Even allowing for being buffeted by the economic storms roiling the world at the time of writing, the three Benelux countries continue to enjoy an enviable standard of living, and a quality of life that makes good use of it. Their societies become more multicultural by the day, a development that's seen most clearly in the towns and cities -- these lands are among the most urbanized on earth. For the most part, this has only added to their contemporary vibrancy, but the process has not been without stress. Even Amsterdam's famed tolerance has shown signs of strain.
To make themselves even more livable than they already are, the big cities of Brussels, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and the Hague have been building out their rapid transit systems, redeveloping decayed or decaying inner-city and harbor zones, and expanding their cultural offerings. All the while, more ethnic eateries and shops are springing up. Other cities such as Bruges, Ghent, Liège, Utrecht, Maastricht, and Luxembourg City (to name just a few!) are doing no less, and some of the essential pleasure of a visit to the Benelux is to get out of the big cities and find out what's up in these other places.
The Greek company Superfast Ferries decided that operating on the North Sea was a mite too chilly for them, and withdrew to their Adriatic and Aegean comfort zone (who can blame them?). Norfolkline plans to take over the ferry service from Rosyth (Edinburgh), Scotland to Zeebrugge, Belgium.
An improved Thalys high-speed train service, operating on a new high-speed rail line in Belgium and Holland, is expected to be operational some time in 2010, and will reduce the travel time between Brussels and Amsterdam by an hour.
One leg of Netherlands Railways old triad of domestic train services has been snapped off. The sneltrein, or fast train, which stopped only at decent-sized places on a particular line, has disappeared and an increased InterCity Express service has been introduced.
From the start of 2009, all public transportation in the Netherlands has been using the new OV-chipkaart. This chip-enabled smart card is loaded with a preselected number of euros which are then reduced automatically by electronic readers as you ride.
Secondhand smoke no longer gets in your eyes and up your nose as much as formerly in Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, now that restrictions on smoking in restaurants, bars, cafes, clubs, and other places, and in public spaces in hotels have been introduced. In Holland, a typically Dutch compromise applies to drug-selling "smoking coffeeshops," where patrons are still permitted to puff joints, but not cigarettes, cigars, or pipes.
The city's tourist organization, Brussels International Tourism & Congress, has expanded its on-the-ground service for visitors. In addition to an office on the city's central square, the Grand-Place, there's one close to the royal palace on rue Royale, and desks at the airport and the main international rail station. There's even one dedicated to the denizens of the European Parliament and other Euro-institutions.
The contact point for the city's gay and lesbian community, with meeting rooms and a cafe, is La Maison Arc en Ciel (Rainbow House), rue du Marché-au-Charbon 42 (tel. 02/503-5990).
Despite having always been a busy place and occupying one of the most scenic locations in Bruges -- on the shore of the Minnewater (Lake of Love) -- the restaurant Kasteel Minnewater has closed. It seems unlikely that such a prime site will remain forever unexploited, so it might be worthwhile to stroll along the lake's east shore to see what, if anything, is cooking at the neo-Gothic château (1893).
The Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Fine Arts Museum; tel. 09/240-07-00; www.mskgent.be) has reopened following extensive renovations.
Two of the town's art museums have joined forces to create the new Kunstmuseum aan Zee, Romestraat 11 (tel. 059/50-81-18). And if Ostend doesn't sound like a citadel of art, it does have works by native son James Ensor and other more-or-less modern Flemish artists.
The Musée de la Vie Wallonne, Cour des Mineurs 1 (tel. 04/237-90-40), which is among francophone Belgium's finest museums, has reopened.
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