In our last email, we mistakenly lumped our impressions of Ghent, which is in Belgium, together with our commentary on the Netherlands. But, we realize this is just an example of what the casual tourist is up against when trying to describe the differences between the two countries. Maybe locals can enumerate the differences between the Netherlands and Belgium but, to us, these two "Low Countries" (so called because much of the land in both are at or below sea level) look and feel so much alike that it is easy to forget which one you are in. Both countries rely heavily on bicycles for transportation, both are loaded with canals and windmills, and both share similar landscapes, similar architecture and both love their beers and their french fries.
Only a few differences come to mind. For instance, the people in the Netherlands are taller than their Belgium neighbors. In fact, our guidebook notes that the Dutch are some of the tallest people in the world (though I don't recall Rick Steves having a guide to the Masai lands of Kenya). The buildings in Belgium don't have those hooks near the roofline for hoisting large items to the upper floors by way of an external pulley system. Dutch is spoken in both countries but, in Belgium, French is also spoken. And the coffeeshops in Belgium actually sell coffee! Instead of the pot shops, every block in Belgium seems to have at least three chocolate shops. One could imagine that, if the two countries ever completely dissolved their borders, there could be a real synergy with every pot shop having a chocolate shop attached to it.
Ever since seeing the film, In Bruges, this perfectly preserved small medieval city has been on the bucket list. It's crowded and full of tourists but it's really cool. Once you get over the fact that there aren't quiet empty squares inhabited only by the occasional gangster and angry dwarf, Bruges is still the kind of place where you can point your camera anywhere and, without even looking through the viewfinder, know that you will have a shot worthy of a picture postcard. Apparently not considered bomb-worthy during WWII, these tree-lined canals weaving their way in between towering 15th century buildings survived destruction. We forego the museums, perfectly happy just to stroll around soaking in the beauty of this magical place.
We manage to tear ourselves away for a rewarding long day of bicycling to the nearby town of Damme and the surrounding countryside. Along a canal, through corn and wheat fields, we pass by 5 well-preserved windmills and see peaceful low country landscapes on this cloudy October day.
Brussels is a one-night stopover for us en route to France from Bruges but, as soon as we check in to the gorgeous B&B townhouse where we are given our own floor-through suite overlooking a park, we wish we had allocated more time here. Rather than the ho-hum big European city we were afraid it might be, Brussels turns out to be more like the Paris of Belgium. The Grand Place is aptly named, but, except for that town square and a very small statue of a young boy peeing (also famous for reasons we just can't understand), the city is not a major tourist destination, nor is it a museum piece. Maybe that is part of the appeal for us. Upbeat, active and sophisticated, this center for the European Union bustles with professionals going about their business. Yet there is room, just off the Grand Place, for a vinyl record store to exist, broadcasting Ledbetter through a beat-up speaker onto the sidewalk.
From here, it's back in to France for the remainder of our trip.