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A Belgian Diary: Brussels to Bastogne.

What better place to begin a cross-country adventure than from its very heart! In this case the country being Belgium, I chose to start my sojourn from its captivating capital: Brussels.

For travelers who have survived budget-priced whirlwind tours of Europe in the past, the name Brussels rings a familiar bell: "If today is Tuesday, this must be Brussels!"

But I suggest one allot a lot more time than just "Tuesday" to this medieval masterpiece. Even a week many not be enough. For not only is Brussels the capital of Belgium, but all of Europe!

It is the home of the European Union as well as NATO, the multi-national peace keeping force that has kept the Continent secure since the end of World War Two.

For the traveler, Brussels begins in its breathtaking medieval Market Square or Grand Place, often described as, "the most European place in all of Europe."

Its architectural style dates to the 1400s and features lavishly decorated guild houses and an ornate city hall, all standing side-by-side to surround the cobble-stoned square on all four sides.

Heraldic banners and flags add to the grand architectural spectacle. And at night the Grand Place takes on an even more awesome aura thanks to its artistic illumination.

Just off the Grand Place I discovered another dimension of the city for which it is justifiably proud; its innate hospitality. This I first experienced as I ventured into a fascinating storefront called, or Temple of Beer.

A warm welcome from a friendly, multi-lingual shop keeper was the great start to my day of exploration on my own. Its affable manager wearing a work apron decorated with countless logos of local Belgian brews, proudly said his shop carried more than 200 brands.

But he confessed there are actually 365 Belgian brands in all ... one for each day of the year. Not bad for a population of 10 million living in a country the size of the State of Maryland, USA.

Further wanderings on foot brought me to another shop whose awning proclaimed, Here indeed was the world's most famous chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini.

Indoors is a mecca for the choco-file: traditional as well as the unexpected: life-size white chocolate golf balls and nine-inch model Porches beautifully sculpted from the world's finest confectionery.

And so my odyssey continued in town including visits to Europe's finest lace makers and the enchanting sidewalk cafes and restaurants featuring menu favorites like steamed black mussels, Belgian waffles and twice-fried (not to be confused with French fries.)

Beyond Brussels some 100 miles away lay my ultimate destination: Bastogne, renowned "Battle of the Bulge" Battleground and still "the most American-friendly place on the planet" beyond our borders.

En route was Belgium's "Castle Country," the Ardennes, an idyllic land of forests, farms and fortresses.

I approach the great moated castle of Beloeil on lands encompassing 63 acres and inhabited by the Prince and Princess de Ligne who trace their noble lineage over 1,000 years.

Touring its grand rooms and halls, I soon learned why Beloeil is proclaimed "The Versailles of the North."

Three castles today: Veves, Lavaux-St.-Anne and Freyr. Veves, built upon a lone promontory of solid rock must have been the inspiration for the centerpiece of Disney Land!

While ancient Lavlaux-St.-Anne, a 14th Century fortress and now a hunters' museum, displays room after room of wildlife trophies. On the grounds, its spectacular Restaurant du Chateau is where its famed have been creating Four-Star menus base solely on local fare.

Freyr highlights: 300-year-old yielding miniature orange trees in manicured formal gardens.

Modave Castle and the Abbey of Orval. I was spellbound as I stepped into the vast entry Hall of the castle; its amazing ceiling in bold stucco sculpture displayed the entire genealogy tree of the 17th Century Counts of Marchin in armor and mounted on their mighty steads.

Dating to 1070, the Orval Cistercian Monastery is inhabited by monks vowed to silence, but also skilled in the brewing of world-famous Trappist Beer.

Bastogne Battlefield and Historical Center and Castle of d'Hassonville. I arrive in Bastogne's city center: Place du McAuffile where a golden bust of the American commander, Brig. Gen. A. C. McAuffile sits alongside a vintage WWII Sherman Tank, bearing the scars of combat in the last great battle for the liberation of Europe.

Set on the battleground itself is an American Memorial and one of the world's finest war museums.

I overnight at the Castle of d'Hassonville, formerly a royal hunting lodge and am greeted by promenading peacocks and members of the Rodrigues family who feed and house each of their guests like royalty.

Other nights on the road were spent in the hands of a handsome couple who have transformed their 100-year-old former Postal House into an elegant country home.

Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than ninety countries. Based in California, he has been a contributor to The World & I since 1987.
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Author:Bartruff, Dave
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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