Surprise Trip to Belgium

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday – I only found out I was going to Belgium when I was already at the airport! I revisited cities like Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent and visited Leuven for the first time. Best gift ever!

 

Brussels

Interesting facts about the city:

Belgians do not share one common language. In fact, there are three official languages in Belgium. In Brussels, people mostly speak French, but all public signs and documents are in French and Flemish Dutch. The third language is German.

The city is home to 40,000 EU employees, 4,000 NATO employees and hosts about 300 permanent representations: lobby groups, embassies and press corporations.

Opened in 1847, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels are the oldest shopping arcades in Europe. Today the Galeries remain one of the most visited spots in the city, where one can find beautiful stores like Meert and Tropismes Libraires.

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My boyfriend bought me a surprise trip for my birthday and I didn’t know where we were traveling to – I only found out the surprise destination was Belgium on the departure day, already at the airport!

We flew to Brussels Charleroi, which is located in the south of Brussels and it’s not the main airport. Since we arrived at night and our idea was to go straight to Bruges the following day, we stayed close to the airport, at the Hotel Ibis Charleroi Airport.

After coming back from Bruges, we stayed for the last two nights at the Marivaux Hotel, which was much better! It is very well located, I recommend it.

On Saturday night, after coming back from Bruges and Ghent, we went out for some beers and explored Brussels nightlife. Famous bars like the Delirium Bar are overrated in my opinion, as they are always too crowded and noisy. We just bought some beers at a mini market and some waffles on the street and walked randomly around the city, visiting famous places like the Grand Place, Manneken Pis (the famous peeing boy) and Jeanneke Pis (the peeing girl).

On Sunday the weather was terrible because there was a storm passing through Europe. It was super windy and rainy. We ate brunch at Le Pain Quotidien. This is a sweet, nice place where one can enjoy coffee and bakery goods. To be honest I didn’t like what I ate that much. Alejandro ate a salmon and avocado sandwich which was really good though. I liked the fact that they seemed to be ‘bio’ conscious in everything they do.

Then we spent that entire day with our friends, Florian and Kostas. They used to live in Malta as well, and last year they moved to Brussels. It was so nice seeing them again! It’s nice to see that even though some time has passed, the friendship stays the same 🙂

The four of us went for a walk around the city and stopped at Mont des Arts, amongst other famous touristic spots.

We had lunch at a food court called WOLF Food Market. I really liked this place, especially on a rainy day! Taking its name from the street, the Wolf complex provides space for 17 different restaurants to dispense their gastronomic wares to the public in a magnificent hall that used to be the public banking hall.

One can have anything from anywhere – Asian, Syrian, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese and more. I ate a very good pizza from the Italian place and the guys ate at the Syrian place. Flo and Kostas didn’t have any problems with the food, but Alejandro had to wait a long time for his, despite the fact that he was the first one to order! That was not cool, so I do not recommend the Syrian place.

After eating, we all went for a couple of beers at Bar des Amis, close to our hotel. This pub had a great atmosphere and decor. The music selection was also great!

On our last day in Brussels, we had lunch at Beat. I ate a mushroom toast that was divine and Alejandro ate a burger that looked like a waffle. Very nice!

After lunch, we headed up to the Charleroi airport to catch our flight back to Malta. We had to pay 17 euros for a shuttle bus from Flibco, but if you reserve your tickets online in advance they are cheaper – around 14 euros.


 

Bruges

Interesting facts about the city:

Thanks to its large number of canals and bridges (more than 80) Bruges is often referred to as Venice of the North and was considered one of the major commercial centres of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The city is known for its exquisitely beautiful lace products. Bruges makes some of the most luxurious lace pieces in the world.

There are more castles per square inch than any other country in the world. About 50 of the 470 castles in the Flanders region are based around Bruges.

The famous pop singer Gotye, the author of the hit song Somebody That I Used to Known, was born in Bruges. This is also the city where the movie In Bruges was shot. The main roles were played by Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes.

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As I mentioned before, we landed on a Thursday at night and decided to take our first full day to visit Bruges. So we took a train from Brussels to Bruges on Friday, which takes approximately 1 hour and costs around 15 euros each way.

I had visited Bruges before, back in 2014, and it has been my favorite city in Europe ever since! It’s very charming and beautiful, with its well preserved medieval architecture. When you’re in Bruges, you feel like you’re in a true fairy tale. I’m glad I got the chance to introduce Alejandro to this beautiful place.

We stayed one night at the Hotel Ibis Brugge Centrum. This Ibis was way better than the one in Brussels. It was very well located and I really recommend it.

We started by visiting the Burg, the main square of the city, where the Town Hall and the Belfort are located. The Belfort was erected in the 12th century and has been rebuilt several times due to fires. During the past four centuries, the 83-meter-high belfry lurched to the left by as much as one meter. To reach the top, you’ll have to climb 366 steps, but we decided not to do it.

I don’t remember seeing the Halve Maan (the half-moon) brewery last time, but this time it really caught my eye! This place has built a pipeline from its Bruges brewery to its bottling plant 3 kilometers away. The brewery was facing criticism as beer lorries struggled to get down the narrow streets to transport the beer. There were suggestions that the brewery should move out of its central Bruges home. However, they were there since 1564 and up until very recently, it was the only brewery left inside the city walls.

The current owner didn’t want to lose that historical connection with the city and came up with a unique solution – a pipeline! Completed in late 2016, it takes forty minutes for the beer to make the journey along the pipeline, which cost 4 million euros to build. Really interesting story!

We continued our walk around the city and visited the Basilica of the Sacred Blood. This church is famous for having a venerated relic of the Holy Blood of Christ. Last time I didn’t enter, but this time we paid two euros to see the relic. After that, we walked all the way to Jan Van Eyck Square.

Another place I loved seeing again was Rozenhoedkaai, a part of the main canal with amazing views of the city. I think this must be the single most photographed place in Bruges! Next to this place, we discovered a really cool shop with Belgian products and comic strips merchandising and a cool bar, with a wall full of beer bottles, called 2be Beer Wall.

Another touristic spot I revisited with Alejandro was the Beginhof. This corner of Bruges is out of bounds to men after 6.30pm. In the 13th century, groups of women – often those who had been widowed by war – founded these places around Belgium. These were enclosed communities designed to meet the spiritual and material needs of these women. Today a group of nuns lives in some of the houses, while other houses offer social housing for women who are by themselves.

I didn’t want to leave Bruges without visiting my single favorite place there – the Bonifacius Bridge. This bridge is kind of hidden, but we managed to find it. It is right next to the Church of our Lady – that one is hard to miss, with its huge tower.

After visiting the entire city we were extremely tired, so we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. We were getting really hungry, but it was so cold outside that we were feeling lazy to go out. We ended up walking to a restaurant located close by and ate a seaweed pizza at La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant.

The following day we had breakfast at That’s Toast, before catching a train to visit Ghent. This place was AMAZING! I give it 5 stars and really recommend you go there for breakfast if you have a chance to visit the city!

There was a huge queue when we got there, so the place must be kind of famous already. Amazing food, nice staff, cool branding. Loved it! After that, we headed to the train station and said goodbye to Bruges.


 

Ghent

Interesting facts about the city:

Back in the 11th century Ghent was the second biggest city in Northern Europe after Paris, with its growth driven by its leadership in cloth production and trading.

Ghent promotes a meat-free day every Thursday called Donderdag Veggiedag. Vegetarian food is promoted everywhere and Ghent is said to have the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.

Ghent’s medieval architecture remains well preserved and cars are banned in the city center, which is Belgium’s largest carfree area. The streets are filled with people biking. Much like it’s neighbor, the Netherlands, everyone has their own bike and most short-distanced trips are done with it.

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After visiting Bruges, it was time to visit another beautiful Belgian city – Ghent. I had also visited Ghent before, back in 2016, on my own. I remember it was the first and only time I traveled alone. I had forgotten how amazing and lively the city is!

We took the tram from the train station to the city center and did the same walk as I did last time. This time we paid to climb to the top of Belfry of Ghent, the huge clock tower. The 91-meter-tall belfry is one of three medieval towers that overlook the old city center – the other two belonging to Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church, two other places we also visited. The belfry of Ghent is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

We went to Korenmarkt, crossed the bridge Vleeshuisbrug and walked all the way to the Gravensteen Castle or the Castle of the Counts, which is a medieval castle situated in the middle Ghent. While the top of the castle offers superb views of the city, the inside today houses a torture museum. We didn’t pay to go inside the castle though.

There is also a special graffiti street that I missed last time. It is called Werrengarestraat and it is a legal graffiti street. It’s full of great art which means that the wall paintings change a lot.

Lastly, we went to my favorite place in Ghent, called Korenlei. From there you have the most amazing view to a canal with several beautiful medieval buildings and to Saint Michael’s Church. The views from there, especially from the bridge Sint-Michielsbrug, are just breathtaking!


 

Leuven

Interesting facts about the city:

Leuven hosts Belgium’s biggest university – Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and it is Belgium’s #1 student town: 1 out of 4 citizens are students.

Leuven is home of the world’s largest brewery group, Anheuser-Busch In-Bev. Their portfolio includes Stelle Artois, Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s, Hoegaarden and Leffe.

AB InBev Ends Beer Blockade

On our last day, despite the fact that the weather was still not amazing, we decided to take a train to visit Leuven. This was my first time there.

Leuven is located very close to Brussels – around 30 minutes by train – and it houses the oldest university of the Benelux. Having the highest student density of Belgium (1 out of 4 inhabitants), it can’t be a coincidence that Leuven calls itself the ultimate beer city. Leuven’s soul is young, hip and vibrant.

We walked from the train station all the way to the Town Hall (Stadhuis). Built in a Brabantine Late Gothic style between 1448 and 1469, it is Leuven’s most impressive building by far. Whilst the city suffered heavily from both world wars, the town hall survived. During WWII, an Allied bomb barely hit the façade.

In front of the Town Hall and also in the city’s Grote Markt, is the amazing Saint Peter’s Church. Built mainly in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style, the church has a cruciform floor plan and a low bell tower that has never been completed. It is 93 meters long.

The Academic Library is another gem in the city. Actually, it’s not that old, because it was destroyed and rebuilt twice. But Belgium wasn’t Belgium if they wouldn’t rebuild the masterpiece in the same authentic way.

In Leuven, one can also enjoy the longest bar in the world. At least that’s what Belgians call the Oude Markt (Old Market). It’s a market place where almost every building is a bar; You will find at least 37 bars, and each bar has something unique to offer. Leuven will keep you busy at night.

On our way back to the train station we walk along a shopping street named Diestsestraat. Once we were back in Brussels, we went back to our hotel to get our stuff and then we went to Charleroi Aiport to catch our flight back to Malta. I loved this extended weekend! Since Monday was a public holiday in Malta, with only 1 day off, we managed to stay there from Thursday evening till Monday evening.

This was the best birthday surprise ever, and the best gift someone could ever offer me! I love traveling, and it was amazing feeling the thrill of not knowing where I was going to till I was about the get on the plane. Thanks for the surprise feito – I LOVE YOU <3

Exploring Belgium alone

In September 2016 I decided to travel alone for the first time ever, in a safe familiar country that I have visited before. I re visited Brussels like a local and discover new cities like Ghent and Antwerp.

 

BRUSSELS

Facts about the city:

Brussels sprouts have been grown in Belgium for over 700 years.

Brussels is a major trader of beer, waffles and chocolate. There are more than 800 brands of beer on sale in Brussels. Also French Fries were invented in Brussels.

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I had visited Belgium before. Back then I visited Brussels and Brugge. I didn’t enjoy Brussels a lot during my first visit because it was raining a lot and we didn’t stay in the city for a long time. This time my experience in Brussels was quite different.

Before the trip I had met an Italian guy here in Porto, Fabio, though Couchsurfing. He lives in Brussels. Since we got along, he invited me to visit him in Brussels and that’s how the idea for trip came up. It was my first trip alone. But the truth is that I didn’t spend a lot of time alone in Brussels because I was almost always with him.

I went to revisit some of the main monuments (Grand PlaceJardin du Petit Sablon and Mont des Arts) and got to know Parc du Cinquentenaire, that I haven’t visited before.

Most buildings of the U-shaped complex which dominate the park were commissioned by the Belgian government for the 1880 National Exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian independence. The centerpiece triumphal arch was erected in 1905. The Royal Military Museum has been the sole tenant of the northern half of the complex since 1880. The southern half is occupied by the Cinquantenaire Museum and the Auto World Museum. The Temple of Human Passions, a remainder from 1886, and the Great Mosque of Brussels from 1978 are located in the north-western corner.

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We also went to Musée Magritte, to see the work of the surrealist artist René Magritte. The Magritte Museum opened to the public on 30 May 2009. It displays some 200 original Magritte paintings, drawings and sculptures including The ReturnScheherazade and The Empire of Lights.

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We went to a coffee place in the rooftop of a building – Musée des Instruments de Musique de Bruxelles, close to Mont des Arts, that has an amazing view to the city. The museum itself is internationally renowned for its collection of over 8,000 instruments.

We were also in a big park close to St. Gilles, where Fabio lives. The weather was good and the park was full of people enjoying the sun. There we took a boat to an island in the middle of the park, where there’s a coffee place that is really nice.

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In one of the nights we went to have dinner in a restaurant with almondegas with different sauces. We also took breakfast in a place where we ate Moroccan crepes. Once Fabio organized a dinner at his place so I could meet his friends, all from different nationalities. It was very nice.

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We also went out together. We went to a square with a lot of bars and pubs to drink belgium beer in a bar called Maison du Peuple. We even took pictures together in a vintage machine there. I had a lot of fun!


 

GHENT

Facts about the city:

Ghent promotes a meat-free day every Thursday called Donderdag Veggiedag. Vegetarian food is promoted in dining rooms and public schools. Ghent is said to have the world’s largest number of vegetarian restaurants per capita.

Ghent is known for purple cone-shaped, jelly-filled candies called cuberdons or neuzekes (‘noses’). You can buy Ghent noses at street stalls that specialize in these overly-sweet candies.

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Even though in Brussels I was always with my friend, in Ghent and Antwerp that didn’t happen. I took the train in the morning to St. Pieters station. The ticket is 9€ and it takes about half an hour. The station is a bit far from the center: you can walk, but I don’t recommend it because it’s not beautiful. I recommend taking the tram number 1 and get off in Korenmarkt. The ticket is 1,20€.

Ghent is a beautiful medieval town, very similar to Brugge, but smaller. In the map below you can see the route I did, that allowed me to see the main places and monuments in the city. It’s 1,3 km and just 16 minutes walking. That’s why I chose to visit Ghent and Antwerp in the same day, because you can see both really fast.

I really enjoyed sitting there next to the Graslei and Korenlei ports. Graslei is a quay located on the right bank of the Leie river. The quay opposite of the Graslei is called Korenlei. Both quays were part of the medieval port and are now a cultural and touristic hotspot of the city, with a high concentration of cafe patios. Today these ports are surrounded by historical buildings and they are the heart of the city.

I went to a small wooden bridge called Grasbrug, as well as St. Michels bridge, and from Koranlei I enjoyed the view to Graslei.

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I visited St. Bavo Cathedral, from 1559. The masterpiece inside this church is the painting “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” from Jan van Eyck, 1432. I didn’t go inside to see it unfortunately.

I also went to see the Belfry and St. Nicholas church. Belfry is the symbol of independence. It was built in 1313 and it’s 91m tall. The panoramic view from the top is higher than the one from Gravensteen, but less central. St. Nicholas church is next to Belfry. Despite being older than St. Bavo’s, it’s more preserved. The sculptures are really nice.

Gravensteen is a medieval castle in the middle of the city. The present castle was built in 1180 by count Philip of Alsace. The castle served as the seat of the Counts of Flanders until they abandoned it in the 14th century. The castle was then used as a courthouse, a prison and eventually decayed. Houses were built against the walls and even on the courtyard. They wanted to demolish it but in 1885 the city bought it and started the renovation project. The newly built houses were removed and the walls and keep were restored to their original condition.

The castle has been repaired enough to allow people to travel through it and climb on top. It has a nice view from the top. Inside is a museum with various torture devices (and a guillotine) that were historically used in Ghent. Getting out of the castle, we see a nice square with historic buildings. The Sint Veerleplein is today one of the most touristic squares, with several bars.

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It was a shame that there was a lot of restoration works going on and a lot of the monuments were covered. I stopped in a coffee place for a bit and I spoke on the phone with my best friend for a long time, it felt nice. Finally, I went to McDonalds to eat and then went back to the train station, to continue my trip in Antwerp.


 

ANTWERP

Facts about the city:

While the country of Belgium has three different official languages including Dutch, French and German, the official language of the Antwerp province is Dutch, as in all Flemish provinces.

Between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s rough diamonds, and 50 percent of its cut diamonds are traded in Antwerp each year, earning the city the “The World’s Capital of Diamonds” moniker

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Even though Antwerp is not so beautiful, I preferred the vibe of this city. Or maybe it’s just because I got more comfortable traveling alone. So comfortable I even had people asking me for information on the streets, thinking I was a local. Like Ghent, you can visit this city really fast.

I arrived at the train station, Antwerpen-Centraal, considered in 2014 the most beautiful one in the world. The ticket from Brussels is 7€ and it takes about 50 minutes.

To get to the city center, I walked along Meir, one of the main commercial streets in the country. The street is huge and you can find all the famous brands and a lot of coffee places and restaurants.

 

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I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady, with its giant towers. It took them 170 years to build it and it was finished in 1521. The project for the second tower, however, mas never finished and they don’t have the same size today. It contains a number of significant works by the painter Rubens.

I continued in the direction of the Grote Markt, the colorful main square, with a lot of flags from different countries. You can see the Town Hall there, built in 1565 and the Brabo statue. He was a mythical Roman soldier who is said to have killed a giant who asked money from people who wanted to pass the bridge over the river Scheldt. When they didn’t want to or couldn’t pay, he cut off their hand and threw it in the river.

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I went for a walk close to the sea and the castle. The Castle of Het Steen is a medieval fortress built in 1200. It used to be a prison and now is a memorial of the II World War. In front of the castle is Lange Wapper, a statue of a guy who people say used to chase the drunk men in the city. It was a busy but cool day. This trip was very important to me, because it made me think about everything in my life.