Medieval Belgium

Brussels was all shiny and wide-boulevard-ed like the European capital it was built to be, but small-town Belgium is very different. Much more like small-town Germany, in fact: very medieval. I spent a day each in Gent and Bruges, looking at pretty old buildings (though most of them in Gent are reconstructions), climbing far too many stairs to reach the top of belfries, and watching lace be made.


Gent is not exactly a tourist destination, except during its annual music festival. The town history explanations in the belfry, for instance, are only in Flemish. (Yes, German speakers can decipher Flemish with sufficient effort. But I didn’t want to give myself a headache in the morning.) So I took a tour, which mostly focused on old buildings, plus the occasional off-beat sight (check out a grafitti lane and the Design Museum toilets in the photo gallery below). I learned that Gent was once the second-largest city in Europe (in the 13th century, that is) because of its textile industry. I also made a friend from Mexico. (Credit for any photos with me in them goes to Nora!) At our guide’s suggestion, we went to the House of Alijn museum, which offers glimpses of life in past centuries and decades. It was kitschy but cute, though I thought there was too little about past centuries and too much about the different decades of the 20th century.

Gent had two highlights for me other than the views. One was Quetzal, a chocolate bar near the university that is decidedly not for tourists. (Sign of this: no English menu.) They don’t do fancy pralines, just chocolate. Pure melted chocolate at the darkness level of your choice, mixed with milk and spices. (I had super-dark chocolate with chili.) Fondue with bread or fruit. Brownies. Pieces of chocolate. I had all of the above. It was amazing. The other highlight was my lovely Couchsurfing host, Nadia. She took me to a salsa club and ensured that some of the leads she knew there danced with me! It’s been a long time since I danced salsa, and she showed me up because she was amazing. But I had fun anyway, even though my legs were tired from all that stair-climbing.

Chocolate with a side of chocolate at Quetzal
Chocolate with a side of chocolate at Quetzal


Bruges is overrun with tourists, even this early in the season. But it’s understandable, because the city is just so gorgeous.

My favorite stop in Bruges was the Kantzentrum, or Lace Center. I knew there were lace-making demonstrations, but I expected something very commercial and tourist-y. Instead, it was a bunch of really old Belgian ladies (and one old Belgian man) chatting as their fingers flew through the motions of making lace (mostly bobbin lace, though a few were embroidering needlework lace). It really gave me an appreciation for how impractical handmade lace is and why it was such a luxury commodity—in the ten minutes that I watched, even the fastest lace-makers didn’t add noticeable length to their pieces. The museum exhibit was small, but I learned a lot about what distinguishes different types of lace.


I didn’t actually go to Antwerp; it was on my original travel plans, but it turned out to be logistically unworkable. But I did transfer trains there, and I’ve been told the train station is one of the prettiest buildings in town. So I took some pictures.

My train from Antwerp (running late, like every train I have caught in Belgium) took me across the border into the Netherlands, where I am now settled into a cozy home in the Hague with my Coushsurfing host and her two cats. Photos of Holland (and probably also the cats) will follow.