DAY 4: DECEMBER 22, 2014 CONTINUED
We arrived in Brussels that night and were relieved that, contrary to what our research said, Belgium used the Euro. It’s exhausting constantly switching currencies! We took the train to the center of the city but we got a little lost once we left the train station and tried to find our Airbnb, so we had to ask some people on the street for help.
Once we finally found our way, we ended up in the very center of the city where there were Christmas lights everywhere and a lot of people out and about. The buildings were gorgeous- typical European-looking. There were waffles, fries, and chocolates in all the windows. I was so happy to be in Belgium!! I had just put it on my travel-list about a year ago so I was thrilled that it fit so well into our trip.
Our Airbnb was so central- about 10 minutes walking from Grand Place. This was my first experience with Airbnb and I LOVED it. It was about the same price as a hostel but instead we were given an entire apartment in the center of the city all to ourselves! Our host, Frosina, couldn’t meet us to give us the keys and show us the apartment, so instead her two friends greeted us. The building was so old and the elevator was a little terrorfying but also fascinating. It reminded me of a Tower of Terror-type elevator. Our apartment was on the top floor and it was so spacious. A nice big bathroom, kitchen, and each of us got our own place to sleep: I was on the separate mattress, Ange on the couch, and Lindsey on the bed.
Our own apartment in the center of Brussels!
Tower of Terror Elevator
After settling in, Lindsey decided she was going to stay in to try to Skype her mom for her birthday while Ange and I went out for dinner and “one drink.” We went to a kebab shop and then to an Irish pub across the street for a drink. The pub closed really early and we realized we weren’t ready to go back quite yet. On our way to our apartment earlier, we remembered that we passed by an Irish pub that said there would be a DJ this night so we decided to go check it out. Suddenly that one drink we went out for turned into a fun and crazy night of dancing that didn’t end until we stumbled into bed at 6:30 in the morning. We definitely welcomed in our time in Belgium with a bang. We were just so excited to actually be able to afford going out for food and drinks after not being to spend money in Switzerland!
DAY 5: DECEMBER 23, 2014
We had originally planned to leave the apartment at 10:30 to make the 11 AM walking tour. Lindsey woke up at the time we talked about, showered, got ready, and waited for us to wake up. Since Ange and I weren’t expecting to have the type of night that we had, we slept way past then, thus missing our tour and making Lindsey wake up early and get ready for nothing- whoops! So we decided to do the tour at 2 pm instead.
Before the tour, Lindsey and I went and got burgers for lunch at an American-western themed restaurant while Ange slept some more. Then we met our walking tour at Grand Place. The tour took us around to a lot of the major attractions in Brussels which was good since our time there was limited. We saw the Manneken Pis statue which is said to be one of the most overrated tourist attractions. It is a statue of a little boy taking a piss into a basin and has become one of Belgium’s national symbols.
Manneken Pis in all his glory.
Our tour ended in a park across from the royal palace, so we walked over to take pictures in front of it. While Ange was taking Lindsey’s picture, I was holding Lindsey’s water bottle. I thought I was being clever by throwing it up in the air and catching it, but it ended up falling a lot faster than I had anticipated and it ended up clobbering me in the face and busting the top of my lip to the point where my lip swelled up and there was blood all over my teeth. That may not have been a smart move on my part, but at least I didn’t lose a tooth- that water bottle was vicious!
Pre-Lip Busting in front of the Royal Palace.
After that whole mess, we walked back to the Bourse building which was right down the street from our apartment. We stopped at a popular place to get a cone of fries, or “frites.” They were good, but not the best I’ve ever had. Then we walked around the Christmas market for a bit, picked up salads at a supermarket for dinner, and then called it a night.
DAY 6: DECEMBER 24, 2014
Merry Christmas Eve! Though maybe it wasn’t so merry…
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling extremely nauseous which worried me because it was our last day in Brussels and there was still more that we wanted to see and do. Fortunately I was able to go back to sleep, but it wasn’t easy. We all woke up several hours later to get ready for our day but I was even more nauseous than before and I could hardly stand. I thought that I would feel better later on so I told Lindsey and Ange to go ahead and I would meet up with them later after spending the morning resting in the apartment.
The nausea never went away. Turned out I had a stomach bug- yay! I spent the whole day rotating between the couch, my bed, and the bathroom to vomit (sorry for the over-share). I’m so glad we had an apartment all to ourselves because being that sick in a hostel would have been ROUGH.
Lindsey and Ange came back to the apartment around 6 and let’s just say things were a little chaotic. They went to the Delirium Café which I was bummed about because that was the number one thing I wanted to do in Brussels. It’s a small café that holds a world record of having over 2,500 beers on its menu. There was no way I could have downed any beer though, so I’m glad Lindsey and Ange were able to go for me.
A few hours later, after we all rested up a little more, though I still felt pretty sick, I mustered up some energy to go out to see the light show in Grand Place. I’m so glad I did! It was so incredibly magical. For 15 minutes, eerie but beautiful music floated through the arena of Grand Place and different colored lights danced upon the historical buildings in time with the music. For me it was such a special moment because it was Christmas Eve and I had spent the entire day with my head in the toilet inside a stuffy apartment. This was the first time I had stepped outside and the air was so crisp and chilly that it was refreshing and this show was remarkable- with everyone in the middle of Grand Place standing in complete silence just in awe of this sight. It was truly a magical moment of our trip.
After the show, Angela unfortunately started to get hit with the same bug as me so she went back to the apartment. Poor girl. Lindsey was feeling great so I accompanied her to go get some food. There weren’t many things open since it was late on Christmas Eve but we found a nice, family-owned Italian restaurant. This was my and Lindsey’s second Christmas Eve dinner together. We have such fond memories of last year’s dinner together in Vienna that I was bummed I felt so sick and couldn’t have a similar experience. Instead I got a cup of minestrone soup that I could barely swallow two bites of. I ended up getting sick again that night anyways so it’s not like those couple of bites mattered haha.
DAY 7: DECEMBER 25, 2014
MERRY CHRISTMAS! I woke up feeling much better, just still a little weak and nauseous, but luckily it must have been a 24-hour bug. Poor Angela still felt sick, but not as much as the night before.
We left our Airbnb apartment (without even seeing our host the entire time we were there) and walked to Grand Place so that I could take some daytime pictures. There happened to be a large group of people dressed in Santa costumes and one jolly guy jumped in my picture!
Santa decided to make an appearance on Christmas day!
Christmas Day in Grand Place.
Then we walked up to the train station, got some Starbucks for breakfast (so American), and hopped on our train headed to the quaint little town of Bruges. The train ride was so easy and we arrived to Bruges a quick hour later. From there, it was about a 15 minute walk to our hostel and since we couldn’t check in until 3 pm, we walked around the city for a bit. There was a Christmas market close to our hostel so we stopped there for lunch, or rather Lindsey and Angela did. I still couldn’t stomach much and nothing sounded appetizing.
Once we could finally check in, we walked back to the hostel and got settled into our very strangely-arranged room. Our room was made for 11 people. Against the wall were 8 “cubbies” (or coffins?). Above these beds were 3 more beds. It was so strange! We felt like we were in a morgue and you could pull out our bodies. Since it was Christmas, the 3 of us skyped with our families for a couple of hours. It was so nice being able to do this since I didn’t get to talk to my family on Christmas last year. It was timed perfectly that I was catching them just as they were opening presents, so it was like I was there!
Our hostel cubbies.
Ange still wasn’t feeling well, so Lindsey and I went out to get ourselves some Christmas dinner. We ended up at yet another Italian restaurant where we both ordered pasta dishes. Mine was the epitome of bland- plain spaghetti with tomato sauce, because I felt like I could still barely eat after that bug. But since it was Christmas, Lindsey talked me into ordering a bottle of sparkling red wine– BAD IDEA. Luckily nothing happened, but my body was definitely not ready for wine and it definitely slowed down my road to recovery.
DAY 8: DECEMBER 26, 2014
We woke up at about 9:30 to go into town to get breakfast. I had read great things about The Gingerbread Café on Tripadvisor but sadly it was closed! So instead we went nextdoor to The Humpty Dumpty Café which was still tasty and was where I finally got a Belgian waffle! Apparently Belgians like to eat their waffles plain with just a bit of powdered sugar and that it’s a popular foreigner thing to do to load it up with other toppings. That didn’t stop me from getting my nutella & strawberry waffle!
Belgian waffle decked out to the max!
After our breakfast, we had some time to spare before our walking tour. Angela shopped around the Christmas market in the main square a bit while Lindsey and I ran back to the hostel. On our way we got a little distracted by a stand at another market that was selling watches. They were having a great after-Christmas sale and I found myself a nice watch for 15 Euros! I used to wear a watch every single day until my old watch fell down the elevator shaft in my host apartment on my very first day in Sevilla four years ago and I just never found another to replace it, so I was very happy to find a new one! Lindsey also fell in love with a watch. She excitedly told the saleswoman that she’d take it, so after the woman adjusted it to Lindsey’s size, she told Lindsey that it was 79 Euros, not 30 like we thought it was! Our mouths dropped open and Lindsey couldn’t take that watch off fast enough. We basically ran away and avoided that stand at all costs for the rest of our time in Bruges haha.
Due to our watch distraction, we ended up being late for our walking tour but fortunately we passed by them on our way to meet them so we joined ourselves onto the end of the group. The tour itself wasn’t very informative and our tour guide started out funny but the more time we spent with him the more we realized what a sarcastic jackass he was (Lindsey’s words haha). The highlights of the tour were definitely seeing the city, which is very small and walkable, as well as being given many different coupons to places like a chocolate shop, a restaurant, and a waffle truck.
In the Market Place- the center of Bruges.
After the tour, Angela, Zach (a fellow American that we met on the tour), and I went ice skating in the ice skating rink that was set up in the main marketplace. I have hated ice skating my entire life- it just brings back terrible memories of birthday parties in elementary school where I spent the whole time either falling down or clinging to the wall. But last year in Berlin, Lindsey convinced me to go ice skating in Alexanderplatz and after starting out slow, I realized it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was and I ended up loving it! So I jumped at the chance to ice skate in Bruges. One of my favorite things about Europe at Christmastime is that you can ice skate in so many gorgeous, historical, surreal places. I was having so much fun that the others had to tear me off of the ice.
Good luck getting this girl off the ice!
After ice skating, we put some of the coupons we got from the tour to some good use. We went back to the chocolate shop where we got a discount on a variety box of chocolates. This was in addition to the variety bag of chocolates I got the day before in Bruges. Apparently our chocolate overdose in Switzerland didn’t put me off to the stuff for the rest of the trip. I have to say, though, Swiss chocolate is way better than Belgian.
After the chocolate shop, we went to the restaurant that we had a coupon for. Ange and I shared the traditional Flemish beef stew and the mussels and fries. Mussels and fries were also on the list for must-eat Belgian food and they were delicious. The Flemish stew was even more delicious!
That night at our hostel, Lindsey and I signed up for a Belgian beer tasting that was led by the same tour guide from earlier. For 11 Euros we tried 5 different types of Belgian beer, in addition to a free beer from our hostel bar after the tastings. It ended up being a rip-off because the prices of the beers in our hostel were really cheap so for 11 euros we could have gotten several full beers. Oh well. Yet again, my body was telling me that it was not ready to drink alcohol yet (my nausea literally lasted the entire time we were in Belgium. It sucked). That night it also started to snow so I made my dear southern Californian friend, Lindsey, run outside with me to dance in it. Apparently a year and a half in Spain has really thinned my blood and I was just as much of a wimp outside in that snow as Lindsey was! We didn’t last long and ran back inside, frozen.
Tasting a variety of Belgian beers!
DAY 9: DECEMBER 27, 2014
Ange and I really wanted to see the other Belgian city, Ghent, so we got up early in order to make a half-day out of it, just to see the city. Lindsey wanted to see more of Bruges so she and Zach stayed back to sight-see some more.
Ange and I met my friend that I met in the hostel during my month of living in the hostel in Madrid, Chanel, who is from Bruges and studies in Ghent. We unfortunately didn’t get to hangout while I was in Belgium, but she happened to be going to Ghent from Bruges the same morning Ange and I were so we decided to catch the same train so that we could at least catch up a little on the easy 30-minute train ride. We parted ways once we arrived to Ghent since she was meeting up with a friend.
The walk from the train station to the center of Ghent was definitely a lengthy one. The outskirts that we were walking through didn’t look like anything special which disappointed us a little bit. But once we got to the center of the city we were far from disappointed. It was gorgeous!! We walked around the Christmas market, bought Dutch stroopwafels (which quickly became my weakness- so good!), and walked down to the waterfront for a gorgeous panoramic view.
Of course we chose the worst day weather-wise to go. It was FREEZING. To hide from the cold, we hopped onto a canal cruise boat almost immediately, just for some warmth and protection from the rain that turned to snow. The boat tour didn’t stay warm for long though as some inconsiderate family in the front opened their windows for pictures. Where were these people from that they were immune to the bitter cold? Antarctica?!
After the canal cruise, we were forced back into the sub-arctic temperatures so we decided it was time to head back to Bruges. But of course the snow and wind started to pick up and our bodies quickly became icicles. We ducked into a McDonald’s, which was apparently where everyone in Ghent was hiding that day since it was like a ghost town otherwise, to warm up a bit and find someone to ask for directions on how to get back to the train station.
What seemed like a never-ending trek back to the train station finally concluded and we were safe and sound (and dry) back in Bruges around 4. Of course the weather was fine, just cold, back in Bruges! We met Lindsey back at the hostel and sat in the lobby to try to get feeling back into our bodies again. I thought we had time to see the one thing left in Bruges that I still wanted to see which was the Michelangelo statue “Madonna and Child” that my mom saw on a documentary and told me to see. I checked my phone to see what time the Church of our Lady, which housed the statue, closed and it said it was closing in 7 minutes! So I jumped up, shouted at Lindsey and Ange to get up, and we sprinted to the church! Thank God it was just around the corner and we made it with just a couple minutes to spare!
Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child in the Church of our Lady in Bruges.
Side note that was really funny: the whole trip my camera was acting up and making these loud, motor sounds. I’ve never heard a camera make this sound before, so I really need to get it fixed, especially since it draws so much attention. Well, as we were looking peacefully at the statue in the church, a man came up with his camera to take a picture and his camera started making the same sound! I started cracking up so I turned my camera on too, knowing that it would make the same sound. The man didn’t acknowledge the fact that the only sounds in that church were our cameras making beautiful harmonies together, but now I know that I have found my camera’s soul mate.
After the cathedral, we walked around the city, checked out the Beguine Convent (called the Beguinage which was founded in 1245 and is now a monastery), and saw some of the famous Bruges swans. For dinner, I ordered a veggie quiche that was supposed to have spinach and eggplant. But the quiche that I received only had mushrooms…a LOT of mushrooms. I didn’t say anything because it was still good, but I was annoyed that the sign lied to me. I must have had a lot of built-up frustration about the whole thing because when we left and stood outside the restaurant, I saw the vegetable quiche in the window and started yelling “they LIED to me! My vegetable quiche was supposed to have spinach and eggplant in it, but it only had MUSHROOMS!” Since I was very oblivious, Lindsey needed to bring to my attention that the large window in front of me was wide open and the workers could hear my every word. I was so embarrassed that I ran away but as I was running, one of the women called Zach back in and I panicked thinking it was about what I said. It turned out it had nothing to do with that and I was just being a paranoid wimp. But now I know to keep my mouth shut until I’m certain I’m out of earshot!
Overall, I loved every city we saw in Belgium. It’s a gorgeous country that often floats under the radar on many people’s travel lists, but in my opinion it encompasses all of the best things that Europe has to offer: interesting history, beautiful architecture, delicious food, kind people, and culture. I also find it fascinating how linguistically diverse it is. There are three official languages: French, Dutch, and German, let alone everyone speaks English.
Belgium is a country that I would love to return to in the future for many reasons, but mostly because 1. My time in Brussels got interrupted by the stomach bug so I need to return, if not only to go to Delirium! And 2. The weather in Ghent was AWFUL. But that’s not to discourage anyone from visiting Belgium in the winter. In fact, I highly recommend going around Christmastime as it was a perfect location for our Christmas celebrations (I just wish our health allowed us to enjoy it more). The light show in the Grand Place in Brussels was just plain magical and the gorgeous canals, small cobble-stone streets, and abundant numbers of horse-drawn carriages in the quaint city of Bruges set up the perfect Christmas-y atmosphere. So basically, if you’re given the opportunity to go to Belgium- go!