On only my second day in Belgium, i was supposed to mooch around the capital staring at dinosaur skeletons and Egyptian mummies going WAAAAOOWWW.
This was my original plan, any way.
Instead, overhearing how Brugge and Ghent could be done in a day at my hotel’s reception triggered a crazy ODAC-style day of mad rushing, simply because I wanted to see if it could be done.
I concede running around frantically like a headless animal doesn’t contribute to a proper experience of the place – but then again sitting in a cafe sipping rich chocolate isn’t the most productive way to spend your last day in Belgium either…
[I’ve since come to appreciate that the latter option can be wonderfully memorable too. But in the late January of 2015, having just arrived on the Old Continent, I was greedy for the sights and sounds of this strange new landscape, and the more the merrier. What kind of traveller are you?]
…So, after making a quick sketch of a plan in my head, I decided to embark on an epic sightseeing run of a small sliver of Belgium. This is one of the delightful pleasures of travelling solo: you can make up a plan and change it at a moment’s notice, premised on some random impulse or new fact – although continual decision-making can take its toll after a bit.
I left my hostel in Brussels at 6.30am in the morning, catching the first available train to Brugge; after wandering around for a bit in a dreamy, cold morning haze, I climbed its Belfry, and enjoyed the lonesome Sunday morning (rain is falling; steal some colours share some skin) on the quiet streets of this picturesque plastic town….
…before heading for Ghent. It is a testament to my luck (or, more likely, the efficiency of the Belgian rail system) that I never had to wait more than a few minutes at most for trains which swept me up on thirty- to sixty-minute journeys. I continue to be amazed at this.
Ghent was certainly grimier and grittier than Brugge – for one its “historic centre” is a fifteen minute tram ride from the station, although this was more a reflection of my physical-mental state than anything else. Tired and cold, I did not appreciate so much the wet, brown and seemingly unfriendly streets of Ghent.
On hindsight, however, I have to admit its unabashedly grubby and uneven lanes exude a charm reminiscent of unapologetic Hanoi, as opposed to manicured Hoi An. That said Ghent is anything but ugly. Round a corner, and still expect to go WAAOOW at a random castle in the midst of the modernity that’s slowly seeping its way in still. Eventually, I would get used to the quaint prettiness of European towns and their cobbled streets, but having spent just three weeks on the Continent, I remained enthralled at the understated storybook magic of these places.
Then it was back to Brussels – i had about three hours before my bus back to Utrecht. This did not afford me enough time to see the dinosaurs – so I had to ‘settle’ for the Belgian iteration of the Arc d’Triomphe, and Egyptian mummies. They did not disappoint.
I was stunned by the imperious majesty of the Arc – and its sheer size! If you want to build an astonishing, dwarfing monument, do it like that – whereby one cannot help but be absolutely AWED by the SCALE of the thing.
[Later on my European Adventures, I would see greater and grander things that took my breath away again. But this was also a lovely appetizer for the great feast of things I would see in the months ahead]
And so concluded my short, single foray into Belgium – but also my first solo trip in Europe. It was a smooth dress rehearsal for the many more adventures to come in later weeks and months. I savoured in the grandeur of what European arrogance and opulence had to offer; but also tasted the cold loneliness of solitude, a flavour that any solo traveller inevitably has to experience in exchange for the unquestionable exhilaration of freedom and mobility.
Later, during the Spring Break, I would voyage across Germany: from the utilitarian neatness of Mannheim, to the rich splendour of Munich, to the cold grandeur of Berlin. My curiosity and (i hate this word, but oh well) wanderlust would take me on to Italy, Egypt, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and then as far south as the Balkan states of Bosnia i Herzegovina, and Serbia. Belgium, however, was my first baby-step in an arcing trajectory as a solo traveller.