From Amsterdam it was onward to Brussels, the multicultural melting pot of Belgium. It was my second time visiting this city; the de facto capital of the European Union. To be honest, it never wooed me the same way other European cities did. It had a bit of an edgy feel about it, like you should watch your pockets and hide your camera away, especially near the main train station. The main city square or the Grote Markt is, however, beautiful and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is all pomp and circumstance with golden roofs surrounded by guildhalls, the city town hall and the famous Breadhouse.
But none of the grandiose can beat the magic of a little place called Mini Europe. Mini Europe: an actual miniature of the main attractions in Europe (believe it or not). I took an entire memories worth of photos on my camera. There was the mini Eiffel Tower, the mini Palace of Versailles, the mini tower of Pisa, mini everything! I felt like a giant, posing in front of one attraction or another and pretending to quash the Eiffel Tower under my foot. We enjoyed a delicious dinner alfresco looking out over the theme park and basking in each others company; enjoying the excitement of being in Europe and being completely disconnected from our every day Australian lives. It was a nice late afternoon too, the sun had a delightful warmth about it and left a warm imprint on my back.
After enough carbs and alcohol to keep me going a lifetime, we caught the underground train back to out hotel, The Ibis, just opposite the delightful train station, where we sat in the bar and drank more local beers. Did you know that there is a specialised glass made for every beer produced? I particularly liked the Orval beer that I remembered well from my previous visit to the country. I’m not a huge beer drinker much at all, however when in Rome… I’ll try everything once. Unless it’s meat.
In the morning it was off to the train station again for a day-trip to Ghent and Bruges, two charming cities which I had also visited and enjoyed before. It was foggy when we arrived in Ghent and it took me a moment or two to get my bearings. Last time I was there I stayed in a budget eco-tourist boat with environmentally friendly hippies running the place. It was amazing.
Thanks to the fog I could barely see my hand in front of my face let alone the view of the river running between the unique Belgian architecture which I knew existed. With me at the lead (with my fantastic sense of direction) I managed to get us all lost in the local area, which was fine by me. I love watching people go about their every day lives, walking to work, painting the front of their house, reversing their car into the driveway – you name it. Even the most monotonous task can seem exciting on foreign soil. It was Autumn (my favourite season) and the trees were golden and green and everything had a magnificent glow about it. An Autumn glow.
At this stage it was still early in the morning and shops were closed. That’s one thing that baffles me about Europe, shops open around 10 am and even finding a morning coffee/drink is an effort in smaller cities. We waited until Gravensteen Castle was finally open and wandered around, learning about ancient torture techniques. Back in the day being mentally ill was a crime and the guillotine was actually made as kind alternative to other torture methods (nails under the fingernails, that kind of thing). It was also created so that everyone, no matter of your class or social standing, befell the same death.
After a dose of history and learning I was relieved to sit down and enjoy a toasted sandwich (they are highly popular in Europe) dipped in tomato sauce, while Moe enjoyed some delicious fries which Belgium are famous for. I stole some of his chips too (the diet well and truly goes out the window when I’m away). The fog had cleared by this stage and we were graced with a magnificent view of the river where students were basking in the late morning sun and tourists lining up for boat rides.
Bruges would have to be one of the most wonderful places in the world. When we stepped off the train I remembered my last visit to the city, lazily strolling along canals, eating chocolate-covered waffles and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of amazing buildings. This visit wasn’t a disappointment. Moe and I lazily strolled the streets. I lost him a few times; he has this irritating habit of disappearing into one bush or another to take the ‘perfect’ photo on his amazing camera. Anyway, we all enjoyed some magnificent chocolate waffles at a restaurant in a small cobbled alleyway. Moe and I also found a fantastic tourist shop that had a cellar with every beer possible paired with its matching glass. I don’t think I could sample them all but they make for a unique sight all lined up next to each other.
It was then back on the train to see if we could squeeze Antwerp in as well. Turns out it is a little more difficult to achieve than we realised so it was back to the Ibis for a quiet dinner. After realising the hotel wasn’t going to accommodate our dinner needs we resorted to entering the train station and enjoying a slice of pizza and a sugary high-calorie drink. Luckily we had walked 20 kilometres that day! Back to the hotel for a nightcap before bed. The next day we were off to Paris, the city of romance, for the next stage in our whirlwind tour of Europe.