After so much traveling in such a short period of time, I decided that one last hop across the channel would be just about right. I decided to try a new travel method however – going under the water through the chunnel! On the Eurostar you can get to either Paris or Brussels from London, and Belgium was the winner with its siren call of chocolate …
We (and by “we” I mean Annie, Cheryl, Lauren and I) were late leaving our flat in the morning and had a rushed journey to St. Pancras Station. We made it to King’s Cross with about ten minutes left to run into the adjoining St. Pancras, print our tickets, and board the train. As you can probably guess, we didn’t make it. Even so, we tried – we ran through King’s Cross dodging slow-moving travelers and sprinted up what felt like the longest escalator in Britain before printing our tickets in record time. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us through the ticket barriers because we wouldn’t have enough time to go through security and find the platform before the train was supposed to take off.
We were sent to the ticket office instead, and I was thrilled when they just gave us new tickets instead of making us pay for another set. (And we got to sit next to each other, unlike our original tickets!) The next train was only 1 ½ hours from then, which gave us time to leisurely go through security and get a little breakfast on the other side.
One thing I noticed at the station was that most of the workers spoke as if English wasn’t their first language. They were perfectly fluent, but I think they all had French accents. It was something I would have expected in Paris of course, and even Brussels, but not in London. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting.
After getting settled in our hostel and finding a map of Brussels we went in search of lunch. By this point we were all starving, so we chose the first restaurant we passed which advertised panini's amongst other delicious-sounding foods. We got a little surprise when we sat down, however. Our waitress only spoke French! Everywhere else we’d traveled so far had plenty of people who spoke English, even if it wasn't the national language. We quickly realized that this woman really didn’t know English though and we were thinking, okay – now what? Fortunately, Lauren had retained some of her high school French and was able to translate the basics for us like “tuna” and “chicken.” We basically ended up pointing (Subway style) to what we wanted since we really couldn’t identify much, and my sandwich filled with orange stuff was one of the best I’ve ever had! I think it may have been chicken in a sweet sugar sauce, but since I speak no French whatsoever I can’t really be sure …
The rest of the day we just walked around Brussels. We got waffles at a little stand near the main square, and then wandered through the shopping area and the restaurant area as well as down some random but cute streets.
For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended by the TI at the train station and ordered mussels and fries – they were delicious! Before coming to Belgium I’d had no idea that mussels were such a big deal. I’d only known about the chocolate. But - since I hadn’t had any good seafood in a while the mussels were very welcome!
After dinner we went to a bar recommended by one of Cheryl’s friends. It supposedly has the best selections of beers in … Belgium? Europe? The World? I don’t remember. But what I do know is that there were 2,000 beers to choose from and in order to figure out which one to try you had to snag one of the few circulating menus and study it profusely. My only complaint about the place was all the smoke … it was a little unpleasant to breathe at times and after marinating in it for three hours we all reeked.
We hopped a train to Bruges the next morning, and even though I didn’t really know what was there, I was just really excited! The town is so cute and quaint and old and quiet and I fell in love with it almost immediately. There were lots of horse-drawn carriages and I loved the sound the horses’ hooves made against the cobblestones. As Cheryl aptly described, “It sounds like Christmas!”
So far the food had been amazing, and breakfast at Laurent was no exception. Everyone had either pancakes or waffles (with strawberries and whipped cream for me) even though locals eat them as dessert rather than as a meal. We tried to go back to Laurent the next day as well because we’d enjoyed it so much the first time, but they actually closed the place to do some renovation work! Good thing we went while we still had the chance ...
The whole day it sort of misted on and off, but even in gray weather Bruges is beautiful. I’m sure the town would look amazing on a sunny day as well, but I think that it’s really cool how Bruges (like London) can be beautiful in opposite types of weather. Maybe it has something to do with the architecture and cobblestones and canals. I’m not really sure; I’m just happy that I got to experience it.
We decided that it felt like a museum day, so we started with the Chocolate Museum! I had no idea what to expect, and it was actually really interesting. First we learned about the history of chocolate, like where it came from and how it was the drink of the (Mayan and Aztec) gods. Then there was information about the plant itself, how it came to Europe, the rise of chocolate houses (think Starbucks), and its evolution into candies.
Our next stop was the Fritz Museum – yep, an entire museum dedicated to fries!! This one wasn’t quite as interesting as chocolate, but it was still fun and I’m glad we went. We finished in the café downstairs with a few orders of – what else – fries! I decided to try them with mayonnaise since that’s the thing to do in Belgium, and I actually really liked it! Cheryl and Lauren tried some of mine, but they both still prefer ketchup.
Our next stop was De Halve Maan – the brewery! (Notice a pattern yet?) Our tour guide was amazing because she gave the tour in three different languages, basically at the same time. She’d speak to one group, send them ahead, and then speak to the next groups, before following behind the first one. It was impressive. At one point we went out onto the roof and had a beautiful view of Bruges. At the end we sampled the one beer that they actually brew in Bruges, Brugse Zot. It means Bruges Lunatic, as the fool on the glass illustrates. I think he’s probably had a few too many pints …
After the brewery we did some chocolate shopping, stopping by all of the recommended places in my Rick Steves book (and by book I mean the few relevant pages I ripped out so that I didn’t have to bring the entire thing with me). It was good to have a little guidance because there were chocolate shops on every street and it was somewhat overwhelming (although thoroughly entertaining!) trying to choose.
We ended our day with another delicious dinner of mussels and then drinks at a couple of pubs. We ran into some traveling Americans and the local Belgians they had befriended in the second pub, and it was entertaining to say the least. For details – ask me in person.
Today we’d planned on climbing the bell tower and admiring the Flemish art in the Groeninge Museum, but since it was Monday they were both inconveniently closed. It’s ok though! We rallied and had a great time visiting other important sites instead.
Our first stop, since everything else was still closed at 9 in the morning, was the Church of Our Lady. It houses Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, one of the few (perhaps even the only) works of his to permanently reside outside of Italy. Before reading about it on our little guide map I’d had no idea it was in Bruges, so being able to just say, hey let’s go see a famous statue today, was pretty cool. The rest of the church was really beautiful too and we spent a while in there just looking around.
The second church we visited was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where a vial containing Christ’s blood is housed. I hadn’t realized before this that such a thing even existed! Who took the blood from Jesus? And how in the world did it get to Bruges? No matter the answer, we went in and got to see the vial for ourselves, and even went up to touch it and say a quick prayer. The vial itself was decorated in gold and the content inside was solid and chunky looking. Not particularly appealing in my opinion, but being over 2,000 years old will do that to you!
Sadly, we never got to take a canal ride. We figured out where to catch the boat, but then the gate was locked and no workers were around. I guess since it was the off season they weren’t running the boats except for the weekends. Mondays are just not good sometimes.
Instead we helped Annie in her hunt for a good cook book. In the last book shop that we went into there were a few cushions set up that had half-made lace on them. I was fascinated because I had no idea how to make lace. I saw lots of thread and spools and pins but still couldn’t comprehend how it became anything other than one big knot. Then from behind me a woman appeared and asked if I wanted to try it! So I sat down and she showed me how to move the spools of thread over one another and add new pins to the cushion and after a while voilá! Lace! Well, that’s assuming you’re any good at it of course. There was another woman there as well, and she was working on a much larger piece. In each hand she could grab about four spools and shuffle them between her fingers before moving onto the next set, and she was moving so fast I have no idea how she kept everything in order! It was really amazing!
We finally made our way back to the train and to Brussels to await our Eurostar to London. We had a couple of hours to kill though so we went in search of one last sight, Manneken Pis – that’s right, a peeing boy. He’s a fountain, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to guess where the water comes out. We successfully found him and my reaction of “that’s it?” is apparently very common because after all the hype people are surprised when the little guy is only about a foot and half tall! But still certainly adorable and hilarious.