The Dark Horse: Belgium
When we first booked our trip to Belgium, I think it's safe to say we were apprehensive at best. It wasn't ever on our 'must see' list and that's probably why it took us 2 years into living in Europe to cross the channel and visit. Well, spoiler alert: it turned out to be one of the most unforgettable and enjoyable trips to date. We absolutely fell in love with Belgium, its charm, its waffles, its Waterzooi, oh and its BEER. What started as a Eurostar sale whim turned into a lovely encounter with a lovely country.
Where we went
When you buy tickets to Belgium on the Eurostar, you get an added perk: travel to your ultimate destination within Belgium using the same ticket! This is especially handy as the Eurostar only travels into Brussels from London and we were more keen to try out Brugge and Ghent. So we took advantage of that offer, and switched at Brussels for a train to Brugge to spend a few hours before our onward journey would take us to Ghent for the night.
There was one snag in the plan though: we found out the hard way that actually this perk you get from the Eurostar...well that's a one destination offer. You get to go ONE place from Brussels as part of the ticket. Not, as it turns out, TWO - like we were trying to do once we left Brugge to go to Ghent. Well the ticket taker on the intercity metro sussed us out and was 'happy' to help sort out this misfortune - for the full price of a train ticket, please. It was a costly lesson, but one we will take with us as we most definitely will visit Belgium again.
We only spent the afternoon in Brugge, but it was a great afternoon! The weekend we were there (in February, mind you) seemed to be some sort of festival extravaganza! In Brugge, we came upon a huge beer festival right in the middle of town. Right in the middle of that beautiful photo op of all the pretty coloured house fronts along the town square. It was full of people milling about, and a huge tent was erected in the middle where the festival was taking place. So we, too, milled about town and took in all of the shops, small side streets, and grabbed some fries of course.
We then made a bee line for the nearest brewery/tasting room to see what all the fuss was about. Long story short: the fuss isn’t exaggerating. Listen to the fuss and book your trip to Belgium now. 😉 We tried a flight of beer at The Beer Wall, and were not expecting both the flavour combos and the strength of Belgian beer! We soon were noting our favourites in order to buy to take back with us.
The highlight of Brugge for me was the town centre, the beer tasting along the canals, and a tapas restaurant, Quatre Mains. It took us a while to find the unassuming front entrance to this restaurant that had been recommended to us. It was full and they only had one table for 4 “available” right by the door, which felt suspiciously fire code non-compliant, but they sat us and provided us with baskets on baskets of bread - winning in my book already. We then enjoyed a long lunch and temporarily escaped the cold that awaited us outside.
After our lunch, we meandered back to the train station to take our illicit train to Ghent for the night.
When we arrived in Ghent, we dropped our bags off at our hostel and headed out to do more exploring. And guess what we came across in this town...another festival! What do you know?! This time it was a light festival throughout the city that happens every winter. It was so awesome to walk through the town at night experiencing all the showcases and designs they had made that year. They had fire displays to a live DJ along the water, they had houses decorated and doing programmed dances, and although the days were short, the nights were filled with light!
We walked through the town and found ourselves at a brewery that was so cozy/warm that we decided to have an impromptu beer tasting yet again. They served the drinks in small glasses to facilitate the tasting and we soon each found our favourites and played cards all night and made friends with the staff. It was the kind of place where you could take a group, and feel like you are hosting a party in your home.
The next day, we walked through more parts of the city. We saw the most castle-y castle we've seen in Europe - it was a small fortress that definitely looked like it had been used to defend the city since inception. It was also an unusually sunny day that we just soaked up as we continued to take in the charm of Ghent.
The last leg of our trip was Brussels. We had a few hours to spare before our train home so Brussels was the perfect place to do a little souvenir shopping. And by souvenirs I mean beer. We probably spent like an hour trying to find the exact types of beer we had tasted in our various taste tests over the weekend and then buying it in bulk - because yet another perk of the Eurostar is being able to take back 6 large beers / bottles of wine per person. I mean they know their audience - if you go to Paris you know you are bringing back wine and if you go to Belgium you know you gotta have some of that beer (that they sell in 750 ml bottles) at home. We also picked up some absolutely delicious chocolate and last but not least, waffles!!!!! If you go to Belgium and don’t eat waffles, what’s even the point?
I'll leave you with a couple more top tips about travelling by Eurostar back from Belgium:
(1) Never trust the Eurostar queue length; even if it looks long, it will rapidly shrink.
(2) Leave yourself plenty of time at the train station to pick up some key items such as waffles from the grocery stores inside the station. This will save you and your friends the embarrassment of running through a train station clutching bags and bags of waffles only to run up to the now closing gate (because they MEAN 30 min ahead of departure and that queue really does move) while your friends explain to the Belgian officer that you were merely in the bathroom and that you would be right back (in time for the train departure). We were lucky enough that they held the train for me and my armfuls of waffles!
Although a short trip, it was full of sweet experiences and left me with a taste for the Belgian life. We will definitely return and when we do, we won't be caught unaware!