Me: Bonjour! Parlez anglais?
Me: Awesome *switches to English*
*conversation in English*
Me: Great! Grazie! I mean Thanks… I mean Merci *walks off embarrassed*
This was basically the format of every conversation I had the first time I went to Belgium, from the person at the Tourist Information Office to random strangers on the street who I asked for directions. If the person did not speak English, the conversation was much shorter:
Me: Bonjour! Parlez anglais?
Me: Ok, merci. *smiles and tries to find someone else*
I actually visited Belgium twice, once in September 2016 with only one full day and again in April 2017 with even less time. My trip in September was my first trip alone to a country in which I did not speak the language, or in Belgium’s case, any of the three official languages. You think with three official languages, I would at least know one.
It wasn’t that I hoped everyone spoke English. That is a privileged and self-centred way to view life and the world. I wished I had remembered more from my French classes. I studied French for two years in high school some time ago (over 5 years ago). Fortunately, I did remember a couple phrases, some more useful than others, and a lot of phrases slowly came back to me as my (short) time in Belgium progressed. For example, the French above that helped me find persons who spoke English. However, at no point did I need to tell someone my age or count even though I’m sure that would be useful in some other context.
Where I Stayed
For my first trip to Belgium, I stayed in an Airbnb in Antwerp. I’m not even sure why I stayed in Antwerp but this was my first lesson in what not to book for accommodations. As usual, I used my favourite fare comparison site to find cheap flights and it ended up being cheaper to fly into the Brussels Charleroi airport. I did not do much research into getting from the airport to Antwerp (don’t do that) so I figured things out when I arrived in Belgium. After taking a shuttle to the train station followed by a train to Antwerp Central Station, I arrived in Antwerp around 8 or 9pm. Unfortunately, on my way to my Airbnb, I immediately started to feel unsafe in the neighbourhood. In addition to passing a couple arguing loudly in the street, I was harassed and followed by a guy who ignored my no’s and adamant requests to be left alone until another guy walked by and glanced at him. On top of that, my Airbnb host somehow double booked the room for my first night and failed to inform either of us. She also was not there to check me in. All in all, it was not a pleasant experience and if it was my first Airbnb experience, I probably would not have used Airbnb again.
During my second visit to Belgium in April 2017, I was there for only one day/night. This time, I chose to stay in Brussels in a hostel which was a much better experience. The location was good for finding a restaurant last minute for dinner (unlike my first stay, I felt comfortable going out at night for dinner) and the staff was quite helpful. More importantly, I felt much safer. I thought that the problem with my accommodations in Antwerp was the closeness to the train station. Although areas around train stations are often sketchy, I did not experience this after dinner in Brussels when walking back to my hostel which was close to Brussels South Railway Station.
Exploring Bruges & Ghent
For my first trip, I had three cities in mind that I wanted to visit: Bruges, Ghent and Dinant. I had no idea what I would do there, I was just going to get there, see what I found and go with the flow. Unfortunately, I did not have time to go to Dinant. Since I only had one full day in Belgium, I decided to spend the first half in Ghent, then spend the rest of the day in Bruges. Since Ghent is a stop on the way to Bruges, I was able to visit both cities using one rail pass. I first headed to Ghent in the morning and pretty much just walked around and along the canals where possible. My first snack of the day was a waffle with lots of strawberries and chocolate. Hmmm… delicious! Eating in one of Ghent’s beautiful squares made the meal even more delicious if that’s possible. I then continued walking around Ghent and along the canals, stopping in almost every chocolate store I encountered.
When I first arrived in Ghent, I pretty much just walked around, admiring the canals and its medieval architecture. Of course, I also ensured to stop by the tourism office to get a map of the city and pointers from people who know it better than I do. My first snack of the day was a waffle with lots of strawberries and chocolate. Hmmm… delicious! Eating in one of Ghent’s beautiful squares made the meal even more delightful if that’s possible. I then continued walking around Ghent and along the canals, stopping in almost every chocolate store I encountered. Suffice it to say, it was chocolate heaven. I also found this alley that was filled with amazing graffiti art.
Around 2 or 3pm, I headed to Bruges where there was a tourism office in the train station. I had a quick chat with the persons there and found out about their super interestingly themed museums. Right then and there, I decided I was going to visit the Chocolate and Frites museums. Fooooood! Silly me, however, did not take into account the times the museums would close, so I ventured to do some exploring first and by the time I got to the museums, they were both closed. I was quite disappointed in myself but alas, there was nothing I could do about that. But, if you can’t go to the museums about particular food items, you can go to restaurants and eat those items. That is exactly what I did. I got myself a late lunch, consisting of frites covered in a sauce with dessert being another waffle and bought way too much chocolate.
Since I missed my opportunity to go to Bruges’ museums on my first trip, I decided that would be the focus of my second trip. After getting breakfast (a train station croissant), I hopped on a train to Bruges. I headed straight to Choco-Story, the chocolate museum. As someone who doesn’t fancy museums that much, I wasn’t sure how this would go, but I was excited, especially for the chocolate making demonstration. I walked around the first two floors of the museum, learning stuff about chocolate’s history that I did not even realize I needed to know, like that it was in and out of nobility’s favour so many times, and the type of chocolate most compatible with my taste. What?! I then headed to the chocolate making demonstration where I got to taste chocolate (YUM!) and learnt the difference in the process for milk vs white vs dark chocolate. Afterwards, I headed up to the third floor to continue learning about chocolate’s history but by this time, I excitement had started to wear off so I did not linger for long.
I actually spent more time in Choco-Story than I had anticipated so by the time I left, there wasn’t sufficient time to go to the Frites museum. I decided instead to wander around Bruges some more and you guessed it, BUY CHOCOLATE! I did this until I had to head back to the train station to get back to my hostel and then leave for the airport.
My Favourite Things about Belgium:
- Food: My days in Belgium were spent eating chocolate, waffles and fries. I ate nothing else. In fact, I think living in Belgium (or just more time there) would be bad for my health. I have poor self-control when it comes to certain food, especially chocolate and with a chocolatier every two steps my house would always be fully stocked. Funnily enough, I even had friends who visited Belgium after I did buy me more chocolate when my “souvenir” stash ran out.
- Discounts for young adults/students: The main discount I am referring to is the railway Go Pass for persons under 26 years old. It allows anyone up to 25 years old to travel to anywhere in Belgium by 2nd class rail for a flat rate of 6.20 euros. Who doesn’t love a good discount?! As a student on a tight budget, I appreciated any opportunity to save. Without the Go Pass, I would have paid at least twice that rate for my destinations. There were also discounts at museums such as the Chocolate Museum in Bruges.
- Museums: I’m not much of a museum person. Unless the museum is pretty unique or I’m trying to kill time, I usually avoid them. Brussels has museums on chocolate, frites (fries), diamonds, beer and the list goes on. I only visited the chocolate museum, Choco-Story, due to time but I also really wanted to visit the Frites (fries) museum. At Choco-Story, I learnt so much about the history of chocolate. Who knew chocolate was in and out of favour with “royalty” so often?! I also learnt about and witnessed the chocolate-making process and got to taste newly made chocolate. Clearly my kind of museum!
Would I go back to Belgium?
I totally would! Isn’t it obvious? I’ve already been twice. If nothing, I’d go just for the chocolate. However, Belgium has so much more to offer as well. The next time I go, I would like to take a canal tour, drink lots of Belgian beers and if I go with a friend that time, grab a bottle of wine and just hang by one of the canals or in one of the parks. And of course, visit other cities like Dinant or actually explore Brussels. I would also love to actually immerse myself in Belgian culture some more. I’ll definitely admit that my visits there were quite superficial and very tourist-activity heavy. I would love to interact more with Belgians and learn more from them about their culture.
If you’ve been to Belgium, what have you done there?
À la prochaine,
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