A Weekend in Belgium

Trip Start May 28, 2008
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Trip End Sep 23, 2010


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Friday, January 30, 2009

Bad start to the weekend. I rocked up to St Pancras International without my passport. I realised as I was going through customs that I had my passport case but had somehow neglected to check whether it was inside. After a lot of stress, atrip back home and a transfer to a later train I was on my way to Belgium on the Eurostar. Nice train, quiet and fast.

I met my NZ mate, Hamlin and his girlfriend Fien at the Brussels train station, Midi. Fien is from Belgium and although I had never met her, Hamlin had shown me so many photos of her I recognised her straight away. The reason for my trip, other than to see the beautiful country of Belgium, was that Hamlin and Fien were moving to New Zealand and it would be the last time that I would see them in Europe. It was also Hamlin's birthday.

With little time before the last train out to Fien's village, they gave me a quick tour of the centre of Brussels. It was quite dark by this time and all the building in the Grand Plaas and surrounding alleyways were all lit up. Fien lived in a small village about an hour from Brussels. Belgium is so small that it pretty much takes an hour to get anywhere.

The decision made for the following day was to visit Ghent. We rode bikes down to the train station through the countryside, past little towns and churches. Belgium has a very welcoming feel. The people are nice, many of whom speak quite fluent English, and it feels like they live a relaxed lifestyle. The trip to Ghent was a little disrupted. The usually efficient rail services were running late and re-routed due to works. This would keep happening over the weekend and became a bit of a joke between us. Them continually reassuring me that this was unusual, and me being skeptical.

Ghent is a university town, so the first thing you see when you arrive at the train station is a massive sea of thousands of bikes all locked up together. To see the sights, the three of us headed around on a self-guided walking tour, taking in sights including St Nicholas' Church, St Bavo's Cathedral, Castle of the Counts (Ghent Castle) and the bridges of the canal. Ghent was a really pretty little town but also seemed to have a modern edge because of the all the young people studying there. Shame it was so cold. It was great to have someone showing me around who had some local knowledge. Hamlin and Fien took me to places that tourists don't really get to see (an alleyway with layers of graffiti almost an inch thick). They also knew the best places to get beer.

That night was Hamlin's birthday and we had beers and amazing Flemish food. A great chicken stew that they called 'what-a-mess'. Fien's Dad had me drinking Orval's which are a type of Trappist beer. These are exclusive and strong beers brewed by Trappist monks. There are seven breweries in the world and six of them are located in Belgium. They also only brew a certain amount every year so they can be hard to get at some times during the year.

The next day we headed into Brussels for the day. First stop was the iconic Atomium, which I thought was going to be a structure about ten metres tall. Turns out it's massive and there's a viewing platform accessed by elevators in the bonds of the atoms. I wouldn't know though, I didn't go inside. This has become a bit of a trend with me. Traveling to amazing building and not bothering to go inside. Next, we visited Kockelberg Basilica, which is a beautiful church that sits on a hill overlooking Brussels, before passing by the impressive Berlaymont Building which houses the headquarters of the European Commission, which is the executive of the European Union.

Back in central Brussels, we visited the Grand Plaas (in daylight this time) and it was then that it started snowing. It had been cold all weekend but it was quite validating that it now looked as cold as it felt. Lastly we visited the Mannekin Pis fountain. This is little boy peeing. A lot of people say it's overrated, but I thought that it wasn't without it's charm. There is also a little girl version in the city as well that I didn't have time to see. One urinating child statue might have been enough for the day anyway.

Then it was time to leave. I wanted to see more of Belgium but with no time left, I needed to board my train. Short but sweet. I had to say goodbye to my travel buddy, Hamlin, who I had traveled with on three trips to this point and seen countless countries. I plan to keep my promise to visit them both in New Zealand. Like I need an excuse to travel more.

I arrived back to a London in chaos because of their biggest snowfall in 18 years.
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