First stop, Ghent! I did a little background on the city before our departure and found that Ghent is the 3rd largest city in Belgium (almost 600,000) and displays the largest â€œautomobile freeâ€ zone in the entire country that is directly within the city. Naturally, I came to anticipate a great deal of walking, but I was interested at how such a large city (larger than within the Louisville limits) can operate with no cars!
It was in the Antwerp Centraal train station (connecting train from Holland to Ghent) that I experienced my first Belgian waffle with my Canadian friend, Kate. Only having to pay â‚¬1.50 at a track-side concession stand, my expectations were not all that high but it was still incredible and very delicious. I can only imagine these things made fresh for breakfast.
Arriving in Ghent on a bleak, rainy day, we soon realized that we shouldâ€™ve gotten off at the previous station. Nevertheless, we trudged up towards the city center for around an hour, sightseeing the entire way. Immediately we began drawing comparisons to Den Haag, back in Holland. Itâ€™s incredible how you can travel 90 minutes and see how the landscape, the people, and the architecture all completely change! Much wealthier than Holland, I instantly recognized the luxurious, past lifestyle of the cityâ€™s inhabitants. Signs of deep, personal, stone engravings marked many of the shopsâ€™ cornerstones. The buildings were pleasantly adorned with gothic-styled charibums and ornate fixtures that proclaim their once-significant stature. One in every four stores would be a jewelry store or boutique that overlooked the canals that line the city (Antwerp, Brussels is known as the diamond capital of the world). As we neared the city you could gradually see the buildings as though you were stepping into a time machine. Three imposing cathedrals, dating the 17th century, tower over all as they guard the city center. Everywhere we turned reminded us of something from Medieval eraâ€¦not in a touristy, Disney World way. After we had enough pictures we made our way to our hostel that was a 10 minute walk from the city center. That is when we met Gravensteen. What we toured was the castle that defended the city from the late 12th century from against foreign invaders. Remarkably intact, we were able to walk around and learn about the warfare, weaponry, and population of that time period. The view that over looked the city, even on a rainy day, was truly breathtaking (see photo album: Ghent, Belgium). That night we enjoyed some fine Ghent dining and our first steak of the trip. Meals here, as Iâ€™ve heard about in Southern Europe, are meant to last a while. Tipping is not common; therefore, servers take their time and work in a very slow pace. After dinner we went to this famous bar called Bierhuis, â€œBeer Houseâ€. This place was AWESOME. The beer menu was leather-bound and roughly 13-15 pages. By the end of the night we were asking for shots of strange liquor kept in a ceramic jug, poured by none other than Santa Claus himself. I may never drink Bud Light again. After a few hours of sleep we somehow boarded a train to Brussels the next morning.
Arriving in Belgiumâ€™s capital city, Brussels was a sharp change of contrast from the quiet, picturesque Ghent. Brussels was a booming metropolitan area full of automation, industry, and history. Again, the vast buildings spoke volumes of their history, but much more modern than Ghent. We visited a number of monuments as we criss-crossed our way to our room to check in.
Cool Fact: Our hostel was the old workshop/home of Vincent Van Gogh during his time in Belgium.
That afternoon we met in the classical town square in the middle of the city for the highlight of our trip, the Belgian Beer Tour! Now there are very few things that Belgium is known for on a national scale. Beer is definitely one of them. Our tour guide, Alberto (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150578855539185&set=a.10150578821279185.399649.758734184&type=3&theater), was one of the most intelligent, fun-loving people that Iâ€™ve ever met. When signing up for this tour we expected to drink, and learn about beer. What we did not expect was to get detailed historical account of the city Brussels AND Belgian national history as we passed all the important landmarks! Our first stop was the world renowned bar, Delirium. Claiming to hold stock to 2,000+ beer, Delirium offers a collection that can be found in no other bar or pub in all the land. It was decorated in true American Picker-style with hundreds of antique beer memorabilia and porcelain signs littering the walls. It reminded me a lot of The Tavern justâ€¦.a lot nicer and a little more touristy. To the second stop we traveled to the edge of the city and visited famous Cantillon Brewery. This is the oldest, and still operating, brewery in Belgium, still passionately managed by the same family for 4 generations. Narrowly escaping bombing during WWII, the brewery almost resorted to closing its doors forever when business became so slow. Only after adding a museum to the brewery did numbers slowly begin picking up. They let us try a few types of their famous brew. So lets go back and think of your favorite beer. Is it Blue Moon? Maybe Stella Artios? Guinness? Amberbock? If all of these wanna-bes mated and their offspring were gently fed the sweet nectar of Zeus until the age of 6, this would be the delicate, most perfect result. I cannot paint a picture worthy of portraying the grandeur of this flavor so I will move on. The final stop came to a place (I forget the name after many 10-12% beers) where there were no brands. No signs, no labels, nada. This was a true beer-lovers establishment that did not wish to influence you with propaganda or advertisement. Instead, a menu was given to you that had different tastes that were vividly descriptive with an appropriate summary of this mystery beer. Only when you received the beer did they reveal the blind dateâ€™s identity. It was a very cool place that ended our fieldtrip in style.
The next morning we toured the scenic area of downtown, stopping by the large St. Michaelâ€™s and St. Gudulaâ€™s Cathedral before we skipped town. Talk about a very eerie mystique. This massive structure took 300 years to build! Very reverently, we tip toed around and snapped pictures of the dozens of stained glass windows that depicted biblical scenes. The Gothic architecture of pointed arches, high, vaulted ceilings, and flying buttresses that became so famous in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries was on full display, showing the true youth of the United States. In these days, commoners were feared or fooled into religion by priests who promised forgiveness and acceptance to heaven for payments. The Church quickly grew into the most powerful entity around, as shown in their buildings in which not one expense was left to consider. We left in a very majestic-feeling state.
We were very exhausted after only three days and couldnâ€™t wait to get home to The Hague. We have trips planned soon for Amsterdam and Germany!
Random stories that donâ€™t belong anywhere:
â€¢ My Australian friend, Nick, is taking me to a local rugby practice this week and teaching me how to play.
â€¢ Nambi tried to jump out of a moving taxi at 5am. If you ask him, heâ€™ll claim that you know as much as he does about the night.
â€¢ The meat here isnâ€™t real meat. Iâ€™m not sure exactly what it is, but something just isnâ€™t quite right. Iâ€™ll need to examine the problem further as Iâ€™ve only found one decent burger since arriving.