In Bruges is a strangely violent Colin Ferrell movie in which basically everyone dies. In it, Ferrell’s character who is as dislikable as any given Colin Ferrell character, constantly complains about Bruges. It’s ugly, it’s boring, it’s cold, people are miserable. I couldn’t disagree more. Chas and I chose to travel to Belgium after Greece because we wanted to keep traveling and wanted to visit a country we could fly home from affordably. That place turned out to be Belgium. Further proving that hired hit man, Colin Ferrell and I have nothing in common.
We arrived in Brussels and immediately hopped on a train to Ghent. It was only about a 30-minute journey to the central station in Ghent. The bus/tram system was navigable but we way overbought the tickets because we actually barely used it, opting to walk almost everywhere. We took a two-mile tram trip with our bags toward our hostel. The rep at the train station was really helpful but convinced us to buy a certain pass we didn’t really need so maybe not so helpful. We stayed at the Andromeda Ecohostel which we loved. It’s on a canal and located on an old barge. Our room wasn’t cheap but Ghent isn’t cheap. We had a private room, shared bathrooms. The couple that owns it is incredibly helpful and kind. Marten, the husband, greeted us, gave us a map and directed us where to go. Definitely get the locals maps. They’re really colorful and have a ton of great and unique suggestions. I don’t know what else to call them but if they’re not in your hotel, go to a hostel and ask for one. They’re free so no one will mind. We let this map guide us through Ghent to the point that it felt like linen when we were done and we had to hold our pieces next to one another to navigate from neighborhood to neighborhood.
The first night we wandered around, went to a coffee shop and got our bearings. Definitely get water in a Dagwinkel rather than ordering it in a restaurant. They charge an obscene amount for small quantities of water in restaurants. We lived entirely off of giant bottles. We walked around Ghent that first night, napped, and then grabbed beers which we drank in the square. We wandered around so long looking for the perfect place to eat that all the restaurants had closed. Finally we ate at a frite barge. It was pretty terrible. They fry meat, cheese, and meat again and put them on a bed of frites. Just pick something and stick with it. With a little perspective, I know now that Belgian food isn’t very good. There are many immigrant communities though that make amazing food from their countries: Syrian, Afghani, Iranian, and more. Just do this after you’ve had frites and mussels at least once. Any Belgian will gleefully tell you that French fries are not French. They’re Belgian. One of our hosts (albeit one of the strangest people I’ve ever met–more on her later) told us that American soldiers in World War II started eating frites, heard people speaking French and thought, “Oh we’re in France! These are French fries.” Really, they were in a French-speaking part of Belgium but as Americans are wont to do, we made up a lie and stuck with it.
The next morning was a Monday which meant that the two museums we planned to go to were both closed. We ate at our hostel which had free breakfast and then went to Gravensteen Castle. It was a pretty neat tour with weaponry, the castle, medieval life, and some Ghent history. After Gravensteen we did some more wandering and ended up on the Ghent University campus. We visited an old socialist building which is now a concert hall and meeting place. Then, we went to the big part in the city and the botanical garden there which is gorgeous. We ate at a delicious vegetarian restaurant near the train station. Ghent is something like the vegetarian capital of Europe. They do it well! We walked through the red light district – eeks! That night we ate at a fancy restaurant which was pretty good. We got some beers, a waffle and watched the people. Ghent is gorgeous. At some point in this wandering, we could not find a public restroom. After miles of discomfort and peepee dances, I literally just had to pull down my pants in a park and go. But as Americans are wont to do… Anyway, nothing bad happened other than I solidified my place in the world as a working professional who also acts like a small child.
The next morning we ate our free breakfast and headed to Dr. Huslain’s Museum which was a short walk from our boat hostel. Dr. Huslain was one of the pioneers in psychiatry. The museum is in an old mental hospital. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in psychology and the weird history. Some of the videos and photos of the treatment of the determined “insane” are absolutely unspeakable, shocking, haunting. But I guess Huslain was trying to make things better and that’s why he gets a museum. There were also some whacky art exhibits. We learned a ton about Huslain’s work and about the history of psychiatry around the world. We also learned a lot about the Christian Brothers—a little propaganda exhibit was snuck in there. I forget their connection but it was presented as positive.
We picked up our bags and headed to the STAM (Ghent City Museum). This was the most modern and impressive display I’ve ever seen. It was a great lesson in Ghent, Belgium, and European history. They had an interactive map on which visitors could change the year, the location, etc. It’s absolutely worth the visit and they have big lockers for storing luggage. You could easily be here for hours. We then went to the train station and grabbed a quick train to Bruges. It was about an hour-long journey.
In Bruges we stayed in an adorable AirBnb. Loved it. It was a section of a woman’s house and just the cutest little Belgian room. Bruges, like Ghent, is not cheap.
This town in simply gorgeous. Super walkable city. We went through neighborhoods, stood beneath windmills, visited a convenience store run by a man who goes by Apu (a character from The Simpsons), drank incredible beers, and just explored. I feel like we had the least direction in Bruges but it was for the best. Again, get the Locals Guide map here. One of my favorite things ever was a house that I wrote about in this blog. The house was just on a random street in Bruges.
We had a beer in a bar that was in the basement of a church, recommended on the Locals Guide. The basement was so old that it predated even the church which had been built in the 16th century. The basement had been the storeroom for a shop they believed went back to the 12th century. The bartender there told us that Bruges was in such good shape and so well preserved compared to other European cities in the path of World War II because one of Hitler’s right-hand men just “liked” Bruges and told the Nazis not to bomb it. I trust that bartender so I won’t even look it up.
There was a church (featured in In Bruges in the way that three or four people are shot in it) where some of Christ’s blood is allegedly held. Once they wanted a couple euro to see it, we hightailed it right out of there. At some point we happened upon a marijuana festival which I guess is Belgium’s way of attempting to answer the vigor created by the Netherlands. The park that bordered the street where we stayed was a gorgeous run, almost pinch-yourself gorgeous, with swans and flowers and lamplights, and strollers but people probably call them prams. We only stayed one night in Bruges but certainly made the most of it. We trained it to Amsterdam from there.
In Amsterdam we struggled immensely finding our Air Bnb but when we did were so pleasantly surprised. It was another houseboat but the family used their top level for rentals. Diegert, the host, was about as helpful as they come and greeted us with beers. We could hang out in the front yard and rented bikes right from the family. Instantly, in Amsterdam you can tell that bikes are king, over walkers, cars, hovercraft, everything. We found ourselves stumbling to get out of the way of bikers until we figured out the rules of the road. We walked to a food hall which was just like a Dutch version of R House or Mt. Vernon Marketplace but with like 300 bikes out front.
We visited the Anne Frank House while there, a must do, but you also must book it ahead of time. One cannot simply show up. The tour includes an audio guide with direct quotes and explanations of different uses of parts of the annex. It’s an emotional and humbling tour. Again, like we do, we just walked aimlessly throughout the city then bickered about where to eat. The next day we braved the bikes and spent most of the day in Vondelpark. It was divine. I just love the Dutch way of life.
Again, we spent most of the time agenda-less but in such a good way. I think we got a good feel for how people live there and it seems like a good life.
Brussels was pretty immediately a bit of a let down compared to the other utopias we’d visited. First off, I booked a private apartment on Air Bnb but when we arrived, Sophie, our host, told us that we’d have a roommate. She said that she had made a mistake and that Gen (a Japanese guy) would be arriving soon. Gen’s room was only accessible through the apartment’s only bathroom (which had no toilet paper) making showers and #2s pretty strange. Sophie showed up several times throughout the stay and was nice I guess but just clueless about hosting human beings who are paying for a service. On our last day there, we ran into her on the street in the morning and she told us that she hadn’t yet gone to bed. She asked if she could come up to take a shower and I wanted to say, “Well you’ll have to check with Gen” but we just said sure. She and her man-friend hung out as we packed our things for an hour. Just not normal.
I started our time in Brussels by taking a yoga class down the street which was pretty great. We did our wandering and just found it to be less than spectacular generally. We did come across a memorial for the recent terrorist attack and happened upon some type of preposterous parade. Then, as we sometimes do, we found ourselves self-spite-eating fast food.
The next day we visited the parliament building, braved the outside of the urine-soaked library, and happened upon an incredible World War I photo display in a park–that I loved. Chas had found his one demand on a local map–the Cantillon Brewery, a family owned brewery that uses an ancient method of brewing that depends on the seasons. We took the tour, drank the brews, and learned the methods. Loved it. We found an immigrant neighborhood near the brewery where we had an incredible Syrian lunch. Then we closed out the trip near our (and Gen’s) apartment.
I’d recommend Belgium to anyone and Colin Ferrell can go shit in his hat.