As I approach my last 6 months as an expat, I’ve started to plan my weekend trips more deliberately so as to have no regrets. I’ve struggled to balance between the places I want to go and the places I think everyone expects me to go. That might sound odd at first, but I think other expats might understand what I’m feeling. When a person has a chance to live in Europe the first thing they usually do is build a bucket list of the places they’ve heard of, or that a friend visited. As such, the list usually contains primarily typical tourist towns. Some of these are amazing, some are disappointing. Either way, they are often over-run by hoards of tourists. After a couple of trips where I found myself wondering what additional value I was bringing to my life by embarking upon yet another typical American tourists weekend, I started to assess my bucket list through local eyes.
As 2016 turned to 2017, I reflected upon the memeories I had made on my own and with my husband, my parents and fellow expat travelers. Which places were remarkable, which were slightly disappointing? Which places surprised me and which were predictable? Sometimes predictability is good, by the way. How did I want to spend my time in 2017? Did I want to be inside or outside? Did I want to return to places I knew or focus on new adventures? Did I (finally) want to see some good art? After this reflection I started to plan my year.
I decided to visit a different country every month – at first I wanted it to be a completely new country, but the trouble is I’ve visited most of the countries that border Germany. This means it requires more time to travel to a new country – more than I can spare in a weekend trip. Instead I compromised with myself and decided to see a different country every month. In January, I visited the Netherlands – you read about this in my art post. This past weekend I visited Belgium. Actually, I went to Belgium twice in one week. I chock this up to bad planning, but in the end it turned out to be all right. Turns out I really like Belgium!
When I moved to Germany I had planned to spend a weekend in Brussels. The weekend I planned to go fell right before a big work meeting, so I delayed my trip. Then the Paris attacks happened, followed by the attack on the Brussels airport and I did not go to Belgium. I focused my energy elsewhere. Last week I traveled to Gent for a work trip and was so delighted that I planned a weekend in Brügge and Neuiwpoort with my friend Tilghman.
If you ask a random handful of tourists what the most popular city is for tourism in mainland Europe, I think Paris might be the answer (especially if they’re from America), but Brügge will certainly be coming up in the conversation very soon after. If they’re British, it might be first. Add on top of that visiting on Valentine’s weekend. And, as we discovered when we arrived, the city was hosting an “Urban Trails” night race through the city. Let’s just say there were plenty of people enjoying Brügge with us.
In spite of the crowds, I can still say I found it to be one of the most charming places I have visited in Europe. What makes it so charming? Well preserved churches, old building in abundance, and the city layout is fascinating with all the buildings constructed continuously, making the entire place feel like a maze where you’re the mouse leisurely racing for the prize of (pick your poison) Trappist bier in a cellar, Belgian chocolate from one of a multitude of shops (seriously there were dozens in this tiny city), or, and this should not be neglected a warm Belgian waffle with cream. Because I’m an equal opportunity kind of a person, I tried out the Trappist bier, chocolate and waffles, and it did not disappoint. I was tempted to sign up for the urban trails race, but it was already fully-booked. Instead I took a morning run through the city, but I’ll get to that later.
As I planned my trip, many people told me it’s no trouble to see all of Brügge in a day, or a few hours, and this is certainly true. We left Dusseldorf at 8:30 – super-early for us – and arrived in town around 11:30, then the fun task of locating parking began. I usually prefer to drive in Europe in order to have flexibility with my travel plans, but parking, parking can sometimes take as long as another train connection! Alas, after about an hour, we finally located parking and could sniff out our first Belgian bier.
We stopped in a place called Cambrius cellars and sat down at a tiny round table next to a young British couple. I remarked at how it was such a mistake to come to Brügge on Valentine’s Day with the hordes of romantics in town. My friend Tilghman said I was being quite a cynic and that’s when I realized they were probably valentines romantics. Oops! Never fear – bier saved my mood. At one point I looked up and was delighted to find lights made out of bier glasses – very clever!
The bier is offered in a larger volume glass – not too much though these Belgian beers are high in alcohol – or a common offer was a paddle of 5 tasters: .15 ml each bier. We ordered a paddle to share. My favorite bier on this weekend adventure was the Timmermans Lambic Faro. Delicious! I also fell in love with sour biers on this trip. The biers were complimented with an assortment of meats, cheese and fruit. A great way to sink ourselves into the city.
Warmed up by our first biers we struck out to accomplish our priorities sight seeing stops.my friend Tilghman and I travel together often and one of the keys to our success is that on the way we decide which 3 to 5 things we must do. It’s impossible to see everything in these towns so it helps us to focus our time and leave time for leisurely photo snapping strolls.
First stop was at the church of the holy blood. This church houses one of the most important relics held by the Catholic Church. A vial that is said to contain the blood of Christ. I’ll be honest here, I had never even heard of a relic until I started traveling with Tilghman. My first experience with a relic was to see the actual mummified foot of John the Baptist at a church in Budapest. Very strange and thrilling at the same time. Who decided it was important to preserve these bodily items, and then to protect them over the centuries with high levels of devotion? This is very intriguing to me. We were prepared to be disappointed on this Saturday afternoon because the tour book said the relic was on display only on Fridays. We entered the cathedral, admired the stained glass and art work and then noticed a priest standing up on a platform in chapel to the side and a line of people. We realized that the relic was on display. So, of course, we got in line. I will say that it really did look like some sort of coagulated fluids, maybe marrow. But, the most important thing that struck me was the devotion of the people kneeling before the alter and the priest standing there for the day with the sole purpose of protecting the relic.
We left the church humbled and quiet as we began our walk to see one of the only Michael Angelo pieces outside of Italy: the Madonna and Child. The set up for the art is a bit odd. It’s housed in a cathedral behind what appear to be temporary white wooden walls. The closest you can get to the art piece is about 5 yards. It is protected by a thick piece of plastic. In spite of this, it was a remarkable piece of art and worth the price of admission. Again, it’s amazing that we have been able to preserve this art piece for more than 500 years!
Next stop was chocolate shopping. For this important mission, I had consulted some traveling buddies who always know the best places for things like chocolate, wine and bier. Her advice was to go to “The Chocolate Line“. We stepped in to this decadent den of chocolate, took it in for a bit, then I packed a box for my next trip home and bought a couple to enjoy on the spot.
As the light began to fade in the city, it seemed like the perfect moment for a canal tour. Surprisingly, the lines were low, which struck me as a bit odd considering that the light was now perfect for reflections on the water. We paid the fare, a reasonable 8 euros, and boarded the boat. The boat driver appeared fluent in about every language he encountered. Since just about everyone on the boat spoke English he narrated our 30 minute tour through the city canal network in Flemish and English. Brügge is known as the Venice of the north due to the extensive canal network that weaves through the city. Definitely a big contributor to the romance and charm. It’s worth taking a canal boat tour.
We left the boat in search of more bier and to scope out a place for dinner. As it turned out, we found them both on the same street: Kuipersstraat. We were warned it could be easy to walk by Le Trappiste – a bier cave serving a variety of Belgian biers. Luckily the sign was well-lit and we descended into the belly of the city.
The architecture was fabulous, reminding me a bit of the vaulted ceilings of the city churches. And, of course, the bier was great! The bartenders were friendlyand the prices surosignky reasonable. We ordered a paddle of 5 bier tastings and paid 12 euros. Not bad, not bad at all. I’d definitely recommend taking a bit of time to visit this unique bar.
As you recall the city was full of couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, so it was impossible to get a reservation for dinner. I had popped in to a restaurant on the way to Le Trappiste and booked a table, but I really had my heart set on going a place my friend Katie V recommended – she knows good food! Luckily, as we walked from Le Trappiste to the restaurant, I looked up and saw the sign for ‘t Zwart Huis. I popped in to see if we could get a table. The kind manager seated us at the bar and we enjoyed a delicious local meal of female codfish – apparently a regional specialty only available during the month of February.
After the long day we headed back to our hotel and found the final groups of Urban Trail racers crossing the finish line. We roamed the streets a bit burning off dinner and snapping pictures of the beautiful nighttime scenery.
One habit I picked up years ago, is to always throw some running shoes and an outfit in my travel bag. I love to strike out on a tourist a run through a new city and take it in. I can cover more ground and I give myself the option to stop whenever I want to take a picture or just admire the scenery, or a bird, or whatever strikes my fancy. On Sunday morning, I woke up to my alarm at 7, pulled on my running clothes, and stumbled downstairs to find a cup of coffee. Fortunately, a pot had been brewed. I threw back a cup, started up map my run, and struck out in a circle around the city. I was thrilled to explore the city at sunrise. The streets were empty of people, giving me a chance to quietly absorb the architectural beauty of the buildings and canals and admire the ducks. Bonus: I burned off the bier and chocolate from the day before and could start with a blank slate.
My goal was to go as far as I could, creating a circle, without consulting a map. My sense of direction has drastically improved living in Europe and it mostly worked out today, until I consulted my map at the end and saw I’d overshot my turn by about a kilometer. Never mind, I retraced my steps and made it back in time to get ready for our next stop at the beach.
We drove about 30 minutes to Nieuwpoort on the North Sea. Our goal was to find a big breakfast (I’m not sure why we were hungry after all the food the day before…), but it was before 11 am and so it could not be found. An early big breakfast is just not a thing in Europe! We settled for a quick bakery breakfast which turned out to be great because we discovered a delicious fish soup a few hours later for lunch.
I have this running bucket list of places where I’ve stood in the ocean in my bare feet on a new shoreline. Actually, now that I think of it, I haven’t tracked it very well. So, let’s see what I can remember: California, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Hawaii, Oregon, Georgia, Virginia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, I feel like I’m missing some but that’s good for now. The weather was cold on Sunday, probably around 30 F on the beach. But, I knew, I just knew, that I couldn’t let myself down. So I pulled off my shoes and tights, awkwardly, fortunately I had a long coat on… (yes, I picked the wrong day to wear a dress and tights) and ran in to the ocean. Tilghman, of course had to follow my lead. We’re both ocean people. And we laughed as we froze our toes in the North Sea. Now I can add Belgium to my list.
After freezing our toes we rambled along the beach searching for shells en route to a pier. As we walked, the sun came and went, occasionally peeking between the clouds and lighting up the drifts of broken razor clam shells on the beach. A couple of guys were kite-skating (I guess that’s what it was) on the beach riding on modified skate boards. Wow that looked fun!
As we walked along the pier we observed the gulls and shore birds below hunting for food and when I reached the end a gull visited me for a science lesson. He bounced along the railing and after a few minutes made a funny movement of his head, stretching out his neck before promptly regurgitating a pile of shells. So, that explained the strange clumps of broken shells along the railing. It appears that the birds would harvest shells off the rocks. Grind down the shells in their crop to harvest the meat and then regurgitate the remains. Pretty cool!
I returned home satisfied with the weekend and reflecting on the friendly people I met in Belgium during my two visits last week. A lovely country, worth a visit.