I've visited Belgium before, but these afternoon trips barely gave me a glimpse of this diverse and lively country. My stay was short this time too, but I didn't have a set schedule, which allowed me to explore northern Belgium on my own time.
It rained for two days straight, but the locals were friendly and helpful, the food was delicious and the beer flowed freely. Even with grey skies Belgium pretended there was sunshine and rainbows.
In Flanders, the region north of Brussels, Flemish is the official language. I didn't hear any French, but everyone spoke perfect English, or close to it.
It's only an hour-long train ride from the capital city of Brussels to this picturesque town near the coast. Bruges is small – we easily walked from the train station to the city center – but full of people. The city is graced with squares, medieval architecture and quaint canals, and its ambiance and beautiful environment attract many tourists. Even still, both of my visits to Bruges weren't hindered by crowds of people. Yes, there were lots of people wandering around taking pictures, but I think that adds to the character of the city. People from all over the world come to admire the beautiful city of Bruges, and it's certainly worth a trip.
We visited the old belfry, which was the site of a free art show downstairs and a Christmas music concert by the tolling bells upstairs.The climb offered a somewhat misty view of the city and its many triangle-shaped roofs. After that we meandered around the city, visiting the Christmas market, the Church of Our Lady and various squares. A trip to Bruges wouldn't be complete without chomping down some french fries, which Europeans enjoy eating with forks, and freshly-made chocolate truffles.
Other than the historic sites, Bruges doesn't have much else (other than shopping). It was a relaxing day, and we left in the evening and took a train to Gent.
This was my first time to Gent, and through the foggy windows of the tram, I could make out tall, lighted spires and bustling streets as we made our way to the city center. Like Bruges, Gent has its fair share of canals, which gives the city an automatic charm.
We headed out to the nearby Christmas market that night for a homey but delicious dinner of quiche and soup. A live band was playing on a small stage, and even though the rain continued, people stopped to listen, and a few even broke out into dance.
The next day we visited the intriguing "Home Video Museum," which only cost one euro. The first section of the museum had re-creations of important places in cities, such as grocery stores and barber shops, complete with original pieces like cash registers and jars. The second part of the museum was filled with old family photos, videos and clips that were submitted by residents and museum supporters, which made a unique history collection.
We also visited Gravensteen Castle, which was built in the 12th century. In its past, the building was used not only as a castle, but also as a prison, a courthouse and a factory. The castle also houses the uplifting torture museum, a room with many pain-inducing instruments.
Gent is certainly a pedestrian city. I saw very few cars in the city center, and there weren't many designated "sidewalks" in that area. Cyclists, pedestrians and trams all coexisted on the same surface, which sounds like an accident just waiting to happen, but everything traveled along smoothly. It was kind of liberating, just walking where you wanted to go in the city, without having to worry about being run over. The city is also home to Gent University, which seems to lead to a younger, more fun-loving demographic (and might also explain the lower prices at museums and historic sites).