Belgien – Brügge

After our short stay in Ghent we were bound westward in the late afternoon sun. We were excited to see Bruges, as we had heard it was even nicer than Ghent. The train sped by as we saw more of the Belgian countryside. The train ride was only about an hour, but I was glad for the short break after having spent the day walking. We arrived at the train station just Southwest of town, and quickly found busses departing for the city. There was some confusion as we didn’t know where to purchase tickets; we saw no machines which would let us. We ended up asking one of the rail employees and were told to go to the bus office in another building, but when we arrived we found it closed. Out of options, we went to ask a bus driver and found that we were able to pay in cash, so we did that and took the short ride to a stop right by our hostel.

By the time we got settled it was about dinner time, so we quickly decided on a nearby place and set out for it on foot. For dinner, I had sea bass and Mike ordered Mussels and Fries, a Belgian staple. The bass was excellent, and the restaurant was neat too. Dimly lit, we were tucked into a corner next to the bar, as the place was pretty crowded. We discussed plans and our trip so far over dinner, and decided to wander around a bit after dinner to see what we could find.

We were just a short walk from the main market square. The place was fairly empty, save for a few food vendors and the occasional tourist. Some of the buildings surrounding the square were illuminated – while it was fairly quiet we got a sense that this square would be bustling in the daytime.

DSC03988.JPG
The belfry at night

DSC03991.JPG

DSC04016.JPG

After some exploration, we went to check out a few bars. The first was actually recommended to me by Chelsea (which is ironic since she doesn’t drink) but the bar had a cool concept: a tucked away basement underneath an old church. You have to duck as you step down below street level, where you’re welcomed by some spanning arches and a quiet atmosphere of people enjoying good beers. We grabbed a drink and hung out, taking in the aesthetic. We sipped on our drinks but didn’t stay for a second, as we had another bar we wanted to check out and were trying to not make it too late of a night.

DSC04039.JPG
Our first bar, underneath an old church

The second bar we found was an Irish pub. This one had been recommended to us by Natty, who pointed out how ironic it was to be in an Irish pub which had a full beer list of delicious Belgian beers. We grabbed a spot at the crowded bar and began to chat with a local guy. At first he was annoyed with us, assuming we had come to the Irish pub because it was familiar and because they spoke English. Eventually he warmed up to us though, and we ended up talking for quite some time. He gave us beer recommendations and pointed out a nearby bar we should check out. We discussed cuisine which he was very passionate about as he was employed as a chef. He was proud of his food and his culture; perhaps the most memorable point in the evening came when Mike “misspoke” and complimented him on Belgium’s “French fries”. This spurred a loud outburst from our friend, who complained that they were in fact “Flemish fries” and that calling them “French fries” was misleading. He also pointed out a few sights we should check out, and we discussed international politics a bit. We mutually agreed that Heinekin was a terrible beer and discussed what a shame it was that the beer was so popular internationally.

After a long discussion we ended up leaving the pub and heading home, full of tasty beer, good memories, and insider tips. We headed home much later than we had anticipated and went straight to bed. And by straight to bed, I mean that we naturally stopped at the vendor selling fries on the street to pick some up before heading back to the hostel.

The next morning we woke up early enough to catch some breakfast at the hostel. Ready for the day, we marched back down towards the main market square, which was buzzing with activity. Vendors had driven trailers into the square and were selling everything edible you could imagine. Meats, cheeses, veggies, fresh fruit, seafood, and of course, desserts. We spent some time weaving through the crowded alleyways the trailers laid out, and were treated to a medley of sights, scents, and sounds of people getting fresh groceries.

DSC04041.JPG
The belfry in the daytime

After window-shopping in the market, we picked an interesting-looking spire on the skyline and made our way there. This was a church which was displaying some artwork, connected to an old preserved hospital called St. John. We paid a few euro and went inside, and got to look at an odd assortment of old medical implements as well as religious artwork. I find the role of the medieval church interesting when it came to medicine. On the one hand they did a lot of good helping people and working to fight disease. But on the other, they prevented autopsies and medical research which could have saved lives earlier than otherwise possible. It’s an interesting balance of power. The church featured some art and decorative tombs, including a Michaelangelo sculpture. It was a neat little gem to find, and it was pure luck that we did.

DSC04050.JPG
The large church tower that drew us in

DSC04061.JPG

After our tour of the hospital area, we ventured back towards the city center. It was about lunch time, and we were determined to enjoy more of the stereotypical Belgian foods. I had heard of a famous place for waffles, but Mike insisted we grab some fries beforehand. Neither of us really knew just how big the waffle would be, so the fries seemed like a good idea. We both ordered “small” servings, and were handed an overflowing paper basket full of twice-fried potatoes, which we each had to carry with two hands. The serving was huge and the fries were delicious, but they paled in comparison to what was to come.

We sat down at Lizzie’s in awe of the table next to us. Presented with a monumental waffle, the pair next to us was chowing down and they looked like they were in heaven. I ordered hot chocolate and a waffle with whipped cream. The hot chocolate was a uniquely decadent experience. They serve you warm milk and a little flower-looking ball of shaved chocolate, either white, milk, or dark. I opted for the dark as I expected the waffle to be really sweet. It’s up to you to drop the ball of chocolate into the milk and stir it, resulting in a creamy, rich mixture of deliciousness. I was only interrupted in enjoying the hot chocolate when our waffles came out, a massive grid of golden flakey goodness waiting for the freshly whipped (on-site) cream. The waffle was surprisingly light, which was a relief as there’s no way I would have finished a dense waffle that large. The whipped cream was not overly sweet either, which was a pleasant surprise. Everything complimented one another perfectly. We were stuffed but I’m proud (or ashamed) to announce (admit) I finished the waffle, albeit barely. I could not have had any more.

DSC04081.JPG
Heaven on a plate. A big one.

Full to bursting, we decided it was a good time to visit a chocolate shop. This sounds counter-intuitive but the rationale was that we wouldn’t impulse-buy anything. I bought my mom a gift box of chocolate from one of the more famous stores in Bruges. So far, she has been enjoying them thoroughly. After the chocolate-stop we went back to our hostel to drop off the goods and chill for a bit while our food settled.

In our downtime I found a place which looked promising for dinner. It was a ways away but we were in no hurry, so we took a roundabout way to get there, cutting south through town till we reached a large park area with some pretty waterways. We also took a chance to climb the bell tower and get a glimpse of the city from above.

DSC04090.JPG

DSC04092.JPG

DSC04105.JPG

There is a ring of park area circling the old-town, we followed this around until we reached the eastern side and then cut in to find our restaurant. The most entertaining part of this stroll was when a drawbridge had to be raised to allow a barge to pass, causing what must have been hundreds of bikers and dozens of cars to wait at the bridge. We stopped to watch the ensuing chaos as everyone went to move at once whenever the bridge was lowered.

DSC04144.JPG

DSC04151.JPG

DSC04160.JPG
The first few of many, many bikers

Our chosen restaurant was another cozy place. The dining area was pretty empty but our hostess informed us that we were only able to get a table because we were eating relatively early, and told us that there was a reservation for our table in a few hours. I ordered a Flemish beef stew which was pretty tasty. My meal included a dessert as well, because as you can tell I hadn’t had enough sweets or junk food during my time in Bruges.

The bar our local friend had recommended didn’t stay open very late. We wanted to check out their selection, so we headed there after dinner to grab a drink. At the bar we made fast friends with a British gentleman, where we again talked about politics, international travel, and broadening one’s horizons. It was a nice conversation and he ended up buying us a few drinks. 2/2 on meeting strangers in bars in Bruges. We didn’t make a late night of it, and made it to our hostel around 11 or 12, then turned in to go to bed.

Throughout the night I did not sleep well. I am unsure if it was something I ate, the alcohol, or the less-than-stellar accommodation we were staying at, but I had a bad stomachache and woke up several times in the night. The next morning I was not feeling well, but I had some water and bread, deciding it might help settle my stomach. We had one more thing we wanted to check out before heading to Amsterdam – an old local Brewery right in the heart of town.

The brewery tour was neat – you got to see how they made beer in a very tight space using several stories to carry out different stages of the process. The tour also included a view from their roof, which showed a nice perspective of the Bruges skyline. I’ve come to realize that Belgians are passionate about their beer, and for good reason. We sampled a glass (ok maybe not the best idea given how I felt, but it was free) and it was excellent. The brewery gained some clout recently when they installed a beer pipeline, yes, pipeline, to their aging facility just on the outskirts of town. The pipeline was crowd-funded and was also the subject of endless jokes about locals tapping into it, but the pipeline is practical in that it reduces heavy vehicular traffic in the old town.

DSC04173.JPG

DSC04172.JPG

IMG_20170323_122101397.jpg
Beer pipeline!

After our tour we grabbed our bags from storage lockers in the hostel and made our way to the train station. I was still not feeling 100%, but I slept on the way to Amsterdam which helped a good bit.

We had made the most of our time in Belgium. I had seen and tasted far more than I thought I would given the limited time we had, it seemed like I needed a little recovery time. But my journey across Europe with Mike was not yet over, and we still had all of Amsterdam to explore. Expect the end of this story in my next post. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Belgien – Gent

We got up, grabbed some free breakfast from our hostel, and checked out,  bound for Ghent. We made the short 10 minute walk and were lucky enough to catch a train without having to wait too much. The ride was short and the landscape pretty, rolling green hills whizzed by as we made our way. Before long we had arrived in Ghent, ready to explore. We dropped off our large bags in lockers at the train station and headed to catch a tram into town. We were a little confused as it was not clear how we could buy tickets, but eventually we figured it out and were even able to help an older British gentleman with his transit too.

We passed by some awesome-looking buildings on our way into town. We eventually decided we were close enough and hopped off the tram so that we could find some lunch. We found a place serving bagels and each ordered two, with various toppings. After our tasty bagels, we left the shop. We had literally no plan. Our only goal was to experience the town and life there.

DSC03809.JPG

We set off on foot and found several beautiful churches neatly in a row. An ornate town hall, and some interesting public spaces. We explored the streets for more than a few hours, stopping for pictures and occasionally to grab some chocolates. We found a neat food market which had taken over an unused church building, climbed the tower at the town hall, and found a large medieval castle which we spent some time touring. Ghent was really an unplanned trip but the town surprised us with how pretty everything was.

DSC03813.JPG

DSC03819.JPG

DSC03828.JPG

DSC03844.JPG

DSC03849.JPG

DSC03857.JPG

The castle had the stereotypical grey stone construction, battlements, a keep, and nearby water. Everything you’d expect from a European fortress. There were a few cool exhibits inside and the view from the top was a nice benefit too.

DSC03872.JPG

DSC03877.JPG

DSC03890.JPG

DSC03892.JPG

DSC03895.JPG

DSC03899.JPG

DSC03907.JPG

DSC03914.JPG

DSC03933.JPG

We also liked how “normal” the town felt. There were few, if any tourists besides us there, and it seemed like we were a little out of place taking pictures while everyone went about their daily business. We did find other visitors at the castle, but to me the most striking thing about Ghent was how off-the-beaten-path it felt.

DSC03945.JPG

In Ghent it seemed like every turn we took led us to another picturesque street, plaza, or crazy-looking building. I know it seems like we didn’t do much of anything while we were there, but just navigating the streets seemed to be the thing to do.

DSC03957.JPG

DSC03963.JPG

DSC03969.JPG

DSC03971.JPG

DSC03980.JPG

Sorry for the short post, but I think this story was best told through the pictures. Ghent is such a pretty town, I highly advise making the trip if you happen to be visiting, it is right between Brussels and Bruges and is therefore highly convenient for Belgium.

We left in the late afternoon, grabbed our bags and caught a train to Bruges. Bruges was quite the town, but you’ll have to wait for my next post to hear about it. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Belgien – Brüssel

Monday morning I woke up early to go for a run. We had much warmer weather in Belgium than we had been having in Berlin, so I wanted to kick off the springtime with a little exercise. I ran to a narrow little sliver of park not far from where we were staying, which featured an old gatehouse towering above the open grassy field. The most memorable part of my run was not the tower however. I distinctly recall having to weave through a seemingly endless stream of schoolchildren. Apparently I chose to run right when school starts on a Monday morning in Brussels.

We skipped breakfast and set off to our first stop, the Atomium building in the northwest corner of town. Built for a World’s Fair in the 1950s, the building has a very “new yet old” kind of feel to it, the sort of thing you associate with the ’50s and ’60s where designers were trying to be super modern. Now it feels a little ironic, but only because their conception of the future was a bit off. Who can blame them?

DSC03719.JPG
At the Atomium building
DSC03690.JPG
View from the top, the structure is huge!

The structure itself consists of several sphere-shaped rooms, each with different exhibits describing the fair and the world of Brussels in the ’50s. At the top we were treated to a view from the observation deck, where we could see the fairgrounds and some of the city laid out before us. Escalators and stairs take you from one orb to another, weaving through the maze of the molecule (fun fact: it’s in the shape of iron). The experience was a little tacky but I thought the architecture was sufficiently unique to justify spending a few euro and our morning.

DSC03714.JPG
One of the escalators decided to be a wormhole..
DSC03707.JPG
More detail on the structure

There was a mini-golf looking setup visible from the observation deck. Turns out this was a “Mini-Europe” featuring scale models of famous landmarks and buildings from various countries. We looked at going in, but the price was sufficiently high to keep us from going in – I forget the exact price but I think it was upwards of 20 euro each. No thanks. We left and made our way back to the city center.

DSC03682.JPG
As close to “Mini Europe” as we ended up seeing

We were in Belgium. We had priorities. We got waffles. Hopping off the metro, we walked along a busy main street and came across a few places selling waffles. We didn’t stop at the very first one, although it didn’t take us long to venture into a shop and try some. My first Belgian waffle had Nutella and Banana as toppings. Needless to say, it was spectacular.

We left the waffle shop and made our way to the nearby “Mannekin Pis”. The statue is world-famous, for reasons unknown to me, though I guess it is an unusual subject for a public statue. I had heard it would be small and unimpressive, but it was still fun to go see – I enjoyed a bit of people-watching as we waited around for a few minutes. Oh yeah, we got another waffle.

DSC03722.JPG
The statue is relieving himself. Not pictured: crowds of confused tourists

Stuffed full of sugar, we walked to a pretty market square nearby. Here, tall, narrow buildings sported gold trimmings, while street performers and tour guides drew crowds of visiting tourists. We walked through the square, examined the buildings, and did a little window shopping (AKA joking about buying Rolex watches).

Exiting the market square we wandered over to the Royal Palace. While it wasn’t particularly impressive, the walk over was relaxing and it was good to get a little exercise to work off all the waffles. We didn’t go inside, we just checked out the palace from the nearby park.

DSC03760.JPG
The royal palace. It has guards but they don’t look as cool as the ones in London or the Vatican

DSC03766.JPG

After our brief stop at the palace we were left without much of an itinerary. We decided to aimlessly wander for a bit, so we picked the nearest interesting roof we could find and headed that way. We stumbled upon the Palace of Justice, a massive courthouse. Surprisingly, we had no issues getting inside for free and explored the corridors for some time, unsupervised. It felt a bit like we were trespassing, but there were clearly marked areas where visitors were not allowed, and we made sure to stay clear of these. The courthouse also had a nice view overlooking the city, so we spent a little time outside taking advantage of that also.

DSC03770.JPG

DSC03772.JPG

DSC03776.JPG
The Palace of Justice

 

DSC03807.JPG

DSC03806.JPG
Inside views

We eventually left the courthouse and headed back to the hostel to do a bit of planning and take a breather from the day. We grabbed dinner at a Belgian place, but the highlight of our evening was definitely our after dinner activity. We went to a famous bar called Delirium, where they offer over 2400 types of beer. Needless to say, we were spoiled for choice, and spent the evening sampling and trying all sorts of odd beers. The place itself had 3 bar areas, each with a different feel and different beer list. We spent some time at each. I particularly liked some of the sour beer and fruit beers we got to try, though pretty much everything was delicious. We didn’t pull a super-late night as we wanted to be up at a reasonable time the next day. But I really enjoyed just hanging out and trying delicious drinks in a calm setting.

IMG_20170320_210504132.jpg
A small portion of the beers on display

After our time at the bar, we walked back to the hostel, stopping briefly to admire the illuminated market-square where we had been earlier.

Tired, full of good food and good beer, we headed to bed. We had lots more in Belgium to explore. I’ll tell you about our next stops in later posts. Until next time,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben