. Gent has some lovely local breweries and beer bars.. we had time to visit just one as most of them were either closed or soon closing. Luckily the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant was still open but just for a bit. It’s located right in the city centre with the backdrop of the canals for a view and has a great collection of Belgian brews. Being Christmas eve and all, they were shutting down early and we had time for just one beer. If you do have time, you should also check out the t’Dreupelkot which is located right next door and the Gruut Brewery (these guys brew their beers with herbs instead of hops and being hop lovers, this one majorly piqued our curiosity but we have to wait for our next trip to Ghent to explore this one).

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Yet another beer from Bruges – this one was a decent tripel

We spent the next hour or so just walking around the city, taking in its beauty and indulging in some local bites.

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Looked like a fun ride – it went all the way up to the top of the tree – too bad it was only for kids 🙂
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View of the St. Nicholas Church, Belfry, and St. Bavos Cathedral from the St. Michael’s Bridge
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The purple noses of Ghent or the  Gentse neus – these Belgian cone-shaped candies filled with raspberry liquid are simply delicious!

Our final stop was the Graslei and Korenlei. This was the most loved and popular spot in Ghent. With its historical buildings, quaint little cafes, and people kayaking down the Leie river – Graslei and Korenlei have a delightful rustic, romantic charm to it.

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A view of the Korenlei
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Graslei view as dusk approaches

Some of the buildings in the Graslei date back several centuries and have been heavily renovated over the years. This place would surely be a different scene in summer – sprawling with people on the riverbanks.

We look forward to going back to Ghent in summer. We just could not get enough of this charming little city – a day is just too short a time to explore this incredible, historic Belgian city.

And, yet, sometimes in just a day, you experience so much beauty that you are filled with a deep sense of gratitude and contentment for all that life brings your way.

Antwerp – fashionable and artsy

A beautiful city in Belgium with gorgeous medieval buildings, a large port, a great sense of fashion, a diamond market, and an outstanding art scene.

You are hit with the architectural wonder of the city right from the minute you arrive at their central train station. They definitely have one of the prettiest train stations. You can see trains arriving/departing at 3 levels. It’s a beautiful big train station.

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Antwerp central station
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The train station is an architectural marvel

As soon as you step outside the central station, you can see several diamond stores. Antwerp is known for its diamond market and apparently more than 70% of the world’s diamonds are traded here!

We had just a few hours in Antwerp and wanted to make the most of our short time and decided to just walk up to the city’s main square. We walked past a whole bunch of cyclists – definitely more of them here compared to Brussels and Bruges. We passed by medieval buildings that were an architectural delight! We walked past numerous stores of the big brands Gucci, Armani, Prada etc. – Antwerp is quite a fashionable city!

In just a few minutes, we were in the centre of the town where they had the Christmas Market – the stalls displayed a great variety of well-crafted artefacts unlike the Brussels market.

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At De Veemarkt; used to be a cattle market

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Since we got to Antwerp somewhat late and well into the lunch hour, we had to stop for some grub and beer first.

Unfortunately, the Kulminator which is one of the highly recommended beer spots was closed the day we were visiting. We settled for the next best thing. They had a nice selection of restaurants just behind the Christmas market and we found a cosy one with a good selection of beers. The city’s most famous brew is the De Koninck, locally known as ‘bolleke’. While it was not one of our favorite Belgian brews, it quenched our thirst. Their other popular beer is the Seef Bier, a pale ale – liked this one better.

Post lunch, we walked around the city centre just exploring the place. Antwerp is filled with some creative, interesting monuments – you should especially check out Sleeping Nello and Lange Wapper.

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Sleeping Nello and Patrasche (Dog of Flanders

), covered by a blanket of cobblestones

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The giant trickster Lange Wapper
  • a local legend in the Flemish region of Belgium

One of the main attractions of Antwerp is the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwkathedraal). It is said to be one of the largest gothic cathedrals in Benelux. The cathedral is most renowned for its display of Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpieces. It also includes the works of some other well-known Flemish painters. It is a huge cathedral and a giant, mesmerizing art gallery.

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Cathedral of our Lady featuring Ruben’s paintings

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One of the first things you notice as you walk in is this amazing 14th century marble sculpture of Madonna and Child (Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus). The gentle gesture of the child and the mother’s smile as she looks upon her child affectionately just warms your heart. There’s no greater bond than the one between a mother and her child!

We continued to be spell-bound as we walked on admiring Ruben’s paintings. Most of his works are altarpieces and a reflection of famous scenes from The Bible. Ruben’s masterpieces ‘The Descent from the Cross’ and ‘The Raising of the Cross’ are simply mind-blowing. You can stare at it for hours.

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The Rising of the Cross – by Ruben

While the exterior of the church is gothic style, the interiors are filled with Ruben’s baroque art. Although the artwork is definitely the main attraction, the cathedral itself is quite spectacular with its carved woodwork and sculptures.

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We were the last ones to leave the church – we had completely lost track of time in here. As we were getting out of the church, we heard beautiful music. Intrigued, we walked out to see a choir full of youngsters. They were such a talented bunch, singing some really high-pitched phenomenal melodies.

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It was just a day before Christmas Eve and the place looked so festive!

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Grote Markt

We strolled around the Grote Markt or Groenplaats, the city’s main square. The square is filled with ornate guildhalls similar to that of the Brussels’ Grote Market (or the Grand Place). Also adorning the Grote Markt is the city’s Stadthuis (town hall) and the Brabo Fountain.

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Brabo’s Fountain, Grote Markt

This sculpture of Antwerp’s hero, Brabo, depicts him flinging a severed hand.The legend goes like this – There used to be a giant called Antigoon who used to take a toll from those who crossed the Antwerp river, Schledt. And, he cut off the hands of those who refused to pay. So, Brabo cut off the giant’s own hand and flung it into the river. And, that’s how the city got its name Antwerpen – meaning hand werpen or hand throw or throwing hand(s).

Antwerp definitely had the best Christmas Markets we’d seen in Belgium. It had stalls all around the centre of the city and some near the port as well. There was a huge ferris wheel and ice skating which seemed to be a trend in Belgium and Netherlands. The ferris wheel ride was so much fun. I hadn’t been on one in years and the views from up there was lovely.

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Antwerp is also well-known for its jazz clubs and we were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t catch the jazz band in action at De Muze, a hotspot for great jazz music in town. The last train back to Brussels was at 11 ish PM and the band doesn’t start until after 10.

There’s so much to do in this beautiful Belgian city and we know we’ll head back there someday and stay a few nights.

Despite being bigger, fashionable and modern compared to the other medieval cities of Belgium, Antwerp has a charm of its own with its amazing collection of art, cobblestoned lanes, riverside castle and splendid jazz culture.

Brussels – where art and beer flow endlessly

Brussels was our first stop on our Belgium beercation. Steve visited Belgium years ago and we had been looking forward to doing Belgium together for a while now and we were so kicked to finally visit Belgium over the Christmas holidays last year.

My first impression of Brussels, just seeing what was in plain sight, was like.. Whoa, wait, why do some of the buildings look so rundown and covered with soot!? Why do the metros and the metro stations look so ancient? Why is that guy peeing in the street, that too in the centre of the town!? [And, no, I don’t refer to the infamous statue of the little boy peeing]. It took me a while to warm up to Brussels and appreciate the city for what it is. The beer (uh… beers) helped. Brussels has tons of breweries, brew-pubs, bars, beer stores — there’s just loads of good beer everywhere. In Belgium, beer is not just a drink, it is a culture.. and, it has sacred origins!

[More on our beer pilgrimage in Belgium coming soon in a separate post but here’s a peek!]

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Best place in town to get some of the best Belgian ales on tap

There’s a lot to do in Brussels. A good place to start is definitely the city’s main square – la Grand Place (French) or de Grote Markt (Dutch). Yep, they have two names for everything including street names. And this can get confusing and you’ll wonder if it’s two different places as they are usually totally different. The city is bilingual and both French and Dutch are official languages. French though is the dominant language and you will hear it everywhere. It’s interesting to note that the city’s origins were that of Dutch and it has been more of a French speaking nation only since the 19th century (the French revolution of course).

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De Grote Markt / la Grand Place / City Centre

The Grand Place was packed with lots of people, every time we passed thru. This picture was taken at 2 AM. Well, it was Christmas time and there were tons of tourists, like us. And, through the evening, they had this light and music show happening which had the crowd flocked to it like bees. The light show was alright, a bit too bright and way too colorful for our liking. And the music, well, may be some Belgian folk music or Christmas carols or anything other than electronica might have made the whole experience (being in a historic city, watching a light show on historic buildings etc.) more relatable.

The Grand Place is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the Stadthuis (the Town Hall), and the Broodhuis (Breadhouse or the Museum of the city of Brussels). Most of these buildings including the town hall date back to the 15th century although the Grand Place itself dates back to early 12th century. The buildings here an architectural delight with their gothic and baroque styles. The ornamental guildhalls are especially remarkable and at night, even more so with a beautiful glow. There’s always something or the other happening at the Grand Place. It seems like the bi-annual flower carpet show that takes place in the Grand Place is one of their most popular events.

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Some of the ornate buildings at the Grand Place
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The Stadthuis (the town hall)

Just a few blocks away from the Grand Place is the infamous Manneken Pis (translates to Little Man Pee), popularly known as Peeing Boy. This small bronze sculpture of the naked peeing boy is a huge deal in Brussels and is a national symbol.

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Brussels’ oldest citizen

He is apparently seen in a variety of outfits from Santa suits to Elvis Presley to Tibetan monks to national costumes of other countries. What amused us the most though was that for some special occasions, he would be hooked up to beer kegs and you can have a sip of Belgian’s famous brews from his truly. 😀 There are many stories around the origins of the statue – check these out here. And, the boy has a sister and a dog doing exactly what he seems to enjoy doing. We didn’t check out the Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – decided to save some of this amusement for another trip to Brussels.

Brussels as well had a Christmas Market, just a few meters away from the Grand Place – nothing nearly as beautiful and festive as the German Christmas Markets but nice nonetheless.

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They had a whole bunch of stalls selling handcrafted wares, woolen wear, Glühwein, and local Belgian food (loads of waffles and fries of course). And, surprisingly also had stalls selling other cuisines like Mediterranean, Turkish, and Asian. Definitely catering to the multi-cultural city that Brussels is. What we liked more about the Brussels and the other Belgian Christmas markets we saw were the beer stalls – we were especially thrilled to see a craft beer stall with a great collection of craft beers and some of the traditional Belgian beers.

The best way to discover Brussels is to just walk around the city. You will see sections with historic buildings and sections with high-rise offices. It’s a big city that looks so different at almost every turn in the road. AND, it has some super cool comic strip murals on a lot of its walls.  The Comic Strip Route features over 50 paintings and is such a unique, fun way to discover Brussels. Check out this link for a map of the spots to hit.

Belgium is not just known for its beer, chocolates, waffles and fries. It’s also revered around the world for being the pioneers in the world of comics. Some of the world’s most beloved comics Herge’s Tintin and Peyo’s Smurfs have hailed from this beautiful country.

Our next stop was the Comic Book Museum. The museum features a permanent exhibition on the history and the making of comics. And of course there is  separate section reserved for Belgium’s much-loved hero Tintin. Not only does the museum feature a whole bunch of Belgian comics but also comics in other languages. You can also read some of these comics in the museum’s reading room. And if you cannot read them all, there are numerous comic book stores throughout Brussels and other parts of Belgium. We bought a bunch in Brussels and a few more in Bruges (the ‘De Striep’ store in Bruges has a great collection of comics including in English).

Brussels has quite a few lovely churches but we had time to visit just the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This gothic cathedral’s history is believed to date back to as early as the 9th century.

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Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula

We spent most of our time in Brussels just walking around, enjoying the street art and the wonderful street music, hopping from one beer bar to another, indulging in the local delicacies, and picking a few comic books along the way.

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These guys got the crowd grooving to their music instantly – streets in Brussels are such fun!

Brussels is lively, quirky, medieval yet hip, run-down yet rich with history …  And, most impressively, standing tall and strong despite all the tough times the city has had to endure in the recent past. In the end, I fell in love with all of its uniqueness and rich culture and will surely go back for more.

Zaanse Schans – a small paradise

A beautiful little windmill village tucked away in the picturesque Dutch countryside.

You go back in time as you walk into the historic Zaanse Schans, a district in Zaandam, Netherlands. The place is filled with ancient windmills, traditional Dutch wooden houses, and beautiful green fields, all surrounded by the serene waters of the Zaan river.

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The famous windmills of Holland

We visited Zaanse Schans in winter. It was a nippy cloudy day. We walked hand in hand along the lush green fields admiring the stunning landscape.

The Dutch industrial revolution was born right here. There were more than a 1000 windmills in this place several centuries ago, some of which were used to grind spices, produce paint, saw wood and make oil. Today all that remains is 6 of these historic windmills, most of which are still working!

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Windmills of Zaanse Schans hard at work

You can go into a few of these working windmills to see them in action. We visited the De Kat (The Cat) windmill, the only windmill in Zaanse Schans that is in its original position. The rest of the windmills here were moved from other places and rebuilt. The De Kat windmill grinds chalk to to produce paint. It is the only working windmill in the world that makes paint!

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Inside the De Kat Windmill – granite stones weighing 3000 kilograms grinding limestone

You can also go up to the top of the windmill to see the blades moving to the strong wind. The view from up here is quite pretty as well.

We also visited the De Catharinahoeve, a cheese farm where we went thru a quick run-down of the production process of this creamy yellow gold. If there’s one thing the Dutch is known for as much if not more than their windmills is their cheese and I could see why!

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A cheesy place

We spent the next hour or so just walking around this little village sipping on some hot chocolate and drifting off into thoughts of what life would have been like a few centuries back. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just turn back time and pop into any era we like, live a few days, make merry and move on to the next.. heh a little wishful thinking never hurt anyone!

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Some of these houses are museums and souvenir shops while some of them are still inhabited

When the weather is better, you can actually go on a boat ride exploring this idyllic little village along the Zaan river.

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View across the Zaan river

It was time to head back to Amsterdam.

We left Zaanse Schaans with heart-warming memories that will be cherished forever. And, who knows, life might just lead us back here again someday…

Amsterdam – bold, quirky and fun

A city that never sleeps.

Amsterdam is full of energy, always bustling with activity, and packed with a stream of tourists in all seasons all days. It’s also a beautiful canal city — numerous canals everywhere even in the heart of the city.

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Damrak canal, centre of Amsterdam

It’s also a city with the most number of cycles I have ever seen. 800,000 bicycles — almost as many bikes as people in the city!! It’s such a pleasant sight – to see families riding their bikes together, chatting away and the elderly riding with so much ease and stopping for passersby. They seem to ride their bikes no matter the weather and there are so many parking spots for these bikes (including a floating parking spot bang opposite the train station, next to the ferry point). In some places, there are no footpaths but there is a bike lane! Apparently, bikes go missing quite often. Some stolen and some if you look hard into the canals, you might find a bike or two submerged in the water!

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a bike-friendly city

Apart from their bikes and canals, Amsterdam is likely more well-known for its red light district and its “coffeeshops“. There’s plenty of these “feel good” shops all around the central area and this is where the local crowd and the weed-starved citizens of other nations throng to. Cannabis is sold in all forms – of course there’s the traditional by gram and the joints but there’s also the brownies, the cookies, the chocolate bars and the lollipops! It is sold in an insane variety of forms. Although it is illegal to smoke in public, you’ll smell the marijuana everywhere and you’ll see lots of stoned people especially youthful tourists.

The whole culture and legality around this and prostitution in Amsterdam still amazes me. While the rest of the world is only now opening their legal doors to marijuana, this city had been the only paradise on earth for decades for peeps hankering after the green stuff. What I admire the most is – the city has a very open, bold, live and let-live attitude. The Dutch folks are also very warm, friendly people. And, they also seem to have  a great tolerance for people from other ethnicities – Amsterdam is swarming with people from all countries.

We visited Amsterdam over our Christmas holidays and spent New Year’s eve here. There were decorations everywhere and the light festival was on — the city looked pretty spectacular.

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just a teeny weeny start to the fireworks that would take over the sky

If you do visit the city over New Year’s eve, you should note that the city shuts off its train system, all public transport really from as early as 8 PM on the 31st and it doesn’t kick back in until 6 am. There are a few night buses but I’d say nearly impossible to make these with all the connections and likely all the crowd trying to get on these. So be warned! 🙂

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people, people everywhere

Amsterdam is so so packed, always. Of course, there were a lot more tourists because of the Christmas holidays and New Year’s eve but Amsterdam is one of those big cities that is always brimming with tourists and there’s always long lines everywhere, so planning well in advance saves you wasted time.

If you are in Amsterdam, you should go on a canal ride. They have all types of boats – we opted for the warm, closed one as the temperatures were terribly low during new year’s eve. We did the water colors evening cruise that was part of the Amsterdam Light Festival (usually takes places from Dec to Jan). The queues were long, extending to more than a kilometer.. but the wait wasn’t so dreadful as we had a DJ entertaining us – people were dancing on the streets, kids and old folks alike. The new year cheer was definitely in the air! It was a pleasant ride cruising thru the waters admiring the light artworks along the way. Some were quite impressive but I think I still have a soft spot for the Singapore night festival which is a somewhat similar display of art thru light (the festival includes lots of other fun events and is an amazing experience). What made the canal ride in Amsterdam fun was our boat driver (who was also our tour guide) and who like a lot of Dutch folks, had a great sense of humor. He cracked us up with witty, cheeky and some cheesy jokes about the local folks, culture and customs.

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boats of Amsterdam

A visit to Amsterdam cannot be complete until you have visited some of the city’s brilliant museums – the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House are a must-visit. The works of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyck, and other Dutch artists are not only held in great reverence by the Dutch folks but by folks all around the world. The Dutch have produced more than a few exceptional masterpieces in the art world. We unfortunately were able to visit just the Van Gogh museum — Van Gogh and his works left us feeling pensive and simply awestruck. Visiting the museum gives you a chance not just to see his popular works, but also gives you a glimpse into some of his early, lesser-known but equally powerful works. We would have loved to see the Rijksmuseum that displays the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer and also the Anne Frank House — we now have yet another compelling reason for us to visit the city again.

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wonderful bock at the De Bekeerde Suster brewery

We’d also like to visit again to explore the city’s brewing scene. While we visited some fantastic breweries in our short stay there, there was a bunch we couldn’t do. There’s just not enough time to drink all the beer you want to!

We were pleasantly surprised that this land of Heineken could brew some neat craft beers. We visited the De Bekeerde Suster brewery – not only did they have a feisty collection of beers, they also had a great spread for the hungry stomach and a very interesting story behind their name!

We were visiting Amsterdam after a couple of weeks in Belgium and were so glad to see their tourist centre (the I amsterdam centre). No wild goose chase trying to locate it, just visible in plain sight..like you’d expect. The city is well prepared and well set-up for tourists – so not too difficult finding your way around local transport and such. The I amsterdam is not only a tourist centre but possibly more well-known as a catch phrase with both locals and tourists alike. And, you’ll see the I amsterdam letters all around the city. The most popular one is the one right in front of the Rijksmuseum. In front of these letters is usually a small body of water which turns into an ice skating ring come winter. This spot is hugely popular and ridiculously crowded – as you can see in the pic below.. you can barely see the letters!

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Rijksmuseum in the background – the most photographed place in Amsterdam

Amsterdam may appear like just another typical big city with throngs of people everywhere, busy streets, bad traffic etc. but it has an undeniable uniqueness to it. It’s a truly remarkable city – its rich culture, bold attitude, quirky traditions and pleasant folks — will leave you desiring for more.

Passau – a city of three rivers

Passau is one of those charming little German towns that fills you with an unbelievable sense of joy. We were in Passau for just a day but in this short stay, we made some beautiful memories especially because we explored the city with family whom we hadn’t seen in years.

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Artists’ Alley

Walking thru painted little cobble-stoned streets hand in hand on a cold autumn day, sipping some delicious Glühwein, admiring the lovely handcrafted wares in the little stores, visiting the most beautiful churches, walking by the river at dusk watching the boats sail away and the city light up, and of course hitting the local breweries is how we spent our short stay in Passau.

Passau is more commonly known as the city of three rivers, the Dreiflüssestadt. The Danube (second largest river in Germany) meets the Inn and the Ilz rivers at Passau. Each of the rivers appear to be in different colors in an aerial view – the Danube being blue, the Inn green, and the Ilz black-ish. The city is popular for its Danube river cruises and you will see a whole bunch of boats docked in the promenade. In fact, we were visiting Passau only to meet with family who was taking one of these river cruises which start here in Passau and go thru Austria and Eastern Europe. These boats look pretty neat and cosy on the inside!

The city is surrounded by lots and lots of water and you’ll find yourself walking by the river thru most of the city. Unfortunately, this also led to some really bad floods in the area. The worst one was over 500 years ago but then the recent one in 2013 was almost as bad. The flood levels are actually marked on one of the old town hall walls.

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Most of the boats are docked at the Fritz Schäffer Promenade

Apart from the rivers and its cruises, the city is also known for having the largest cathedral organ in the world. The St. Stephen’s Cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in Germany and the huge pipe organ to its collection makes it all the more spectacular. It is said to have 17,774 pipes!!! Organ concerts take place in summer and we hope to attend one of these someday. The interior of the church is done up in baroque style and the paintings & sculptures are simply exquisite – some of them depict fairly morbid scenes and yet weirdly you feel at peace looking at them.

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Organ at St.Stephen’s Cathedral
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Baroque art at St. Stephan’s Cathedral

We were in Passau a couple of days before the Christmas Market and the stalls and decorations were still underway but we enjoyed some of their delicious Glühwein or mulled wine which is generally available during Christmas time.

Of course, we were eager to explore their local brews as well and were not disappointed despite it being your typical German brews. The dunkel (dark) lager we had at the Brauerei Hacklberg was pretty decent compared to the dark lagers we’d been drinking across most of Germany. The food at this brewery was phenomenal – one of the best meals I have eaten in my year-long stay in Germany. A visit to this brewery is definitely worth it.

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Ancient Battle Horn at the Peschl Terrasse

We also visited the Peschl Terrasse which serves the Aldersbach beer. We had the Aldersbacker Kloster Dunkel (dark lager) and the Aldersbacker Kloster Weisse Dunkel (dark wheat beer) and the dark wheat beer was quite nice.

We unfortunately could not visit the Aldersbacher brewery itself as it was quite a ride away from the city. The brewery was established in 13th century and had some bocks on its list and seemed to be into craft brewing as well. Something to do on our future visit to Passau along with a visit to a few of the other breweries in this little city.

There’s a bunch of other things we couldn’t do like visit the Veste Oberhaus, a 13th century fortress. The views from here are apparently pretty amazing. There is a bus that takes you up to the fort but we were visiting during off-season and this bus was not running. We would have done the 30-minute hike uphill but the weather was pretty nasty with heavy rainfall.

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This quaint, picturesque city has plenty of stuff to do and it deserves more than an overnight stay and we definitely plan on visiting the city again, hopefully soon!

Bodensee – a cluster of charming little towns

Lake Constance or Bodensee (as it is popularly known in Germany) is a beautiful lake that borders Germany, Switzerland, and Austria near the Alps.

It is the third largest lake in Central Europe and was formed by the Rhine Glacier. There are many lovely cities, little towns, and islands in Bodensee.

Our first stop was Friedrichshafen, the capital of the Bodensee district. This is an industrial city famous for the Zeppelin, an airship that was launched here in 1900. It flew for the first time over the Bodensee and was used for commercial air travel until the 1930s.

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A much smaller replica of the Zeppelin offering rides in the Bodensee region

We would have loved to visit the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen but unfortunately couldn’t make it during this visit. The city itself seemed nice enough; we had time to just visit the harbor front which was right opposite the train station. The place was filled with people just strolling around and lying on the grass enjoying themselves in the sun (it was the first month with proper sunshine after a long winter in Germany). We couldn’t see much of this lovely city and definitely want to go back here someday soon.

Our next stop was Lindau, one of the larger and more picturesque towns in Bodensee. We approached Lindau in a train and all you could see on either side was gorgeous blue water with pretty little yachts sailing lazily. It is nestled on the lake in front of Austria’s Pfänder Mountain and you can see wonderful views of the Alps. It is especially known for its harbor entrance with the Lighthouse and Bavarian Lion sculpture. The harbor view is as beautiful in the night as it is in the day.

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Lindau Lighthouse (at night)

Lindau is such a cosy little town. Not too far away from the Lighthouse is the town hall, displaying some intricate and interesting paintings.

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And in the area around there is a fountain with some nice sculptures. We enjoyed our little walk through the town and were ready to fill our hungry stomachs. The little town has some wonderful restaurants that plate up some delicious meals and serve some of the most divine wines. We ate at the Hotel Reutemann, the orange building you can see in this picture below. Sitting here and watching the sun go down and the lighthouse lighting up not so far away made for a very special evening.

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View of the Mangenturm Tower (Old Lighthouse)

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We headed back to Markdorf, another little town in Bodensee where we were staying through our trip. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at Markdorf. It’s a nice little town with a beautiful church, some cute fountains, and some of the loveliest houses with gorgeous views of the Alps and the lake. We stayed at one such house that we had found via Airbnb and this was our first Airbnb experience and we absolutely loved it! The host was friendly and the house was simply perfect – it had a wonderful sit-out where we spent many an evening gazing at the star-lit sky with a glass of wine, just enjoying the silence of the mountains and the lake not so far away.

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The next day, we visited Insel Mainau or more popularly known as Flower Island. It is one gigantic gorgeous park that’s got the prettiest and most varied collection of flowers I have ever seen and a well-done landscape with interesting art as you can see in the image above. It’s got a bunch of other attractions including a butterfly house and castle. The best time to visit would be in spring, for the tulip blossom, which finishes off by mid May. We got there just after and they had the summer bloom which is just as lovely with a wide variety of roses and other flowers on display. It takes a few good hours to walk through the island but it’s totally worth it and you can take a quick pause and sit at one of the many benches you’ll find by the shore, offering you wonderful views of the lake. We left the island on a boat and saw beautiful little towns pass us by before we got off at Konstanz.

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The Imperia is one of the most famous landmarks of Lake Constance and is in Konstanz, possibly the largest city on the Bodensee. This statue is 9 metres high, weighs 18 tonnes, and stands on a pedestal that rotates around its axis once every four minutes. The statue was erected in the late 1900s and created a huge controversy and you can see why. The story revolving around the statue is interesting.. It’s undoubtedly an admirable piece of work making a bold statement!

We walked around the city a bit and grabbed some dinner and finally had some good beer – and we had a huge stroke of luck as we ended up finding some craft beer! Maisel & Friends brew some amazing craft beer and we are glad we got to try out some of their ales in this little beer bar/restaurant in Konstanz. Their Stefan’s Indian Ale is highly recommended – a wonderfully citrusy, hoppy Indian Pale Ale. You know every time we find great craft beer in Germany, we are just super kicked about how well this country (that has been the pioneers in beer and has been stubbornly brewing its Pils and Weizens for centuries) is embracing new forms of brewing.

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We spent all of the next day in Meersburg, best known for its vineyards. Although we love our beer, we indulge in wine every so often and the Bodensee region has some of the best wines southern Germany has to offer. We had a mouth-watering meal with a few glasses of their finest red wines at one of the lake-side restaurants.

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View of Meersburg from our boat

We then lazed around in the sun on one of the benches near the Magische Säule or Magic Column, created by Peter Lenk – the same guy who created the Imperial statue pictured above at Konstanz. The sculptor seems to be well-known for his controversial bold sculptures.

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Intriguing art by Peter Lenk

We walked around exploring this beautiful medieval town adorned with pretty vineyards and a lovely castle. We took back not only some good bottles of wine from Meersburg but also some good memories from a lovely day spent in this gorgeous town in Bodensee.

All these little towns and cities in Bodensee are so wonderfully unique and amazing – it’s hard to pick a favorite. We fell in love with every one of them and cannot wait to visit some of these again.

Prague – an old-world charm

Prague is this dreamy, old-ish, culturally-rich, architectural wonder of a city that you’d ache to go back to for more…

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We visited Prague during Easter and the city was beautifully decorated, especially the city centre or Old Town Square where they had the Easter markets. Majority of the stalls were filled with gorgeous Easter eggs (with unbelievably intricate designs) and other exceptionally handcrafted decorative items. Some stalls also sold some mouth-watering local delicacies. Traditional song and dance shows were also part of the festivities.

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Trdelnik – a local pastry – grilled and tossed in some cinnamon sugar
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The bustling Prague Old Town Square

The Old Town Square is the heart of Prague. The church you see in the background with its twin distinctive Gothic spires is the Church of Our Lady Before Týn. Prague is filled with churches and lovely, old buildings that are all adorned with some or the other piece of art.

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You’ll see horse-drawn carriages and vintage cars lined up to take you around the city.

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The square is also filled with lovely restaurants serving local beer and food. Prague is known for its beer and you’ll find loads of good beer everywhere…

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Where are my hoppy ales!?

We craved for ales in a city known for its pils and lagers. But, like they say, ask and you shall receive.. we did some quick research and found a neat little place which was swarming with hopheads like us. The Prague Beer Museum has some really good ales and some very unique lagers. Prague made us very happy that evening. Through the Old Town, you will also find little cafes or bars playing live music – we especially enjoyed the blues scene the city had to offer. We visited Jazz Republic – a cosy live music club where the Alice Springs Blues Quartet was playing that evening. These guys put on a great show – this is one of our cherished moments from our trip.

The Square also features the renowned Astronomical Clock which is part of the Old Town Hall. Every hour, crowds gather to watch the clock in action. The four figures beside the clock represent Vanity (with the mirror), Greed (with his money bag), Death (the skeleton), and Pagan Invasion (represented by a Turk). On the hour, Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass and the twelve apostles parade past the windows above the clock. It’s a pretty sight. Not as beautiful a parade put up by as the Munich Glockenspiel but still a good one to stop for.

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We spent a lot of the day just walking around the old town area exploring the hidden alleys which were filled with little treasures.

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In a store window

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Another hugely famous landmark in Prague is the Charles Bridge – definitely worth a visit despite the insane crowds.

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If you are determined to see the full bridge in its true splendor instead of a crammed bridge with hundreds of people, you should muster the will to stay up thru the night or rise and shine in the wee hours to catch the breath-taking view at dawn. Well, laziness and sleep got the better of us and we went to see the bridge at dusk. It was packed with hundreds of visitors and locals just using the bridge to cross over from the Old Town to the Mala Strana. It was a beautiful sight nonetheless.

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The bridge was filled with caricature artists and folks selling junk jewellery

The views from both sides of the bridge are absolutely gorgeous! You get a wonderful view of the Prague Castle and the St. Vitus’ Cathedral which is the most popular side of the bridge while the other side presents a pretty picture of the city in the backdrop of the Vltava river.

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View of the Prague castle district from the Charles Bridge

The best way to experience the beauty of this charming city is to do a boat tour sipping on some delicious chilled beer.

The next day, we visited the St. Vitus Cathedral . The cathedral is in the Prague Castle area (or Pražský Hrad). It is magnificent, both on the inside and outside. The stained glass windows have wonderfully depicted scenes with a beautiful fusion of colors. The walls on the inside of the Cathedral as well showcase intricate paintings from a bygone era.

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 The Prague Castle area also features the Golden Lane – a wonderful little street filled with modest, little houses that used to be inhabited by the workers at the castle – goldsmiths, blacksmiths etc. One of the houses has been converted into a little museum of sorts displaying ancient torture tools.

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The Rack – no escaping this mean machine
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If you can’t get them with a bullet, slice them.

One of the houses in the Golden Lane was briefly occupied by Franz Kafka, a well-known German writer born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague. The city views from all around the castle area are simply beautiful and it was a day well-spent and definitely worth the steep climb.

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At the Jewish Quarter

Our next stop was the Prague Jewish Town. A visit to the Old Jewish Cemetery leaves you feeling melancholic especially when you see the graves of the little ones.

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The cemetery is piled with 12000 tombstones, most buried on top of one another due to the lack of space.

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The Spanish Synagogue

The Prague Jewish Quarter also has a bunch of beautiful synagogues – the notable ones are the Spanish Synagogue with a remarkable interior design and the Pinkas Synagogue which was turned into a memorial to the ~80,000 victims of the Shoah (or Holocaust). The names of all these victims are inscribed on the walls of the synagogue. The synagogue also has a permanent exhibition of pictures drawn by the children in the concentration camp. Some of these pictures will make you smile but some of these will also make you cry thinking of the shattered dreams and tortured lives of these young children.

Prague is an amazing city that is wondrously rich with history and culture – you simply cannot stop exploring all that the city has to offer. We left knowing that we will surely go back someday to soak in more of this incredible place.