After four weeks of non-stop travel, spending a fifth week traveling to Belgium was the last thing I wanted to do because I was exhausted and I hadn’t had any time to prepare for it! But, I am happy I got to go on this trip to see Maya, make new friends, and see some amazing cities. A lot of people have said that Belgium wasn’t their favorite trip… now I know not to trust anyone because it was awesome!
Thursday April 6
As fate had it, one of Maya’s friends Madison joined in on our trip and met me at the Brussels Charelroi airport on Thursday morning while Maya and her other friend Gabby couldn’t come until Friday. I got up for a super early flight out of Pisa and it was nice to understand a lot of the French spoken by the passengers around me on the plane. I met Madison at the airport and we took a long bus into the Brussels and I fell asleep.
Our hostel was a little bit sketchy but was right by the train station the bus dropped off by. We checked into the room and took off right away to find some food because we were starving! The center of the city and the iconic Grand Place was a straight shot from the hostel and took about 10 minutes to walk to. We didn’t spent much time here because we were anxious to eat and figured there wouldn’t be anything but touristy food in the immediate area as usual. So, we walked a couple blocks a different direction and found a restaurant open and ate lunch. I had a vol au vent which is a traditional dish of Brussels and it was very yummy. We both enjoyed a Kriek – a sweet cherry beer recommended by the server and it was yummy. I was excited to try more Belgian beer in the short time I had here.
After a refreshing lunch, we decided to go to the Museum of Musical Instruments. This place was cool because it was full of instruments from many countries throughout history and you walked around with a headset and got to listen to clips of songs the instruments could play. This place was pretty extensive and it was dark and I was listening to soft classical music…so after a while I was getting really sleepy. I think I actually dozed off when I found a chair to sit on for a minute.
We walked around the city a little bit more, finding a park and the Galeries Royale Saint-Hubert with lots of chocolate! It was getting time for a siesta so we headed back to the hostel and fell asleep until dinner. For dinner, we found a popular area with lots of restaurants and ate at a trendy fish and chips place. Mid-way through dinner I realized it was time for me to sign up for my Fall classes back at UIUC! So I connected to the wifi and signed up for some classes… I hadn’t really planned for this so I signed up for a bunch of things I didn’t really need after all. We did some more walking around but were pretty lost so we ultimately decided to sign up for a Sandeman walking tour in the morning to get some direction
Friday April 7
Breakfast consisted of rice cakes and apples that we picked up from a nice grocery store after dinner the night before – luckily the tour started in Grand Place so we knew exactly where to go!
Our tour guide was sooo awesome because he was high energy and actually grew up in Brussels. Also, we noticed that there was a guy in our group who was wearing Illini gear! We befriended him and his other two friends (Anthony, Francisco and Ignacio) and the three of them are studying for the semester in Bath. The two non-u of I friends were actually from Argentina so that was cool!
On this tour we covered everything: where to get the best chocolate and waffles, the many types of beer (including beer made by monks?), it’s love for comic books (especially Tintin) Brussels’ history in trade with the many guilds, and its cultural melting pot. An interesting note is that the guide praised Germany for acknowledging its dark past and choosing to educate instead of ignore…because in school he did not ever learn about the genocide carried out by King Leopold II even though many of the beautiful things built in the city are blood stained. At the end of the tour, the guide actually thanked us for being willing to visit his city – tourism has been low since the terrorist attacks a little over a year ago and the city is still recovering. It was eerie talking about the bombings since we were only a couple blocks from the train station that was attacked. I never thought about why that was probably why my ticket to Brussels was so inexpensive even though it is a relatively far flight from Florence.
After the tour, we went to get frites with our new friends and made plans to meet up later that night after Maya and Gabby got there (even though we never saw them again). The frites were yummy, but not as good as they should have been seeing as French fries originate in Belgium… I think it is because we went with plain ketchup instead of getting the traditional mayonnaise. We went back to the hostel to wait for the two of them since there was no other way to meet up with them.
After Maya and Gabby got there, we gave them a quick tour of Brussels with our fresh knowledge of the city. We scoped a nice place for dinner and had an amazing meal – I splurged and got a salmon and had my favorite beer of the trip a Ciney Brune. The food here in Brussels was a little bit more expensive than I expected. We had post dinner chocolate and wound up at a Dilirium bar. Throughout the semester, Maya and I had developed a newfound love for beer so we were anxious to try them all here! Although it was fun and the beer was great, we didn’t stay out long and walked home to sleep.
Saturday April 8th
The group had a bit of an early morning because we decided to do a day trip to Bruges! It is a small town north of Brussels only about an hour train ride away. Amazingly, there was a weekend pass that allowed unlimited use of the lines between Brussels and Bruges for only like ten euros. So we got that and figured it would be worth going to Ghent the next day.
After some initial confusion buying the wrong tickets and having to switch them at customer service (this is why you always go super early) we were on the train! But, this train was so full that we actually didn’t get seats and had to sit on the floor between the cars. At least the ride was short.
The train station was on the outer edge of Bruges so we had to find our way to the center of the small city. Being here was like being thrown back in time because it was quiet at this time in the morning and everything was so old! We allowed ourselves to get lost in the streets a little bit because we had time before the walking tour I signed us up for. The sun came out and warmed it up enough for us to sit outside for a quick lunch. Something funny is that one of the popular dishes in Belgium is an untraditional spaghetti Bolognese with a mound of cheese on top of it. Not what I’m used to but I still ate the entire thing!
With some more time to kill, we walked around a nice shopping area and did a little shopping. This town must have money because the streets are kept very well and it kind of reminded me of Copenhagen because it was trendy and clean on the side streets.
Eventually it was time for the actual tour! There was one free walking tour in Bruges and I’m glad I snagged us some spots – it was great. The tour guide grew up in Bruges and he was awesome. At the end of the tour there was some kind of performance going on with an entire band in uniform. After downing a waffle we ran into the band walking down the streets in a parade. By late afternoon the town was completely packed with tourists and it was so packed that we almost got run over by a horse and buggy when we stepped into the street trying to get around! It was crazy and we were tired so we headed back to Brussels.
Back in Brussels, we ate some yummy Thai food! There was an entire street of Asian restaurants but we chose a good one. I had been missing Asian food in Florence and I wanted something spicy… the green curry here definitely delivered on that wish. Before heading home we got more chocolate and picked up an assortment of beers from the grocery store. Something popular to do it sit around in Grand Place and drink so we joined the many groups of people in the plaza and formed our own little group. This was great people watching turf! There was a little boy who wondered away from his dad to dance with the teenagers next to us – he was so cute and just wanted to dance to their music!
Sunday April 9th
Exhausted, we headed home to the hostel. In the morning, we decided to go to Ghent since our tickets were still valid. Even though we were tired I’m so glad we went because this was my favorite stop in Belgium!
The train station actually left us a ways outside the center of the city so we had a bit of a hike. Before heading in, we chilled out at a big park with beautiful pink flowers blooming. The sun came out and it actually got warm and we had to take our jackets off.
We spent some time walking around the pretty town along the water. Feeling a bit hungry, we landed on a hip pizza place and had an amazing meal. The pizzas came with salad and my salad had kale and shredded sweet potatoes – unique but fresh and yummy. We didn’t actually get the chance to go into any of the sites here, but it was relaxing just walking around on this lazy Sunday. Everyone was lounging in the sun and enjoying the afternoon.
My flight was around 7 and I had to leave Brussels around 4 – I was a little anxious about getting back so I didn’t miss my bus! That didn’t leave much time in Ghent but it was still a lovely visit. I gathered my things, said bye to everyone – including my new friends – and headed to the bus stop alone. My travel back home was uneventful and I got to the apartment really late. However, I was SO happy to be home and really looking forward to staying in Florence for a while after traveling like a maniac every weekend. It is the ultimate first world problem, but I was getting sick of all the travel stress!