Our initial draft itinerary had us arriving in Belgium via train from Switzerland. I had us spending six days covering four stops throughout Switzerland, which was eventually stripped out entirely (due to both time and money constraints—minor details). Instead, we flew from Bologna, Italy, in to Brussels, Belgium, where we would spend five nights. I had it all planned out: Antwerp was a 48 minute train trip North, Ghent a 35 minute trip West, and Bruges an additional 35 minutes beyond Ghent. We had enough travel days on our Eurail Pass that we could do a day trip for each city! Brussels would be our home base while we run around seeing all that Belgium has to offer!
Yet again, I continue to discover on this trip that when things don’t go as originally planned, it’s almost always for the better. However I initially envisioned our five nights in Belgium going, it ended up being completely different. And it was an incredible time.
We landed in Brussels Airport and took a train to Bruxelles Central station, in the heart of the city and walking distance to our apartment. As we turn the corner out of the exit, I look up from my phone (I’m navigating, not tweeting, thank you very much) to find Zoe! and Zach! As it turned out, Isabel’s sister was joining her ❤boyfriend❤ on a work trip in Italy the same time we were there, though in different cities. So when we told her where we’d be heading to next, they jumped at the chance to extend their trip, explore a new city, and say Hi to her little sister!
They got in the day before and we exchanged trip stories as they walked us to our Airbnb. I booked everything so long ago I really don’t know what to expect until we walk in the door. Luckily, it was awesome! Spacious, cozily decorated, a comfy couch with a functional TV (equipped with Netflix, this will prove to be key), and the pièce de résistance: a dope balcony! Okay, so the rotting wood handrail was a tiny bit sketch, but no one fell and the view was magnificent!
We’ve discovered that where we stay has a lot to do with our overall impression and feel of the city itself, so we had a good feeling about Brussels. Not just our humble abode, but our location on Boulevard Anspach, as well. It seemed to be the main pedestrian strip with everything we might need or want no more than a 10 minute walk away.
The four of us went out to dinner at a chic restaurant, 9 et Voisins. If traditional Belgian food consists of meat-heavy dishes, then we were hella authentic that night. After dinner we capped off the night with Belgian Waffle #1. If eating waffles in Belgium is touristy, than consider us Arthur Frommer and Rick Steves. Especially when it comes to food, usually being an übertourist is precisely the way to go. It was great to catch up with Zach and Zoe again. We’ve been fortunate to spend time with loved ones on this trip, which has truly been a blessing. Reinforcing that no matter what we do or where we go (even so far as Thailand), we’ll always have our families and friends.
The four of us spent the next day checking off a bevy of touristy musts:
- Bourse de Bruxelles (stock exchange building)
- Galeries Royales St Hubert (gallery of shops, mostly selling chocolate)
- Mont des Arts (flower garden)
- Musical Instrument Museum (It was closed for Whit Monday, but it’s still an impressive building from the outside)
- Belgian Waffle #2 (Zach recognized this yellow-and-white gaufre chaude truck, so we had to make a stop)
- The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (monument to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the two World Wars)
- Manneken Pis (the creepy—yet adorable?—statue of a boy peeing. Fun fact: Belgians dress up the boy in little costumes throughout the year, which are then on display in a dedicated museum)
Later that night after dinner, we walked around and absentmindedly stumbled on the most magnificent place my eyes have seen; Brussels’ Grand Place, or Grote Markt if you’re local. This square, surrounded by stunning castles and breathtaking architecture, also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We discovered that when we noticed the UNESCO logo embedded in the cobblestones upon our exit. It’s officially on the list for being an “outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful blending of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region.” So, it’s on the list for BEING FRICKIN’ GORGEOUS! Today, many of the buildings house museums and storefronts serve as restaurants. This is one of those places that is worth visiting several times, at all times of day. We sure did. It never got old.
Sadly, this was where we said goodbye to Zoe and Zach, as they had a morning flight back to the States. It was great fun getting to spend time with both of them again, and amazing being able to see so much of our families so close together.
What we’ve yet to mention is that from the moment we first walked from the train station to our Airbnb, there were a noticeable amount of Scotsmen about. The kilts, the hats, the accents, the beers. Quite a collection of Scots. My first thought was “A soccer match? No, club season’s over, and the UEFA Nation’s League is done with.” Rugby? Not sports related? It turns out it was a soccer game (a.k.a. football match, take your pick), Scotland was in town playing Belgium for qualifiers for the 2020 Euro’s (don’t worry, enough soccer talk, you don’t need to know what any of that means). And it was the absolute greatest thing. Because Scots are super friendly, funny when they’re drunk, and in amazing spirits when amongst their own.
The more we found ourselves wandering over to the Grand Place, the Scots had completely taken over. Flags were draped around statues, bars became theirs, and they held court in the plaza’s very center, with cases of beer and bottles of liquor. Earlier that morning we saw a policeman walking around carrying three black, yellow and red soccer balls (the color of the Belgium flag). I found it odd. Then we got to the square, and it made perfect sense. The Tartan Army—the nickname for traveling Scottish supporters—bought a bunch of soccer balls and were playing keepy-uppy in the square, finding it immensely entertaining, cheering each other on. The officers would confiscate the balls, but only when they bounced in their direction. Even they wore a bit of a smile on their face, and when one brave Scotsman tried to goad an officer with a beer in hand, the response was “you’ll have to kick better than that tonight if you want to win!” Everyone—Scots, locals and tourists alike—were in a jovial mood, and though people were getting well drunk, no one got out of hand. The visiting Scots were polite and well-behaved, the police weren’t being aggressive, they were merely present to be seen and ensure nothing got too out of hand. Take a lesson, America.
Sadly, eventually the soccer game was played (Belgium won 3-0) and the Scots packed up their ‘pipes and headed back home. So Brussels grew quieter, but no less beautiful. It did rain quite a bit the last few days, so we had zero qualms staying in and watching the city play out from our balcony windows. AND we discovered that Belgian Netflix has all the Harry Potter movies streaming! Isabel’s been running through the books (she’s just started Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, book six of seven), and we were totally down to binge the movies.
Again, kudos to our super comfy Airbnb for making us feel at home in Brussels, we were able to return to our happy place: watching movies on the couch. Enter Belgian Waffle #3, and a couple of truly delicious meals.
We spent the afternoon stepping out for brunch, and found a number of truly awesome comic book stores and nerd culture shops just a block down the Boulevard from our apartment. We learned that Tin Tin was actually a Belgian creation (we thought he was French? Close enough). As were the Smurfs, originally named Les Schtroumpfs—a more fitting name if you ask me. Plus, Belgian Waffle #4, because why not?
Though we planned on doing multiple day trips to see more of Belgium, the
allure of Harry Potter and a comfortable couch rain had us content to stay put. However, on our last day we dusted off the ol’ Eurail Pass and ventured out to Bruges (or Brugge, if you’re so inclined). An hour train ride away, Isabel had previous been on a family trip. Ten years later, it remains an adorable little town, but the tourism and consumerism is potent. The walk from the train station to the main square (a UNESCO World Heritage site) is lined with designer brand shops and chain restaurants (the city is moving to cut down on tourism).
We make our way in, and it’s beautiful. The buildings, the squares, the cobblestone streets. If you couldn’t tell from our indulgent Belgian Waffle escapades, this country is chock full of treats. There are chocolate shoppes on every corner in Brussels (Mom, I am NOT exaggerating), and Bruges is no different. All sorts of delectable indulgences are on display. I walked into a marzipan shop and came out with a chocolate-covered marshmallow treat. For lunch we shared Belgian frites (they’re not French fries) and croquettes, before taking the train back to Brussels, eager to spend our final night watching the sixth installment of Harry Potter.
I’m not sure how many of the tourist list-toppers we actually checked off, but our time spent in Brussels was amazing. Being welcomed by Zoe and Zach, Isabel getting to spend time with her sister whom she hadn’t seen since we departed the States five months prior, was a great way to kick things off. I can’t much say how I found the Belgian people to be, but the Scots were warm, friendly and fun. We felt so comfortable being there and never tired of the view of the city from our balcony. Brussels—just like Madrid, like Lyon and Budapest and so many places before—really felt like home for the five days we were there. That’s been an important theme throughout our travels these five months … that after all the different places we’ve been, it’s comforting to find that we feel at home in this world.
P.S. This post’s title is named after one of my favorite songs, by Bhi Bhiman: check it out!