Stop 1: Belgium

On our way to our new home (for the new few months at least), we’re stopping off at a couple of different destinations. We reached the first of these yesterday – Belgium. We intended to go straight to Brussels. Not because Brussels itself is particularly exciting to us, but simply because it’s a convenient stop along the way. However, after about 4 hours in the car with just Armin van Buuren for company, we decided to make an additional stop in Bruges.

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If you’ve seen the film In Bruges, you’ll know everything you need to know about this tiny city. No, not dwarves and gangsters, but really this is a beautiful and compact city – a little like the Bath of Belgium. Not quite as charmingly quaint as Ghent, which we visited at New Year, maybe a bit smaller and more quiet, but a great place to spend an afternoon.

We had lunch at one of the restaurants on the central square, opposite the church where Brendan Gleesson ends up falling to his death. Seriously, if you haven’t seen that film, go do so now and come back to this post later. The prices in Bruges are a little steep – London-ish. We spent 19 euro each on a three course menu (moules et frites, of course – when in Belgium…) at a pretty average restaurant. But let’s face it, Bruges is mainly a city to walk around and gawp at the general romantic beauty of the surroundings. The central square with its majestic overlooking cathedral, the quaint little, mini-Amersterdam-style canals, lined by cafes and wooden pontoons where people sunbathe and dive into the water, typical chocolate shops and ice cream parlours, gorgeously Belgian houses with their gradated roofs…

I would absolutely recommend Bruges for a quick visit, although you may find that there isn’t a whole lot to do once you’ve had a good wander, a waffle and photographed to your heart’s content. We found it was peculiarly lacking in banks. The one ATM we found early on was out of order and it took all day to find another. It’s also difficult to find a water fountain or to get hold of a simple glass of tap water. I ended up spending a frankly ludicrous 2 euro on a small bottle of water from McDonalds of all places. But for strolling, eating, picture-taking, relaxing and sight-seeing, it’s truly a great stop in your Belgian itinerary.

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At the end of the day we drove on the rest of the way to Brussels, arriving just about on time to check in to our campsite and put up the tent. So come around 9pm we were officially starving, and decided to find ourselves some food. Which is where our troubles started. 9pm is a little late to try and eat in a small Belgian town (we were outside Brussels in the aptly-named Grimbergen), and only 2 of the three existing restaurants were serving food. The Chinese place declared its kitchens were closed, leaving us with a pizzeria as our only option. The pizza was fine but absolutely not cheap – around 11-13 euro for a pizza, ¬†which isn’t really what budget travel is supposed to be about. Bellies duly filled, we drove back to the campsite only to discover that they close down the barriers at 10pm, leaving us stuck parking the car filled with ALL our worldly possessions outside.

Thankfully, when we awoke from a cold and uncomfortable night’s sleep, the car was still intact. However, we were severely in need of coffee and carbs. So, being the resourceful and active campers we are, we jumped on our bikes in search of breakfast. A quick bike ride to Grimsbergen and 10 minutes of searching, however, brought us to the unfortunate conclusion that there was literally NO source of food or caffeine in this rather dismal little town. Annoyed and hungry (although you can’t be too down in Belgium in the sunshine), we ended up going back to the campsite to shower and prepare before driving all the way to the city just to procure breakfast.

So, our first stop (after an overpriced underground carpark – 14.90 for 6+ hours of parking), was a bakery for sugary goodness and plenty of coffee before we could explore this city. I would have written a separate post about Bruges and Brussels, but as we only spent a day in each it doesn’t seem worth it. That and the fact that Brussels, whilst nice, is far from the most interesting city either of us have been to.

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Brussels, of course, is chiefly famous as the seat of all things European – the parliament and the commission are located in the heart of the city. Other than that, it’s not really a city for tourists, although there is plenty to see and probably worth a few more days. Everywhere you walk, impressive buildings are scattered almost randomly. In fact, you probably need to drive or take public transport to see them all, as there are excellent gothic churches and impressive royal buildings here and there all over the place.

As you would expect, the city is also rammed full of decadent chocolate shops and patisseries. If you’re on a diet, it’s not really the place for you, as you’ll be bombarded with the sight of artisan chocolates, warm chocolatey waffles, sweet macaroons and eclairs all day. For lunch we headed down the main street full of restaurants, where the waiters all jostle with each other for attention and throw you different offers: a free beer here, a cheaper menu there, to entice you inside, Brick Lane style. Sure this can get extremely annoying and is really only there for tourists, but it’s a decent place to get a reasonable meal for a reasonable price. This time we only paid 12 euro for a set menu including beer. Although (as in any of these touristy areas), beware them luring you in with a cheap set menu only to try and push other, more expensive, options at you. Ok I had moules and frites again (because, you know, Belgium…) but it was pretty decent.

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Once you’ve had your fill of the stunning architecture, Brussels has a couple of more unusual sights. The first of which is the Manneke Pis – which is basically a statue of a small boy having a wee. I’m not sure why this has become such an important monument, but it’s sure to be surrounded by tourists taking photos. The statue also has a lesser known sister, another small fountain featuring a little girl, also similarly going to the bathroom. At least it’s a bit of a different tourist destination, I suppose. Following this, the Atomium is another unusual spot. It was built in the 60s for the Expo, and is formed like 9 different atoms held together in one huge structure. Inside is a museum, which has 9 different exhibits inside each of the atoms, connected by staircases. It was shut by the time we got there, but still an attention-grabbing symbol of the city.

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Belgium is a charming country, but it’s not cheap (similar prices to London), and we’re ready to move on to our next destination – Germany.

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