As I’m writing this I’m sitting in the grass of my Auntie’s garden in Belgium drinking champagne, surrounded by bluebells, with the Spring suns rays casting down on me and birds singing overhead. Could I make this sound any more wankery if I tried? Let’s be honest… I could but it is moments like these that I find absolutely magical. I love experiences where you get to pretend to be another citizen of a country, rather than a tacky tourist or your every day traveller.
Belgium is a country that is no new territory for me. My Auntie moved from England to the countries capital, Brussels, so that she could take a job with the European Union and since then has never left. I’ve been back here a few times in my life to visit but have a new found appreciation for it every time. Coming back so soon after the recent terror attacks is also such a moving experience as I have been able to witness the fact that the terrible event hasn’t changed the welcoming nature of those that call this city their home, nor does the country feel any more dangerous.
Travelling from Australia I don’t think I will ever get over the fact that a two-hour train ride can take you from one country to another. Back home you can be on a train for two hours and still be in New South Wales but here you can jump on the Eurostar in England and see the landscape change with your very own eyes.
Brussels has some of the most amazing buildings that I’ve ever seen as they tower over you with their gold details glinting in the sun, almost resembling the artistic nature of buildings in children’s storybooks. The cobbled stone streets lead you to chocolate shop after chocolate shop as Belgium likes to believe they have the best chocolate in the whole entire world (and will quickly argue with those who disagree).
This city is definitely a melting pot of buildings, culture, art, people and languages that plays out in a cityscape that has its foot in both regal beauty and rundown disgraces but understanding the context of why this is makes your experience of the city that little bit richer. World War II devastated much of the capital, prompting rampant postwar redevelopment that needed to be quick and cheap to try and build the city back up again. This all swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the most beautiful squares in the world.
One of the corners of Belgium that I love the most is Bruges, a city located in the northwest of the country that is listed as a medieval city on the World Heritage List of UNESCO. It remains one of my favourite places because of the warm childhood memories that I have of visiting once before and also thanks to the fact that Bruges is a chocolate box personified.
I have a sun drenched memory of visiting when I was about 12 years old and being awe struck by the medieval buildings, the horse drawn carriages and the fact that you could buy a chocolate box where the box itself was made out of chocolate. It felt like I had been transported to a fairy tale.
It’s always a different experience coming back to a city when you’re older – it still feels like a fairy tale but it’s always a bit disappointing when you realise how many tourists there actually are. That’s the only issue with Bruges, it’s no secret, which means that on some days and during certain times of the year, tourists come here in droves. This means that the best way to avoid all that would be to visit in off seasons and not on the weekend but that means you miss out on the suns rays dancing on the water and the geese that come out to soak up the sun. Choosing to come during these times though doesn’t make the city lose any of it’s charm, you just have to share it with a lot of other people. One way to avoid a lot of the tourists though is to wander further down the canal away from the main square, which is amazing as this is where a lot of the cities secrets are hiding.
The best way to explore the city is by walking down the cobble stoned paths or by boat down the canal which is amazing to do when the sun is shining – cars are pretty much excluded from the city as locals opt for riding their bikes. I honestly couldn’t recommend cruising down Bruges’ canals high enough as you discover secret gardens, picturesque bridges and wonderfully beautiful views which just adds to the romance of it all. It’s easy to transport yourself to another place as the air is filled with the distinguishable smell of waffles and nutella and the church tower sings periodically throughout the day.
Like Brussels, restaurants in the central market place are danger zones when it comes to your pocket as they employ little tricks, like presenting items such as bread as if they were free with your meal then charge you exorbitantly for it. If your stingy like me and want to enjoy your trip as much as possible without having to shell out a bucket load, find a street with more locals than tourists or ask the locals!
I’m not sure if I’ll ever visit Bruges again as I’ve been here twice now but it is a city that sparks the imagination and takes your breath away. Like all popular tourist cities you have to make your way out of the tourist hot spots to make sure you are able to enjoy a more realistic experience. I recommend visiting at least once in your life time.
Anyway, I’m going to finish this glass of champagne, enjoy the smell of the crisp, fresh air and figure out a way that I can make a prosperous career out of travelling most of the year while getting paid for it.
Revel in the magic that is you,
The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page – Saint Augustine