Tag Archives: Belgium

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

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. Continue reading Medieval Belgium

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Beautiful Brussels, Belgium

I had two complaints about Cologne: that the city wasn’t very pretty, and that all the museums were closed. Fortunately, I headed to Brussels next. Mostly just because it was there—I didn’t really know what to expect. As it turns out, Brussels is gorgeous, with wide avenues, tons of public green spaces, and lots of old buildings. It’s reminiscent of Paris (not coincidentally). Most of the beautification of the city was done in the nineteenth century with money gathered from exploiting the Congo, so it can be a little jarring to think about history and take in the views at the same time. Nonetheless, for the combination of architecture, sights to visit, and food to eat, it’s one of my favorite cities I’ve visited.

My planned host had a conflict arise at the last minute, so Ashley, a fellow Fulbrighter I met in Berlin, agreed to put me up at the last minute. She also took me to an outdoor concert (at the university) on Tuesday night. It was not at all my scene (dubstep music and lots of alcohol, smoking, and weed), but it was interesting to people-watch. The students were surprisingly casually dressed (silly hats and pajamas, in some cases), but this was the French university. Ashley assured me that the Flemish university students dress up. Which brings me to another point: languages. I was ignorant going into Belgium, but it turns out there are three official languages: Flemish, French, and German. Most people in Brussels defaulted to French. Surprisingly, no one switched to English when they heard my execrable French, so I got more practice in my two days there than in my week in Paris! Bonus points for persistence (but also negative points for creepiness) go to the man who tried to pick me up on the street and who listened to me answer his questions in broken French for twenty minutes. (I’m at least perfectly clear on how to say, ‘Je suis désolée, mais non. Je ne te connais pas’ in response to repeated requests for a date, my number, etc.) Continue reading Beautiful Brussels, Belgium