I had initially been quite excited about catching the Eurostar to Brussels but that soon dissolved when all the passport control gates failed and I ended up standing in the queue for more than 30 minutes going nowhere – sometimes technology sucks!! It was hot and crowded given it was the Friday afternoon of a long weekend.
All I wanted to do was to get on the train and enjoy my classy Pina Colada in a can (thank you M&S😂) and finally I got through the passport line to join the throng of people waiting for the train … where there were not enough seats, people sitting in the middle of the floor, bags everywhere. Oh the joy of travelling.
I think I had completely over romanticized the train journey in my head – imagining relaxing in comfortable large seats with a large table … but instead it was just as cramped as a plane with a small child behind me kicking my seat and whinging most of the way! When I think back, I have a feeling the only other time I have been on the Eurostar (to Paris) many moons ago, it was in first class (we got a good deal)… with a group of friends … drinking champagne on the way! How the mighty have fallen.
The next issue I had was upon arriving in Brussels. Firstly I had to find my way from Garde Midi to Garde Central … lots of trains were supposed to go there frequently but the main board only showed the final destination so I had to walk along every platform to find one that went there … thankfully I only had to wait 5 minutes and then only 3 minutes to the stop … but the train smelt so I was glad to get off it after 3 minutes 😩
Taxis, even Uber’s were expensive in Brussels (as was the accommodation. – over £35 a night for a bed in a dorm room) so I was not keen on getting a one! Because of this I had picked my hostel due to its proximity to the station that I would get to at around 11pm … however the day before I was informed that I actually had to go to another hostel 10minutes further away to check in and get my key … even though I had already check in online!! So, I had to walk 10 minutes past my hostel to get the key … then 10 minutes back at 11.30 at night with my bag!! Now, I discovered that it was hidden in the small print that you had to check in somewhere else but still it basically also sucked!!!
The 15 minute walk to the hostel I had not booked seemed very long and the 10 minute walk back to the hostel I had booked even longer -when I finally got in my room it was stifling hot despite the supposed air con. The room was cramped and the only free bed was a top bunk that had someone’s towel was draped over the railing and a suitcase blocking the ladder! Then I had to try and make the bed!! What a joke.
First world problems I know, but this place was really not well thought out and very disappointing for the price ( oh and they have no left luggage place, if I want to leave by bag somewhere when I check out I have to walk back to the other place again – so all in all it is pointless booking it because it is close to the station!).
The only good thing that happened that evening was to see the Central Plaza at night – it was a little gaudy but pretty awesome and the hostel turned out to be just around the corner from it so I could take a better look when I was in a better mood tomorrow after a night’s sleep.
Saturday was a new day, with a new attitude and except for the person who left at 6am, no one else was up in the hostel so again I had to try and sort out my stuff in the dark. Despite it already being 8am, the area was pretty much deserted except for the street cleaners! Great for some photos with no people but I ended up having to walk back up to the station for coffee before heading to the meeting point for my tour.
The group was a large one, 32 people but thankfully all English speaking so not one of the bilingual tours I had in Montenegro! All on board the bus and we were off to the north of the country.
As we drove the guide filled us in on some of the facts and figures of the country – nerd alert ahead lol. Belgium is a secular country, and although 85% of the population are catholic (due to the year of Spanish occupation) only about 5-6% are practicing. Speaking of the Spanish, did you know the Spanish King Charles V was actually Belgium? He was born in Ghent (though this is not something they are proud of).
Because the state and church separate, many of the churches rent out space to get money. In some cases, they are used for art exhibitions and others as restaurants (one has a Moulin Rouge themed restaurant, with dancers and drag queens – inside the church!)
Belgium only became its own country in 1830 and its mixed heritage is still visible in its 3 national languages French, Flemish (which is a dialect of Dutch) and German. Flanders is the region in the north of the country, where Flemish is spoken, in some instances, only Flemish and not French!
Flanders is also where you find two of the finest medieval cities in the country, if not in Europe – Ghent and Bruges. The first stop for the day was Ghent, which started as an Abbey in the 7th century.
In the 15th century it was one of the most important cities in Europe due to its textile industry – that famous Belgian tapestry and lace! Of course, one of the other things Belgium is famous for is beer. There are over 1250 brands of Belgium beer and it dates back to the 12th century. The water was unhygienic and undrinkable so the monks started brewing beer and people (including children) drank that instead of water. In fact, right up until the 70s children got beer when they went to school – all part of the culture apparently. This was the original Trappest beers. (More about beer later.)
As we walked around the central square, we learnt about the medieval market activities – markets on Fridays, executions on Wednesdays … the markets continue on Fridays today, not surprisingly, the executions do not! The statue in the square is over Jacob van Artevelde who was an anti-French Flemish patriot – our guide told us that he is pointing towards England, the source of much of his family’s wealth due to the textile trade. He is surrounded by the symbols of many of the city guilds around the bottom of his statue.
Many of the buildings that lined the square and the streets surrounding it are guild halls. Many are elaborately decorated and it began trying to guess the guild by the decoration – can you guess which these belong to? Musicians, Charities, the fish market, sailors (which is coincidentally next to the brothel … which is now a Marriott hotel lol)?
A cute story about the street lights around the city … they are linked in to the Maternity Hospital and each time a baby is born, the parents are given the option to push a button connected to the street lamps which causes the street lights to flash sharing their joy with those in the street.
We then moved on to churches, St Michael’s, St Nicholas’ and St Bavo’s, all within a stone’s throw from each other. I went inside a couple to escape the rising temperature and it is always interesting to see the difference in style from inside to out – St Nicholas was a perfect example of this with its late Gothic exterior and its rich baroque interior.
The Town Hall was another perfect example of 2 different styles but this time both styles on the outside. They started building in 15th century gothic style but before they finished it the fashions changed renaissance so they just built the other half in the new style!!
Back on the bus to travel the hour to Bruges, the Venice of the north and the home of the best artisan chocolate in the world. It does not normally take an hour, but we were caught in the all the traffic headed to the coast to enjoy the sunshine and beat the heat.
These days Bruges is basically a tourist hotspot (a medieval Disneyland as our guide described it) and it is illegal to guide more than 25 people around the city without the use of radio headphones. Although a little odd, it was good as you did not have to worry about being close to the guide to be able to hear her, on the other hand I would get distracted and almost loose the group – oops lol
Back to beginning, Bruges was settled at the end of the 9th century by Vikings who took advantage of inland canals created by a Tsunami and it was an important port for the Hanseatic League that I learnt about in Stockholm. By the 15 century it was a cosmopolitan business hub where merchants regularly met to discuss the value of the money and prices of commodities – they actually claim fame to the founding of the stock exchange concept!
At the end of the 15th century vicious storms damaged the port and trade diminished, putting the city in to centuries of decline leaving it one of the poorest cities in Europe by the end of the 19th century. With a population of only 2000 it was basically forgotten until Georges Rodenbach wrote a book called Bruges-la-Morte (They Dead Bruges) which was published in 1892 – the first fiction book illustrated with photos. The story was dark and ghostly, based in the city and it unintentionally became a great marketing campaign and suddenly people started to visit again, it was truly the start of the renaissance of the city.
I fell for the tourist trap restaurant recommended by the guide, it was very expensive 🤦🏻♀️🤦🏻♀️ for not a lot of food, but on the plus side was the good company of a Kiwi girl and an Aussie girl who were also travelling solo. Us antipodeans always seem to find each other were ever we are in the world. It was also my first opportunity to try a Belgian beer which was very refreshing in the heat.
Belgians love, and are of course very proud of their beer culture. One of the craziest beer stories must be about the “Madman of Bruges”. They dreamed of building a beer pipeline under the city, from the brewery in the centre of the city, to the bottling plant outside of town. To realise this dream, they turned to CrowdFunding. Those who invested Eur7,500, they were rewarded with a bottle of Brugse Zot every day for the rest of their lives! The ultimate goal is to provide a personal beer tap in the houses of those who invested the most!!
We continued through the city and down a narrow street called ‘Stoofstrat’ (Stove Street). The street was once home to a notorious bathhouse where weary, wealthy, medieval travels could come and freshen up after long journeys. Normally this mean a bath (often shared with others), a meal (often whilst in the bath) and a ‘happy ending’ …. Enough said!
From raunchy bathhouses to Chocolate shops with royal warrants! The best artisanal chocolatiers in the world (or so the Belgians say and who I am to disagree)! Unfortunately, it would break the bank to buy more than three pieces and with the heat, I don’t think they would have made it back to Brussels!
It was mid-afternoon by this time and it the city centre was hot and crowed – these were the crowds I had been dreading in European cities in the summer!!! To escape the heats and the crowds I joined by new friends at a waffle shop during our free time to enjoy another of the most famous Belgian institutions – waffles! Apparently, Belgians will typically have them plain or with a dusting of icing sugar, but we went full tourist on them and had fruit, cream and ice cream … and it was good!
Unfortunately, by this time my ankle was throbbing! I had thought that my sprain (from my Lithuanian weekend) had healed but clearly it was still not up to a day’s walking which does not bode well for my next big adventure in just a week’s time!
It was a relief that the last activity of the day was a boat trip along one of the canals. It was lovely to see the city from a different perspective and it was a little cooler and less crowded too so it was a great way to end our time in Bruges before the 1.5 hour drive back to Brussels.
Apparently, till the middle of the 19th century, Brussels also had canals like Bruges as well as a rive flowing through the city, but a cholera plague mean they covered it up to stop the spread of the disease. So, it is now one of the few European cities without a river!
When I finally got back to my hostel and back up in my bunk bed, I thought I would never move again as my ankle seized up, but I did manage to walk the few minutes to Delirium, a famous beer bar with over 2000 types of beer. I was recommended a Chimay Doree – a Trappist beer. Trappist beers are only brewed by Trappist monks and dates back to the 1600s and must follow strict rules – it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist Monastery and it is not allowed to be a profit-making venture with any profits going to charity. So, drinking Trappist beer can be considered an act of charity lol. 😂😂😂
As it turned out, I wish I had given more to charity that evening as the night in the dorm turned in to a bit of a nightmare. A girl came in drunk which was not too much of an issue until her alarm started going off at 3.20 and she just kept putting it on snooze (when I finally woke her up after more than a minute of it going off)! So, it continued to go off for almost an hour before she worked out how to turn it off!! Of course, getting louder each time and ending with loud rooster crowing! What a drama!
The following morning, I was packing again in the dark – even though it was 8.30am! I then walked the few minutes to the station to drop my luggage in the storage lockers there (as I refused to walk all the way back to the other hostel especially as now my ankle is killing me again 🤦🏻♀️).
I was sat in the Grand Plaza enjoying a coffee when I received an email to say the walking tour I had booked was cancelled at the last minute but luckily I was in right by the meeting place for all the walking tours anyway so just jumped on another one – I am sure they are all much of a muchness but the guide for the tour I did was exceptional so I certainly did not lose out. (He was also Belgian, which appeared to be a realty when I heard many of the guides waiting in the square speaking Spanish.)
As with all the stories so far, they are histories of the individual cities rather than the country (which did not exist for many centuries later). In the 7th century, a swampy spot in the middle of western Europe seemed to be a good place to set up a trading town with it’s grandest guild halls surrounding the Grand Plaza. Some hugely elaborate as they were always trying to out decorate their neighbour.
The biggest building is the Town Hall with its grand bell tower. The guide pointer out that it is not symmetrical as most buildings are. Apparently when it was built in the early 1400’s it was initial built as it was designed without a tower but the powers that be decided it needed to be bigger! So, they added the tower, and then the other end of the building but ran out of space before they could make it symmetrical with the other part!! Today it is still the biggest gothic non-religious building in the world.
Many of the guildhalls were built in 1697 and 1698 thanks to Louis XIV who wanted to rule the world! In pursuit of this goal the French bombed the Medieval state of Brussels for 2 days in 1695 destroying more than 1/3 of the city. The only two remaining buildings were the two stone gothic buildings. Apparently, they were aiming for the bell tower of the tower and hit pretty much every but! It was during the rebuilt that the ‘out-blinging’ the neighbour became popular! Despite all the glitz, in more recent years and right up until early 1980s the plaza was used as a parking lot!
Carl Marx and Victor Hugo both lived in the Plaza at one time. Marx wrote much or his communist manifesto whilst living here, whilst Hugo wrote Les Misérables! Clearly a place of much inspiration! Both of them were both lushes and would often get drunk on a regular basis. Marx would throw wild parties whilst Hugo would wander the Plaza harassing people – both ended up being exiled to Paris!
Our next stop was the famous Manneken Pis fountain (literally translated as little man piss)! Now I say it is famous as there were a lot people taking photos and everyone seems to know about it, but I will put my hand up and say I had never heard of it! There are many legends about it but the one our guide told us was that the area was leather tanning area, and to tan the leather you need ammonium – at that time the only source of that was pee! So, the poorest families would send children to the corner to sell the only thing they had to sell – their pee!! Believe it or not! Of course, the country now has a great tourist market selling miniature statues or varying sizes! I had to pass on that lol. (And yes it is pretty small.)
Our guide was clearly very passionate about beer and proudly told that the Belgian beer culture has been UNESCO World Heritage status and a big part of the beer culture is diversity. We stopped off at a café and enjoyed another of the great local beers – this was a fruity craft beer called Jungle Joy, with hints of mango and passion fruit. Really tasty and refreshing as it was already 28 degrees.
Next stop was the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert. One of the oldest shopping arcades In Europe (the famous ones in Milan were based on this one). It was built for the Bourgeoisie, so they could enjoy shopping without being bother by riff raff (you use to have to pay to get in). Unfortunately to build it, they had to kick out all the people who live there – some refused to leave and hung themselves in their home. Not a great start to the project but it still went on to be very popular and was one of the places Victor Hugo came to get drunk!
We walked up the hill to stroll through the beautiful royal gardens, a nice shady respect from the heat of the city before reaching the Royal Palace. This palace is an ‘office’ these days, where the King meets foreign visitors as they live in a palace on the outskirts of the city (that we passed the day before on the way back into the city).
These days the Belgian Royal Family are figure heads and how no real power. This is probably a welcome change after many less than desirable Kings the country has had in the past. This royal palace being a key remind of one of the worst – King Leopold II who used blood money from his exploitation of the Congo to build it.
As the popularity of the motor car grew, so did the need for rubber (for the tyres) and King Leopold got very rich, very quickly by enslaving Congolese people for the harvesting of rubber. Many atrocities were carried out and 10m Congolese died during this period either directly or in directly as a result of Belgian rule. The guide normally animated guide was very sombre as he told us about this and that he considered it his duty as a guide and a Belgian share these stories.
The tour ended at big church on hill, Saint Jacques-Sur-Coudenberg, a grand neoclassical Roman Catholic church with view of old city and where the royals are baptised. From here I wandered back down the hill to the train station for my train journey home and a much-needed rest!
Just a side note – did you know the Smurfs were Belgian?? I certainly didn’t but there is a large statue of one and many shops selling them so they are clearly very proud of the fact. lol