Gent!

It was October 2015 and I found myself back in Brussels, a city I’d already visited in December 2013. There’s honestly nothing wrong with returning to a place again, despite what other travelers might tell you but of course there are some downsides to going back somewhere (there are upsides too).

One of those downsides is you’ve often seen a lot of the main points of interests in a city which was very much the case for me with Brussels. So I figured why not use one of my four days in Brussels to take a daytrip somewhere. I considered a number of options in Belgium, France, Germany and even Luxembourg before finally deciding upon a Belgian city called Gent – for some reason the English spell it as Ghent so you might see it written this way too. The only logic I can offer for this is that it rhymes with bent so is perhaps written that way to distinguish the difference from the English pronunciation of gent.

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Gent, Belgium

Anyway Gent, a city I didn’t really know much about to be honest. It was a last minute decision to go there too so I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any research, I was just going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
Needless to say with that approach it didn’t take long for my first problem to arise.

After a short train journey from Brussels I was arriving in to Gent’s main train station which is unfortunately a little outside of the main part of the city. Which way should I be going from here? I had no idea and for some reason Belgians have an aversion to signposting things sufficiently.

Brussels isn’t as bad and fortunately in Bruges we’d got by using the tried and tested method of “follow everybody else” but that wasn’t going to work here – there were no tourists for me to follow! I didn’t foresee following random locals ending very well so I just had to pick a direction and hope I’d see some signs along the way.

I’ve been to Gent and now Liege (another Belgian city) and it’s a common problem in both. There’s a distinct lack of signs everywhere and then if there are some they often conflict. Perhaps they’re intended for different people such as pedestrians / drivers but it’s pretty frustrating following a sign that reads “right to the city centre” and 100 yards later coming across a sign advising you to go left.

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland guys, I need some clear directions please! Sadly Gent had no “Yellow Brick Road” so I got terribly lost. On the plus side I’ve probably seen more of Gent than your average tourist!

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Somewhere in Gent!

Eventually I got myself on track but I’d wasted a good hour of my morning already and had worked up a bit of an appetite.

Before thinking about lunch I stumbled upon Gent’s Sint-Jacobskerk (St Jacobs Church) – I generally like visiting religious buildings anyway but the dark grey skies hovering above were additional motivation to pop in and have a look around.

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Sint-Jakobskerk

It was a pretty church and I’d timed my visit pretty well, it was mostly empty with the exception of a small school choir getting some practice in so I watched for a little while before leaving them to it. I was off on the hunt for some lunch!

I found a long stretch of restaurants along each side of what was a pedestrianised street, I just had to find one with something to tempt me from the menu. Like many European cities, Gent weren’t going to be deterred by the miserable weather and most restaurants still had outside seating. With parasols providing cover from any potential rain and outside heaters and blankets providing warmth there were still plenty sat outdoors opposed to the warmth inside.
I followed suit and took up a prime seat for people-watching at one of the restaurants – a favourite pastime when traveling.

It’s easy to see why our European friends prefer this type of dining, I’m not sure even with parasols and heaters whether it’d work quite as successfully in England but I always enjoy it on my travels. It was a good lunch, I think I grabbed a steak accompanied with a delicious Belgian beer before getting back to exploring.

The lack of tourists make Gent a nice city to walk around. I don’t know how long that will stay the case, I don’t think it’ll boom in the same way that Bruges’ tourism has but it’s certainly a city on the up and somewhere that frequents my Instagram feed with a little more regularity now opposed to three years ago. Interestingly Gent is the location of my most popular ever Instagram post which is some indication as to its beauty and charm.

The weather brightened up a little bit after lunch so I spent the next few hours just wandering its streets and admiring its architecture. I didn’t really do anything noteworthy in Gent but it made for an enjoyable daytrip, you could perhaps squeeze a weekend out of it but a day is a good amount of time to see much of the city.

I knew I had to think about heading back to Brussels soon so rounded off the afternoon with a stroll alongside the river which offered perhaps some of Gent’s most stunning views. From the riverside cafes and bars to the boats floating on by, I was a little envious of those that got to stay and enjoy the pretty setting. However I’d had a fun few hours in Gent and called it a day, slowly making my way back to the train station.

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On the way to getting lost again!

Very slowly actually, I got lost again. It was a further chance to see more of the city, albeit unintentional again. I wound up somewhere near Gent’s university and rowing lake – not quite where I’d wanted to be and I was suddenly racing the clock to find my way whilst there was still some natural light. It was one thing being lost by day but I didn’t really want to find myself lost in a foreign city after dark.

It had been an adventure but soon enough I was back on track and pleased to see Gent’s main train station once again. I hopped on a train and quickly made plans for the evening. My friend Natalie had arrived in to Brussels ahead of Thursday night’s football so we were both looking forward to catching up over some Belgian beers.

We quickly found an Irish bar which was a little lively. A few other Spurs fans were also in town and keen to make the most of the karaoke at the far end of the bar. They proceeded to butcher a few songs, including a Britney Spears classic but fortunately the Belgian beer went down well to make it a little more bearable!

All in all it had been a pretty memorable daytrip! It’s a city I’d recommend, particularly if you’re in Brussels or Bruges and want to visit somewhere a little less crowded.

Up next? Amsterdam!

Stay tuned!

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A day in Bruges

My last few posts have been a little more generic travel posts rather than destination specific, so I thought I’d get back to talking about solely one destination and maybe offer a little inspiration if you’re looking for somewhere to visit in 2018.
In this instance – Bruges!

If you haven’t heard of Bruges already (where have you been?), it’s a magical little town in Belgium. It has quickly become a popular European tourist destination and one of the Instagram favourites.
With its cobbled streets, colourful buildings and pretty canals it’s not hard to see why.

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Bruges, Belgium

Unlike most European destinations which peak in the summer, you’ll actually find peak tourist season in Bruges is around December and a big reason for that is because of Bruges’ famous Christmas markets. Whilst December is a particularly popular time to go to Bruges, if you visit any other time of year you’re not going to be left disappointed.

Anyway, on to my experience! Looking back at December 2013 takes us to a short day trip to Bruges. Myself, Walker and Kelly thought it would be a good idea to get out of Brussels for a day and take the short train ride across to Bruges and see what all the fuss was about.
We had a little look at train prices before leaving so it ended up being a pleasant surprise to arrive at the station and discover they were offering a seasonal train ticket – a 5 euro return to Bruges! What a bargain!

Call me cynical but I couldn’t imagine it ever happening in England. With the knowledge more people were traveling to Bruges at the weekend for the Christmas markets it would provide the perfect opportunity to push prices UP, instead Belgium were pushing prices down. What is this madness? On the plus side you do get a much better train service in England than the rest of Europe, right?.. Oh wait, is that another delay?

Arriving in to Bruges in good time we exited the train station and made our way in to the centre. I find Belgium as a whole isn’t particularly great for signposted directions so if you’re a first time visitor (like we were) it might not be particularly clear which way to go.
We adopted the tried and tested method of “follow everyone else” and soon enough we were where we wanted to be. For the most-part it’s a straight walk from the station so you won’t get too lost before finding your way.

Our first stop of the day was this cute little church. It wasn’t particularly big but we thought we’d poke our heads in and have a look around. Unfortunately we’d timed our visit pretty poorly as it was a Sunday and they were mid-service. It was pretty inside but wanting to be respectful we left pretty sharp-ish and made our way back out on to the cobbled streets to explore further.

In the heart of Bruges you’ll find the market square which is where we ended up next. Overlooking the square is the huge belltower which, I hear, offers fantastic views overlooking the town. The downside to visiting on a Sunday in December is that queues were long. If you want to climb it I’d recommend visiting early in the morning to beat the queues! With barely a day in Bruges it didn’t seem a good use of our time so we decided not to bother climbing it on this occasion. However it’s definitely something I’ll look to do when I go back!

Opposite the belltower was a decent sized ice-rink and a selection of Christmas markets. Given the hype I found the latter quite underwhelming; perhaps it’s just me but I had expected more. I’ve only seen a few Christmas markets but Brussels, Paris, Bremen and Edinburgh’s have all been better. The only exception is the pitiful effort in Peterborough but I wasn’t expecting any here so I suppose even that surpassed my expectations at the back end of 2017.
Maybe it was a bad day or we’d overlooked there being more market stalls elsewhere but it was a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless the smell of food tempted us to pick up some lunch.

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Christmas market in Bremen, Germany

Moving on in to the afternoon we ended up taking one of the canal tours that run throughout Bruges. It’s one of the best ways to see the town and our ‘captain’ pointed out a few pieces of interest along the way. It was my highlight of our short time in Bruges and I’d certainly recommend trying to do one of these if you plan on visiting Bruges.

After our tour we wandered through the streets and squares of the city to ensure we’d seen as much of Bruges as we’d wanted to before leaving. The squares were particularly busy but some of the backstreets we had mostly to ourselves to admire the architecture and houses found in Bruges.
It’s a really walkable town and you can see quite a lot of it in half a day. We were content we had seen all that we wanted to do in Bruges so picked up some souvenirs and then seeked out a nearby pub to try some of the local delicacy.

Belgium is famous for its beer and it proved to be a good spot to pick up some dinner too. An additional motive of the pub visit was that it allowed me a chance to keep up to date with the football back home. It seemed a good idea beforehand but a couple of hours later I was feeling much more deflated.
Fortunately I had good company with me and some (much needed) Belgian beer to drown my sorrows. A beer or two later we called it a night and made our walk back to the station to catch our train to Brussels.

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Enjoying all the beers in Bruges!

Bruges had looked pretty by day but perhaps moreso by night, particularly in December with the Christmas decorations adding a little magic to enjoy before leaving this wonderful little town. .

It ended up being a great day and is certainly somewhere that should be on your list to visit. Personally I’d recommend a weekend, you can see a lot in a day but I think I’d go back just to catch some of the things I missed the first time around – in particular catching some photos as unfortunately battery life was not kind to me on this daytrip leaving me with minimal photos to share with you. Credit to Kelly for the colourful picture of Bruges!

Despite the lack of photos it’s not a place I’ll be forgetting any time soon. If you haven’t been already I hope you’ll see it for yourself in the near future!

All the best!

Jason

Brussels!

In addition to Köln and Edinburgh, Brussels seems to be one of those cities I can’t escape from. If you were to ask me how many times I’d been to Brussels then I’d probably say “two and a half..”

Theoretically I’ve only been to Brussels twice. The first trip was a few days to celebrate a friend’s birthday in December 2013, I then went back for a further few days in October 2015. However I’ve also taken the train from London to Köln (March 2013) and Amsterdam (December 2015) via Brussels. The Köln trip left me no time to explore but on the way home from Amsterdam I had 2-3 hours to kill in Brussels before catching the Eurostar home. I can’t really count it as a full visit but it gave me enough time to have a little wander. Hence two and a half!

Two and a half visits later, what makes Brussels a destination worth visiting? Plenty!
Let me start by saying Brussels exceeded my expectations. You might think I’m getting carried away but let me clarify; I went to Brussels with such low expectations it would have been impossible not to. I fully understand why it’s neighbouring capitals Amsterdam and Paris get such high praise but Brussels should get far more credit than it does. It has its rough edges like any city does and it’s quickly associated as a city drowning in European politics but there’s definitely more to Brussels than just politics. Brussels has a fun side to Brussels too and plenty to admire in its architecture, history and most importantly – beer!

If you already have plans to visit Brussels or you’re still in need of a little convincing as to why you should visit, here are my favourite things about Brussels.

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Grand Place, Brussels

The architecture!
Your first stop on any visit to Brussels has to be Grand Place. This is arguably one of the prettiest squares in Europe and will leave you speechless at how impressive it is. A little on the pricier side but take a seat outside at one of the cafes or restaurants at Grand Place and just people-watch this busy square and admire how beautiful it is with gold splattered everywhere. Visit around Christmas time and it’s more impressive, particularly in the evenings with it all lit up! You’ll also find Brussels town hall and Tourist Information area here.
Whilst Grand Place is certainly the highlight, Brussels has other impressive architecture too such as its palace, beautiful churches and cathedrals. The symbol of Brussels is the ‘Atomium’ which whilst an attraction (read more below) is also a cool and unique piece of architecture.

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The artwork!
Brussels/Belgium is home to some really famous artists and characters including the creation of loved characters such as Tin-Tin. You’ll find plenty of street art in Brussels and it’s also well known for it’s comic-book scene. If this is something you’re interested in then you should give Brussels Comic Strip Centre a visit.
Art might not be particularly high on your list of things to see when travelling but you should definitely make a quick stop to visit the “Mannekin Pis”. The UK is well known for “the boy who lived” whereas Brussels is famous for “the boy who pees”. I’m not expecting a JK Rowling masterpiece for the latter but it’s something the locals are proud of and they regularly dress him up in new outfits for the tourists and locals alike to admire.

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Me and Brussels famous ‘Atomium’

The Atomium & Mini-Europe
Alright, this is two attractions but they’re next to eachother so quite convenient to do both at once. As mentioned above – the Atomium is the symbol of the city and a pretty cool piece of architecture from the outside. The inside is one of Brussel’s leading attractions and gives you the opportunity to see Brussels from a much higher vantage point. We were relatively content to just see it from the outside but it’s worth a visit.
Across the street you’ll find another great attraction called Mini-Europe. If you’ve always dreamed of travelling across Europe but not had the time or money for it then this is for you. You’ll find a number of famous landmarks in miniature form that take you right across Europe and fulfill that dream you always had of seeing sights such as the Eiffel Tower – you’ll even find a mini Grand Place here!
I’d certainly recommend it as a great family-friendly attraction but it’s one for the adults to enjoy too!

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Potential day trip – Liege!

The daytrips!
Depending on how much time you have in Brussels and how much mini-Europe has quenched your thirst for more adventure, you might find yourself tempted to see more of Belgium! There are a lot of things I love about Belgium but one of the added perks is how small the country is. It means most major Belgian cities aren’t much more than an hour away from Brussels, making it a wonderful country for day-tripping. I’ve personally been to Bruges, Gent and Liege which I’d be happy to recommend for daytrips (expect future posts on these 3). However other towns and cities such as Antwerp, Dinant and Ypres also remain on my bucketlist and are all within easy reach from Brussels.
If you’re content travelling a little further than Western Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of France are all fairly close by too.

The cuisine! 
One of the first things you’ll associate with Belgium is its cuisine – particularly famous for their chocolate, waffles and beer. No trip to Brussels would be complete with delving in to this area a little. You might also be surprised to hear that Belgium is where the “French fry” originates. If you want an authentic Belgian dish order the popular “Moules Frites” (Mussels with fries) accompanied with one of Belgium’s famous beers. ‘Jupiler’ seemed to be the most popular in Brussels but you really can’t go wrong. Personal favourites were the Duvel, Leffe and Hoegaarden.

Of course it isn’t all about local cuisine. Like most capital cities you’ll find that Brussels is a multi-cultural city and you’ll find a range of different cuisine options in the city.

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Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

Have you ever been to Brussels? Leave some recommendations in the comments on other tips you have.
If you haven’t been to Brussels hopefully this went some way in convincing you that it’s worth a visit!

All the best!

Jason