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Basics - The Boat - Amsterdam - Rotterdam - Antwerp - Brussels

easycruise2 in Amsterdam

R.I.P easycruise2

We travelled on easycruise2 in April 2007 and had such a great time that we'd booked to go back again in September. Unfortunately, around July it was apparent that something was going wrong. Firstly easycruise2's season was cut short (from December to early October). Then it became impossible to make bookings on easycruise2 on the easycruise website. Finally it was announced that easycruise2 would sail for the last time in August 2007, and that all cruises after that were cancelled.

It transpired that easycruise2 was operated under a franchise agreement by a Dutch company Boonstra Riverline, and they claimed they were no longer able to afford to run easycruise2.

Luckily, the main easycruise company then came to the rescue. Naturally, we were refunded the cost of our cruise. We were also refunded the costs of our airline tickets, but we were still allowed to keep and use the tickets. With the money we were refunded we were able to book hotels and more or less recreate the cruise itinerary on dry land. Had the costs of the hotels been more than the total we had been refunded easycruise had said that they would pay any reasonable excess. Finally, as compensation, we were given a free cruise to take on easycruise's main boat, the easycruise1, for up to 10 days (our cancelled cruise had only been for a week), on any itinerary of our choice up to the end of 2008.

This was a very generous offer by easycruise, far more than they were contractually obliged to do. We ended up taking a one-week tour of classical Greece in March 2008 (read all about it here), and that alone would have cost us at least twice what we'd paid for our cancelled cruise.

Anyway, I'm leaving the information about easycruise2 here (and will also be adding the stuff that we did on our re-created easycruise) for a few reasons; firstly to remind everyone what a great idea easycruise2 was; secondly because there might be some information here useful to someone visiting the cities where easycruise2 went; thirdly because it all took me bloody ages to write and I can face just dumping everything in the recycle bin (especially as it's about the only thing I've added to the site in the last year!); and finally because hopefully one day some genius will decide to bring easycruise2 back - here's hoping!

Basics

For those of you who don't know easycruise is a cruise line owned by Stelios, the guy who also owns the budget airline easyjet. easycruise has 2 boats, easycruise1 which at the moment sails around the Greek islands (previously it was in the Caribbean) and the one we went on, easycruise2, which sails between Holland and Belgium and stops in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels.

Bookings used to be more flexible, and you were previously able to start and finish in which ever city you wanted but now you only have a choice of 4 itineraries; 3 nights (starting in Amsterdam on Friday and finishing in Brussels on Monday), 4 days (starting in Brussels on Monday and finishing in Amsterdam on Friday, and spending Thursday night on the boat in Amsterdam), or 7 days (2 choices, starting and finishing in Brussels on a Monday or Amsterdam on a Friday). Generally the boat stops off for one day in each city, apart from Amsterdam where it spends Thursdays and Fridays. The boat tends to sail from each city at 4 to 5 am, and arrives at the next city between midday and 1 pm meaning that you get all afternoon and most of the night in each city. I'd have preferred it if the boat had left maybe an hour earlier which would have given us an extra hour during the day in each city, but not arriving until 1 pm meant we had plenty of time to recover before we started exploring....

I was on the 3 day cruise, starting in Amsterdam, but I also spent an extra day in Amsterdam before joining the boat, and then a further 2 nights in Brussels after the cruise. I was traveling with my ape-like friend Dave who'd booked before me and under the more flexible arrangements so he joined the ship in Amsterdam on the Thursday, sailed down to Brussels and then back up to Rotterdam where he got off.

The boat mainly sticks to rivers and canals, I think there's only one very stretch (between Amsterdam and Rotterdam) when it crosses open sea, this means that the ride is very smooth (although there's sometimes a bit of bumping when the boat goes through a lock); in other words you'll hardly know you're on a boat and sea-sickness really shouldn't be a problem. The only time I felt any kind of rocking was when we were moored in Rotterdam and the wakes from passing boats was causing a bit of movement, but even then it was hardly noticeable.

The prices were very cheap; I paid 29 per night, because he had booked earlier Dave had only paid around 12 per night (which included a bit of a discount as it was his second cruise). Those prices are per cabin, not per person. When you book, you pay for the cabin. There are 3 different types on easycruise2; cabins for 2 with either twin or bunk beds, or cabins for 4 with bunk beds. Which means that if you feel like it you can book a cabin for 4 and have it all to yourself (if you have no friends), or share it with 3 friends and spread the cost between 4 of you (as things stand that would you mean 4 people paying a grand total of 24 pounds each for a 4 night cruise). I ended up having a twin cabin to myself, which was great, but the apeman had managed to lure someone into sharing his (I blame the easy availability of robhypnol....)

Sounds a bargain doesn't it? And it is, but remember that this is a no-frills, which means that if you want any "frills" you'll have to pay for them. "Frills" include having your towels changed or new bed linen (2.50 euros each), or a full-service on your cabin (8.50 euros). Unless you totally trash your cabin I can't imagine you'd need to pay for any of these; if you're only on the boat for 3 or 4 days you'll have plenty of towels to last you, and baring any nasty accidents your bed linen should last that long too. I had a twin cabin to myself which meant that I also got 2 sets of towels, so that wasn't a problem, and in an emergency I could have always have switched beds. Fortunately my continence wasn't in any way compromised, so that eventuality didn't arise... Needless to say food and drink on board aren't included either, but more on that later.

When you're making a reservation you'll need to have passport details for all the passengers. You can add passengers to your cabin, or amend details after you've made the booking but you'll be charged for this. Once you've made the booking you're emailed a confirmation which you'll need to bring with you along with your passport.

Getting to the boat is easy enough. If you're joining in Amsterdam the boat docks on the Ruyterkade which is just behind Amsterdam Central train station (if you're coming in on the train from Schipol airport you'll actually get a quick view of the boat just as you're pulling in to the station), it's only about a 5 minute walk from the station. In Brussels you're a bit further out of the city centre, at Quai des Peniches which is on the Charleroi canal. It would be possible to walk to the city centre in 20 minutes or so but a better idea would be to walk 5 minutes to the nearest Metro station (Yser/Ijzer). You're allowed to check-in from 3 pm and although the boat doesn't sail until 4am at the earliest you're asked to check-in before midnight. On your last day you're asked to leave your cabin before 11.30 am. The crew were happy for people to leave their bags in the reception area so if you turn up to early I'm sure it wouldn't be a problem to leave your bags on board and come back and check in later. Likewise, once you've left your cabin leaving your luggage on board until you're ready to leave should be OK.

The Boat

easycruise2 in Antwerp

easycruise2 was built as a river boat so it isn't that big; it has 15 crew and can carry a maximum of 100 passengers. There are 2 decks of cabins, and 3 different sizes of cabin; cabins for 2 with either twin or bunk beds, and cabins for 4 with bunk beds. Each cabin has an ensuite bathroom with a wash basin, shower and toilet. The bathroom is a bit cramped, but certainly manageable (well, if I could fit in there anybody can). The shower was a bit of a tight fit, and the shower curtain wasn't big enough resulting in flooded floors, but the shower itself was a lot more powerful than I was expecting. Every cabin also has a window (I was on the upper deck so the window opened fully; cabins on the lower deck are closer to the water line so I'm not sure if the windows in them can be opened), a radiator, and an air conditioning unit.

I had a twin cabin, and being a sad git with no friends I had it to myself. For one person, the cabin was fine; one end of the cabin is a raised platform with 2 mattresses side by side on it. There's a shelf above one of the beds and a small rack of clothes hangers by the door. I had a bit of the problem with the low ceiling (only at the end of the cabin over the beds) but apart from the shelf there were no hard edges so I didn't do any damage. Despite it being hot and sunny every day of our cruise, my room remained nice and cool (even though I'd once inadvertently had the radiator switched on all day!), partly because of the air conditioning, and partly because I was able to leave my cabin window open all the time (I was in a cabin on the left hand side of the boat, which was always the side that always faced away from the docks and so was over water at every city we stopped in, so it seemed pretty safe to leave my window open). The apeman complained that the air conditioning was too noisy to keep on all night but I didn't have that problem with mine (perhaps because of my condition by the time I dragged myself in to bed...). As I said, the cabin was fine for me but I think I'd have found it to be too cramped had I been sharing - for example it would be pretty difficult for 2 people to get dressed at the same time! Likewise sharing a bathroom could have been a bit tricky (I've no idea how those in the 4 bed cabins coped with this!). There's also a communal toilet at the back of the boat (with a porthole positioned conveniently over one of the urinals making it a pleasure to stand there watching the world go by....), and the considerate among you will surely take a leaf from the apeman's book and use this if you feel the need to jettison solid waste... At the end of the day the cabins are small but perfectly adequate, especially considering that you're not likely to be spending that much time in them anyway.

a twin cabin on easycruise2

Reception is on the top passenger deck. This is where you check in and out, pay your bill, ask to have your cabin cleaned, get your cabin key (you're asked to leave your key with reception whenever you leave the boat). There's also a small shop selling a very limited range of easy-branded items, and usually a supply of free maps and tourist information on the next city. In addition to this every day you'll get a 1 page "Cruise News" sheet pushed under our cabin door, giving basic details of the next destination, as well as events on board, including the barbeque, the cocktail of the day, and any other special promotions (I think there was a slice of pizza and a shooter promotion one night).

At the back of the upper passenger deck is the main bar and restaurant (the grandly named "World Cafe"). I spent rather a lot of time in here... It's a bright and cheerful place, and Stelios has been comparatively restrained as there are only a few chairs in his customary easy-orange!

A quick word on how money works on easycruise2. Basically you don't pay for anything in cash; every time you order something (food, drink, a cabin service) you have to show either your room key or the ID card that you're given when you check in, and then you have to sign a receipt for whatever it is you've ordered and it's added to your account. When you check out of the boat you're given an itemised list of everything you've had, and only after you've paid for it are you given your passport back. I must say that simply signing a slip of paper and being handed a beer in return is pretty enjoyable, and I've always wanted to find a bar where they let me have a tab!

The bar itself isn't that big, and there isn't much of a selection; only one beer (Grolsch) on tap, and a limited range of bottled beers. This is one area where I feel there’s definitely room for improvement – passing through Holland and especially Belgium, home of some of the finest beers in the world and with such amazing variety, surely it’d be possible to take on board a couple of cases of local beers at every port? The Grolsch was pretty good value at 3.25 euros for .4 litre (a bit less than a pint) though. There's a limited wine selection (house red, white, or rose) available by the glass or the bottle, and a short cocktail list too; there's always a "cocktail of the day" on special offer, and the barman will happily mix you up something to your specifications if it isn't on the cocktail list (I had a very fine White Russian). Non-alcoholic drinks are also available, but I'm guessing that if you're into non-alcoholic drinks then you probably wouldn't be reading this site. The bar stays open until everyone has stopped drinking, or until 5am, which ever comes first!

I only ate on the boat once, when I had a full English breakfast, which was fine; the scrambled eggs were a bit bland, but everything would probably have tasted better if I hadn't been quite so hung-over. Obviously a lot of thought has gone into the menu, and it's more imaginative than you might think, you can have pizza or a burger if you want but if you're feeling a bit more adventurous how about dijon soup, a bowl of mussels, chinese mustard glazed hake, or ginger grilled shrimp? Although we didn't eat on the boat ourselves we had a look at what others were getting and it looked excellent, big plates and beautifully presented (apparently a properly trained chef has been employed and the food is freshly prepared, rather than just being re-heated from frozen). It looks good value too - the most expensive meals are the ginger grilled shrimp or garlic steak at 15 euros. In addition when we were docked in Antwerp there was a barbeque on the top deck which looked (and smelled!) really good, again with huge portions, and I really regret not trying that. Next time I go on an easycruise I'll definitely try eating on the boat at least once.

On top of the boat is the outdoor sun deck. Up here you'll find another bar which only stays open until midnight, and which has a more limited range of drinks (only canned lager, nothing on top for instance). Still, there's nothing to stop you from ordering your drink in the main bar and bringing up with you, in fact one of the real pleasures of the trip was staying up until the early hours with a beer on the top deck. You can also order food here and the crew will bring it up for you. There are also some tables which are under a canopy, 2 more uncovered tables surrounded by really comfy sofas, some sunbeds, and a couple of hot tubs. The very front part of the top deck is off limits (as this is where the pilot house is) and the back of the deck is the crew's area. I think there are only 12 sunbeds so obviously with up to 100 passengers there aren't enough to go round, but there were only a couple of times on our cruise where people who obviously wanted sunbeds were unable to get one; the chances of everybody being on the sun deck at the same time are remote and the times when the sunbeds are most in demand would be during the afternoons when the boat is docked and most of the passengers would be off the boat anyway. It's the same with the hot tubs, they're pretty big (I'd say they could fit 6 people in) but again there was no time when people were obviously queuing up or having to wait a long time to get in them. On the subject of the hot tubs, a word of warning; the “slippery when wet” notices on the deck are there for a reason. Someone on our boat slipped and broke his ankle while getting out of the hot tub, which must have put a bit of a dampener on his holiday, especially as he did it on his first afternoon! Like the top deck bar, the hot tubs are closed at midnight. Very occasionally the sundeck has to be closed off when the boat has to pass under low bridges (so low the bar and sun canopy on the top deck have to be taken down); the only time this happened on our cruise was on a stretch of canal between Antwerp and Brussels.

Finally, a word about the crew. They were, without exception, brilliant. Cheerful, helpful, friendly, and hard-working; I'm not sure how they coped - the guy who was serving us drinks until 5am was the same one who was serving breakfast when I eventually managed to drag myself out of bed, and he still had a smile on his face (although lots of people tend to have smiles on their faces when they see my condition when I get up at the crack of noon). It's definitely the crew that made all the difference; on a trip like this it wouldn't matter how cheap the holiday was, or how great the facilities on the boat were, or what the cities you stop off in were like, if you had a bad crew then the holiday just wouldn't be any fun. We had an absolutely fantastic time, and are already planning on doing it all over again (maybe even in September), and the biggest reason for that was the crew. Special praise to Andrej (who made me my White Russian) and especially Trasco (I hope that’s the right spelling) who had only just started and was getting on-the-job training; I’ve never seen anybody so enthusiastic about their job, not even drug sniffer dogs. Remember that there is a box for staff tips in reception; make sure you use it!

Amsterdam

Between the 13th and 17th centuries Amsterdam grew from being a barely habitable village on a flood-prone mud bank to one of Europe's major ports, the centre of a global Empire, and probably the most important trading city in the world. Amsterdam remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, in no small part due to the decriminalisation of soft drugs and prostitution, evident in the city's many "coffee shops" and the window-girls of the red light district. Thankfully though there's a lot more to Amsterdam than this; world class museums, excellent restaurants and bars, and not forgetting those canals...

In Amsterdam easycruise2 docks on the Ruyterkade, close to the Central Station. I flew in to Amsterdam Schipol airport, from where it's very easy and cheap to get to the Central Station; for most of the day there are trains from the airport every 15 minutes; it takes 15 or 20 minutes to reach Central Station and the tickets cost 3.60 euros (compare this to the "Heathrow Express" which also claims to take 15 minutes, drops you off at Paddington Station, nowhere near the city centre, and costs 15). When you get off your train either use the rear exit of the station, away from the city centre, and turn left along the waterfront, or go out through the station main exit, turn right and pass under the bridge under the railway tracks and then turn left). Either way, it's a 5 minute walk, and you're hardly like to miss a boat with a big orange stripe down the middle of it. From the boat it's a short walk to the city (about 10 minutes to get to the red light district, for those who are desperate); we found it easier to go through the station rather than round it. easycruise2 actually docks on the Het IJ (or IJsselmeer). This used to be Amsterdam's main harbour until it got too small for big modern boats and finally was cut off from the city itself when the Central Station was built on an artificial island in the 19th century. This part of the IJ is now mostly used by water buses, with the odd party boat and private yacht, but we really enjoyed sitting on the top deck with a beer or 3 of an evening, watching the ships go by.

The first thing I had a look at was the Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis) on Jodenbreestraat. This is the very house that Rembrandt himself lived in when he was at the height of his fame between 1639 and 1658. Unfortunately he then went bankrupt, had to sell up and move somewhere more down-market. Luckily when he went bust his creditors made a detailed list of exactly what was in the house (before auctioning it all off), and as a result, and by taking into account drawings Rembrandt made of the place, it has been possible to recreate what it would have looked like when he lived here. The rooms are full of period furniture and furnishings (Rembrandt's bed was even more cramped than mine on easycruise2!), as well as paintings by Rembrandt's pupils. You can wander through the rooms, starting in the kitchen and entrance hall, moving up through the bedroom, and finally to the top floor where you'll find Rembrandt's studio. Also here is the weird and wonderful collection of objects that Rembrandt used for inspiration or to add detail to his paintings; stuffed animals, sea shells, fossils, antique armour and weapons (part of the reason why he went bankrupt was that he spent a fortune amassing this collection of tat!). The building next door has been converted into a gallery that houses a selection of Rembrandt's drawings and etchings. Entry to the museum is 7.50 euros; I really enjoyed it.

Next I headed over to the Old Church (Oude Kirk), on Oudekerksplein. The church is in a curious location, just on the fringes of the red light district (some of the red light windows actually look out over the church). Construction started at the beginning of the 14th century, making this Amsterdam's oldest surviving building (although there's not much left of the original building); over the past 700 years the church has survived fires and the loss of many of its treasures and decorations to attacks by puritan Calvinists in the 16th century. Nowadays the church is longer in regular use for religious services.

The church has been much altered and expanded over the years, but has retained its present appearance since the late 16th century. It's hard to take it in all at once as the church is in the middle of a square and is hemmed in by the surrounding buildings (and the houses that have been built up right next to it are a bit of a strange touch) but on the outside it's a gorgeous gothic building, mostly built from brick, and with a graceful, high bell tower. Inside it's wonderful, surprisingly bright and airy. The wooden vaulted ceiling is amazing, with the remains of old paintings (some dating back to the 14th century) still visible, some are faded but others are still quite vivid; the wooden cross beams are painted too. The main organ is very impressive (I'll resist the temptation to slip in a double entendre about organs), and although most of the windows are just plain glass there's some very fine stained glass too.

inside the old church

Finally on our first day in Amsterdam we headed off to the Anne Frank House. The Anne Frank House is in the Jordaan area of the city. Jordaan is a comparatively tranquil, mostly residential area, just to the west of the city centre. If you want to go for a peaceful canal-side stroll then this is a good place to do it; Jordaan isn't as tacky as touristy as some of other parts of the city can be. The canal-side houses are in typical Amsterdam style - narrow (how much tax Amsterdammers used to pay was in part dictated by the width of their houses), tall, with big windows, facades that seem to be leaning forwards, stepped gables, and winches at the very top for hoisting up furniture. When you get a whole row of them it can look absolutely stunning.

Keizergracht canal in Jordaan

Back to the Anne Frank House (Anne Frank Huis) at Prinsengracht 276. I'm sure that most people will already know the story of Anne Frank: The Franks were German Jews who had fled Germany due to rising anti-Semitism only to be trapped in Amsterdam when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. In July 1942 the 4 members of the Frank family went into hiding in hidden rooms, known as the Annex, above a warehouse owned by Otto Frank. They were later joined by 4 other people. While in hiding in the Annex Anne Frank wrote (and started to re-write and edit) her diary. They stayed in hiding until August 1944 when an anonymous tip-off led to a German raid on the Annex, with the result that everyone in hiding was captured and sent to the concentration camps. Only Anne's father Otto survived. Anne's diary was published after the war.

The Anne Frank house is one of Amsterdam's most visited attractions; when we went there we found a long queue snaking round the corner. We decided to nip of for a couple of pints to allow it to die down a bit but when we returned the queue was just as long. Actually, people move through the house pretty quickly so we didn't have to wait for too long. Inside the house and annex have been restored to pretty much how they would have looked in 1944, although on the outside the frame of a modern building has been built around the old house. You start off by going through the rooms and offices of the warehouse, which tell you a bit about the background of the Frank family and the others who went into hiding, as well what was happening in the Netherlands after the German occupation that forced them into that situation. You then go into the Annex itself; the entrance to the Annex was concealed behind a set of bookshelves. What really strikes you is how cramped and claustrophobic it is. The rooms are tiny, and remember that when the Franks were in hiding there would have been thick blackout curtains on the windows, and as there is no longer any furniture in any of the Annex rooms (as per Otto Frank's wishes) the rooms are actually more spacious today than they would have been back then. During the day movement in the Annex had to be kept to a minimum; they weren't even to flush the toilets for fear of alerting those working in the warehouse (most of whom weren't aware of the hidden rooms upstairs). It's absolutely astonishing to think that people were able to live in these conditions for over 2 years. As is often the case, it's the small personal details that are the most moving; the marks on the wall where the girls' heights were recorded; the pictures Anne stuck on the wall to brighten up her shared room; or Otto Frank's map where he marked the progress of the Allied advance after D-Day. After you leave the Annex rooms you go through another series of rooms that detail the fate of those who were caught here, and then tell you about the diary itself, and how it came to be published, and the affect it has had. Sitting in a glass case, like some kind of holy relic, is the original, hand-written first version of the diary itself (there was actually more than one diary, and Anne had gone back and started re-writing it).

After walking everywhere on our first day we decided to take it a bit easier on our second and tried out Amsterdam's public transport system. Amsterdam has a metro system, an extensive bus network, and water buses but we stuck to the trams. We got one-day travel cards from the ticket office next to the tourist information centre, opposite the Central Station, which cost around 7 euros. The tram system maps weren't quite as intuitive or user-friendly as, for example, the London tube map, but we got the hang of it and managed to avoid getting lost, so if a pair of clowns like us can figure it out anyone should be able to cope.

The Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) is at Plantage Kerklaan 61, in the Plantage area of the city, east of the city centre. It took us about 10 minutes on the number 9 tram from the Centraal Station, getting off at the Plantage Middenlaan stop, from where it's very short walk (the museum is pretty much opposite the zoo, if that makes things easier). The museum basically tells the story of the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. It starts off with a look at Dutch society before the war, goes on to the German invasion and then German attitudes towards the Dutch (the Germans viewed the Dutch as "fellow-Aryans" and so they were initially comparatively well-treated), then overt and undercover resistance to the Nazis are covered, before finishing with the liberation in 1944 to 45. The museum doesn't ignore controversial subjects, such as Dutch co-operation with the Nazis; many Dutch mayors for example refused to resign arguing that if they did they would be replaced by pro-Nazis, which would only make things worse. The museum makes no attempt to defend or condemn; it gives you the information and lets you make your own mind up. The question the museum poses but never explicitly asks is at what point does co-operation become collaboration? Also covered are the fate of Dutch Jews (over 80% of whom didn't survive the war - the Dutch police became quite adept at rounding them up with only minimal German supervision) and Dutchmen who joined SS Regiments. The museum is very well captioned in multiple languages (including German, although strangely we didn't see any Germans here...), there's a big range of exhibits, lots of multimedia content, and also interactive stuff (probably our favourite was where you're given a magnifying glass to see if you can tell the difference between a genuine ID card and a counterfeit one produced by the resistance). All in all, a fascinating and thought provoking museum. The museum is closed on Mondays, and costs 5 euros.

Probably Amsterdam's best known museum is the Rijksmuseum, which has a vast collection of over 1 million paintings, drawings, and other antiques and works of art. The Rijksmuseum is in the Museumplein area of the city, which also includes the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum (which holds modern art but which is currently closed for reconstruction) and the Concertgebouw concert hall. Museumplein is just to the south of the city centre and is served by plenty of trams (numbers 2 and 5 go there from Centraal Station).

The Rijksmsuseum

The Rijksmuseum is housed in a very grand 19th century building. The only problem with housing museums in grand 19th century buildings (as the British Museum can confirm) is that they're not always in the best condition by the 21st century. As a result much of the museum is closed for refurbishment until at least 2009. But what you can see in one of the parts of the museum that remains open is a display called "The Masterpieces", basically the Rijksmuseum's Greatest Hits. Actually, this worked out pretty well; being on a bit of a tight schedule we'd never have been able to see everything in the museum anyway, so having all the best bits gathered together meant that we got to see most of the stuff we really wanted to see, which took us about 3 hours. The Masterpieces Exhibition puts the objects in their historical context, starting off with the foundation of the Dutch Republic, the Dutch East India Company, and going on to the "Golden Age" of Dutch culture in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Some of the paintings on the first floor haven't necessarily been chosen for their artistic merit but rather for the significance of the events they portray, such as famous battles, or early views of the Dutch colonies. As well as paintings there's a big collection of Dutch porcelain (lots of blue and white Delftware), furniture, gold and silver, a couple of huge dolls houses, if you're into that kind of thing, and best of all a huge model of a warship that if you're any kind of a man you'll want to take home with you and float it in your bath (or, more likely, a swimming pool). The second floor is mostly paintings, nearly all by Dutch artists. There are some really fine Rembrandts (including one of his best known works, a world-weary looking self portrait of the artist as St Paul), some equally good Vermeer's, and other artists like Frans Hals (his "Merry Drinker" was definitely one of my favourites, although it was a close call between that and one by Bartholomeus van der Helst that really should have been called "Portrait of A Fat Bastard", but sadly wasn't...). The collection is a nice mixture of portraits, still lives, household scenes, and land and sea-scapes, so even the Philistines among you shouldn't find it too boring (did you, Dave?).

In the last room before the gift shop is what's probably the highlight of the entire museum, Rembrandt's stupendous "The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq" (or to give it it's snappier and better known title, "The Night Watch"; actually, when the painting was last restored and cleaned it was discovered that it wasn't actually set at night, it had just been dirty, but the name has stuck anyway). The painting is a group portrait of one of the civilian militia companies that acted as the city watch and guard. It's an enormous canvas that takes up nearly all of the wall that it's hung on, but it's full of life, movement, and small details (like the artist himself, peeping out between a couple of the militiamen). On the opposite wall is a similar painting, "The Meagre Company", started by Frans Halls but finished by a lesser artist, notable for assembling a group of men in a series of screamingly camp poses the likes of which wouldn't be seen again until the advent of the Village People.

Entry to the Rijksmuseum is 10 euros; good value and unmissable.

OK, after all that culture you're probably going to be a bit peckish, luckily I can recommend a couple of really fine places to eat.

Cafe de Klos is at Kerkstraat 41, a bit of a hike from the city centre, near the Leidseplein, but you'll need the walk to build up your appetite. de Klos is a traditional Amsterdam "brown cafe" (nothing to do with drugs or man-love, it's just the name given to old Amsterdam bars on account of centuries worth of nicotine staining), with a small kitchen in one corner. Actually, "kitchen" would be over-stating a bit, in-door barbeque would probably be more accurate. It doesn't look too special from the outside, but inside it's dark and snug, with a big horseshoe-shaped bar in the middle and 2 or 3 other small tables, so if you want to eat you may end up waiting for a while (luckily they have a great selection of beers to keep you occupied in the meantime). de Klos was recommended to us by a friend who from his description made it sound like he was as well known in here as Norm is in Cheers. Turns out they'd never heard of him (our friend, not Norm) which made the Apeman's pathetic attempt at name-dropping even more excruciating to behold. Anyway our friend had also told us that the steaks here were the best he's ever had, and at least he was right about that - if I've ever had a better steak I can't remember it. The menu here is pretty simple - they have lots of meat, and you can have it barbequed or smoked. The food is served on rustic wooden platters, and is piled high. For variety you can have a jacket potato or sauce with it. And that's about it! We all had the sirloin steaks, which were amazing; so tender that you didn't really have to chew, they just melted in your mouth. If you don't fancy steak they also have lamb, chicken, or ribs. We thought our steaks were pretty big but when we saw the size of the heaps of meat that others were getting I think we must have chosen the slimmers' option. Note that with the exception of the jacket spuds there is absolutely nothing on the menu for vegetarians, not even the token veggie pasta dish that most restaurants seem to have now. And why should there be? After all, do vegetarian restaurants have a token meat-meal on their menus? Have you noticed that about vegetarians; invite them to a dinner party and they'll make a point of telling you in advance "I'm a vegetarian", in other words "I expect you to go out of the way to cook me something special". They should eat what they're given or not show up at all. Needless to say, if you were invited to a dinner party by a vegetarian and you told them in advance "I'm a carnivore", what do you think the chances of them whipping up a nice bit of foie gras or veal especially for you would be? Not very bloody likely. That's why I never invite vegetarians to dinner parties. In fact, it's why I don't hold dinner parties at all, for the risk of accidentally inviting a vegetarian. The service in here was excellent too, really informal and friendly; our waiter pretended to be upset when one of our party requested their steak cooked medium instead of the red-rare that everyone else was having. I'll definitely be coming back here, and I'll be bringing my appetite. Just remember, that it's a popular, small place, and as far as I'm aware you can't make a reservation, it's a first-come first-served arrangement, so either turn up early be prepared to wait. It's worth it.

For a completely different experience try D'Vijff Vlieghen ("Five Flies") at Spuistraat 294-302. This place is something of an Amsterdam institution having been open since 1939, and has seemingly been visited by every celebrity who has been to Amsterdam since (most of the chairs have a little brass name plate listing famous people who have sat there in the past; I'd only heard of one of the ones on our table though; maybe you'd have to be Dutch to know them all). The restaurant is quite posh and formal, but they let us in anyway which was nice of them, especially as we didn't have a reservation. There are 9 different dining rooms, each decorated in a different style; we ended up in the Knight's Room which was fine with us as it had suits of armour on the walls, and it also meant we had a view of the chefs in action in the kitchen. There's also a Rembrandt room, with some original etchings by the artists, and don't forget to pay a trip to the gents - the urinals each have a life-like fly painted on them (apparently most blokes can't resist aiming for fly so it stops them pissing so much on the floor). I managed to get a photo of it, but I was a bit worried that someone would walk in while I was taking it and wonder exactly what it was I was taking a picture of.... Anyway, enough of the toilets, on to the food. It's pretty posh, the menu features lots of words you might not have heard of ("sweetbread beignets", "toasted duivekater and anise butter", "hotchpotch of turnip-tops" - I didn't remember all that, I've just copied it off the website), and combinations of ingredients you might not have considered before. It's a bit like nouveau cuisine, only with decent sized portions. I had the 4-course "Rembrandt Menu", starting off with rillettes of lamb with jelly of honey caramel (a sort of really sweet pate; lovely), followed by pan fried red perch with scallop and vanilla and tomato foam (a really fresh, moist bit of fish), the main course was poached veal with sweet and sour pumpkin which was gorgeous, a really tender piece of meat, and finally for dessert crepes with cinnamon and chestnut. It was all wonderful, beautifully presented, and each course had fascinating combinations of textures, flavours and colours. I was too busy scoffing that to pay much attention to what the others had, but I think they both had the saddles of lamb, followed by chocolate cake with apricot. In addition we were given couple of free side-dishes; before we ordered they brought us some ham with a creamy chicory sauce, and when we were waiting for one of the desserts to arrive they gave us some strawberries in syrup. Such quality doesn't come cheap; the Rembrandt menu was 39.50 euros for instance, and main courses range from 20 to 40 euros (for lobster). But sometimes you have to push the boat out, and the food was so damned good that even though I think this was the most expensive meal (not counting booze) that I've ever had in a restaurant I still think that it was good value for money, and would happily go back, if they let me. Beer monsters might care to note that they don't have beer on tap, only bottled Amstel. The service was surprisingly friendly for such a classy place too. The website is here (the menu appears to change, depending on what ingredients are in season).

You won't have a problem finding somewhere to have a pint in Amsterdam; the city has hundreds of bars. One idiot on our boat complained that "all the bars in Amsterdam are owned by Brits" which is I guess what happens when you spend all your time drinking in English or Irish pubs... Luckily, they're easily avoided, as should be most of the tacky, tourist-oriented bars in the red light district. If you're looking for a traditional Amsterdam brown cafe try the Jordaan area of the city. We stopped off at a really good one at the corner of Prinsengracht and Rozengracht, a short walk from the Anne Frank House, although sadly I don't remember its name.

The only bar that I can actually remember the name of is In De Wildeman at Kolsteeg 3 (between Damrak and Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal), an excellent place with a wide array of international beers on tap (including English and American), over 200 bottled beers, and a collection of customers that can charitably be described as "eccentric" (want to know how weird they were? We were the most normal people in there...). We loved it. The website is here.

Rotterdam

the view from my cabin at night

Rotterdam is by far Europe's largest port. The city owes its current appearance to the Luftwaffe, who in 1940 flattened the old city in an unprovoked air raid (funnily enough we didn't see any German tourists in Rotterdam...). After the war rather than trying to recreate what had been destroyed Rotterdam started rebuilding more or less from scratch and the result is what must be Europe's most futuristic looking cities, with an amazing array of modern architecture. A few parts of the old city still remain, and the architects did a great job of showing you can build a large, modern city and doing so on a human scale; there is public housing that people actually want to live in, and public transport, cyclists, and pedestrians are not treated as second-class citizens compared to motorists.

In Rotterdam easycruise2 docks on the Nieuwe Maas, alongside Boompjes Maasboulevard (if you get really lost it's between the red Willems bridge and the blue Erasmus bridge). It's a good location, within easy walking distance of the city centre and most of Rotterdam's places of interest.

We started off by having a look at some of Rotterdam's modern architecture. Overblaak is about a 5 minute walk from the boat, close to the Blaak metro station. It's a group of flats built in the late 1970s, the modern twist being that instead of building them as a straight block the architect rotated them a bit (they're sometimes described as the Cube Apartments, but it'd probably be more accurate to describe them as diamond-shaped). The end result is something like this:

"cube" flats of overblaak

One of the flats is open as a museum (it costs 2 euros). It feels a bit strange inside; I think the unusual and unexpected angles play tricks with your mind. It was more spacious than I was expecting but the stairs are a bit too steep and narrow for one of my girth and drinking habits. Probably the main benefit is the top room, which sits under a pyramid of glass and is very bright and airy. I'm not sure I'd like to live in one, but we got talking to a waiter later in the evening who said that his friend lived in one and absolutely loved it.

Next we decided to take in a bit of culture and headed off to the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen which you'll find on the road called Museumpark, in the area of the city of the same name. One of the girls on the boat had told us that the museum was a "waste of time" but luckily we ignored her as it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire cruise. The major part of the museum is the art gallery, an amazing collection of paintings and art from the 15th to the 21st centuries. Plenty of famous artists are represented including Durer, Titian, Hieronymous Bosch, lots of Rubens, some very good Rembrandts, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, Magritte, and Salvador Dali. My own favourite was Pieter Bruegel's "Tower of Babel". Basically if you're remotely interested in art you can't miss this museum. We spent around 2 and a half hours in here (including going through some of the modern galleries pretty quickly, the apeman being the philistine he is ) and I reckon we saw less than half of it; we didn't see any of the extensive collection of drawings, for instance. The museum is closed on Mondays, and normally costs 7 euros, but by happy coincidence we were there on free-entry day (we made up for it by buying loads of artistic tat in the museum gift shop though).

To cool down we took a water taxi across the Nieuwe Maas from just outside the Maritime Museum to the Hotel New York. The ride takes about 10 minutes, costs 4 euros, and the best part of it is the view you get of the stupendous Erasmus Bridge as you pass under it.

the Erasmus Bridge as seen from a water taxi

The Hotel New York is one of Rotterdam's older surviving buildings, although it's now huddled between two massive modern tower blocks. It was previously the office of the Holland-America line and it was from here that hundreds of thousands of people embarked for a life in the New World. We just sat on the terrace cafe outside drinking beer. According to the apeman the toilets inside the hotel are something to behold but as I'm not the kind of person who loiters around gentlemen's toilets I wouldn't know about that kind of thing.

Finally we took another watertaxi from the Hotel New York to Veerhaven, from where it was a pleasant stroll to the Euromast. The Euromast is proof that even in Rotterdam the architects don't always get it right. It's pretty damned ugly. Apparently it was first built to commemorate a flower festival, and the bottom part of it does sort of look a bit like a tulip. The top bit of the tower was added later.

the Euromast.the "Euroscoop" is just starting to move away from the main decks.

You take a lift up to the main decks 100 metres up the tower, where there's a restaurant and some out door observation decks. You can then get on board the "Euroscoop", a glass elevator that goes the rest of the way to the top of the tower (185 metres). The elevator goes up and down the pole, rotating as it goes. The views are stupendous, and there's also an informative commentary (in Dutch and English) to tell you what you're looking at (unless you've got your eyes closed....). Actually, I'm not normally too keen on heights but I didn't find this too bad (although it got a bit hairy when it first started rotating, and the glass portholes in the floor were a bit too much for me). Entry to the Euromast (including the Euroscoop) is normally 8.30 euros but we got our tickets from the easycruise2 reception desk and I think they were a bit cheaper. I think that if the weather's bad they close the Euroscoop. The Euroscoop runs until 9.45 pm; we went up a bit earlier than this and I'd imagine that the views after night falls are just as impressive when the whole city is lit up. Maybe I'll wait until a bit later next time... According the Euromast website you can also pay to abseil down the side; I think I'll pass on that.

In Rotterdam we ate at Blits on Boompjes; it's the big glass building that looks over where the easycruise2 docks; from our table we could watch was going on on the sun deck of the boat. It's a classy (and expensive!) place but the food here is amazing; the menu is imaginative (apparently it changes a lot depending on what's in season), the dishes perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. I started with carpaccio of beef (very thin raw beef) with pine nuts and parmesan which was gorgeous, unbelievably fresh (I'm sure I could hear the cow mooing after I'd placed my order) and almost melted in my mouth. For the main course I had the lamb, which was a rack of lamb, quite rare and full of flavour, the nicest lamb I've ever had in a restaurant. The apeman had a steak which he polished off, and the vegetables we ordered with it (spuds and carrots) were equally good. The service was very good too; we had a long chat with our waiter who seemed very interested in the boat (when he asked us where we were staying we were just able to point out of the window!). I highly recommend this place, and would definitely eat here again. As I said, the food was expensive, but it was so good that it was worth it (especially seeing as though the apeman paid for everything - cheers, Dave!). The only slight downside for me was that they only serve beer in absurdly small glasses (around a third of a pint, I reckon), but I suppose it's healthy for me not to sluice down litres of beer everywhere I go (and anyway, I made up for it when we got back to the boat). Blits was very busy; we managed to get in without a reservation but if you really want to eat here it might be worth coming up to the restaurant and making a reservation for later as soon as the boat docks.

For some reason Rotterdam tends to get a bad press, but I really enjoyed it here. True, it's the least touristy of all the towns on the easycruise2 schedule, but I thought that was a good thing. For a start people seemed genuinely pleased to see us, whether it was people working in the museums or the waiter in Blits. And easycruise2 itself became something of a tourist attraction with curious locals popping over for a quick inspection. There was plenty to keep you occupied for a day, and lots that I wanted to see that I didn't have time for; if I go back I'd love to have a look at the Architecture Museum, the Maritime Museum (we walked through some of the boats that are on display outside the museum and it looked great fun), and the rest of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. It'd be a pity to just dismiss Rotterdam out of hand or spend all day on the boat, as some people on our cruise did.

Antwerp

Antwerp docks at night

Antwerp (Antwerpen if you speak Flemish or Anvers if you're French) is the second largest city in Belgium, and the unofficial capitol of Flemish-speaking half of the country (in the likely event that you don't speak Flemish, you'll probably have more success using English in restaurants and bars than you will if you try French). Linked to the sea by the River Scheldt it has always been one of Europe's major trading cities, and remains the focus of the world diamond trade. The city is heavily industrialised, as you'll see when the easycruise2 sails into town, but at the centre of the city is a collection of nicely preserved Renaissance buildings. Antwerp is also known as the home of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, famous for painting naked fat women (that should get me some hits on Google).

In Antwerp the easycruise2 docks at Napoleonkaai on the Willemdok, northwest of the city centre. Because of the positioning of bridges and some road works we ended up having to walk round 3 sides of the dock rather than just taking the shortest route (actually, the shortest route would have involved walking straight across the dock, which would probably have been a bit damp...), so it was a bit of a longer walk than we were expecting (longer than it looks on the map, anyway). To get from the boat the Grote Markt (the main town square) we went round the docks, passed a gay bar called "Oink Oink" then down Falconplein, Schipperstraat, and finally Nosestraat, from where the back streets lead in a strait line to the Grote Markt. This took us about 10 minutes, and had the advantage of passing through Antwerp's red-light district (which is mostly on Schipperstraat, if you were wondering), a little bit smaller but just as full-on as its equivalent in Amsterdam. It came as a bit of a surprise to us (the first time we went through it at least), and even the Apeman claimed not to know it was there, although seeing as he had been to Antwerp on easycruise before I didn't believe him (especially as most of the girls were waving at him, and I'm sure that one of them had a tattoo of him on her arse...). A simpler but vice-free way would be to go round the docks and then walk alongside the Scheldt, which is a bit longer but you've got less chance of getting lost or catching something.

OK, first thing I have to admit is that, for a variety of reasons, I had a pretty lazy day in Antwerp. I think it was a combination of the hot weather (about 25 degrees, in April, that's global warming in action) and 3 nights of over-indulgence catching up with me. Staying up drinking until after 6am the night before so I could watch the boat leave Rotterdam didn't really help either. As a result I spent most of the afternoon on one of sun beds on easycruise2, reading the Sunday papers (I found a newsagent in town hat sold that days' English papers) and knocking back cold lager. Luckily I avoided the temptation of stripping off and getting into one of the hot tubs, otherwise I think I'd probably have been made to walk the plank.

Still, we did manage to see a few things. First of all we stumbled on St Paul's Church (Sint Pauluskerk), which is between the red light district and the Grote Markt (strangely even though it was a Sunday afternoon there were a lot more people in the red light district than there were in the church...); the main entrance is through the gothic portal at the corner of Nosestraat and Zwarte Zusterstraat. The church was built at the beginning of the 16th century as part of a Dominican complex that came with an attached cloister (sadly, I think the monks are now gone, I certainly didn't see any, unless it was them in the red light district...). From close up it's hard to fully appreciate the outside of the church because of the closely packed streets in this part of the city. The church tower had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1679, and the church was badly damaged by another fire in 1968 when neighbours and passers-by risked their lives to pull paintings and statues out before they were destroyed. Silly sods. Before you go into the main part of the church don't miss the Calvarieberg; it's on your left after you've gone through the front gate, a bizarre artificial grotto built up one side of the church complete with a series of statues on the subject of the crucifixion. Inside the church is bright and airy; although the walls and ceiling are plain white there's plenty of decoration, including life-sized and very detailed wooden carvings of various saints down each side of the church (I particularly liked the one of the saint who was holding what appeared to be a cup with a snake in it), equally decorative wooden choir stalls, lots of marble altars and tombs, a very impressive looking organ, and best of all along the north wall of the church a set of 15 paintings collectively called the Mysteries of the Rosaries, they're not all by the same artist; there's one by Rubens (number 7, "Flagellation"), and one by Antony van Dyck (number 9, "Bearing of the Cross"). A bit further along the north wall is another Rubens, this one "The Adoration of the Shepherds", and one more ("Dispute on the Nature of the Holy Sacrament") over an altar in the south side of the church. For good measure Rubens also designed one of the tombs in here (the tomb of Michael Ophovius, to the left of the main altar). Entry to the church is free, although donations are encouraged, and I strongly recommend you have a look. There's also a free leaflet which gives full details of all the paintings, carvings, and statues inside the church (you didn't think I'd actually remembered all the stuff I've written about it, did you?!?).

Guild Houses on the Grote Markt

Next we made our way to the Grote Markt; this used to be the main market square and commercial centre of the city, a function that has now passed to the nearby Groenplaats, leaving the Grote Markt to tourists and outdoor bars. Along the north side of the square is a row of guild houses, rebuilt after a 16th century fire and restored again in the 19th century. Each one is individual, although they all have ornate windows and richly decorated gable ends. The tallest, with the gold statue of St. George and the dragon was the guild house of the crossbowmen, which sounds a really cool guild to be a member of (certainly more fun than the barrel makers guild next door - I bet the crossbowmen used to shoot holes in the barrels....). The west side of the square is dominated by the Stadhuis (Town Hall), an amazing 16th century Renaissance building, one of the earliest in this architectural style in Northern Europe. In the middle of the Grote Markt is the Brabo Statue, which depicts the legend of the giant Antigonus who used to harass travellers on the River Scheldt by cutting off their hands unless they paid a toll; not surprisingly the locals got a bit fed up of this until eventually a Roman soldier, Brabo, killed the giant. The statue depicts him chucking the giant's hand into the river. Once Antigonus was gone the Scheldt opened up, turning Antwerp into a great trading city, and ultimately allowing easycruise2 to sail here without me having to risk my drinking hand. Well done, Brabo!

the Brabo statue and the Cathedral

To the south of the Grote Markt is the Cathedral of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal), apparently the largest church in the Low Countries. The Cathedral's 120 metre high tower still dominates the city as it did in medieval times, and was the first thing we could see of Antwerp as we were approaching on the boat. Construction was started in 1350, on the site of a much older church, and didn't finish for 170 years, nearly as long as it took to rebuild Wembley stadium. It would probably have taken even longer had they built the cathedral with 2 towers, as originally planned. Instead only the north tower was finished; construction on the south stopped when only the bottom half had been built. The outside of the building is gorgeous, the tower being the obvious highlight, the stone work becoming more delicate and detailed the higher the tower gets. The main portal in to the church is also particularly impressive, surrounded by rows of statues of saints. Next to the main entrance is a charming memorial to the masons who built the church, a series of bronze statues of builders in various action poses (you can tell they're not British builders as they're actually working, and there isn't a single expanse of builder's crack to be seen).

Assorted wars, invasions, revolutions and religious uprisings (the invasion of the French revolutionary army in particular caused a lot of damage) mean that the inside of the cathedral has undergone several changes over the years. Much of the stained glass, for instance commemorates a time when Antwerp (and most of the rest of Belgium) was a part of the Spanish Catholic Hapsburg Empire. Inside the cathedral feels very light and spacious, thanks to a combination of lots of windows, white-washed walls and the light stone used to build it. Among the treasures to be seen are 4 huge paintings by Rubens; a row of life-sized carved wooden statues down the east wall; some very decorative stained glass; a few fragments of the 15th century frescoes, and, my favourite, a magnificently detailed 18th century oak pulpit complete with carvings of sinuous vines and lots of different kinds of birds (no chickens as far as I could see, sadly, but there was a parrot). And don't miss the painting tucked away on the inside of the dome, in front of the altar, although you'll have to crane your neck a bit to get a good look at it.

Entry to the cathedral costs 2 euros, well worth paying rather than trying to get in for free by ducking under the exit turnstile in the gift shop, as we saw some people trying to do (fellow easycruisers too, they should have known better!) You'll probably go to hell if you try to get in that way...

OK, for various reasons, I can't remember the names of any of the places we ate or drank in Antwerp (don't worry, I'll find out when I go back in September). We ate at an Argentinean restaurant on the Oude Kornmarkt, near the cathedral. For some reason it was an Argentinean restaurant with a Chilean flag outside it, there can't be too many of those... We all had rump steaks, which were really nice, thick and tender, cooked on a charcoal barbeque at the front of the restaurant, and which I'd probably be raving about even more if we hadn't eaten the superlative steaks at Cafe to Klos in Amsterdam a couple of days previously. For a mid-afternoon case of the munchies we tried the fries at Frituur Max on Groen Plaats, really nice chips, freshly fried, crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle (they must be good - according to the plaque inside the shop they've won an award for the best fries for the last 6 years). For drinks we ended up outside a bar on Blauwmoezelstraat, which had tables right up against the walls of the cathedral and which was a great spot for people watching.

Brussels

the Town Hall on the Grand' Place

For some reason Brussels seems to suffer the reputation of being a bit dull, possibly something to do with it being the capitol of the European Union as well as of Belgium. Total bollocks: It's a brilliant place. Brussels boats nearly 1000 years of great architecture, some world class museums, restaurants to rival any city in Europe, and some of the best bars I've ever been in (you can stuff your pyramids, Belgian beer is without doubt one of the great wonders of the world). The locals are a hell of a lot friendlier than some other cities I could mention too (yes, Paris, I'm talking about you!). One problem is that the only day easycruise2 spends in Brussels is Monday, which is the day that lots of museums are closed.

In Brussels the easycruise2 docks at the Quai des Peniches (or Akenkaai - every street in Brussels has a French and a Flemish name) which is in a bit of an industrial area to the west of the city centre, on the Charleroi canal. Although this is the furthest the boat docks from any of the city centres on the cruise, it's still pretty easy to get into town from here. From the boat it's a 5 minute walk down Place de l'Yser to the Yser/Ijzer underground station, from where Brussels's cheap and efficient public transport system can get you quickly to anywhere in the city. Actually, it doesn't look too difficult to walk directly from the boat either; I'd say it'd be about a 25 minute walk to get to the Grand Place, and that's following major roads most of the way so it'd be pretty difficult to get lost. Maybe I'll try it next time I'm there (especially if the trains stop running before the bars close).

The Grand Place is at the heart of old Brussels, and is one of the most impressive city squares in Europe, surrounded by stunning architecture on all sides. It looks even better when it's all lit up at night. Previously the city's main market it's now given over almost entirely to tourism, with just about every building on the square now housing a bar or restaurant.

The most imposing building on the Grand Place is the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), a fantastically elaborate gothic structure built in stages between 1402 and 1480, although a lot of the decoration, including the rows of statues was added much more recently. The Grand Place, along with most of the rest of Brussels was badly damaged by French bombardment in 1695 (well, it makes a change from the Germans doing it...). Miraculously the Hotel de Ville survived (at least the exterior did; most of the interior was gutted). Definitely the highlight is the tower, graceful and elegant, with a bronze statue of St Michael on the top, and which at just under 100 metres is still the tallest structure in the old part of Brussels. Unfortunately most of the inside of the Hotel de Ville is off-limits, and access is limited to the guided tours that take place a few times a week.

Opposite the Town Hall is the smaller but even more intricate Maison de Roi (King's House - in Flemish it's known as the Broodhuis, as this used to be the site of the bread market). A building much like this has stood on the Grand Place since the 1530s when the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V had it built as a way of giving the finger to the civic authorities housed over the square in the Town Hall. Unfortunately by the 1870s the Mason de Roi was so dilapidated that the decision was taken to rebuild from scratch, sticking as closely as possible to the original plans (which meant that the tower and balconies, which were in the 16th century plans but which had never actually been built, were included). Anyway, the results were stunning, it's a gorgeous building.

The Maison de Roi now houses the Museum of the City of Brussels (Musee de la Ville Bruxelles). It's a bit of an eclectic collection; there are works of art that belong to the city including some amazing 16th century tapestries, a few paintings (the best of which was "The Wedding Procession", attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but possibly by his son, the imaginatively named Pieter Bruegel the Younger), altar pieces, and statues and sculpture, some of which were part of the original Maison de Roi. There's also a wide collection of applied art produced in the Brussels region, such as earthenware and silver. The main part of the museum though tells the story of the history and development of the city of Brussels. There's a huge and often fascinating collection of old documents, maps, paintings, drawings, and early photographs of how the city used to look. Particularly interesting are the large detailed models of the city at various points in the past. For some reason there's also a big section devoted to the god-awful Mannekin Pis (see below); basically a big display of the costumes he's been dressed up in over the years, and as if that wasn't enough there's a computer where you can do search by country and region to see who has donated a costume (I'm glad to say that Lancashire has never sent anything, but sadly nobody has thought to dress the little turd up in an SS Uniform or a gimp outfit yet). Entry to the museum (closed on Mondays) is only 3 euros, which it's probably worth paying just to have a look around the building; the great hall on the top floor with its wooden beamed roof is especially grand, and you get a great view of the Town Hall opposite.

Maison de Roi on the Grand Place

On the other sides of the Grand Place are

A short walk south of the Grand Place (down Rue Charles Buls and Rue de L'Etuve) is the statue that has somehow become the symbol of Brussels, the Mannekin Pis. For those who don't know, it's a tiny statue of a surprisingly well-muscled young boy having a slash, complete with a little stream of water bubbling out of his knob. The statue was put up in the 1600s, although what you see today is a 19th century replica (the original having been stolen and broken up). There are all sorts of legends about what the statue really signifies, possibly the most likely being the tale of a nobleman who lost his son, and when he eventually found the young chap (having a piss) he put up a statue on the spot as a way of saying thanks (in which case surely he should have been peeing against the wall, not facing the street? Then again, if he was a nobleman's son he was probably used to pissing wherever he felt like it). The statue is usually surrounded by hordes of tourists, and the damned thing regularly gets dressed up in some very camp looking costumes, a massive selection of which are on display in the Musee de la Ville Bruxelles.

The Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudule (never heard of her either, apparently she's an obscure local 7th century holy woman) is 5 minutes walk east of the Grand Place, on a hill overlooking the old town. There's been a church on this site for at least the last 1000 years; work on the current building started 1225 and didn't finish until 1490. Some parts of the previous church have survived, and can be seen under the present cathedral. It's a stunning Gothic building which has benefitted from a thorough restoration over the last 50 years, the grand west facade with its twin towers and elaborate doors and windows being the obvious highlight. There's lots to see inside, although only a few small fragments of the earliest interior decoration have survived, and none of the original furnishings. The cathedral is perhaps best known for its stained glass, some of which dates back to the 16th century, and has somehow survived the upheavals the cathedral has undergone since. There are also some nice statues and tombs, and best of all an amazing 17th century carved wooden pulpit, which is completely over the top and packed with details, including animals, birds, and a grinning skeleton that looked remarkably like my Scottish friend Dave. There's also some surprisingly effective modern art. Entry into the cathedral is free, but you have to pay if you want to have a look at the treasury or crypt (where you can see the remains of the 11th century church).

Brussels Cathedral

The Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts (on Rue de la Regence) is the largest art gallery in Belgium. It's so big that it has been split into 2 parts, the Musee d'Art Ancien which holds paintings from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and the Musee d'Art Moderne, which covers the 19th century onwards. A ticket for both collections will set you back 5 euros, which considering you could spend all day in here is outstanding value. That said, I found the museum to be frustrating. For a start when I was there the 15th and 16th century section was closed until further notice (although by the time you read this some of the highlights will have been put on display elsewhere in the gallery). Considering this section, which contains paintings by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the main reason I'd gone to the museum in the first place (and had stayed an extra night in Brussels specifically to go there) this was rather annoying. The gallery isn't especially well sign-posted or logically laid out either, I got lost a few times and considering I was there around midday I didn't even have the excuse of being drunk. And bits of it seem to open and close and random; I skipped through a few rooms while I was getting my bearings but when I went back later for a closer look they were locked and empty. The final straw came when I went to the modern art part, only to find a closed turnstyle with a sign saying it'd be open in 10 minutes, at which point I left the museum tutting under my breath (which for a reserved Englishman is the equivalent of making a dirty protest). Still, complaining aside, there was plenty of great stuff that I did manage to see, including lots of Rubens, Franz Halls (his "Three Children with a Goat Cart" had just about everything you could want in a painting), Pieter Bruegel the Younger, van Dyck, and Rembrandt. Franz Francken's enormous "Tower of Babel" was very impressive too. It would just have been nice to see the rest. Maybe I'll go back when I'm feeling more patient.

The area around Rue des Bouchers, just north of the Grand Place is absolutely packed with restaurants, nearly all pandering to the tourist trade. Quality and prices are extremely variable, many of the restaurants have rather off-putting displays of not particularly fresh looking sea food outside, and in some the waiters will implore you to come inside and eat as you walk past.

We went for Chez Leon at Rue des Bouchers 18, partly because it was already busy while the restaurants next to it were deserted, partly because it was one of the few places where the waiters weren't practically begging us to eat there, but mainly because the waiter was fat and mustachioed, nearly always the sign of an impending excellent meal in my experience, especially if the waiter is male. It turned out to be a good choice; 2 of us had the moules mariniers and chips, they were excellent, really plump and fresh (the mussels, not the chips) while the apeman had some kind of steak in sauce which he said was very good. The Belgian waffle comes highly recommended too. Given its location the prices were extremely reasonable, and the service was excellent and friendly (but then fat, mustachioed men usually are friendly, unless they're German). Definitely somewhere I'll be going again.

OK, now for a couple of excellent bars. First up is Au Bon Vieux Temps, tucked away down a narrow alleyway at Rue du Marche-aux-Herbes 12. It's a small place, quite dimly lit, with wooden paneled walls. The strangest bit of decoration is the stained glass window, which was salvaged from a destroyed church. There are also bits of old British beer memorabilia, a reminder that the bar was popular with servicemen after the war. The bar doesn't serve food, and the range of beer isn't as wide as some other Brussels bars (still enough to knock you under the table if you decided to try one of each beer on the menu though). What the bar does have plenty of though is atmosphere; it's a cosy, intimate little place, the kind of bar where you could imagine spending the whole afternoon with a newspaper or a book (and a few beers). As it's small it does fill up quickly, especially in the evening. And if you want to use the toilet you have to ask the bar lady to buzz you in.

inside Au Bon Vieux Temps

Totally different is Delirium Cafe at Impasse de La Fidelite 4A (a small alley leading off Rue des Bouchers). If ever anyone decided to come up with a temple to beer it'd look something like this. There's beer memorabilia everywhere; beer trays nailed to the ceiling, beer mirrors, and beer neon lights. Even some of the tables and chairs are old beer barrels. Delirium's claim to fame is that it is in the Guinness book of records for stocking over 2000 different beers. That's right, over 2000, which means that if you decided to work your way through the menu by drinking 10 different beers a day you be either dead or very fat long before you'd finished. Their beer list is the size of a telephone directory. Really. There are about 15 beers on tap, the rest are canned or bottled (Christ, imagine the size of a pub with 2000 beers on tap...). Delirium has a wide selection of Belgian beers, but they also have something from every country from Andorra to the United States (bugger, I was going to say "from A to Z" but for some reason they don't have any Zimbabwean or Zambian beer. Or Vietnamese or Vatican City either). I stuck to the on-tap beers, of which there is a nice variety, from wheat and fruit beers ("Pink Killer", made with pink grapefruit was a bit camp but particularly refreshing), to some very nice dark and blonde beers. The Apeman ended up drinking bottled De Koninck, which considering it can be bought at Asda in Hounslow seemed a bit like going to Paris and eating at a Little Chef. Oh well, it was his birthday, it was his prerogative to drink alcopops had he so wished. Delirium doesn't really serve food, only bar snacks like chips (of course), sausages, and quite an extensive range of Belgian cheeses (we had the Rochefort Trappiste, thick slices of it served with a delicious, freshly baked dark bread). We seemed to get heavily refreshed rather quickly in here. When I went back in the next day (well, why not?) a closer look at the menu showed that the beers we were knocking back with merry abandon the night before were around 8-9% alcohol (and the one called Bush Ambree was 12%), which explained quite a lot... Delrium is a big place, but gets very busy as the night goes on. If you're drinking there in the afternoon to avoid the crowds you might also get stuck behind one of the huge tour groups that sometimes decamp in here en masse. The sight of Japanese grannies trying to knock back a pint of Bush Ambree almost makes getting stuck behind the world's biggest round worthwhile.

Their website is here.

inside Delirium. The guy on the left of the photo isn't reading the telephone directory, that's the beer menu!

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