On Friday evening, we made the one-hour drive northwest to picturesque Brugge, the Venice of the North. Alternately spelled Bruges, the city is filled with well-preserved architectural and artistic treasures as well as a lovely Crown Plaza hotel that served as our base of operations for the weekend. We were right around the corner from the town square which resembled Grand Place in Brussels with its wide plaza ringed by ornate, gilded buildings.   

We set out to explore right away and were drawn to the fragrant scent of chocolate wafting out of the magnificent sweet shops. We managed to resist since a nice box of chocolates had greeted us in our hotel room thanks to Betsy's frequent-guest status. The city also has a tradition of lacemaking and there were several stores selling fine examples of the delicate material.

We wanted to get back to our room fairly quickly, however, so we could enjoy a live airing of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. While we are unable to see any event video from the US telecasts on TV or online, it has been interesting to watch the BBC coverage as well as the Belgian TV broadcasts. We do miss Bob Costas and getting to closely follow all of the American stories but I expect our visit to London in less than two weeks will take a little of the sting away.

The timing of our travels continues to be impeccable as we escaped a major rain in Brussels and found ourselves in the middle of a music festival weekend. There were concerts in another square right on the doorstep of our hotel all weekend long including this one in Saturday night featuring Lady Linn, a popular singer/songwriter who's all the rage in Europe.

After a dip in the hotel pool on Saturday morning, we enjoyed a half-hour boat tour through the canals of the city that took us by many of the main sights. In the first picture you can see one of the boats that are constantly cruising up and down the waterways as the guides describe each of the landmarks in Dutch, French and then English. Later, as we strolled through the city wandering through narrow cobbled passageways and historic buildings at every turn, we naturally began to build up a thirst. We decided to learn more about the unending variety of available beers by taking in a brewery tour at the De Halve Maan (Half Moon) family brewery.

The brewery, still active today, has been producing beer since 1856. We were introduced to the interesting world of malt and hops and enjoyed hearing a lot of fun anecdotes about the history of the building and its machinery. 

These giant tanks once held the beer as it seasoned and had to be thoroughly cleaned between each filling. It was a dangerous job because of the alcohol vapors and lack of oxygen making its way through the tiny door. Two workers always had to be present; one would stand guard outside to ensure the safety of the man inside who would whistle or sing as he scrubbed. When the whistling stopped or the singing became garbled it was time to get out!

The tour also included a stop on the roof of the building which offered a panoramic view of the entire city. The boys made sure to announce to everyone present that I was scared of heights so I had to climb up and down the see-through stairs while everyone watched to see if I would lose it. Fortunately we all made it up and down just fine.

The tour concluded with a refreshing glass of Zot Blond for the adults and a hot chocolate for the kids, all included with our admission.

We have learned already to find eateries just off the main tourist areas in towns like these. While you may sacrifice a bit of ambience, the tens of Euros saved are worth it. In addition, most of the restaurants surrounding the town squares all offer a similar menu of local dishes. We were delighted to find two memorably different and inexpensive meals in a little Italian place down a one-way street and a delicious pitalier a block off the main plaza during our visit to Brugge.

There are also numerous food carts but I usually take one look at the menu and decide it's time to move on. How can one ever choose between a bitterballen, some kippenvleugels or a garnalenkroket?!

Fortunately, our dining options for dinner on Sunday upon our return to Brussels were settled days ago. One of Betsy's friends from work, Rebecca Sheridan, and her husband Simon hosted a lovely garden party with an international array of friends and neighbors. It was fun to talk to a lot of interesting people and the food, capped off by a tableful of wonderful homemade desserts was excellent.

Finally, the kids picked out their Belgian souvenirs in Brugge and made some very fine choices. The boys opted for a couple of matching shields and swords, complete with leather scabbards, while Quinn couldn't resist this sweet little Snowy doll.

We're having a quiet Monday in the flat today enjoying the Olympics but will hit the town again tomorrow when all of the museums open for the week. See you next time!