3 Things Belgium Taught Me
It’s always interesting to me that some of the legs of my trip were ones that I thought that I wouldn’t write much about. Kendall and I only spent a single day (count em, 24 hours!) in Bruges, Belgium. It was a bit of an afterthought, to be honest. Consider it a bit of a stop over on a long train ride from Paris to Amsterdam.
So, consider me surprised when I find myself writing an entire blog post about my lessons in Belgium and, arguably, one of the craziest days of the entire trip.
Belgium Beers are Strong!
Let me just start out by saying that I’m not necessarily built for large, full-bodied beers. Let’s be honest - I think I’m lacking a bit in that department. I have little to no tolerance on a good day, so starting the day off with some whopping 9% beers is probably not the best way to go about it. But, of course, when in Rome… Or, I guess Bruges…
We started our tour de Belgium by heading to de Halve Maan Brewery, which produces some local Belgium brews. I picked a slightly lighter beer (my personal favorites are hefeweizens) with a fruity floral finish and Kendall got a seasonal lager. Both were quite tasty, but since this was a stopover on the way to dinner, we wanted to sip and go. This was also one of the cheapest places in Bruges (a pint was about 4 euro!), I would come to find out!
We later had a flight from the Brewery Bourgogne des Flandres next to our superbly cute (and romantik!) Hotel de Orangerie. This is probably where it all went downhill for me on the Belgium brews! First, I should probably have known by the price (and subsequently, the size) of the beer flights that I was going to be in for a bit of a hurt. The flights were approximately 13 euro, but each pour of beer had at least 6oz (and we got 6 beers!). So, basically, a little over 2 beers for the entire flight. In the morning. On a relatively empty stomach. All of the beers, per the beer menu, listed the alcohol percentages higher than 8%, with some getting close to 11%!
Consider this a test of wills. Most of the beers were lagers with a heavy caramel base (something I wasn’t a fan of to begin with) or an fruitier, more floral undertone (also not a fan). I’d personally refer to those as “floor cleaner” beers, but then again, my palette is hardly refined. Needless to say, ya girl can’t hang and I ended up having to walk away from quite a few of the beers (especially the sour) because they were just too strong and too bitter for me to handle.
But, for those of your who love craft beers, Belgium offers plenty of that! The beer was also a very nice contrast to the days of wine drinking we had been doing in Paris. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a wine over beer girl, but I was definitely looking for a change of pace by the time that we reached Belgium.
You Can (and Should!) Share Everything!
If I could give any future travelers some tidbits of wisdom, it would be to be prepared for huge portions in Belgium. After marveling at the small portion size in France, Belgium stood in striking contrast. For dinner, Kendall and I decided to try a local pub, De Gastro, for a hotpot of mussels. We were immediately drawn in by the promise of mussels, frites (fries), and a beer for 20 euro. We thought that that seemed like a pretty good deal (especially considering the prices in France!) so we stopped in out of the cold. The mussels came in a huge stewed pot (I ordered mine in white wine) and there was easily 2 pounds of mussels in each one. Under normal circumstances, I would have been thrilled to have so many tasty mussels in front of me, this was more I was prepared to eat and I could easily left half of the mussels in the pot! If you have a chance to check out this local pub, I would definitely suggest splitting a pot! The mussels are delicious but be prepared for the huge portion!
The following morning, we went in search of breakfast! We each got a waffle (I had mine with strawberries and whipped cream) from a walk-up stand called Chez Albert. Highly recommend - and the waffle holder has a handy “bite” hole to eat your waffle without getting sticky! (How old were you when you realized that was what the cut out was for? Today years old.) While it was delicious, this was another example of huge portions and I got a stomachache from all of the sugar in that breakfast waffle!
Trains are Hard
One of the biggest lessons I learned while in Belgium was that the European train system is insanely complicated and highly efficient! We booked our train tickets relatively last minute through B-Europe for both our tickets from Paris to Bruges and onward to Amsterdam. Our Paris adventure was fairly uneventful, but the experience from Bruges to Amsterdam is something that I’ll never forget. (And definitely not something I could replicate again if I wanted to!)
We decided to book the later train out of the Bruges station to give ourselves time to have a leisurely breakfast before heading to Amsterdam. If you find yourself in the same situation, I would highly suggest leaving after 12pm. Most shops and restaurants in Bruges don’t open until 10am so, if you were like us and left your gift shopping to last, you’ll want to make sure you leave the city late enough to take advantage of shopping.
We had two train changes on our way to Amsterdam. We picked this for a variety of reasons, but mostly, it was the shortest train (approximately 2:45 minutes) and it was the cheapest rail option. However, this came at a cost, since we only had 7 minutes of transfer time at each station.
Our first transfer was in Gent, which is a tiny station. It was simply a matter of crossing the train tracks and jumping on the next train. The real confusion came as we approached the Antwerpen station, which is a much bigger station and railway hub. Little did I know, there were four different Antwerpen stops, including our Antwerpen-Central stop. Our original transfer was supposed to happen in Antwerpen-Central, but when we came up to the first stop, I thought we had just arrived to the station a few minutes early (of course, had I been more experienced, I would have known this doesn’t happen). I told both Kendall and I to get off the train and, as we stood on the platform, we realized this was not our stop!
Luckily, the train that was immediately across the tracks from us was also going to Antwerpen-Central! (Seriously, what are the chances?!?!) We immediately got on that train (since your ticket is good for all Belgium stations) and took it to Antwerpen-Central. Due to my mistake, we lost 2-3 minutes of our original 7 minute transfer time. I was starting to see our arrival into Amsterdam that evening fading into the distance and I was starting to get seriously stressed. If we missed our Thalys train from Belgium to the Netherlands, we were going to not only be delayed making it to Amsterdam, but we were going to have to buy a whole new train ticket (and those suckers weren’t cheap!).
As our new train pulled into the Antwerpen-Central station, Kendall and I walked straight up to the door, ready to sprint through the station. She had looked up the map of the train station so we knew that we would be coming in on the top floor and we needed to go to the bottom of the station. As soon as the doors of the train opened, we sprinted for the nearest elevator since we knew that we would never make it down a set of stairs quickly with our heavy roller bags. Imagine our panic as we frantically press the button, begging the elevator to open and let us in.
Somehow, and I don’t think that I could ever repeat it, we picked the exact elevator that took us downstairs not only to our exact platform, but to the specific train car that we needed to scan our tickets to get on! We literally made it onto the train with less than 2 minutes to spare! And, we left exactly on time!
So, if I’m continuing to pass on some wisdom to future travelers, I would highly suggest giving yourself a longer buffer than 7 minutes between trains, especially when you’re in a country where you cannot speak the language! In Belgium, none of the trains or stations were in English, so we needed to find our train based on time of arrival/departure and city since we could not read the signs.
Even though we had a stressful 24 hours, riding the trains and eating the food in Belgium were some of the highlights of my trip! If I had time to go back through the area, I would love to spend some time in Gent, as well as the beautiful countryside as I think that it offers so much!