This last weekend Tina and I went to Belgium. We left last (Jan 26th) Friday morning at 6:30 AM on a coach en route to the Dover -> Calais (France) ferry crossing.
Tina and I both found the ferry ride very entertaining, and much preferred it to plane travel. There was a pub, shops, a cafeteria, a liquor store, a money exchange booth, a children’s center and probably a lot more that we just didn’t ever find.
Both of us also quite enjoyed the circular, steady rocking motion of the boat (and never felt ill at all).
We went up onto the deck a few times and took some pictures, had some hot chocolate (to prepare our taste buds for the country that awaited us), and sat somewhere where we could see the ocean, sky, clouds and sun.
Once we reached Calais, we got back on our coach (the same one that had taken us to the ferry) and traveled into the French countryside en route to Brussels.
It was nice to be in the country again, and the farmland of northern France reminded me very much of home, without all of the mountains. The characteristic difference, however, was in the distinct age of the farmhouses, barns and area. One could surmise from the road that they were all very old, very family oriented farms – well kept, clean and quite green.
We arrived in Brussels that afternoon about 3:30 PM, and checked into the “Manhattan Hotel”, which just happened to be right across the street from not one, not two, not three, but four “XXX” rated “entertainment” bars – one of which was named the “California Show”. We would have taken pictures, but we figured we’d save our film for slightly less striking sights.
The next morning we went on a tour of central Brussels (the “old” city), a wonderful cobbled township with restaurants and shops galore. We took some pretty neat pictures while we were there – hopefully they turn out.
In the afternoon we traveled to Ostend, a seaside Belgium town where the native tongue is Flemish/Dutch. It is a peculiar feeling to be placed in a situation where one cannot effectively communicate. The ability is taken for granted in the United States because we are little forced to speak any other language than English, or if so, only on occasion. It is frustrating and humbling to try to read the sign for a restaurant and realize that you really have no idea whether they are selling pizza or mussels. With French, Spanish or Italian (or other Romantic languages) at least most of the time I can get an intuition of the meaning of what is written on signs and things – but when one is completely in the dark (as we were in Ostend), it is an experience within itself.
We finally decided to go to a Chinese (spelled “chinees”) restaurant because it was the only one that offered a menu that had the items in three languages (one of which being English). The meal was quite good, and cost us about 850 Belgian Francs (around 20 dollars).
On our way out of the restaurant, there was a family of four standing at the window, trying to determine (as we had earlier) what on the menu looked good. It wasn’t long before we figured out that they were English, and we struck up a conversation immediately (I do believe that they were as eager to communicate with someone else who spoke English as much as we were).
We talked about soccer and football and history and what they did for a living, and why Belgium was so popular for English travelers (the tobacco is about 1/6 cheaper in Belgium than it is in England, which entreats many British people to go to Belgium, buy a bunch of tobacco, and smuggle it back into England to sell for cheaper than what the Queen sells it for). We both really enjoyed it, and realized that we had not yet had the opportunity to really talk to any English families. It is of course different in London, because it is such an urban atmosphere and most people walking on the streets of London do not actually live there.
The next day we went to Brugge. Ahhhhhh, Brugge. It was singularly one of the finest places I have ever been in my life. It is a town that is literally perfectly preserved from the 13th century on up to today. All the streets are cobbled; all of the buildings are at least 300 years old. There are swans and geese and doves and ducks in parks of velvety green spendour, among willow trees that weep over placid, clean waterways that run through the city (much like Venice). The architecture is stunning (they have a church tower that is nearly 400 feet tall – imagine a Manhattan skyscraper made of brick and stone, and you’ll get the image), the atmosphere reverent, and the mood silent. In five words it is rural, cobbled, old, green and wonderful.
Tina and I walked past an old man doing ink and paper drawings of different places within Brugge and we bought two of his framed prints. Later on, whilst walking about the city in awe, to our surprise we actually found the two places where he drew our pictures! We took pictures and are desperately hoping that the pictures turn out.
From Brugge we went back to the ferry at Calais and eventually got back to London at around 10 PM Sunday evening. The Super Bowl started at 11 PM, but I didn’t get to see it because we didn’t get it on our 5 BBC stations. I heard the Ravens won. Didn’t sound like that close of a game.
At any rate, if any of you ever want to go to Belgium, don’t miss Brugge; you won’t regret it!