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A beer tour of Bruges

Between the beautiful architecture, tasty chocolate, charming cobbled streets and army of swans, there is another key ingredient to a holiday in Bruges lurking away in atmospheric pubs and inviting shops. No trip to Belgium, and its most visited tourist destination, is complete without sampling Belgian beer. Ali from Great Escapes recently returned from a beer-heavy trip to Bruges. This is his conclusion of his time in the medieval city and exposure to Belgium’s true gift to mankind.

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Chocolate, waffles and beer were at the forefront of my mind when I visited Bruges recently. I have long been a big beer fan, having previously worked for a beer magazine, and not many places do it much better than Belgium. Much to my girlfriend’s delight, I dragged us into giant bottle shops in the middle of walking tours, grabbed a refreshing pint before midday and even took us on a tour of the city’s oldest surviving brewery.

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I’m pleased, and slightly amazed to say, we both had a great time delving into the beery heritage of the city, and it is certainly an activity I would encourage holidaymakers to explore during any break to Bruges; particularly those travelling by Eurostar, as avoiding those pesky flight weight restrictions will ensure you can bring back as many bottles as you can carry home with you!

One of the first big beer stops that visitors to Bruges should make is at De Halve Maan, Bruges’ most historical brewery. Beer has been brewed here by the Maes family for centuries and today, the brewery and its adjoining museum are open for guided tours, culminating in a free glass of De Halve Maan’s most famous product, Brugse Zot. Tours take place every hour between 11 am and 4 pm and tickets can be booked on their website or purchased upon arrival.

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The next stage of your trip, which comprised about 65% of my visit, should be spent dipping in and out of Bruges’ fine beer pubs and bars. Two reign supreme in the city, Cambrinus Beer Brasserie and ‘t Brugs Beertje. The former can be found to the north east of the Grote Markt on Philipstockstraat and has one of the thickest beer menus I’ve ever had the pleasure to peruse, while the latter is located on Kemelstraat to the south east of the GroteMarkt. It was in Cambrinus Beer Brasserie where I sampled a bottle of Westvleteren 12 – often referred to as the world’s greatest beer.

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When your beer pub and bar pilgrimage has come to an end, you’ll want to find a suitable shop where you can purchase your new favourite beers for their journey back to the UK. Look no further than The Bottle Shop, discovered on Wollestraat just a stone’s throw from the Grote Markt. This remains the largest beer shop I’ve ever set foot in, and I managed to purchase 12 beers here to transport home with me.

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It is safe to say that beer nuts will find a haven in the city of Bruges, but even those who don’t consider themselves a fan of the world’s finest beverage will be intrigued by the history of the city’s beer culture, or better yet, find themselves converted.

If you’re more of a wine and champagne kind of person, make sure you take a look at some of our Great Escapes to France.


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The best views in Belgium

A beautiful country, Belgium is filled with many a fantastic photo opportunity. But in case it’s your first visit, or you’re looking for a little inspiration for some truly magnificent views both from the ground and the sky, we’ve selected a few of our personal favourites which may help you see a little bit more during your short break in Belgium.

Belfry Tower, Bruges

One of the most prominent buildings in the city, the belfry of Bruges is a magnificent medieval bell tower right in the heart of the town. Standing 83m tall, to look up at this architectural splendour from the ground is a grand sight, however if you’re feeling energetic and choose to climb the very respectable 366 steps up to the bell tower at the top, one of our favourite panoramic views awaits, over the market square below and the surrounding area of Bruges.

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Image credit: Wolfgang Staudt, Flickr

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Image credit: John Cooke, Flickr

Meuse Valley

Located in southern Belgium, this luscious countryside balanced on the edge of the glorious River Meuse is certainly a sight to behold. Limestone cliffs are a backdrop to charming little towns and dense forest, as well as some breath-taking architecture. Capture the best pictures from the river, or on the numerous hiking and cycling trails available to explore.

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Image credit: Peter.Lorre, Flickr

Grand Place, Antwerp

With cobble-stoned streets leading to ornate 17th century architecture and a bustling Grote Markt (Main Square) filled with flower stalls and bird markets, there’s not just one great view here but far too many to count. From the Brabo Fountain to the Guild Houses and magnificent city hall, many a photo opportunity awaits for visitors to the Grand Place in Antwerp.

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St. Peter’s Church, Leuven

In the centre of Leuven, shining a glorious gold hue is St Peter’s Church (or Sint-Pieterskerk). A very well preserved example of 14th century Brabantine Gothic architecture, this church is just as impressive inside as out. With a museum dedicated to religious art, with metalwork, paintings and sculptures as well as a stunning baroque carved pulpit, you’ll be truly absorbed into a past world.

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Image credit: Renata Sedmakova, Shutterstock

Panoramic views from the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), Brussels

Located in central Brussels along Rue Montagne de la Cour, an intriguing museum and stunning terrace awaits. The building itself is rather spectacular, being art nouveau in style and boasting a fabulous glass elevator. However, the sunlit rooftop café is what we really love, as this is where you can sit and enjoy a Sunday brunch whilst ogling over the 360° panoramic views of Brussels. If you’re inside, you’ll find that the decorative building design will frame your photographs, and when outside on the terrace, you’re met with a breath-taking cityscape. This is certainly a perfect afternoon spent during your short break in Brussels.

Image credit: Daniel Lobo, Flickr

Image credit: Copright of WBT – Ricardo de la Riva

Automium, Brussels

With an interesting and rather unique infrastructure, the Automium comprises nine spheres which are linked by escalators. Constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, its purpose was to symbolise peace among all the nations, as well as being a vision for a more modern, technological world. A vision in itself, a 360° panoramic view of the 19 municipalities of Brussels also awaits at the top sphere, 102m up.

Image credit: http://www.atomium.be – SABAM 2011 – Axel Addington

Image credit: http://www.atomium.be – SABAM 2010 – Axel Addington

Ardennes

For those in search of views not of architecture but nature and wildlife, simply head south for the rugged hills of the Ardennes. With cave systems, river valleys, wooden canyons and limestone hills, as well as lynx, deer and wild boar to be discovered, we couldn’t possibly name even ten great views here, as there are just so many. A town called Dinant, in the province of Namur is a good place to start your adventure in Ardennes, located around 100km south east of Brussels.

Image credit: Daviddje, Flickr

If we’ve inspired you to take a short break in Belgium and see some of these wonderful sights for yourself, you can visit Great Escapes to book.

 


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Romantic breaks in Europe this Valentine’s Day

The most romantic day of the year has crept upon us again this year – Valentine’s Day. Shrouded in mystery as to the precise founder of this romantic celebration, Valentine’s Day is as popular as ever, and has even been recognised as the second largest card sending day after Christmas. We appreciate it can be hard to find something unique to surprise your loved one with (if you’re looking to do something a little different to the usual flowers, chocolates, dinner etc), so our Great Escapes experts have personally selected some romantic Valentine’s getaways across the water, which are sure to get you into your better half’s good books.

Hotel Prinsenhof, Bruges

Nestled comfortably in the heart of Bruges, is the charming 4* Hotel Prinsenhof. Set within a beautifully converted manor house and located in a quiet cobbled street, this hotel is only 350m from the city centre and the stunning sights of Bruges.

With 24 stylish guest rooms, the hotel has a very unique and personal feel, which is sure to make you and your loved one feel very special and well looked after during your stay. Take a romantic walk into the centre of Bruges, where you can explore the meandering canals and array of eateries. Or, take a horse and carriage tour around the city, where you’ll see everything from historical sites and museums, to canals and striking architecture. Carriage tours take place day and night, and the best place to find them is at the Carriage Station, or on a Wednesday morning before midday at The Burg.

Great Escapes are currently offering 3 nights for the price of 2 at Hotel Prinsenhof, from £229pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). You’ll stay in a beautiful superior room, with bed and breakfast, and will receive a complimentary box of chocolates for your custom.  For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Château Hôtel Cléry, near Boulogne

If you’re looking for a romantic stay that’s quiet and away from the hustle and bustle, then Château Hôtel Cléry could be the ideal Valentine’s break. This beautiful manor house, located in the charming village of Hesdin l’Abbé, is surrounded by 5 acres of parkland and exudes traditional French elegance.

There are 25 comfortable guest rooms, some located in the main building, and some in quaint little cottages within the grounds of the Château. Only 10km away, Boulogne offers lots to see and do, including exploring the historic Ville Haute with its cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings, visiting the impressive Nausicaa aquarium, or you could take a stroll in and around the famous Basilique Notre Dame.

Great Escapes are currently offering your second night’s stay at Château Hôtel Cléry for half price, from £119pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). A ‘charm’ room with bed and breakfast and two bottles of selected wines is included within the price. For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche, Paris

If you’re feeling a little more traditional, you could always surprise your partner with a trip to the city of love… 4* Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche is located close to the stunning Jardin du Luxembourg, and with its wonderful lawns, fountains, statues and palace, it’s the perfect place for a romantic walk. The hotel itself is full of character, with exposed stone walls and beams just some of its superbly attractive features.

Being only 4.5km away from the Eiffel Tower, you don’t have to travel far to experience a true air of romance in quite possibly the most romantic monument in the world. Another close by attraction is which is worth a visit is Pantheon Paris, just 950m away. A stunning church building turned mausoleum completed in 1790, is home to the crypts of Marie Curie, Rousseau and Voltaire, among others.

Great Escapes is currently offering your third night free when you stay at Hôtel St Paul Rive Gauche, from just £199pp (including ferry crossing from Dover to Calais). Stay in a standard room with bed and breakfast, along with a complimentary map of Paris and visit to Montparnasse Tower, where you can see some of the most stunning panoramic views of the city. For more information, visit the Great Escapes website.

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Hopefully we’ve sparked a little inspiration for your plans this year, and you’re now feeling the romance.

Please share the love by commenting below if you’ve been somewhere that you thought was a great location for a Valentine’s break.


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Tis the season…

Christmas has finally arrived! So we wanted to treat you all to a compilation of beautiful Christmas photos from around Europe – a mixture of food and drink, markets and lights – arguably all the best things about this wonderfully festive time of the year.

So let’s make a start with a classic Christmas in Paris, the city of love…

You can’t really beat the gorgeous Eiffel Tower, covered in a glistening layer of snow, a beautiful backdrop to a very festive looking carousel.

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As you can see, Galeries Lafayette knows exactly how to decorate for Christmas and keep up an ambience of class.

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I’m sure you’ll agree there’s nothing more magical than wandering around a Christmas market, mulled wine in hand, looking at all the trinkets and gifts on sale. And in the snow, it couldn’t be much more festive!

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As we all know, it’s not just Paris that are skilled in adding that little (or large) festive touch…

Lille, France is a dab hand at adding a touch of bling to their architecture.

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And Reims looks stunning when the markets start to pop up, coating areas of the city in lights.

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Now let’s take a stop next door to Belgium, and see the handsome buildings of Grand Place, in the central square of Brussels take your breath away…

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And definitely not forgetting one of the best activities associated with this time of year, ice-skating! Take to the ice in one of Belgium’s Flemish Christmas markets.

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Once you’ve spent the evening picking yourself up off the ice and probably feeling rather worn out, a Rakomelo is certainly well deserved. Actually a traditional Greek beverage, its warm, sweet (and alcoholic) taste will be sure to go down a treat – only for adults though, sorry kids!

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So moving along again, this time to Deutschland, we’ve found that Cologne is a trinket buyer’s paradise. With gifts galore and all sorts of wonderful bits and bobs to look at, we couldn’t not feature it in this blog.

Here’s a rather unique stall at one of the markets:

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Now here’s the bigger picture for you…

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And the ice-skating rink looks perfect for a family friendly race (if you can stay on your feet of course).

Blick auf die große Eisbahn auf dem Weihnachtsmarkt "Heimat der Heinzel" auf dem Heumarkt in der Altstadt Köln, im Vordergrund das Reiterdenkmal, im Hintergrund Dom und Groß St. Martin.

Our final stop on this festive tour takes us to a little place called Amsterdam, which embraces the Christmas spirit in a delightfully cultural way.

The most impressive perhaps, is this Christmas tree made of bicycles:

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Image credit: Xavier Vergés, Flickr

We then have performances from the ‘World Christmas Circus’, which is a festive tradition in Amsterdam.

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Image credit: DirkJan Ranzijn, Flickr

And finally, I can’t think of a better way to round up these images than with a drink, and better yet – a Christmas drink! Delirium Christmas, a festive Belgian beer will send your taste buds tingling with hints of fruit, spices, caramel malt and candied orange. You can buy a bottle or two here.

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Image credit: Hideyuki Kamon, Flickr

We hope you’ve enjoyed our mini festive tour around Europe, and are now well and truly in the Christmas spirit!

So now’s the time to go and get your favourite festive drink, a mince pie or two, put your feet up and await tomorrow’s fun and food filled day.

From everyone at Great Escapes, we’d like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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Cycling in Belgium

One of the best ways to explore Belgium is on two wheels. The flat landscapes, superb canal pathways and close proximity of major attractions ensure that cycling during your holidays in Belgium is an ideal way of discovering the country. This is exactly what I did during my latest trip to Belgium where I biked between the beautiful cities of Ypres, Ghent and Bruges.

Cycling in Ypres

The first city of my five-day cycling tour of Belgium was Ypres, a beautiful old city built around a grand central marketplace adorned with splendid buildings. Ypres is perhaps best known as the location for intense fighting during WWI, with countless tourists visiting the city every year to embark on battlefield tours.

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Cycling along the canal into the city saw me pass a number of war cemeteries and memorials, including the Essex Farm Cemetery where I encountered a memorial to John McCrae, the writer of the iconic In Flanders Field poem. The most poignant landmark for reflection is the beautiful Menin Gate. Every day at 8pm a service is held beneath the gate in memory of the fallen WWI soldiers whose graves remain unknown. The Last Post Ceremony, as it is called, was played out for the 30,000th time in July 2015.

Beyond the scars of war, the city was a thrilling place to cycle. As I bobbed around on the cobbles I absorbed the beauty of the magnificent Cloth Hall, stopping for refreshment in the form of a Belgian beer in the marketplace. The following day I began my cycle to Ghent.

Ieper: De lakenhallen Foto Tijl Capoen

Image credit: Tiji Capoen

Cycling in Ghent

To the northeast of Ypres is the marvellous medieval city of Ghent. Admittedly the ride from Ypres to Ghent takes a long time, with the distance between the two cities around 90 km, but I encountered some great stops along the way. Kortrijk and Waregem presented pleasant locations for me to take a break every couple of hours, and these could easily be incorporated into a three-day ride to Ghent. The ride didn’t feel long, hugging a great network of canal cycle paths, ensuring that avoiding traffic was never a factor of the ride.

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The city of Ghent itself was equally appealing. I stayed just outside of the city’s Begijnhof, and it was wonderful cycling around these practically-deserted streets and admiring the medieval architecture. I followed the network of canals next, discovering some fantastic views throughout the city, one of the best coming in the form of the Gravensteen castle.

It is the city centre that forms the jewel in Ghent’s crown however. Home to an unrivalled range of landmarks and attractions, including the striking Saint Nicholas’ Church and the towering Belfry from where you can enjoy unprecedented views of the city.

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Image credit: Emi Cristea

Cycling in Bruges

The ride from Ghent to Bruges is one of the simplest in the country, following a straight river pathway west along flat countryside for around 45km. The only hitch is the wind, with notorious headwinds slowing the progress of those cycling from east to west. The prize at the end of the ride makes it worth it though, with incredible Bruges awaiting you with its wonderfully-preserved old town.

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Image credit: Jan Darthet

The core of Bruges’ old town has little traffic, making cycling one of the best ways to explore the highlights of the city. I started in the Grote Markt, grabbing a beer in a bar set on the outside ring which allowed me to sit and admire the stunning Belfry as it chimed away in the sunshine. The neighbouring square is called Burg Square, home to the grand City Hall and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and was another highlight of my visit. The Church of Our Lady and its grounds were one of the final places I cycled to (with a tourist agenda), before spending the rest of the day sampling some more of the city’s highlights.

These mainly consisted of chocolate, beer and waffles, serving as my fuel for the next day’s cycle into the Netherlands. There are a range of great chocolate shops and beer cafes, but I opted for Dumon Chocolatier and ‘t Brugs Beertje respectively. I also took a tour of the city’s brewery, De Halve Maan, and sipped a few of their beers in the brewery bar. It’s safe to say I was wheeling my bicycle back to my accommodation that evening.

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Image credit: Jiang_liu

Even if you’re not keen on cycling, you can visit all of these wonderful destinations with Great Escapes, as well as several other alluring destinations across Europe.

If you’d like to read more about my European cycling adventure, you can find further details and stories on my blog.

Antwerp at Christmas


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Europe’s Christmas Markets in 2015

It may only be October but hotels, flights and ferries are booking up fast with visitor’s to this year’s Christmas Markets in Europe. I love wandering around the stalls, finding interesting presents for family and friends, sampling mulled wine and other tasty treats. And, being a keen photographer, the markets and Christmas lights make wonderful subjects for my camera. I’m looking forward to photographing Paris come December.

Here at Great Escapes we’ve looked up the dates for some of our favourites to inspire you to do the same.


Belgium’s Christmas Markets


Antwerp, 5th to 27th December 2015

Each year the Groenplaats, Handschoenmarkt, Grote Markt and Suikerrui have a Christmas make-over. A festive atmosphere and music fills the air with many a cup of hot chocolate and glass of Glühwein consumed. There’s also an ice-rink set-up near Goenplaats, although dates vary slightly from the markets. Visit Antwerp.

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Bruges, 20th November 2015 to 3rd January 2016

We couldn’t imagine a more picturesque setting for a Christmas market than Bruges. There will be stalls on the Market Square and an ice-rink and stalls on Simon Stevinplein,  packed full of crafts, seasonal decorations and tasty things to eat and drink. Visit Bruges.

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Brussels, 27th November 2015 to 3rd January 2016

Brussels at Christmas

This vibrant Christmas market is held in the heart of the city on Place Sainte-Catherine. The big wheel and the ice rink at Marché aux Poissons will both be back again this year, as well as some 150 stalls. Don’t miss the magical son & lumière illuminations on the Grand-Place.  WinterWonders.be. Visit Brussels.

Ghent, 4th December 2015 to 3rd January 2016

Ghent’s city centre with an ice-rink, a giant Ferris wheel and the Christmas market at Konenmarkt transforms in to a winter wonderland each year. Following the success of last year the Castle of the Counts will again be part of the festivities and decorated as a winter castle. VisitGent.be. Visit Ghent.

Ghent at Christmas

Hasselt, 14th November 2015 to 3rd January 2016

This cosy winter village offers Flanders’ largest mobile skating rink, the House of Santa Claus and a fun Ferris wheel in Kolonel Dusartplein.  For the little ones there is also a small Christmas train.  Winterland.be

Leuven, 10th to 20th Dec 2015

One of the oldest Christmas markets in Belgium is held in Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein and Herbert Hooverplein in Leuven. The streets are lit up by candle light and you can enjoy everything from an intimate Christmas concert to tasting sparkling winter beers. Leuven is also home to the largest brewery in world, Stella Artois, which was originally a Christmas beer, brewed for the first time back in 1926. LeuvenseKerstMarkt.com Visit Leuven.

Leuven at Christmas

Mechelen, dates TBC

The Christmas market is centred on Grote Markt, City Hall, IJzerenleen and Veemarkt with choirs, food and drink stalls and plenty of ideas for Christmas gifts. Visit Mechelen.

Ypres,  27th November 2015 to 3rd January 2016

The Christmas market in Ypres is growing in reputation and takes place on the Grote Markt in the centre of town each afternoon during this period and all day on Saturday. The Swiss style chalets, together with the popular ice rink will certainly put you in a festive mood. (Closed Mondays). Kerstmarkt-Ieper.be Visit Ypres.

Ypres at Christmas

 


France’s Christmas Markets


Amiens, 27th November to 31st December 2015

Amiens is one of the largest Christmas market in the north of France bringing the magic of Christmas into the heart of the city with fairground rides, an open air ice-rink and an impressive light  show at the city’s cathedral throughout December. Visit Amiens.

Arras,  27th November to 30th December 2015

Arras at Christmas

Arras, the town renowned for its tapestries of the late Middle Ages, holds a spectacular Christmas market on the Grand Place with some 60 stalls offering a wide range of arts and crafts and local delicacies. Visit Arras.

Le Touquet, 19th to 31st December 2015

Le Touquet offers a traditional Christmas setting with fables, characters, lights, music and a truly festive atmosphere, with street stalls offering seasonal goods. Visit Le Touquet.

Le Touquet at Christmas

Lille, 18th November to 30th December 2015

The one of the biggest Christmas markets in northern France is held in Lille and attracts nearly a million visitors each year. The Grand Place is transformed by a majestic mix of illuminations and a big wheel which turns majestically to the sound of Christmas carols. Visit Lille.

Lille at Christmas

Paris Christmas Markets and Illuminations, 15th November 2015 to 4th January 2016

Paris at Christmas

What better time to visit the ‘City of Lights’ than at Christmas when the department stores vie with each other for the best Christmas decorations and illuminations and the trees lining the Champs Champs Elysées sparkle with lights. There are numerous Christmas Markets around the city. Visit Paris.

Reims, 20th November to 27th December 2015

You’ll find around 120 stalls at the Christmas market at Reims. Festive foods and gifts, street entertainers, carol singers and magicians all add to the festive atmosphere. Visit Reims.

 


Other European Christmas Markets


Amsterdam, dates vary

From traditional Dickensian markets capturing the magic of a Victorian Christmas to trendy food festivals you’ll find a range of Christmas markets in Amsterdam itself as well as nearby. In the city itself you’ll find ice rinks surrounded by wooden chalets over flowing with gifts and festive food and drink. iamsterdam.com. Visit Amsterdam.

Cologne, 23rd November to 23rd December 2015

Cologne hosts 7 Christmas markets with the largest located at the Cologne Cathedral, on the Alter Markt, on the Neumarkt and on the Rudolfplatz. The most impressive has to be Cologne Cathedral as it makes such a spectacular backdrop and it’s here you’ll find the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland. Visit Cologne.

Cologne at Christmas

 

Details of markets and festive activities have been provided by local tourist offices and are published by Great Escapes in good faith.

Please note event dates and details are subject to change – please check with our reservations team if you want any further details.

Hotels fill up fast during the Christmas Markets so we would recommend booking early if you would like to travel at this popular time. Call 0845 330 2084 or email holidays@GreatEscapes.co.uk for a quote.


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24 hours in Brussels – Eating, drinking and shopping at the Christmas Markets

With Brussels being only a couple of hours from London on the Eurostar, it’s a great place to visit for a short break or even for the day! So what can you do in 24 hours in Brussels? I found out for myself with a whirlwind visit to this lovely city.

Hot Chocolate at Wittamer, Sablon

Having checked-in to our hotel, we headed straight out to explore and soon we were walking down quaint cobbled streets, passing beautiful historic buildings, quirky shops and a lovely park in Sablon.

Wittamer chocolate, Sablon, Brussles, Belgium

The area is known for its night life, restaurants and surrealism and is many people’s favourite part of the city but I had one thing on my mind… hot chocolate! Not just any old hot chocolate but a Wittamer hot chocolate. I’d been told by a few people that this was the very best in town. I knew it was on the Place du Grand Sablon and had a bright pink awning, which made it very easy to find.

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As I stared in through the shop window my heart did a somersault as my eyes beheld the exquisite cakes and pastries on display. I managed to tear myself away and we made our way upstairs to the charming café with its beamed ceilings, dramatic chandelier and oodles of character. Having ordered our drinks, we soaked up the atmosphere. A sense of serenity filled the air as everyone in the room indulged themselves in their favourite Wittamer treat. A couple sitting opposite, in unison, each picked up a white jug and slowly poured melted chocolate all over a delicious looking ice-cream creation decorated with an over-sized macaron. Then in front of us appeared our drinks, with a couple of Wittamer chocolates each and a large dollop of Chantilly cream. They tasted as good as they looked!

The Grand Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch)

From Le Sablon we walked on through more cobbled streets and I caught my fi rst glimpse of the Grand Place, Brussels’ main square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and reputed to be the most beautiful square in Europe. I had high expectations. As I turned the corner I caught my breath. Beautiful is not quite the right word… awe-inspiring, breath-taking, stunning… neither my words or my pictures do it justice. Every building that opened onto the square was an absolute gem. Grand and imposing with the most intricate of decorative adornment, these buildings almost sent me into a blind panic, as I wanted to capture it all in my camera, but in which direction to point it first? In the middle of the square a huge Christmas tree added to festive atmosphere.

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Throughout the weekend we walked into this square a number of times and each time I gazed at the square not quite believing what I was seeing. What’s more I know it will have that same effect on me when I return and return I will.

The Christmas Markets

Each December a number of squares in Brussels are home to the famous Christmas Markets and should you visit at this time of year they are well worth checking out.

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Though crowded there is a wonderful atmosphere and plenty of arts and crafts to buy and food and drink to tempt you. I was delighted that my visit coincided with the festive season and we had plenty of time to explore the stalls and enjoy the entertainment. In 2015 they will be held in the Grand-Place, Bourse, Place Sainte-Catherine and Marché aux Poissons from 27th November to 3rd January. For more information visit Winter Wonders website.

‘Keep on Toasting’ Gourmet Street Food in Brussels

We were enjoying simply wandering around so much that when we stumbled across the food truck ‘Keep on Toasting‘, rather than have a sit down meal, we decided to try our luck with these, reputedly excellent, gourmet version of the traditional Belgium, Croque-Monsieur. We soon got chatting to the man behind the counter, chef Jean-Baptiste. I tried the Croq’ November (semi-soft cheese, bacon pieces, celeriac and parsley) – it went down a treat. The melted cheese was deliciously gooey, and the combination of taste and textures with the perfectly toasted spelt bread, really hit the spot.

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As I munched away Jean-Baptiste explained that having trained for two years at cookery school, followed by five years hands-on experience working with different chefs, he wanted to start his own business. While there were plenty of other food trucks around these were, more often than not, of the deep fat frying variety producing poor quality food. He wanted to offer the people of Brussels a healthier, higher quality alternative.

Croque-monsieur is an extremely well established Belgium snack but it rarely varies from the traditional cheese and ham filling. Jean-Baptiste took this popular dish to another level. Using taste combinations and ideas he had gathered over the last seven years, he developed a unique range of delicious toasties. He chose to concentrate on producing just this one type of snack, so that he could work within the confines of the truck and still produce something really good to the high standard he desired. Through the year the menu changes with the seasons but you’ll always find four types of toasty available including a veggie option, costing €4 to €5 each.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

The next day, after an extremely filling breakfast from the huge variety of dishes on offer from our hotel, we re-traced some of our steps and sort out an arcade that I’d been told was well worth visiting, Galeries Royales, just around the corner from the Grand Place. Opened in the 1840s the arcade has been home to some 70 luxury boutiques including jewellers, fashion designers and the finest Belgium Chocolatiers ever since. In addition you’ll find theatres, a cinema and an art gallery as well as private residences. It’s the perfect place to explore on a rainy day but well worth popping by whatever the weather.

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Out of all the chocolate shops here we found Le Belgique Gourmande the most welcoming. The staff were very helpful and were handing out plenty of delicious free samples.

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Belgian beer

Before we knew it, it was nearly time to leave but not before sampling a glass or two of the beer that Belgium is so famous for on Rue des Brasseurs by the Grand Place. Somewhere so close to the most popular square in town is usually not the best place for a bite to eat or a drink but a particular bar had caught our eye and even though it was just a few yards from the Grand Place we decided to give Au Brasseurs a go. I think it was the parasol covered in pink elephants and a promise of a glass of Delirium that swung it for us.

As we stepped inside we immediately felt at home in this colourful down-to-earth pub that I could imagine locals enjoying as much as the tourists. Although they had a long list of beers
to choose from, how could we say no to a glass of Delirium and very good it was too.

Belgium beer

After a little more window shopping we popped back to the same bar. This time instead of selecting a beer by its name, we went for the shape of the glass! Kwak is served in a unique fluted glass with a round bottom, designed so that a coachman, who couldn’t leave his horses to enter an inn, could easily hold the glass while still wearing thick gloves. Once again this proved to be a perfect selection process as another fine beer slipped down our throats.

I really would love to go back one day to this very bar for a little more beer research work plus we hadn’t even scraped the surface when it comes to Belgium cuisine so a return visit is inevitable.

I found Brussels the perfect place for a weekend break and, while it may not be as pretty as Bruges or as cool as Antwerp, I can’t imagine anything, anywhere in Belgium (or even Europe) beating the splendour of Brussels’ Grand Place.

For more information about short breaks from the UK to Brussels please visit our website, GreatEscapes.co.uk.