Brussels and Gent

I had someone looking out for me on the train to Brussels. Whether it was luck or karma, my ticket didn’t get checked for the first few stops. There were many people getting on and off which helped increase my confidence of making it out of Amsterdam, and with each passing station I was that little bit closer to Brussels and a friend. I had met Pieter in Coimbra, Portugal, about one month earlier. He lived in Brussels and had been on his way to Seville in Spain for a Flamenco course when we met and he had invited me to stay at his house when I got to Brussels. We had arranged to meet on Thursday 28th July, although I had emailed him the night I was in Amsterdam and outlined my plan to get to Brussels a day early. Not having received confirmation from him I risked it anyway, and had my fingers crossed for the whole train journey, hoping he would be there to meet me.

As the train approached the Netherlands/Belgium border the official looking guards got on to inspect tickets. Not being a good liar I had been rehearsing my ‘innocent mistake’ story about the ticket date, and hoped I’d be able to pull it off. Worst case scenario was that I’d be put off the train, however I knew there were only two stops in Belgium and figured it wouldn’t cost too much for a city train ticket if I was throw off. Unfortunately all the others in the same train compartment spoke English, so if I did have to explain my ticket they’d all be hearing it. I handed up my ticket after the others and the conductor barely glanced at it before stamping it and handing it back! I could have laughed aloud I was so happy, but thought better of it and smiled inwardly instead. Phew! I’d made it. I was in Belgium and feeling so much happier from that fact alone.

Alongside the train lines in Brussels is the red light district. I didn’t realise that until the train passed shop windows with scantily clad girls prancing and preening amongst themselves, with guys hanging around the outside of the windows, literally as if they were shopping for new merchandise. I did laugh at the sight of it all, and relaxed a little. Once I got to Brussels train station I had a nervous fifteen minute wait to see if Pieter would turn up. Thankfully he did and I nearly cried from happiness when I saw him – a more welcome sight could not have been had at that moment!

Pieter showed me the house he shared with four others, gave me a key, and headed back to work. I put on a load of washing, had a much needed shower and wandered around the city centre until I met up with Pieter after work. I saw the Grand Palace, Mannekin Pis and the Bourse Stairs. Pieter showed me around some more of the city before we headed to his friend’s house for a dinner party. I met his house mates at dinner, and everyone seemed really nice and friendly. What a change from Amsterdam! Although the nine other people at dinner all spoke French, and a little English, I could understand a lot of what was said just with hand and facial gestures, and picking up the odd word or two. It was a great night and I slept soundly at the end of it.

The trams in Brussels have the exact same ticketing system as we do in Melbourne, so it was easy enough to figure out, although Pieter had been kind enough to give me a ticket to use for my three days there. I wandered around the city and got a little lost even with a map. That is unusual for me, and I blame it on the fact that the street names are in French and English or one or the other, yet the map didn’t always have both names listed. I therefore ended up in an area known as Louisa, which was a nice place but way off from where I wanted to be and I consequently did not find the market I was looking for.

I did however come across a beggar sitting outside a supermarket. I had seen many people begging for money on my travels through Europe, and I don’t usually give money to them, yet this guy was different. He sat there quietly and didn’t have any signs or sob stories about numerous ‘bambinos’ to feed, nor a mangy looking dog at his feet, and he smiled at everyone who went past. I watched him for a while and a few people stopped to drop some coins in his cup. I wanted to talk to him but he didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak any French, so all I managed to understand was his name – Christie. I told him I liked his smile and gave him my loose change. He left an impression on me, and I was reminded that no matter what your circumstances may be, you can always afford to smile at people – and hopefully they’ll manage a smile back.

I discovered two great loves that day – Belgium waffles and the area of Mont Des Arts Kunstberg. The waffles are divine. I could live off them they are that good. The true waffles shouldn’t be cooked solid throughout, the inside should be soft and fluffy and almost gooey in places, but not quite. It would be an art to get them just right, and I appreciated all the effort that went into making it. I had a plain one to start my experience with, and small bunches of sugar crystals in the mix made it a delightfully magical experience without being too sweet. Oh how I hope I can get waffles like this back at home.

While I lusted after the thought of another waffle I stood watching a flautist busking on the steps of the Mont Des Arts Kunstberg. The area was a little pocket of paradise in the middle of the city, filled with trees and green lawns, flower beds and neat hedges and fountains. My combined love of greenery and water was neatly laid out for the public to enjoy. I could have sat there for hours and just soaked up the atmosphere, it was my Garden of Eden in Brussels.

On my last day in Belgium I visited Gent, an old city half an hour north-west of Brussels. It was a pretty city, built along a river, with beautiful old buildings. huge churches and an old castle in the centre of the town. I was told it was just as nice as the touristy city of Brugge, minus the crowds, and it was worth the visit. I had a fruit flavoured beer that night, a Hoegaarden Rosee, which was quite nice. The best bit was that no one looked at me funny or was insulted when I ordered it – unlike in Germany when guys acted like I’d decided to drink my own urine. I asked the guys if they minded ordering fruit beers at the bar and they said they didn’t, everyone just knew they were for the girls. I took a picture of a bar with all the tap beers available for I’d never seen so many – there were at least 30 different choices of beer available in one bar alone!

I left Brussels early the next morning to fly back to Madrid for a few days, visiting some friends I’d met last time and to spend a day in the walled medieval city of Toledo before I got to London on the 3rd of August. Then began my three weeks visiting friends throughout the UK.

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Photos from Brussels and Gent can be seen here.  Enter ‘europe’ if asked for a password.

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