I love European trains! They are fast, efficient, and on time. Americans could learn a lesson here. I boarded the Eurostar headed for Brussels without incident and was pulling out of the station on time – a refreshing change of pace for this traveler! The train ride itself was great; no one sat next to me, had a nice large window from which to view the countryside and it flew by quickly [literally at 186 mph]. In less than two hours we were pulling into Midi station and my weekend officially started. Like a little kid, I was thrilled to be somewhere I had never been before and happy to have company. Upon exiting the station, I quickly figured out that if I stayed in the queue for the taxis, I would not see much of Brussels as people went around the line and jumped in cars. So, I followed suit and managed to beat a man to a cab. He wasn’t too happy and even though my French is somewhat rusty I knew enough that he wasn’t giving me a compliment when he raised his voice as I hoped in the car. It was a short ride to the hotel. With a little luck, I managed to book a nice hotel at a great location. Since I had about 90 minutes to kill before Rachel arrived, I decided to go out for a walk [partly out of necessity as I was ready for a nap]. I went out for a little stroll and got back to the hotel a few minutes before my friend arrived. Shortly afterwards, we were off to do a little exploring around the Lower Town area. Rachel had been to Brussels once before so she was familiar with the area. We stopped for a small bite to eat at a random cafe [neither one of us was particular hungry] followed by a drink at Delirium – a famous bar with 2,000+ beers. And no, I did not have a beer but I did have an adult beverage. It was incredibly loud so we didn’t stick around for long.
Saturday morning we were off to Bruges via the train [side note: as part of my research, I had to determine if there were Starbucks in Belgium. Imagine my disappointment to find nothing online. Then, imagine to my delight to walk into Brussels Central Station and what lo and behold the first thing I see is Starbucks! Rachel was so kind to purchase our tickets as I headed towards my dealer to get my fix. Sometimes I really do think I’m addicted.]. I had never heard of the Belgium town before however I was game for anything and after mentioning it to a few people who said it was well worth a visit, I was excited about spending time in the 15th century village. It was very quaint, easy to get around, and very scenic with historic buildings and canals. The weather was pleasant [although it did rain]. I’m sure we walked several miles taking in all the sights. One thing I learned was there was a lot of lace and tapestry shops, along with your normal souvenir places, chocolate shops, and of course waffles! I couldn’t wait to have a waffle and thought this was the place to indulge in a little local treat. When in Belgium, right? So we stopped for a waffle covered with fresh strawberries for a mid-morning treat.
For me though, the highlight of Bruges was visiting the Belford and climbing the belfrey tower to take in the view of the countryside. It
was your classic, medieval tower complete with circular stairs – steep, slippery and very tight quarters that only got significantly smaller as one climbed towards the top. If you wonder where the rhyme ‘round, and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows’ you just need to go to one of these towers. It was quite the climb, starting with tall stone steps and ending with small wooden ones. The circumference also got smaller and smaller and made passing interesting as everyone going up met everyone coming down. The best part was I no longer felt guilty for skipping the morning workout. I knew I was going to feel each and every step later [and indeed I did]. There were several large bells inside the tower and windows all the way around, covered by mesh-like fencing that I could barely fit my camera through. It was quite crowded and we had to continually [and patiently] wait for people to move along so we could get a peek outside and snap a photo. Going down was more harrowing than going up as you held onto a rope that ran down the center. Mind you, this rope was of very little help. It was basically glued to the wall so it was hard to get a good grip down the steep, windy stairs. After several hours, we headed back to the train station. The plan was to stop at Ghent [oh how I wish you could hear the proper way to pronounce it – very phlegm, like you are ready to hock a logy. Very classy!]. The town center was not as close as Bruges so we opted to ride the tram [thank GOD!]. After making an assumption we were close to where we wanted to be, we alighted from the tram and within a few short blocks found out this little town was very crowded as we hit a virtual wall of people. There was live music and thought this would be cool. Turns out, not so cool. It was a very, VERY large cultural festival and the further into the town center we got, the more crowded it got. It was unfortunate as we were there to see the sights but ended up seeing tents, people, people and more people. There were oodles of street performers doing all kinds of things from music, to dance, to circus acts to practically nothing at all yet still making money. We briefly contemplated trying out luck as street performers but decided it was better to get the heck out of dodge so we headed back to the train station to make our way back to Brussels. Back in Brussels we figured out we were pretty tired after a day of walking and decided another small dinner would suffice. We left the hotel and within a block it started to rain which means that we chose an Italian restaurant that was convenience to kill two birds with one stone – wait out the storm and eat.
Sunday was dedicated to sightseeing and having lunch at a restaurant recommended by a co-worker of Rachel’s. She had picked the route and we knew we were in for another stupendous day of walking [good thing as the gymnasium didn’t open until 10]. As it turns out, the restaurant was in the middle of what appeared to be a deserted street, not a place we would have ran across in a million years. The open-faced steak was recommended so we both chose to go with the house speciality although neither one of us was fond of rare meat – and let me tell you, it was rare, only cooked on one side. It was very flavorable but we both ate around the center that was almost still mooing. The waitress offered to take it back to the kitchen but it seemed wrong somehow. The frites
were also very tasty. I was glad we had walked instead of taking the Metro as I felt like I definitely needed to burn some calories after that meal! We meandered back towards the hotel the long way, stopping for another waffle [plain this time with a little powered sugar – it was heavenly!]. It was also time to buy some Belgium souvenirs as well as chocolates. We scoured the shops looking specifically for homemade chocolates made on premises. What would be the point of buying boxed chocolates we could purchase anywhere? I fell in love with Brussels, partly because it was some place new and with all the travel I’ve done in the past two years, I hadn’t managed to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. I’m so glad that Rachel was able to meet me. The weekend flew by as the fun ones always do. I am glad I decided to make the side trip rather than spend the weekend in London. Maybe next time I’ll remember to practice my French instead of my Spanish. Dork!