“If you look like your passport photo, you’re too ill to travel.”
As probably all of you know by now, I took a trip through Belgium and the Netherlands at the beginning of the month. Here’s the day-by-day chronicling of my six-day trek. Enjoy.
Thursday, April 1st:
Work today was particularly stressful, since the financial year end was the day before, and there’s an upcoming implementation of a new finance system. That means that I’m pretty much swamped at work now, although it definitely ensures I’ll be employed for a while longer yet. Needless to say, I was particularly “chuffed” to be going on my long-awaited holiday. The flight was relatively painless: no hassle at security or about my bag size or weight (Ryanair is usually very stingy about that, since that’s how they make their money) and the flight was ahead of schedule. The airport we landed in is called Brussels Charleroi, but it’s not in Brussels, it’s in Charleroi, which is an hour’s drive south of Brussels.
On the bus ride over, it actually took me about twenty minutes to realize that we were no longer driving on the wrong (i.e.: left) side of the road. For a very brief moment, that realization made me a bit homesick. Thankfully, Belgium is not as backwards a country as the UK, so they’ve got with the program like the rest of the civilized world. The reason for driving on the left has to do with your sword arm being on the inside of the road. For some reason, we don’t use swords in cars like they did when horses were the chief mode of transportation. One can dream though, right?
Once in Brussels, it was past 11pm. And believe it or not, I didn’t find my hostel until around 12:30am. Granted, the bus dumped me at the other end of town, but it was a test of patience to read a terrible map at night when all I wanted to do was go to bed. I would never call Brussels a dangerous city, but I have to say I felt a bit vulnerable walking around at night with a suitcase.
Sites of interest on this fine evening included: a very obvious Asian prostitute; a madman pacing around in the subway station talking very angrily to himself, to the simultaneous delight and horror of bystanders; and about 30 homeless people lined up against a wall, all sleeping, or passed out, or whatever it is homeless people do when they’re lying on the ground.
Friday, April 2nd:
Early morning today, despite the late night. I don’t like to let the world pass me by while I sleep, you see. Actually, that’s not true, I love sleep. It’s just that on this particular day, I had places to go. That place, if you must know, was Bruges. But before heading there, I took a quick look around town (i.e.: I looked around me as I was walking to the train station) and managed to see the cathedral pictured below. It wasn’t even listed in my guide book, so it must not be very important. And I’ve seen about 8,000 of these things already. Silly Brussels, thinking it can impress me with its massive, beautifully-constructed cathedrals.
By the way, when I arrived in Charleroi the night before, people there were speaking French, which is understandable since it’s in the southern part of the country, known as Wallonia, which is predominantly French. Brussels is fairly central but a bit to the north and in Flanders, so I was expecting to hear mostly Flemish, but in fact most people here seem to speak French. People greet you first in French, unlike Bruges where it is Flemish, and signs in Brussels always list French first, then Flemish. This suited me just fine, because I’ve been able to practice my French, with pretty good success.
Also worth mentioning (or maybe not, but I’m going to anyway) is that in Belgium they speak Flemish, but in the Netherlands they speak Dutch. Until a few months ago, I thought that Flemish and Dutch were two different languages, but I’ve discovered that they’re actually pretty much exactly the same. The Belgians just call the language Flemish because they’re from Flanders. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever to name your most commonly-spoken language after a different nation, right Canadians and Americans and Australians and Kiwis and Scots and Irish(wo)men and Welsh(wo)men (etc)?
So, Bruges. Sickeningly picturesque, and just as touristy. Dare I say it’s a tad fake? But who cares, this place looks so disgustingly nice, it makes me want to vomit. Trust me, once you’ve been to Bruges, you’ll understand. And regardless of what Bruges may or may not be, it is most definitely a behemoth of a tourism money-making machine, and they make that no secret. So touristy, in fact, that I felt like I was being sucked into a giant vortex of tourism, also known as the world’s biggest tourist trap. Except this vortex was made of winding cobbled streets framed by beautiful medieval buildings, and Belgian chocolate – much more appealing than your regular run-of-the-mill vortex, so I didn’t resist.
For the most part, I just spent a lot of time walking around and admiring this little city. I managed to spend a grand total of €10.70 on sites and food while in Bruges, which is quite a feat, considering the city almost hypnotizes you into spending money. I spent €4 at the Belfort, which got me a coupon for free admission into the Stadhuis. €3.90 went towards my lunch, which was a strange concoction called a mitraillette: a slab of meat, veggies, and fries, topped with a sauce of your choice, and all stuffed into a baguette, including the fries. Weird, but good. Finally, €2.80 was spent on a rather small amount of Belgian chocolate. But it was worth it. Incredibly worth it. So worth it, in fact, that I feel compelled to describe its deliciousness with a multitude of swear words, but I can’t because this is a G-rated blog.
Alright, enough hyperbole. The Belfort is the most recognizable building in Bruges. It’s basically just a really nice big building with a clock tower where you can climb to the top for a fee (and spend loads of money at the gift shop when you’re done). 366-odd steps to the top makes for a decent hike, and some nice views. The top of the Belfort tower also happens to be the place from which a particular character in the film In Bruges tragically falls to his death. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to re-enact the scene, if only for the sheer excitement of it. After all, I was dismayed to find out that half of the top of the tower was under construction so I couldn’t get the full panoramic view. And they didn’t give us a discount! If that doesn’t make you want to plunge hundreds of feet onto a stone street, I don’t know what will.
The other thing I saw in Bruges was the Stadhuis, being the town hall. It’s a nice looking building, and it had some museum-type stuff in there, mostly to do with the paintings on the walls. But you probably don’t care anyway, so here are the pictures:
Cathédrale des Sts-Michel-et-Gudule, in Brussels.
The Belfort, where I contemplated a gory death.
A view of a typical windy street, from the top of the Belfort.
Bruges: sickeningly picturesque. See what I mean?
The Begijnhof, a cool little nunnery on the edge of the city centre, complete with real nuns and... slanty trees?
Once back in Brussels, it was still light outside, so I decided to stroll around town a bit to see what else the city has to offer that I might have missed the first time around. What it has to offer is this:
Behold, the Mannekin Pis! The eighth wonder of the world! Sorry, but I’m just not into national symbols enough to be impressed by a one-foot tall statue of a baby that pees. And while we’re at it, why is a peeing baby statue considered a national symbol? This country has issues.
In the evening, I got to practice my French a lot more. In my 8-person dorm, six were from Paris and one was a fluent French speaker from Brazil, so I was eager to get some more practice, and that I did. I definitely haven’t spoken that much French since high school, but it felt great to do so, and I’m surprised by how much I remember (and how much I forget).
Saturday, April 3rd:
Another early morning, although that’s pretty much the norm when you stay in hostels and they have lockout periods. The train ride to Amsterdam was nearly three hours, so I had plenty of time to take in the scenery, which consists mostly of towns and trees and flatness. Lots and lots of flatness in Belgium and the Netherlands. The only difference between the two countries in that regard, it seems, is that the Netherlands has more water. And there seems to be an advertisement featuring Richard Hammond’s mug at every train station.
Walking off the train and into Amsterdam Central Station, I realized that I forgot to pay for my hostel stay in Brussels. Shortly after that moment of excitement, I realized that I didn’t have my passport with me (I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the continent of Europe for having open borders). Well then. I called up the hostel and they said I could pay when I returned to get my passport. So now I have to make an inconvenient return to Brussels. I know it’s partly my fault for being absent-minded and forgetting to pay and get my passport back from the hostel, but I remember that at the time when I checked out, the girl at the counter just told me to put my keycard back in the basket, and then just went back to doing whatever it was she was doing. Didn’t ask me to pay or anything. Annoying.
Anyway, having arrived in Amsterdam in the early afternoon and meeting up with the friends with whom I was staying, I had plenty of time to walk around and get acquainted with the city. The only problem was that it rained pretty much the whole time, and quite hard a lot of the time. We even got trapped in a downpour of hail for a while.
Despite the weather, I got to see a lot of what I have to say is a very cool, unique-looking city. It’s not just the architecture that makes the city unique, but also the canals. Because of these canals, Amsterdam became historically one of the top trade cities in the world, and undoubtedly contributed to the city’s (and country’s) wealth. You can just tell by looking around that people live well in the Netherlands. Better than in the UK, I would say. Of course, like everywhere else in Europe, most people in the big cities live in flats/apartments, because there just isn’t the space for houses like we have in Canada.
And then there’s the other side – the hedonistic and extremely liberal lifestyle – that makes the city unique. Marijuana is legal, as long as it’s bought and smoked in “coffee shops”, which seem to be everywhere. I didn’t partake, since I have a cold anyway, and neither of my friends were smokers. They said that the coffee shops were mostly just for the tourists anyway. And they seemed kind of lame if you ask me, with paintings of Bob Marley and peace symbols and marijuana leaves on the windows.
Besides legalized marijuana, there’s the Red Light District. We took a walk through it that evening, and it just seemed really sleazy. Scantily-clad women dancing around and beckoning behind street-side windows, with half-drunk groups of men shouting and knocking on the glass and calling them names. Again, mostly for the tourists. The best thing about the Red Light District was a story I had heard from my friend – apparently some Canadian guy she met paid one of the prostitutes a lot of money (around €50) so he could get behind the glass and strip down to his underwear and dance around and beckon, etc. Money well spent.
To cap off the night, I got to experience one of the other things Amsterdam is famous for (no, not assisted suicide): the legendary nightlife. we met up with a couple of other Dutch folks and ended the night at a bar with a live band, which was pretty cool. At night, the tourists don’t seem to die off – if anything, it gets even more crowded. And the nightlife is very different from the UK, where it’s mostly pubs with a smattering of dance clubs. Amsterdam seems to be able to combine the two, so it’s a bit more like Canada in that way.
Here are some pictures from the day:
I'm in the 'a' of 'I amsterdam', trying to get out of the rain.
Canals and boats and spires and stuff.
A brief moment without rain.
In an outdoor urinal. My life is now complete.
Sunday, April 4th:
I finally got to sleep in today – much needed. One of my two friends had homework to do, so the other friend was burdened with the task of leading me around the city for the day. It’s great to not have to use a map, although Amsterdam couldn’t have been nearly as confusing as Brussels, since it’s laid out the same way as the canals, as a half-circular grid, for want of a better way of describing it.
Today, as with yesterday, I got to eat a few things for which that the Netherlands is known: fries, beer and stroopwafel (a strange, but good, flat biscuit-type thing with a soft chewy centre), but more importantly, cheese. I may call my Dutch friends cheeseheads, but I mean it in the most flattering way possible, because cheese is delicious.
After a lot of wandering around and eating, the three of us went on a canal cruise, at the surprisingly reasonable price of €8. You may have noticed that I didn’t pay for any of the other many extremely overpriced attractions in the city, like the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House. That’s because they’re, well, extremely overpriced, and I’m on a budget and I’m with two university students, so I’m not going to force them to pay €10-€15 for each of these attractions. Besides, to me anyway, the best way to experience Amsterdam is to just walk around. And that we did. A whole lot of it. Thankfully, besides a couple of brief showers, the weather held up well, despite being an uncharacteristically cold day for April.
Boat and church, a common theme in Amsterdam.
Another 'I amsterdam'. We get it already!
World's smallest beer.
From the window of our canal cruiser.
Typical Amsterdam architecture.
Monday, April 5th:
This day, I got to sleep in again, and then said my goodbyes and thank-yous and took off on another boring three hour train ride to Brussels to retrieve my passport. But Brussels was not my final destination for the day – that would be Ghent, a Flemish city about a half hour northwest of Brussels.
Passport retrieval: great success. Forgetting passport in the first place: epic fail.
All in all, an uneventful day. I arrived in Ghent in the evening and got to my hostel just before sundown. Supermarkets were closed, so I went to a Turkish takeaway and ordered something pretty much at random: something called Turkse Lange Pizza met Feta Kaas. It ended up being some sort of omelette-type pizza. Definitely not what I normally would have ordered due to my aversion to eggs, but it wasn’t terrible. The rest of the night was spent chatting to an Aussie and Kiwi backpacking duo, and an older English couple from Cheshire who were cycling around Belgium. Good on them. I only hope I’m as physically fit as they are when I’m 70.
The hostel, by the way, is called Ecohostel Andromeda. It’s a completely eco-friendly hostel run by a very friendly young hippie lady. But here’s the kicker: it’s on a boat. Very cool idea, and a nice hostel as well. I’d recommend it if any of you are ever in Ghent.
Tuesday, April 6th:
The last day of my trip, much to my dismay. As much as I love Edinburgh, it means I have to go back to work and earn money and be responsible and all that boring stuff. But first, I get to visit the city centre of Ghent.
Holy crap, this place is beautiful. In my humble opinion, it puts Bruges to shame. Even though practically the entire old city centre was under construction, it was still beautiful. How this place has managed to escape mass tourism is beyond me, but I can’t imagine it’ll stay that way for long, so you’d better get there before the crowds find it.
After I picked my jaw up off the ground and reattached it, I headed for the Gravensteen, which is a castle in the middle of the city. It doesn’t get much more “castle-y” than the Gravensteen. Thick walls, turrets, and imposing-looking – and conveniently surrounded by the city so that any potential invaders would have to plow through droves of peasants before reaching the gates. Also, completely restored after years of neglect (there were pictures of the castle from the early 1900’s), it now apparently doesn’t much resemble what it did in the 12th century. ‘Creatively’ restored, as my guide map put it.
There were no guided tours, at least not while I was there, so I had to settle for a video guide (an audio guide with a video screen). And it was terrible. Basically, it involved banter between a cast of characters in medieval costume in various locations around the castle. Except it also involved out-of-character banter between the actors on set, complete with sexual tension and other completely irrelevant subplots. And to make it more irritating, it was dubbed, and poorly acted. I guess it made an earnest attempt to explain the importants points about the castle in a creative way, but it was not my cup of tea. And besides, why would I want to watch a video when I could be looking at the castle instead?
Aside from the video guide, I enjoyed my time there. Of interest was a little one-room torture museum. Nothing compared to the retch-inducing insanity of the one I went to in Prague, but cool nonetheless. It’s not a particularly tall castle, but it was taller than all the other buildings surrounding it, so the rooftop afforded some good views of the city, especially of the spires in the main square.
Today was, again, a day involving a lot of walking around, and it wasn’t hard to see most of the city centre in few hours. Including in this walking around was a walk up Ghent’s Belfort. It may look like a church, but it’s actually just a watchtower, or something to make the city look nice. Of course, the views of the city were fantastic.
St. Niklaaskerk, despite looking very nice on the outside, was bitterly disappointing on the inside, so that could have been why it wasn’t listed in my guidebook. St. Baafskathedraal, on the other hand, was nice inside and out. No pictures inside, which I was fully expecting, based on previous experience. Inside was the option to pay €3-€4 or so to view the famous painting known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck. Curiously, though, there was a full size replica at the back of the church – free to view. Uh, what?
Finally, after a delicious lupper of Belgian fries (the secret is that they’re double deep-fried – looks like I just cut about 30 seconds from the end of my life), it was time to say goodbye to the city of Ghent and, eventually, to the country of Belgium. A long, flat journey back to Brussels, then to Charleroi Airport.
The flight home, aside from being depressing due to the fact that I had to go back to work the next morning, was boring and uneventful, except for when one of the pre-recorded Ryanair in-flight advertisements started skipping and said “chardonnay” about a dozen times in a comically rhythmic fashion. I was half expecting a generic dance beat to start pumping through the speakers, and the flight attendants to start dancing they were on ecstasy. Thankfully, that was not the highlight of the flight, because at the end, we flew over Edinburgh, which looked spectacular. Generally when you’re in the air, everything on the ground looks flat, but with the Edinburgh Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat, it felt like I was looking at a nighttime 3D map. Very cool.
The first thing I saw upon entering the city centre. Forget the construction zone, this was still awesome.
A construction crane spoiling an otherwise great view of Ghent's spires.
View of the Gravensteen from the Belfort.
From left to right: St. Niklaaskerk, Belfort, St. Baafskathedraal and St. Michielsbrug (bridge).
That’s all folks. Stay tuned for a trip to the Highlands and Skye in the next episode.