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Belgium: A Grand Place to Start My Trip

BRUSSELS

The last five days have been a whirlwind of walking, sightseeing, packing and unpacking, and beer drinking. I haven’t had as much time to write or post photos as I thought I would because I’ve been having too much fun. So I think you can forgive me.

I arrived in Brussels from London via the Eurostar on Tuesday, May 12th at 10:10am and I was ready with directions on hand when I arrived at Brussels Midi station. Google maps told me the fastest way to reach my hostel was by the tram, so off I went, looking at the overhead signs as I walked around. I got to the tram stop, but nowhere was there a ’51’ on the list. I looked everywhere and walked everywhere. I almost walked around the entire station.Then I heard someone speaking English and I politely asked him where to find the correct tram. “Ah! The infamous 51 tram has another victim!”, he tells me, chuckling to himself. “Don’t worry, you aren’t crazy. The tram is underground. Like the metro, but one level up. Everyone gets lost trying to find it.” I thanked him profusely and proceeded to find the entrance to the metro and sure enough, there was “TRAM 51”. But it wasn’t coming for another 10 minutes. Not a huge deal you might say, but at this point it’s 10:40am and I have to be checked into my hostel BEFORE 11am as the owner works elsewhere during the day and if you can’t arrive before that, you can’t be checked in until 6pm! I certainly couldn’t wait around that long with my pack. So I prayed that the tram would arrive sooner. But it didn’t — oh well. The tram itself was a feat. The doors are barely large enough to fit a small child and I almost got stuck wearing my backpack. I think I even swore out loud. The day was not off to a good start.

But thankfully that didn’t last. I made it to my hostel with one minute to spare and Karel, the owner, was thankfully still there to greet me and check me in. I had to go through a massive set of old wooden doors to get into the building and instantly I was met with the interior of a family estate house that is at least 200 years old. The ceilings were tall, there was a courtyard and a balcony over looking the street. A wooden stair case twisted up and down 4 different floors and the rooms themselves were very large. The best part? I had my own bed. Like, a real bed. Not a bunk bed. And it was glorious. I really truly felt like I was at home. I could keep my bathroom stuff in the actual bathroom and there was complimentary use of the hairdryer. All of this for $40 a night. I stumbled upon hostel heaven in Brussels.

In addition to the house itself being splendid, so were my hosts. Karel and his two children (a teenager and an adult) live in the house and run the place together. Karel was amazing. He sat down with me upon check-in and went over a map of the old city so I could find my way around easily. He even booked me a taxi for the morning I was leaving Brussels so I wouldn’t have any trouble calling one myself. They even had a dog in the house, a Australian Sheppard puppy. One thing I noticed about the family that stood out was that every time the son would see his father after a long period of time, like first thing in the morning or after coming home from work, they would kiss each other on the cheek. It was such an endearing family moment to witness and something I never would have noticed anywhere else. It goes to show how different families are in Europe.

After I was all checked in, I finally broke out my good camera and set out to explore. Overall, there wasn’t much on my list of things to do in Brussels, so I just roamed and didn’t care if I got lost.And it’s a perfect city for that. The centre of the city has a very distinct type of architecture, and as soon as I started seeing modern, utilitarian type buildings, I would change course and veer back into the Old City.

Eventually I found myself in Grand Place and the name doesn’t mislead. It’s Grand and it’s magnificent. For the first time on my trip, I felt like I was truly doing it. I was in Europe. And as I sat in the outdoor seating of a restaurant in the square, looking at the architecture and trying three new Belgian beer, I was so happy I could have cried. Almost. It didn’t matter that I was eating alone, I realized that I was finally on my big adventure and it was going to be amazing.

But I wasn’t alone for much longer. I did a bit more sightseeing and I popped into the Comic Strip museum (which was in a lovely art deco building!) but then I had to head back to the hostel to take out my contacts. When I arrived, two of my three roommates where in the room. I introduced myself and met Eric from Ohio and Raphael from Mexico (via the US). Eric was quick to invite me out for supper and drinks with a few other US guys from the room across the hall and I’m glad I accepted. After an hour power nap we all got dolled up (I was glad I bought a dressier top at Primark at this point), and I met Joel from Seattle, and Peter and Vishnu from San Francisco. We bonded over my seemingly Irish accent and the recap of the Jim Jefferies show I had seen the night before I left on my trip. By the time supper was over, we had plans to travel to Amsterdam as a group and keep the awesome time going. The guys were great. They all had successful careers and were the same age as me, so we had a lot in common.

After dinner we walked through Grand Place again, but this time, it was lit up with all the colours of the rainbow to celebrate Pride Week. This was breathtaking and the perfect backdrop for a group photo. Then it was time for Delirium. Eric mentioned that this was his main reason he came to Brussels and the rest of the guys were excited to see the place. I had no idea what they were talking about. Delirium, as it turns out, is the best known bar in Brussels and it’s also a microbrewery. I quickly found out that they serve over 300 beer on tap (!!) and their signature brew, Delirium Tremens, was voted best beer in the world in 2008. It also has a ABV of 8.5%. Totally lethal and absolutely tasty. My favourite!

Delirium was a sight in itself. The floor we ended up on had old beer vats turned into a circular booth and the walls were plastered with beer posters and old advertisements. And every beer on tap seemed to be 8.5% or stronger.

We all started sharing stories about where we come from, and the guys were really curious about Newfoundland. So I downloaded a bunch of quintessential pictures of the St. John’s Harbour, the Narrows, Quidi Vidi, Gros Morne, Jelly Bean Row houses and by the time we finished our first beer, there was already a plan in the works to come visit me in August 2016. Peter suggested the hashtag #YYT2016 and named our WhatsApp message thread exactly that.

As we were talking about Newfoundland, a table further inside the bar erupted in song and caught our attention. Being a little tipsy at this point, Vishnu decided to go up to the group and request a song. I was laughing to kill myself, when the girl at the table closet to me asks me to videotape them singing. “We’re a university group from Ottawa and it would be a funny memory!”. So we were adopted into the International Business school’s drinking party and I sat next to a guy named John and a girl named Angela. Angela, it turns out, had a grandmother from St. Anthony and John said he had a roommate in university from Newfoundland. And because it’s a complete cliche, I asked him who he was in case I knew him. Everyone laughed because this is the exact thing people think about Canadians. They always say, “Oh you’re from Canada. I have a cousin who’s married to a guy from Vancouver… maybe you know him”. But this isn’t always a useless question. Turns out that John roomed with a guy from Bayview street that I went to high school with. The world may be very large and we may be only one person in a sea of people, but Newfoundlanders will always find each other.

BRUGES

The next day, Eric was off to Paris (despite our attempts to get him to change his destination), and Peter and Joel were off to Amsterdam a day early, so Vishnu, Raphael and I took a day trip to Bruges. It only took us an hour by train, and we spent about 5 hours exploring the medieval city. Raphael was staying here overnight, so we helped him find a hostel for the night and parted ways half way through the day. Vish and I continued on and stumbled upon a canal tour for 8€. Best money I ever spent. There’s a great reason that they call Bruges the Venice of the North.

We popped in and out of churches and chocolate shops. We tried the Baileys truffle at one shop and couldn’t eat any other chocolate after that because nothing could ever taste better. And as we were almost at the train station to start our journey back to Brussels, we turned a corner in a park and we saw this beautiful stately home on a lake and it seriously took my breath away. I literally gasped when I saw it. That’s really what Bruges does to you. The entire time you’re speechless. Make sure you go there.

I had to cut my time in Bruges somewhat short as I was definitely coming down with something. I had been sneezing the entire time we were on the canal and my head was all fuzzy by late afternoon. So when we got back to Brussels, Vish and I parted ways for the evening and I went back to the hostel to recuperate and pack for my very early train to Amsterdam the next morning. But unfortunately, despite all the medication I brought with me and consumed, I woke up the next morning feeling no better. It probably didn’t help that I had to be up and outside to get my taxi by 5:45am.

BEST BACKPACKING TIP I CAN GIVE YOU

Do not book super early trains because they are cheaper. First off, having to get up super early to catch these trains is a drag. You have to get your pack ready while trying not to wake up everyone else, you have to come home early the night before to shower, and then half the time the public transportation in the city your in doesn’t run that early and you have to take a cab to get to the train station from your hostel. So you don’t end up saving any money at all.

The other reason I booked early trains, besides saving money, was so I would get into the next city fairly early. While this is still a bonus, I wish I had just booked an extra day in the cities it takes a lot of time to get to (like Berlin, which is where I’m heading to as I write this… the train left at 7am and it won’t arrive until 1:30pm… ughhhh). I should have booked a slightly later train and paid for an extra night in the hostel. I would only have to do this twice (for Berlin and Prague), but it would have meant that I’d have at least 2 full days instead of 1.5 in each city).

Traveller tips for Brussels: 

  • Make sure your accommodations are within the boundaries of the Old City. This spot is not only convenient, but it’s safe.
  • Many metro stations (especially Gare du Central) works on the honour system. There are no turnstiles, but there are card readers on the walls that you must tap your travel card on before getting on the metro. No one is there to stop you if you don’t, but there are plain clothed inspectors who randomly check for valid tickets and there is a steep fine if you are caught without a ticket.
  • If you enjoy beer at all, visit Delirium. You can thank me later.

Traveller tips for a day trip to Bruges from Brussels:

  • get tickets for the train at Gare du Central. It costs 14€ one-way or 28€ roundtrip. The trains leave every 30 minutes. No need to book in advance and it’s a set price.
  • when you get to Bruges, take ANY bus from the station to the Markt. It’s the third stop. From here, you can get a map from the info centre in the “Bruge Medieval Experience” building. The map has suggested highlights shown on the map, so there’s a easy route to take from the top to bottom, leaving you only a short distance from the train station.
  • I did Bruges in about 5 hours.

NOTE: I’m attempting to catch up with the posts. I’m currently on a train to Berlin as I type this and I could only write about Belgium. I’ll post about Amsterdam soon and I’ll try to not to fall far behind.

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