The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)
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I discovered some years ago how much I love to travel and ever since I tried to wander as often as possible, so when my friend – we shall call her the coffee addict – told me that she was making a trip to Belgium and asked me if I wanted to tag along my heart leaped with joy and I said yes.
Thus, on a chilly autumn day the two of us began our journey towards Belgium. We hopped on a train and after about 8 hours we reached our destination from where we flew to Belgium. I’m not the biggest fan of travelling by plane so the 2 hours spent up in the air were full of anxiety but I tried to relax myself by starting a new book – Sleeping Giants (Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel. We landed at the Charleroi airport a little bit after midday; pouring rain was the first to say hi followed by a very enthusiast wind. That was my first impression on Belgium – ‘damn, this country is moody’.
From the airport we took the bus to one of Brussel’s train stations and then hopped on a train towards Ghent. The first thing that hit me while in the train station was the excellent chocolate (which I bought in a moment of desperation because we were in dire need of coins) and it turned out to be pretty much the best chocolate we had while in Belgium. Once we were both high on chocolate and jelly beans (you should try those too) we headed to the city center (we only had a couple of hours in Ghent so we decided to use them wisely). I was from the start surprised by the quietness of the city but also the stunning architecture. I personally have a thing for doors and I always love to photograph them; they give me the feeling that maybe one of those doors will get me to some parallel dimension in which Middle Earth is real and we are all hobbits living in a hole in the ground. In this case the doors and the buildings were also very pretty. Ghent is one of those hidden gems that is worth spending a day in.
After reaching the destination we ate some (famous) French Fries to establish whether they actually make the best ones or not while watching the mesmerizing scenery. As it was getting late and a cold drizzle was upon us we decided to continue our journey. The next stop was Bruges. Our first experience there was walking through a dimly lit park to our accommodation (a charming hostel named Snuffel Hostel – would definitely recommend it and the atmosphere at night is really entertaining). I have never experienced the ‘hostel life’ before, but the coffee addict introduced me to it and I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised and will definitely want to try other hostels in my future adventures.
When you travel you can’t afford to sleep in so we were up early and had breakfast at our fancy hostel. Afterwards the game was afoot and we started wandering. I must tell you from the start that Bruges is a spectacular city; the whole day I felt like I was walking in Godric’s Hollow sometime in December and waiting for the snow to fall. The narrow streets with their intriguing architecture (somehow every little house fitted perfectly with the one next to it), a world filled with colors and bicycles, the quietness of the neighborhoods and the numerous chocolate shops are turning Bruges into some sort of magical city. We followed a cute little map that we received for free at the hostel – made by the young people of Bruges for travelers like us – while waiting for a certain chocolate house to open so we could warm up our bones with some sweet goodies. The Grote Mark and the Belfort were the first stop and then the Saint Salvator Cathedral from where we wandered off on some random streets (and also were subjected to a heavy amount of rain exactly when we wanted to take some pictures and as we were too lazy to put our rain coats on we had to hide in unknown doorsteps).
As The Old Chocolate House finally opened we rushed in (partly because we were freezing and partly because I was dying to try the famous Belgian hot chocolate); the inside is very vintage and cosy, it literally makes you want to stay there all day with a good book and a warm blanket. The menu is complex and you have a variety of products from which you can choose – I ordered some salted-caramel hot chocolate and waffles with whipped cream while the coffee addict had some dark hot chocolate with marshmallows (you can already tell she’s not into sweets). When the order arrived we were both shocked by how big the mugs were – literally a soup bowl filled with hot milk and chocolate on the side which you were supposed to melt until you had a homogeneous mixture. Let me tell you that the salted caramel was absolutely delicious and most likely the best hot chocolate I ever had and combined with the waffles it was truly a divine experience. After lingering a bit too long there we hit the road and kept on exploring.
We stopped at the Beguinage (home now to some nuns and several unmarried women of Bruges) and saw its typical white houses and lovely gardens, at the bridge nearby, had a moment with the magnificent swans, walked to Minnewaterpark and tried not to get our shoes dirty, stopped at a random art shop and most of the time just got lost and enjoyed the view. For lunch we had some pasta to-go at Bocca (not very Belgian, I know, but very good pasta at a reasonable price, so if you’re travelling on a budget this is a good place for a quick lunch). Our next stop was a beer brewery, Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan, for a tour which lasted for about 45 minutes and it was most instructive – you learn a little bit more about Belgian beer and how it is made. Afterwards each of us got a glass of beer as a part of the tour (another good way to warm yourself up and another experience that you should not miss if you’re visiting Belgium). We resumed our walk and headed towards other unexplored parts of the city – Bonifacius bridge was one stop, a bridge made of stone, very small and charming and a great place for photography as the surrounding buildings were beautiful, then we headed to the old mills (Sint-Janhuis Mill and Bonne Chieremolen) while sipping on some refreshing coffee to-go.
Even if I’m a lover of the hustle and bustle of the big cities I must confess that Bruges has charmed me with its silence, its puzzle of buildings and its fascinating doors. We passed by the Engels Klooster and the Jerusalem, fought a little bit more with the rebel weather and then headed back to the centre in search of food. After filling our bellies we collected our luggage from the hostel and bid Bruges farewell (at least for now because we are both keen on returning here in the near future).
Next stop: Antwerp. We didn’t see much of it in the first evening after arriving quite late and hurrying to our airbnb reservation – one thing that I did notice was that a big part of the city was under construction for some reason. After a night of sleep we had our breakfast at a nearby cafe (Kloonies) with very polite waiters and good food and then headed to Museum aan de Stroom. If you’re a museum geek you will like this one – the building is quite different, in a good way, and on each level you can visit a different exposition with topics from war and power to religion and death or what happens with the food waste in Antwerp, how is food produced now and how it was produced years ago; it is a very creative place and also has some interactive parts. The whole museum was an awesome discovery for us and once you reach the top you have a very nice panorama of the city. It is time-consuming though, so if you’re thinking of going be prepared to spend at least 2-3 hours there.
The former house of Rubens (Rubenshuis) was my next stop. It is a must if you’re an art lover and if you’re an enthusiast newbie like me I would suggest an audio guide as you will definitely have a different perspective with some more information at hand about what you’re seeing. After finishing the tour of the house don’t forget to spend some time in the garden – it’s a well deserved break from the busy city.
It was already late afternoon when we finished with all the scheduled activities so it was time to just wander and enjoy the little streets and sometimes stop on a random bench and sit there for a while with the sun in our eyes. For dinner we had some seafood (finally) at Fish a’gogo (another cheap eat that is worth your time) and then with our full bellies we walked home and saw a little bit of the city at night.
The next day, after some sandwiches and of course coffee, we departed for Brussels – the last stop of our Belgian adventure. After checking-in at the hostel (Jacques Brel Hostel – another win for us) we went straight to the Magritte Museum for our daily dose of culture. Again, if you’re and arts fan you should not miss this one (especially if you’re into surrealism). Alongside some very impressive paintings you will also have the opportunity to find out more about Magritte’s life, see what inspired him or what he tried to convey through his paintings.
The historical center was our next stop where we just walked around and took everything in. Even if I usually love big cities, the ones that feel full of life somehow I was not very impressed with this one. There are indeed some majestic buildings and even some art-nouveau influences but something felt slightly off for me personally and I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would, that’s why I don’t have that much to tell you about Brussels. On our last day we hurriedly bought some last-minute souvenirs (mainly chocolate), then ran to the airport and said goodbye to Belgium.
This journey was so eventful that it seemed very short and all through it I wanted it to last more and have more time, but I guess that it is always the case when you’re enjoying yourself. I have the coffee addict to thank for taking me with her on this adventure. If you’re thinking of visiting Belgium you should take your time there – it’s a lovely country and for me it was a breath of fresh air – and you should stop in Bruges: don’t miss the hot chocolate, don’t miss the waffles, don’t miss the beer and most of all dress accordingly. And as at the end of each journey I remember one of my favourite quotes: “He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” (Moorish proverb). Travel often and enjoy.