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No Waffling Needed on Visiting Belgium
Among European countries, Belgium is often overlooked as a tourist destination. For anyone who likes chocolate and beer, this omission is a big mistake.
Brussels, the Belgian capital, is the administrative center of the European Union, and therefore a magnet for European bureaucrats (aka "Eurocrats"), ambassadors, journalists, lobbyists, and all manner of businesspeople and deal-makers.
Most people don't go to Brussels for vacation, which for an independent-minded traveler is perfect news since it means that you won't have to fight for breathing space at museums or other monuments. We wished we had more time to explore the Royal Museums of Fine Arts (www.fine-arts-museum.be), especially its paintings by Marc Chagall. Also, children of all ages will get a laugh out of the playful Belgian Comic Strip Centre (www.comicscenter.net/en/home).
You should also spend some time just drinking in the atmosphere of the majestic Grand Place.
Pick up a waffle dusted with sugar and topped with whipped cream at the nearby Dandoy biscuit shop (www.biscuiteriedandoy.be), and then return to the Grand Place to munch happily and stare at the gothic spires of the 15th-century town hall.
As a Jew, I had particular interest in visiting Brussels just months after the city's 19th-century Great Synagogue was dedicated by European rabbis as a "Great Synagogue of Europe."
It's not clear to me whether this dedication has more than symbolic value, but it certainly testifies to the continuing vibrancy and energy of the Jewish community in Europe, and specifically in Belgium.
Indeed, Brussels has a fine Jewish Museum (www.mjb-jmb.org; site in French and Dutch only), where we saw a fantastic temporary photography exhibit by Israeli artist Vardi Kahana (www.vardikahana.com).
The Kahana exhibit, called "One Family," showcased a wide variety of Kahana's relatives, of all ideological and religious stripes, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The message was that the bonds that unite us as Jews are great enough to overcome any disagreements that may divide us.
There's far more in Brussels for Jewish travelers. Jews who observe kashrut will be pleased to find restaurants, a bakery and a kosher butcher that cater to their needs.
You can find information on Jewish cultural organizations, synagogues, Shoah memorials and even a 24-hour Jewish radio station available at the Belgian Tourist Office Web site (www. visitflanders.us/index.php? page=jewish-heritage).
Meanwhile, don't forget that Belgium has more to offer than just Brussels. Just 30 minutes by train, you'll find the city of Antwerp, famous for both its diamond industry and its strong Orthodox Jewish community.
When you exit the train, take a moment to admire the beauty of the palatial Central Station.
In Antwerp, you can tour the home and studio of the great Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens or visit the largest diamond museum in the world. With more than 20 synagogues, Antwerp is one city where Jews can feel right at home.
Finally, no trip to Belgium would be complete without a trip to picturesque Bruges (known locally as "Brugge"), once one of the wealthiest and most important ports in Northern Europe.
After its open-sea port silted up, Brugge's wealth declined, and the city was practically forgotten.
Untouched by the Industrial Revolution, Brugge still retains its history and charm. In 2002, UNESCO named the entire city center a World Heritage Site.
Discover its pleasures on foot by strolling the narrow cobbled streets, or sit back and relax for an admittedly touristy cruise through the canals that give Brugge its "Venice of the North" nickname.
Now, for the important question -- where to eat? (And, for that matter, stay.)
You'll find chocolate shops on practically every block in Belgian cities. You can't go wrong stopping in at a high-end chain like Neuhaus (www.neuhaus. be), but it's also entertaining to sample the wares at individual boutiques. On the advice of a guide, we tried the homemade varieties at Sukerbuyc in Brugge (www.sukerbuyc.be), which actually turned out to be our favorite chocolates of the trip.
While in Brugge, beer-lovers can take a tour of the De Halve Maan (www.halvemaan.be) brewery -- family-owned for more than 150 years -- before knocking back a fresh glass of the company's Brugse Zot ("Fool of Brugge") beer.
As for restaurants, we can heartily recommend the fine cuisine at Bonsoir Clara in Brussels (www.bonsoirclara. be); the glorious domed space inside De Foyer in Antwerp (www.defoyer.be); and the justifiably popular reservations-absolutely-required Rock-Fort in Brugge (www.rock-fort.be).
Note that some Web sites may only be available in French or Dutch.
When it comes to hotels, why opt for a bland chain when you can experience the only remaining 19th-century hotel in Brussels? Since 1895, the Hotel Metropole (www.metropolehotel. com) has welcomed royalty, prime ministers and luminaries, including the likes of Albert Einstein and Peter O'Toole.
Many travelers just make a day trip to Brugge. However, I'd suggest staying overnight to experience the tranquil magic of this historic town after all the touristy crowds have left. Stay at the Hotel Heritage (www.hotel-heritage.com), right off the central Market Square, and seek out the tiny roof deck for a bit of romantic star-gazing over the steeples and steep roofs of the old town.