The Recollection Diaries: Belgium

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As we left Amsterdam on a bus bound for Belgium, the reality that was going to be our next few months started to set in. Travelling for months on end sure sounds like a holiday, but it actually still involves quite a lot of work!  As the ‘organised one’ I was constantly researching each of our destinations to see what we needed to book in advance (European summer and all that) as well as how we were going to actually get from place to place. Getting from our hostel in Amsterdam to our hostel in Brussels involved a boat, train, bus and metro, as well as a decent walk. I had been to Brussels a few years prior and while it wasn’t my favourite place on my trip, I had been looking forward to giving it another chance. It was an uphill battle though: not only I was fighting the flu, but the rain was endless.

My recollection

Strongest memory: On our first morning in Brussels, Jamie, Andy and I set out for a morning of sight-seeing, with me acting as our de facto guide. We saw the main sights – Parliament, Mannekin Pis and the Palace. The entire walk to town we could feel the skies threatening to open and just as we arrived… they did. Andy and I had raincoats, but Jamie didn’t even have that, so he basically had to turn back home to get changed and layer up.  Andy and I continued on with the sightseeing, eventually meeting up with Jamie for a highly anticipated waffle. We were cold and wet (great for the ol’ sickness), so were looking forward to some comfort food. Unfortunately, we chose badly: the place we ended up at was SO touristy and the waffle felt factory made, it was very much lacking in the TLC department. It was memorable for being such a strong contrast to our first day in Amsterdam, which had been perfect in every single way!

Memorable meal: Although most memorable meal doesn’t have to equate to  favourite meal, in this case it really was one and the same. My favourite meal in Brussels was at a fish and chip shop called Bia Mara. I had missed a few meals due to the flu and was finally getting my appetite back. We met a guy from Guernsey in our dorm room (a place I had never heard of until that night) and I think he was even more surprised than us to be going out for a meal of fish and chips whilst in Belgium. We got to pick the type of fish, the style of batter, the kind of chips and then a variety of salad and the whole thing was executed brilliantly. Even better, it didn’t break the bank. It was also very interesting chatting with this young chap from Guernsey, who was setting off on a whirlwind adventure literally across Europe and Asia, supposedly in 3 months. It was also nice as an older sister to see some of his independence and confidence being absorbed by my own brother, who was getting closer to the date he set off on his solo travels.

Best activity: Drinking in Delirium Alley. This is an  alleyway in central Brussels which is crammed with different bars. I actually think the majority of them are just a subset of Delirium itself, but it doesn’t really matter as it is still possible to hop your way down the alley and experience a variety of different places. Delirium has the Guinness World Record for the most beers on tap and it’s certainly not hard to believe. The cafe is quirky and dank, vibrant yet relaxing. We visited on more than one occasion and I had a lot of fun trying all the different beers – I concluded that I like Belgian style beers less than ones from home and that Belgian beer is much stronger than other beer I would typically drink. It’s also a great rainy day activity, which we definitely needed – on more than one occasion!

Favourite place: Last time I visited Brussels I took a day trip to Bruges; this time when the boys did that I went to Ghent. I liked Ghent slightly more than Brussels – it was such a quaint little village and it wasn’t overrun with tourists the way that Bruges was. I spent my day just walking around and stopping at various cafes and parks for coffee, rests, lunch and to people-watch. The buildings were beautiful and having the village built on the river only added to its charm. If I lived in Belgium, I would certainly prefer to live in one of its cute little villages over its capital.

Unforgettable sight: The views around the river in Ghent. Each angle provided something new to look at, something just as special. The architecture of the buildings, the activity on the water and the symmetry (or lack thereof) in general was just gorgeous.

Andy’s recollection

Strongest Memory:  Rather sadly, my strongest memory of our time in Belgium was the rain.  That’s probably an unfair characterization given that it only really rained for one of our three days there, but when there’s rain pelting down on your first visit to a city’s major sites, it becomes a part of the memory that is difficult to dislodge.  We had departed the radiantly pretty Amsterdam in brilliant sunshine, which made Brussels feel brooding and ugly by comparison.  To be clear, I don’t think that Brussels is ugly by any stretch – I did come to appreciate the charms and architecture of the inner city by the end of our stay – but for me Brussels goes down as a study in the importance of first impressions.

Memorable Meal:  It’s difficult to get the better of a restaurant where the menu is so simpatico that you could well have designed it yourself.  It may not be fine dining but Brussels’ BAOGO is one of the few places that I have visited that managed to serve large portions of quality bao-bun burgers without the inflated prices that are so typical with trendy Asian-fusion.  This strong memory must be driven solely by the food because I can hardly remember anything about the decor or ambiance of the place.  That’s got to be a good sign.

Best activity:  Chocolate shopping.  Pick the right street in Brussels or Bruges and you will have dozens of shops standing side by side, each selling Belgian chocolate in all shapes and sizes.  The two greatest rewards of this activity are: (a) seeing chocolate put to a variety of creative uses e.g. busts of famous people, massive sculptures of buildings and landmarks; and (b) seeking out a bargain on bulk purchases.  The latter is generously aided by the huge market supply (both in volume of chocolate, and the number of sellers) although it must be said that I’ve never seen the demand for chocolate quite so high anywhere else in the world either.

Favourite place:  Hidden down a pedestrian-only lane in Brussels’ inner city, you will find an underground rabbit warren of crowded wood-paneled halls serving Belgium’s other famed product: beer.  The Delirium Alley bars may seem like they are each independent, but they are in fact one large organism – and it took a whole lot of co-ordination between each of the many halls for Delirium to earn the Guinness World Record for “most beers on tap” in the early 2000’s.  My memory is a little fuzzy on how many beers they could offer, and whether the record has been bested since, but it’s difficult to forget the feeling of seemingly limitless rooms to explore and limitless pints to be drunk.  Also a good wet weather activity, so naturally we visited Delirium multiple days in a row.

Unforgettable sight:  The crowds in Bruges.  Perhaps this is not a year-round sight, but I can personally attest that on a weekend in late May 2019, the streets and canals of the film-famous town were thronged with theme-park sized crowds.  It was a huge relief to eventually get to a quiet side street where Jamie and I could buy a Belgian hot chocolate and watch only a few people walk by outside the shop-front window.  There’s no denying that the town is quaint, but I did find that the urge to return to the train station slightly earlier than we might otherwise would have was definitely fueled by all of the hours spent shoulder to shoulder with all of the other tourists trying to have a look around.

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