When Avalon Waterways scheduled four "Enchanting Belgium" cruises on its 2016 line-up, the trip on the rarely traveled Meuse River seemed an exciting addition to river cruising.
And then the March 22 terrorist attacks took place in Brussels, killing 32 people and seriously damaging the city’s airport and a subway station.
Avalon sprang into action right away. The company gave travelers a month to rebook planned travel to the city on any future departure dates in 2016 or 2017. Less than 40 people took them up on the offer. Less than 10 passengers canceled their trips outright.
Instead, Avalon’s four trips along the Meuse River set sail with at least 200 passengers on board – exactly what the cruise line was expecting for its new offering.
While life is returning to normal in Brussels, here are five things river cruisers need to know about Belgium right now:
Brussels Airport is still recovering from the attacks, and while the departure hall has reopened, cruisers should allow extra time, particularly when departing from the city on an international flight. Allot at least two hours to get to the departure gate, and have your passport and a printed itinerary or a boarding pass in hand to speed the way through security.
When I arrived at the Brussels Airport at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, it took more than an hour to reach the British Airways check-in desk because of extra security along the way. I did not have a printed itinerary or boarding pass, but a security guard eventually agreed to allow me to pass with an itinerary I pulled up on my cell phone. While the airport had additional staff on-hand there to help guide passengers, it was still confusing and felt chaotic at times.
Airport employees were bringing chairs to older people who grew tired of waiting in line. Once checked in, it took another 30 minutes for me to reach my gate. The journey required lots of walking and many flights of stairs, which were tough for some.
Travelers will notice the presence of additional armed police and military officers in the airport, on streets and in public places.
That said, it’s important to note there also isn’t an “under siege” feeling in the air and the city feels safe. In late April, bars and restaurants were jammed with many taking advantage of the mild weather to sit outdoors. During a stop at the celebrated cafe A La Mort Subite, our waiter sang as he worked his way among the tables. On a weekend, the city’s central pedestrian area was filled with people, including families with small children begging for waffles. Some locals were taking part in an organized clean-up event, clad in distinctive uniforms and armed with brooms and other tools. Tourists and others were enjoying the closed pedestrian city center, watching street musicians and acrobatic performers.
Cruise lines are aware of passenger concerns and are addressing them. Avalon increased security on and around its Belgium cruises after the terrorist attacks. P&O Cruises rerouted a short cruise that included Zeebrugge to Le Havre and plans to assess cruises individually going forward. Most river lines, including Viking, AmaWaterways and Uniworld allowed passengers to rebook (for more on what happened after the Brussels attacks, read our News story).
Much has been made of the fact that some individuals involved in the Paris attacks and Brussels bombings had connections to the latter city’s Molenbeek neighborhood. But this thriving area just outside the city center boasts a new museum — Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art — and the popular Meininger Hotel, housed in a former brewery. The district has about 95,000 residents, half of them from Morocco or of Moroccan descent, meaning it hosts some of the city’s finest Moroccan cuisine and casual kebab joints. Avalon does not offer formal tours of Brussels but your cruise director will be able to point you in the right direction.
If the big city is still making you feel uneasy, keep in mind that most Belgium cruises go beyond Brussels into smaller cities and towns.
Quaint Namur, where the Meuse River itineraries embark, is about an hour from Brussels by train. Spend the day walking its cobblestoned streets and enjoying its natural beauty. Climb to the 2,000 year old Citadel de Namur to enjoy a beautiful view of the town and the two rivers that run through it, the Meuse and the Sambre.
Or consider a visit to Liege, the city even people from Brussels credit with the nation’s best waffles. Since Namur is the first or last stop on the cruise, depending on which direction the ships is sailing, it’s easy to easy to arrange transport to this quaint town. Also about an hour away from Brussels , Liege is the birthplace of the Emperor Charlemagne and the home of the largest American military cemetery in Belgium. Before that waffle, sample the town’s famous Boulets la Liegoise as I did. Each ball is a mixture of different meats — pork, veal, or whatever combination the restaurant in question prefers — and is served with a slightly sweet sauce known as “sauce lapin,” although there is no rabbit in the mix.
Liege also promotes a unique liquor, Peket, that’s made from juniper berries. It’s often served with a violet-flavored beverage. It’s worth a try, especially if you like flowery drinks.
Avalon offered four Meuse tours this Spring and plans to expand to six next year. The company says it will consider additional cruises at different times during the year if these itineraries prove popular.