As we might have mentioned once or twice, we spent Christmas this year in the Benelux region of Europe. Apparently, these countries are pretty small and close to each other geographically and culturally, so they get their own cute acronym. (BElgium, NEtherlands, LUXembourg.) We had a fantastic time over the holiday season and this post highlights ten reasons to visit Benelux at Christmas.
People in this region know how to do Christmas lights right. We didn’t see one blow-up Santa or the Grinch. Instead, lights are strung tastefully on the already adorable buildings. This is even more impressive when you think about how the buildings are mainly tall and skinny and you’d have to get real creative to string lights on the highest gables. In Amsterdam, residents who lived on the houseboats in the canals decorated their homes (?) boats (?) so when you looked down the canals you’d see twinkling in your peripheral vision.
City centers were the main concentration of lights and nothing was better than the Grand Place in Brussels. We showed some videos from this spectacle, with lights being turned on and off all of the buildings surrounding the courtyard to choreographed music. This is a must see for Christmas in this area. So cool!
As we learned in the movie, Elf, “the best way to spread Christmas Cheer, is singing loud for all to hear.” Well, Christmas cheer was around us several times on this trip thanks to random Christmas Carolers. The funniest one was when we were walking down the street in Ypres, Belgium, and heard music coming at us. Turns out a group of people dressed as polar bears were making the rounds playing different instruments.
Most of the towns we visited had small ice skating rinks set up in the center of town. It was really sweet to see all of the kiddos out there having a great time as they circled the rink. A few of us in the group were slightly injured and not quite up to ice-skating form, so we didn’t actually skate ourselves, but it warmed my heart every time I saw one of these rinks set up.
Alright, in all honesty, we didn’t eat any desserts that were specific to Christmas. However, as Christmas is the time to indulge in all matter of deliciousness anyway, it was terrific to be able to partake of these delicacies in a place that just does them so much better than we do here in the states. I have no idea why pastries taste so much better in Europe (maybe massive quantities of butter?) but they just do. Pretty much every meal ended with some sort of waffle, doughnut or chocolate.
Christmas is a busy time to visit Benelux. We definitely didn’t have the place to ourselves, and usually massive amounts of tourists make for grumpy locals. But at Christmas time, it seemed like everyone, no matter if they were visitors or residents, was happy. On Christmas Eve we had reservations for dinner at a small, fancy place. The staff were all dressed up and at one point they all headed outside to get a group picture. I bet stuff like that doesn’t happen in the middle of the summer rush of tourist season.
Belgian chocolate has a well-earned reputation for being some of the best chocolate in the world. During Christmas time, you can just straight up eat the chocolate bars and truffles. Or…you can drink your chocolate, liquified, with a little milk. I’m sure you can order hot chocolate at most restaurants throughout the year. But at Christmas time, you can purchase cups of it in the street at the markets. Instead of starting with hot water and adding powdered sugar (?) cocoa (?) whatever it is, hot chocolate in Benelux starts with steamed milk, most likely whole, and then chocolate is mixed in. That’s it–chocolate and milk. At chocolate shops we found wooden spoons with a massive hunk of solid chocolate on the end that you can take home and warm up your own milk, stirring until the chocolate dissolves. I have to be honest–it’s hard to go back to our hot chocolate after having this stuff.
You can just feel the merriment in the air. Probably because they have fun things set up like amusement rides and races. I’m actually not 100% sure whether the carnival-type atmosphere was just for Christmas, but it looked fairly transient, so I’m thinking so. Around the markets there were fun things like carousels and ferris wheels. In Brussels we had to wait for about ten minutes to cross the street to our hotel because hundreds of runners dressed up in Santa hats were racing in a 5K. I defy people to be unhappy seeing that many Santas.
I don’t really ever need an excuse to shop, but shopping in Europe at Christmas was a goal before I left. We lived in Germany when I was a kid and my mom got some great wooden ornaments that we still use on her Christmas tree that I just love. I wanted to see if I could find some that were similar. Sadly, I didn’t, but I did get some great ornaments that will look smashing on the tree next year. Most stores had cute Christmas items put out and as the dollar was doing pretty good next to the Euro, we had some fun shopping.
There seem to be cathedrals on every corner in some of the cities. In Ghent, I had my heart set on seeing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which lives in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. We had a slight problem by not being able to locate which, of the five cathedrals we came across in a quarter of a mile, was St. Bavos. The point is, cathedrals in Europe are frequent, beautiful and inspiring. It seemed especially nice to visit these during Christmas time. We had hoped to join a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but that didn’t work out. Next time!
I saved the best for last. Christmas markets consist of cute little wooden sheds all stacked up next to each other in rows. People sell a variety of knick knacks, handicrafts, beer and food and everyone just mills around and soaks up the Christmas cheer. We visited markets in most of the cities we came to; some had the ice skating rinks nearby, most had music playing and all had Christmas trees placed around decoratively. It was so wonderful! I spoke with a local who said you have to go to Germany to really experience the Christmas markets, but I’m not sure how these will be topped. (I’m all for accepting that challenge, though.)
There are plenty of reasons to visit the Benelux countries of Europe. We were barely able to scratch the surface of things to see and do, but visiting during Christmas time added an extra element of specialness to our trip. I think I might have been converted; I told B that Christmas in Europe might be my new thing.