We spent less than 2 hours in Ghent. We found it to be a mix between Brussels and Brugge. It was a larger city than Brugge and much rougher although it still maintained some of its medieval feel. The city was much gritter and more commercial with lots of chain stores and we didn’t do much more than a quick walk around before we were on our way to Utrecht.
We drove up to the Hotel Alegria on a narrow road so cobbled and so medieval that just felt wrong to be driving on it. The rain was pouring, but the city had already won our hearts even without really seeing any of it. We unloaded our luggage, parked in the Bikerof and checked into our hotel where the owner’s daughter gave us a restaurant recommendation. Before running off to dinner we took a brisk walk to the city’s main square for a few photos, before the rain and cold wind forced us indoors. The traditional Flemish food food served at Koq Au Vin was delicious and authentic just like we had heard.
We had a toasty night’s sleep in our cozy B&B, and tossed open the windows to reveal a chilly winter’s day and a beautiful town. Looking out the window, we couldn’t help thinking how in love with Europe we are and how at home we feel here. After experiencing the bed, we then went downstairs to experience the breakfast which was held in a room overlooking a beautiful green courtyard. Fresh squeezed orange juice and the typical European breakfast spread of bread, sliced meats and cheeses were out for us to choose from. The breakfast selection was pretty good as far as hotels go, but we would have been much happier with a wider selection of fruit to begin our day with.
We walked all over the town, and at every cute corner Bryan repeatedly uttered the words: “how could you not love Brugge?” referencing a movie we had recently seen called In Brugge. It must be an old saying or something because it seemed utterly impossible not to love Brugge. It is so perfectly medieval that you almost felt trapped in another time. So well preserved are the buildings and the cobblestone roads, we had never seen anything like it. As the story goes Brugge was once the richest and most prosperous town in Belgium, back when Brussels was just a rest point between Brugge and Leige. It reached its peak right before it was virtually cut off from the trade route and without money pouring in, there were few improvements made or new buildings for many years. So Brugge resorted to preserving what it had and in 2009 we were grateful that it saved it from becoming a large metropolitan city.
We climbed the Belfry and went in a few churches, which were some of the most unique and intriguing we had ever seen. Unfortunately, we found ourselves in a city that we once again knew very little about and wishing that we were not too poor (or too cheap) to afford a proper guided tour. All we knew is that Brugge was charmingly beautiful, peaceful and walkable. There were very few tourists and suddenly the plot of In Brugge made a lot more sense to us. Even though Brugge is a tourist destination, it still feels like the middle of nowhere. It is one of those places where you feel like no one in the world knows exactly where you are.
After a bit of shopping, we ate lunch at a little café and decided that every restaurant in Belgium must have incredibly high standards for interior design and food. Every restaurant we ate in the entire country had excellent food with generous portions, reasonable prices and wonderful ambiance. Most restaurants seemed to favor a pretty mix between modern and classic design. We also stopped off into a traditional smoked meats and cheese shop (Diksmuids Boterhuis) and bought some delicious cheese we munched on under cover while we waited for the rain to stop. We also bought some stinky cheese to bring home with us, which ended up being so stinky that the smell permeated into everything in our suitcase and we couldn’t bear to eat it when we got back home. We only spent half a day in Brugge and headed to Ghent before we went to find Jimi, Bryan’s sister in Utrecht.
asian woman caption “This asian lady wanted us to pose for her photo on this bridge, no naturally we took a picture of her. If there was any doubt that she was indeed asian, the peace sign would confirm it”
Before leaving for Europe it became apparent we were not going to get all of our client’s work done without pulling our first all-nighter since college. So after packing and working around the clock, we then spent the next 16 hours in transit between LAX and Frankfurt, Germany. After landing we picked up our rental car and headed for Brussels, Belgium in our disappointingly American Ford Focus rental car. Once we were out on the autobahn it didn’t take long to realize we were without a proper road map. Finding the situation humorous, we decided to navigate by heading toward large cities using road signs and the basic map of Germany in our mega-Europe guidebook. We were pretty laid back about it because we had done an European road-trip before and it had gone quite well. Generally, navigating highways in Europe is pretty easy because all signs lead you toward the next biggest city. It worked well for about the first hour of this trip until the autobahn (Germany’s major freeway network) curiously ended in a small town. Unsure of what had happened, we tried to find our way back to the autobahn, but instead wound up on a three hour detour of Germany’s Mosul valley. It looked like a nice place to come back to in spring, but in winter, this wine growing region was dead, both the liveliness and the grape vines that produce Germany’s famous Riesling wines. But it was still a pretty and interesting tour along the winding Moselle River.
First Night in Brussels
After arriving on the continent just before noon, we made it to Brussels in the evening completely exhausted and without hotel reservations. After a couple of long days of travel and no sleep all that mattered to us was finding an affordable, clean and comfortable bed to sleep in. It was cold and we were tired, cranky, disoriented and searching for a specific type of hotel in an large and unfamiliar city. We had no idea where the city’s center even was until we turned a corner and drove right by the Mannequin Pis! With Bryan driving, Megan popped in and out of about a half-a-dozen unsatisfactory hotels near the city center. We even judged one hotel by its lobby only to find that the room did not match the lobby’s style or level of comfort. Fortunately we were able to get a refund and about three hours after arrival we settled into the nice and modern Hotel Bloom not far from the city center. The reason we flew into Frankfurt instead of Brussels was because of the record breaking price of $340. Yes that is a round trip price including all taxes and fees! Amazing price, but maybe not worth the extra travel time and upon arrival in Brussels, we were not exactly patting ourselves on the backs for it. However, we can’t say that we didn’t still have fun on the drive up!
Mussels in Brussels and other Belgian treats…
We woke up very happy to be in a clean and modern hotel, with a comfortable bed. Ready to dig into the delicious Belgian food we walked to Le Pain Quotidien in the historic center for breakfast. The organic bakery-café started in Brussels, but has become an international franchise. We found it so delightful we even ate there again the following day. Megan ordered freshly made yogurt with fruit (as seen left) and Bryan got the breakfast plate with a thick and luscious Belgian ‘hot chocolate’, an egg and a big basket of bread that we could try all of the glorious condiments on the table with. The free condiments, of gourmet Nutella, jams and other spreads were our favorite part. At the bakery the seating is communal style among other patrons which makes it easy for conversation, but we liked it just for the good eats and an overall vibe. We had actually seen this, and many other things we did on a TV show before called Passport to Europe with Samantha Brown. After breakfast, right outside of the bakery there was a fine antique market that we walked around. It was very expensive and we couldn’t really afford anything. We then dropped about $150 on chocolate gifts from Pierre Marcolini, an delicious Belgian choclatire nearby. Whittamer and Godiva may be the most famous Belgian Chocolate companies but we had done our research that said Pierre Marcolini was the best.
After buying the chocolates we headed to the famous Grand Place, famous for all its gilded houses. It was here that we started our self guided walking tour. We used the tour route from our guidebook that we checked out from the library. It took us all over the city. One of our first stops was Busquiterie Dandoy, where we picked up the most decadent biscuits we have ever had. We highly recommend them. Next we went to the very touristy restaurant street, that is obviously overpriced and not great food, but looking around made us hungry and Aux Armes de Bruxelles Restaurant looked packed with locals and we couldn’t resist. Here we rested and tasted the famous mussels (right). We decided that we are not the biggest fans, but they were good and so was the rest of the food. An old Belgian couple sitting next to us overheard our foreign voices and upon leaving with big proud smiles said something like “Thank you for coming to Brussels and we very much hope you enjoy your stay in our city!” It was very nice to feel so welcomed to a foreign city! What friendly folks!
After lunch, we saw some old Roman ruins that seemed randomly placed throughout the city, where the Siene River still “runs” through Brussels and stopped into St. Catherine’s Cathedral and observed a mass. In St. Catherine’s square we stopped for a quick and delicious bite to eat at La Mer du Nord‘s fish stand. We ordered the fish stew and it was amazing, not much of a surprise considering it was obviously where locals got a bite to eat on the go. So many Belgian treats we had already tried, the chocolate, the beer, the frites (fries), and of course the Brusselian Mussels, but there was perhaps one major one we had yet to try: the Belgian waffle. Right around the corner from the mannequin pis, was an old waffle shop in the midst of the tacky souvenir shops. The waffles (right) looked surprisingly good for their questionable location so we tried them anyway. Result: best waffles ever! On our way back to the hotel we picked up a few large bags of loose leaf organic teas.
Brussels: Capitol of Europe
After only one day in Brussels we must already look like locals because people visiting from Antwerp asked us for directions. Nothing new, as this has also happened to us in Paris, Rome and New York by people who actually live there. We must have that city look or something; a combination of the long coats and the determination on our faces. Our second day in the city we took a tour of the European Union. It was quite a walk from the historic district to the modern business part of town. The “tour” was free and guided via headset. It wasn’t so much a tour because it stopped in only 2 locations and was not interesting in the slightest. The first stop was at a boring sculpture and the second in the main parliament chamber, which was more interesting but the tour was really short, less than a half and hour, and still a waste of time (well at least it was free!). After the tour we headed to the flea market (left), which was located in more of a neighborhood area. The flea market took up a large square and had lots of interesting things in it. Many antiques, housewares, old tin signs, coins and a set of pink teacups that we picked up. After the flea market we wandered into some more upscale antique shops nearby, with beautiful huge armories that we were drooling over.
For lunch we ate at Jaloa in St. Catherine’s Square. The restaurant was recommended to us by an old Belgian man we knew through mutual acquaintances back home. The food was excellent and well priced, just like he promised. We spent much of our meal eavesdropping over a group of chefs from all over Europe who seemed to be gathering for a meal and conversation in English. Their topics of conversation were interesting and apparently Bryan was picking up on their hairstyles, and deciding to grow his into the “long euro-chefs hair” look. Unfortunately we were unable to eat at Belgium’s famous Comme Chez Soi, they were closed while we were in town and probably too expensive for our budget. Oh, but we must save something for next time!