Ah, Belgium! The land of famously-brewed beer, delectable chocolate, and the most delicious waffels on this planet. Matt and I took our first European backpacking trip to Belgium last weekend, and it was both memorable and frustrating!
We awoke at 4 in the morning to get to the airport the required 2 hours before our flight. We are familiar with the Dublin airport, so experienced no problems here. Our airline, on the other hand, is a different story. Ryanair, in one word: exasperating. Yes, we chose this airline based on the low fares, only to find that no drink is complimentary, they’ve never heard of queuing a line, and a flight is just another opportunity to try and sell merchandise: scratch cards, perfumes, food, drinks, etc. We were lucky to end up in the front row of the plane, or so we thought. No nap would be had on our 7 a.m. flight, because a cart must be prepared each time they move on to the next item for sale. By the time we landed in Brussels, we were tired, wired, and out of that airport as fast as our feet could take us.
Which was to the train station, another part of our annoying adventure to get to the perfect city of Bruges. Unfortunately, we flew into the Charleroi airport in Brussels, which is about 40 minutes outside of the city. We had to take one train into the city, wait another 30 minutes, and catch the next train to Bruges. Public transportation is a concept lost on many of us Americans who don’t live in places like New York, so our train experience will be one I remember forever. Will the stench of b.o., not produced by myself I might add, left behind on our train car ever come out of the clothes I was wearing that day? Only time will tell.
Ah, but our arrival in Bruges was met with crisp, clean air, blue skies, sunshine, and perfect mid-70 degree weather. Rather than drop our backpacks off at the hotel, we settled in at the first waffel cafe we could find and begged our waitress for a beer with a very high alcohol content. Waffels in Belgium are not enjoyed for breakfast; rather, it is a common afternoon snack covered in fattening butter, brown sugar, chocolate, or fruit. Mmmmm…paired with a nice beer and a soft breeze, we could about forget the long morning we just had.
From there began one of the most memorable, if I could remember it all, evenings I’ve had in a long time. The Markt Square is bustling with people, horse-drawn carriages, open-air cafes, and a bell tower that watches over it all. The architecture here is very medieval, at times gothic-inspired. We set out first to a restaurant called L’Estaminet where we enjoyed a Belgium favorite, a croquette. This is a small, fried food roll, and ours was filled with cheese. Fried cheese, a glass of red wine for me, a blonde beer for Matt, and we were on our way to enlightened bliss.
That was just the appetizer, though. Dinner was spent on the canal, under a setting sun, with swans swimming by just a foot away from our table. The 57, a restaurant owned by a Russian man, served us the best champagne, a creamy mushroom soup, and lobster ravioli, the only seafood dish I’ve ever seen Matt eat. Candlelit with a view of the medieval churches, the only thing missing was, well, nothing.
An open-air concert met us on our path back to the square. A Flemish band was set up in a courtyard, but they were singing popular American music. Here we met local people our age, rocking out to our music. Which is where we should have stopped, but I insisted we finish at a pub called De Garre. Through an ivy-terraced alleyway, up a narrow set of stairs, and two 22-point beers later, I would be hating myself the next morning for insisting our night was not over. My headache in the morning made it that more difficult to climb all 366 stairs to the top of the Bell Tower. While the view at the top was phenomenal, I was more grateful for the breeze upon my sweaty face. The Salvador Dali exhibit was worth both the money and the time and a stop at the Basilica of the Holy Blood followed, where I laid eyes upon the BLOOD OF JESUS CHRIST preserved; very cool.
Our time at Bruges then came to an end. We once again hopped onto the train, only to experience the most horrendous ride ever, in which I will spare you the boring details. Brussels could have been impressive, but after Bruges, it was just a mere stop on our way home. Grand Place was beyond incredible with its architecture and ambience. The smell of chocolate invites even a non-sweet lover like myself into every other establishment. Matt and I filled a bag to bring home, which I am still munching on to this day.
All in all, we had a lovely trip, but we also learned a thing or two about travelling over here. One, the people in Belgium, more so in Brussels than in Bruges, do not seem to be quite fond of Americans, so beware. Two, public transportation can be confusing and its operators can be rather rude, so ride with caution. Nothing is written in English, so do a lot of research before travels. Three, the airport might say it’s in Brussels, but that doesn’t mean it is. It could be, oh, 70 kilometers outside of the city…oops! Last, and certainly not least: all of these things aside, the culture, weather, and positive experiences we had on this trip will forever be a part of my memory.