Survived the journey, every time I go to Belgium I like it more.
We stayed two days in Brugge - it wasn't too crowded, though a little busy because of Carnival weekend. Bikes don't work well for our little ones, so we just walked about mostly, checked out some of the churches, wandered down charming little canals and ate - many waffles (though one place had sold out, much to our dismay), some frites (BELGIAN fries, they insisted, not French!), crepes and some amazing pasta, fish and steak dishes. The two best steaks I've ever had have been in Belgium.
The hostel was decent - we had a two bed (with shower/sink) private room and a four-bed dorm room, beds were 12,99 Euro/night, with a one-time linen fee of 2,50 Euro each. There was a fairly good breakfast - bread, cheese, jam, butter, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, juice, milk - for 3 Euro each - we had it one day, and opted for a bakery the next. There's a big breakfast room, with a bar, which looks like it would be fun for parties and stuff (the decorations were still up from New Years), but there was no common room or lounge or anything for meeting people. There weren't many people staying, we saw a few at breakfast or in the halls, but it was pretty quiet at that time. They have free internet (two computers) in the lobby, which was handy for us but I imagine would get busy in summer. The theme of the place is "art" and they have revolving exhibitions from various galleries and museums. Currently, they have African pieces on display - statues, masks, headdresses, so fabrics, etc., but there's no explanation or anything, it's just cool to look at. The four bed room was pretty cramped, just the beds and four full sized lockers and a little room to move around, the two bed room was a good size, with a small table and two chairs as well as the beds, two lockers and the small shower room. Beds were very comfy, IKEA bunks with firm new mattresses, and good quality bedding. We could adjust the heat in our rooms ourselves, and the windows opened too. Showers in the halls, and toilets on the landings. Everything was pretty clean, though they ran out of soap at the toilet sinks. Friendly staff, but kind of hit and miss finding someone to help us. At one point I had to go back behind the counter to get our room keys, because there's no bell and no one showed up for 15 minutes or so. They have maps and other tourist info at the desk, and offer help with cycle tours.
They only take cash payment, but there's a bank machine right next door. There's also a small bank of shops, one of which sells all sorts of housewares and odds and ends, convenient if you need to pick up a towel or possibly a toothbrush, but I didn't see any toiletries or groceries for sale anywhere nearby (we were there over a Sunday, though, so many shops weren't open). There was a Chinese restaurant a few steps away, and an Italian one just over the bridge - maybe two minutes. We ate elsewhere, but they looked pleasant enough. Also, there was a pub just across the road.
The hostel was about a 15 minute walk from the Old Town, just outside the canal that rings the Old Town. We noticed one of the drawbridges up on Monday morning as we were leaving, but never had to wait for one during our comings and goings. I'm not clear on the directions, but the hostel is at the completely other end of the town from the Beguinage, if that makes sense to you.
The friendly little bistro at which we ate both dinners was called "Jan Van Eyck" and was in the square of the same name, right at the corner. The owners were utterly charming and the food was superb. Our "small school" of children got special attention and extra treats. The place had seating for perhaps 20 people, so we were lucky to get in and did have to squeeze into a table for four on the second night, but the food and friendly welcome were worth it.
I did overhear a conversation I found intriguing. A woman came in, lost, and trying to find her way back to her hostel, the Bauhaus St. Christopher (we'd looked at that one, but opted for the ArtHostel because they answered the phone quicker). The older gentleman whom I believe is the owner called for his middle-aged son to come help her, and that fellow obligingly wrote down directions (who wanders around a new city without a map? - Oh, well, besides me...) and then said, "Look, I'll call them, I know the owner - I go drinking there after work - in fact, I'll be there later tonight!" If we were traveling without our kids - I'd stay at the Bauhaus - if locals go to a hostel pub, it's got to be good.
One other note, which won't affect most people, but might help someone - driving in the Old Town of Brugge is an absolute horror show. DON'T. And we were there in February when it *wasn't* crowded.
We had planned to go to Brussels on Monday, but the big draw, the Oceade water park is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during the winter, so we opted for Antwerp instead. Stayed at the Etap hotel, which has a terrific location - just a five minute walk from the Central train station (it'll be a lot easier once all the construction around both the station and the hotel/business complex is complete) - rooms there are 50 Euro a night (tax incl.) Once again, you could find hostels for less, but if you're travelling with two or more people, it works out cheaper. The place is brand-spanking new - it opened Jan 15, so I'm not sure our room had ever been used. The breakfasts there are generally a rip off, but it's nice to know you can get one if you want. And they have vending machines in the lobby.
In deference to our amazing kids, who cheerfully marched around cold, blustery Brugge looking at churches and almshouses, we opted for the Zoo. (Also, most museums are closed on Mondays.) The Zoo is immediately outside the Central train station and costs a bomb, but is one of the oldest in Europe and has some extraordinary architecture. They have a wide variety of animals, and are an important captive breeding zoo, although the habitats range from decent to pretty dismal. They're doing a lot of renovation, to make the small, concrete cells a little less bleak, but they don't have a lot of room to work with, and could probably stand to scale back on the numbers of animals they keep to provide a little more room for all. To be fair, it was a cold day in February, so most of the animals were indoors rather than in their outdoor spaces, and all the plants were dormant so there was rather an absence of foliage, but hopefully come spring there'll be a little more green than we saw.
There is a small but diverse aquarium, again, the same inconsistent habitats - some were really quite good, others horrible. But they did have two of the most amazing fish I've ever seen - small, grunt-like, squarish fish with the most incredible markings - vivid orange, purples, blues and greens, with white outlined dots and lines rather like Australian aboriginal artwork. Quite outstanding, and considering the amount of time I've spent in aquaria and poring over books of fish, I was astonished that I've never come across another example. Naturally, there were no signs indicating what the heck they were, so that's another disappointment. If anyone knows, TELL ME!
We did have a wonderful time watching the colobus monkeys playing a pretty rowdy game of tag, our little ones joined a couple of other kids and the pack of them had a grand time running back and forth in front of the three large cages through which the monkeys were tearing. We took the opportunity to rest our feet and watched from the benches instead.
There is also a planetarium, but it didn't open until later in the day, by which time our bellies were making more urgent demands than the lure of the heavens could.
After lunch, we stopped in at the Diamond museum, which was conveniently open that day. The central station and zoo are right in the heart of Antwerp's diamond district, and the diamond museum is pretty well immediately next door to the Zoo. It's an interactive museum, with a very interesting (if slightly whitewashed - no mention of conflict diamonds here) audio guide - lots of history both of famous diamonds and how they came to be cut, how the diamond trade came to Antwerp, etc, as well as scientific and technical information. There was a man polishing a diamond in the museum, and there were some interesting pieces of jewelry which showed how diamonds have been used as gems since roughly the 1600s. Even our 6 year old son, who was not eager to go to the museum, agreed afterward that it was, "fine."
So, that's pretty much it for our most recent mini-adventure, more to come...we're working on Easter plans now. Maybe back to Vilnius? That would be amazing, but all depends on my husband's work schedule. Such an inconvenience that. But it keeps the travel funds flowing.