Friday, June 5, 2009

The Most Fattening Country in Europe

Almost two weeks ago, Teriann and I took a three-day weekend to Belgium: one day in Brussels, one in Bruges, and one in Ghent. I suppose it's one of the joys of traveling that, no matter your expectations, each new place is subtly different from them in ways you could never find out unless you traveled there. So what did we find in Belgium?

Brussels: We took the Chunnel (a train tunnel that goes under the English Channel) to Brussels on the 23rd of May, and both agreed that train travel beats plane travel in every respect. For longer hauls, of course, flying becomes necessary, but for the short distance, it ended up being quicker to take the train than to fly to Brussels. Plus you don't waste ages with security and check-in (there is security, but it goes really quickly), the train station is right in town (as opposed to on the outskirts), and there's much more room once you're seated; everything about it is comfy.

The best thing about Brussels is undoubtedly the main square, called the Grand Place. It's surrounded by incredibly ornate buildings and bursting with the typical European tourist cafes: overpriced, mediocre food, but can't beat the atmosphere.

It was also lovely at night when the city hall was lit up.

We also visited the Musical Instrument Museum,

(what's even going on here... two keyboards at one instrument?)

and ate.

A lot. Delicious waffles and chocolate... far too much of the stuff. This was our favorite chocolate shop (just off the Grand Place) and yes, we went back twice.

While we learned some things about Belgium on the first day (for instance, that everyone there, without exception, speaks English in addition to French and, more often not, Dutch), considerably more was revealed to us on the next.

Bruges: The next morning, we hopped a train to Bruges, a sleepy little town that, like Venice, used to be a major trading port but has for centuries been reduced to a cutesy tourist attraction. It is also compared to Venice because of the canals that wind through the city, and while they are quite nice, I suspect that this comparison is made by people who haven't actually been to Venice.

Right, so, about Belgium. Many, many people ride bicycles.

In a small, traveling fairground, you can find this:

Ha! The Grand Canyon! Look at the cacti!

The stepped-gable look was everywhere. Here, for instance, was the view from our hotel room.

There were, like all the best places in the world, plenty of ducks and swans.

With babies!

And horses!

And, most importantly, we confirmed that Belgium is indeed the most fattening country in Europe with this incredible sweet shop.

I mean, it looks like something out of Harry Potter and the cookies were incredible... I didn't even know that I could enjoy a cookie that much!

Bruges was indeed beautiful. The canals made for a relaxing little boat trip and some great photo-ops.

We're ON A BOAT!!!

Plus the main square was again quite impressive.

From the top of the bell tower, you can look down on the square

or imagine London far in the distance.

Dinner in Bruges was, in a word, hilarious. On the beautiful, main square, amidst the overpriced, touristy restaurants, was a comically misplaced fast food joint: Quick Burger. It was as if someone had amalgamated all the bad attributes of American fast food chains into one sitcom-ready stereotype. We knew as soon as we saw it that we had to have it. I can't think of any fast food place with a view like this:

Plus, soon after we were finished, a random parade came down the road into City Hall.

Will he fit?



We spent the evening watching reruns of 'The Closer' in our hotel room (interspersed with truly bizarre Belgian TV) and being too tired to check out the local watering holes. The next morning, fully rested, we moved on to...

Ghent: city of... what exactly? See, that's the problem: Ghent isn't really an industrialized city, like Brussels, but it's not a city-in-a-snowglobe for tourists like Bruges. It's somewhere — not always comfortably — in the middle.

After wandering through a beautiful little park next to the train station, the city itself proved to be less than impressive. We started out by going to Gravensteen, the hulking castle near the city center. While it's not under construction, it looks like this.

However, while we were there, it was under quite a bit of scaffolding and the beautiful view in the stock photo was under orange work fence.

The castle was kind of interesting, but what we'll remember about it in a few years is that it wrested the prize of worst audioguide from the Roman Bathhouse in Bath — in the form of a 'movieguide'. The prospect sounded promising, but in practice, it was dismal.

Still, any old castle is kinda cool just because it's an old castle.

We wandered through a few churches, but the highlight of the afternoon was hands down sitting by the canal in a peaceful beer garden.

We whiled away our last few hours in Belgium over a delicious meal, and some delicious Pirate beer. Seriously, it is called Piraat and it is 10.5%! Yarrrrr!!!

Tomorrow morning? Off to Munich and Neuschwanstein!

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