Belgium is one of these countries you don’t really hear too much about so it has never been on my bucket list. It happened that I was attending two weddings in Europe and had to kill the time in between somewhere. Since my significant other has academic collaboration at the KULAK university in Kortrijk, we decided to hang out in Belgium and combine work with pleasure.
I have been getting progressively worse about planning trips and therefore didn’t even bother buying a travel guide or researching the top sights to see. I figured that we could wing it by asking some locals once we get there. And this is what we did. Winging it around Belgium turned out to be a wonderful experience!
Belgium has a really nice railroad system that lets you get anywhere in the country within 1-1.5 hours. The trains drop you off in the center of all the action of each city, then all you need to do is localize the main street and start strolling towards the main square, which is always called the Grotemarkt. The Grotemarkt always has a cathedral, whose size may vary with the wealth of the city (or perhaps the ambition of its former architects). Normally, it also has a city hall which is decorated with statue tributes of all the former mayors. I could never figure out at which year cutoff happened though (as in when did they run out of space?!)..
From the Grotemarket there are always opportunities to explore side streets, visit delicatessen shops or chocolatiers and discover cute architectural treasures. There is really no need for a tour guide or a guidebook because one can just absorb the lively atmosphere instead.
Even though Bruges is the famous touristic spot these days (probably due to Colin Farrell’s In Bruges movie), my favorite city by far happened to be Antwerp. It’s much more lively, combines the ancient and the modern, has many wonderful museums and a rich history of being a port city transporting merchandise and immigrants to the New World. Especially noteworthy is the Red Star Line Museum which tells the stories of the 2 million emigrants who went to the USA onboard of the Star Line ships in the beginning of the 19th century. The museum focuses on their story, on that of the shipping company that transported them and on the city and port from where they embarked on this journey.
On this trip I also visited Brussels and dropped by some local friends’ house, getting to experience Brussel’s version of suburb life (beautiful!) plus surveying some of the most amazing dessert displays around town. We had a meeting in the university town Leuven, where I actually tried some of the best artisanal desserts possible. Finally, since Lille was only about 35km from where we were staying in Kortrijk, we got to have a french experience by eating (French!!) fries in a nice garden bistro, visiting their fine arts museum and stocking up on some baguette and pastries from Paul (I know it’s a chain but it was still so so delicious).
Belgian culture is a mix of french and dutch cultures and this is something quite weird for an outsider. Even though it’s a small country, you may start your journey from Brussles to “Cortrei” and 1.5 hours later arrive at “Kortrijk” – meaning that your journey starts in a french speaking area. By the time you arrive, you’re in dutch Flanders region, where everything is in Dutch instead of French, even though your’e taking a train with the same railroad company. I have to admit that reading menus and figuring stuff out in French was much easier than in Dutch! (Good thing everyone spoke in English anyways..).