Thursday, April 18, 2013

Belgium: A Politer, Frencher Netherlands

           Although Belgium had not originally been on my list of destinations in Europe, the allure of an easy train ride and charming cities drew me in. Belgium is a fascinating country split into 3 regions: the Dutch/Flemish side, the French side, and a tiny region of German speakers. With the exception of Brussels that has French and Dutch as their language, I was mainly in Dutch speaking areas (although, Belgian Dutch is much flatter and more subdued than Netherlands Dutch which is almost raucous). Anyways, I hopped on the train to my first destination, Antwerp (a city known for its student population, large port, and diamond industry). As soon as I arrived I was amazed by the intricate and beautiful train station in the city center. I didn’t have long to wait before my first couchsurfing host, Han, picked me up (like most Dutch, I couldn’t pronounce his name correctly, but he appreciated that I made it sound like Han Solo from Star Wars). We walked through the main shopping area and to his small student apartment where we made dinner together before seeing Antwerp by night. We walked through the main square, Antwerp’s tiny Red Light District, along the Schelde River, and stayed up until 4am getting to know each other and learning about each other’s cultures (although he was quite an expert at both the English language and American culture already).
Antwerp Central Station

Antwerp Friday Market

Han and I taking the OLD escalators into the tunnel

Schelde River in Antwerp

Antwerp City Hall

            The next morning, Han took more time away from writing his thesis to walk through Antwerp’s furniture market/auction, the tunnel going under the Schelde (often used to film Dutch music videos!), get lattes at an excellent hipster coffee place, through his university, and a tiny Chinatown. As soon as we parted ways, I met my second Antwerp host, David. Our first stop was biking to MUHKA, another VERY absurd modern art museum (he promised me that Belgium had better art than this)! Next we biked along the river to the MAS, Antwerp’s new museum with a fantastic view of the city and finally through a lovely park back to his apartment where we made dinner together, shared music (my taste was a little too indie for him), and sampled some awesome Belgian beers. The next morning David prepared a lovely breakfast before I left for Ghent.
MUHKA... art

David and I at the MAS

            Just as I was entering my Ghent host’s apartment (Jochen), another couchsurfer was leaving. Jochen took me through Ghent’s medieval streets, around the Count’s Castle, through the big cathedrals, the meat hall, and even passed by a cooking show being filmed. As we toured, Jochen encouraged me to continue enjoying the sunny weather and stop for beers each time I asked him a big question such as “What are Belgian politics like?” (I learned they are VERY complex). Jochen also told me about his trip to Israel which was very interesting since its rare I meet non-Jews that go there and how his pro-Palestinian position (most of Belgium feels this way) was altered through his trip there. Next we met up with his friend Sarah who joined us on our tour and brought us to a delicious vegetarian restaurant. After dinner, we went to see a Dutch band play in someone’s kitchen. Although I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics, listening to the cello, xylophone, and guitarist was lovely. Finally, we explored Ghent by night (all of their buildings are lit up) and tried Jenever (a very tasty drink similar to gin, but with tons of different flavor options—I tried chocolate).

Jochen in front of Count's Castle

Sarah and I in Ghent

The Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck

Dutch band

Sarah and I on a bar on a boat!

Ghent by night
            Jochen had to catch an early train to Leuven, so I also left early and headed to Brugges. The small city of Brugges (only 20,000 residents) could be likened to a medieval open-air museum full of giant groups of Asian and senior citizen tourist groups. Brugges was unbelievably charming and full of chocolate shops (I got plenty of samples), more cathedrals, windmills, a large flea market, and surrounded by a canal with several gates. I also had my first Belgian waffle and Belgian fries (Belgians are very adamant that they were the inventors of fries, not the French). My favorite place in Brugges was the Beguinage, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that claims to have housed the first feminists in 1200 who took a pledge of chastity and formed their own community (different than nuns though).

Beguinage in Brugges


            With another quick train ride, I traveled to my final city Brussels. Sasha, my last host, picked me up at the station and took me around the city (the weather was absolutely perfect!) Sasha, originally from Ukraine was very interested to learn about the United States and differentiate reality versus movies. His roommate was in the same boat since she first asked me if I was Texas (I was a little offended ;)) and then asked me if I knew where Finland was since Americans don’t know geography (good to know I could conquer that stereotype). Next, Sasha and I met up with Rachel, a friend from Clark, who flew in from Valencia. She was able to catch the Grand Palace lit up at night, Manneken Piss (Brussel’s iconic peeing fountain), and join us at the Delirium Café that has a menu of beers the size of a thick clothing catalogue. We had a few hours to see Brussels the next morning in the rain before catching our bus to Amsterdam. Although Brussels had many things to offer, I found it to be like a less impressive Paris with its prestige coming from being the home of European Parliament (I was glad to get back to Holland).
Manneke Piss Fountain

Brussels (view from Palace of Justice)

Rachel's first Belgian Waffle

            In Amsterdam, I was able to be the tour guide as we strolled through Amsterdam’s swanky Jordaan neighborhood, the flower market, and hit the main tourist spots in the center. The next day, I showed Rachel Leiden and even convinced her to ride on the back of my bike (a must for the authentic Dutch experience). Before her whirlwind trip to Holland and Belgium ended we went to the Windmill Museum, de Volk. Since I can’t seem to get enough of windmills, the next day, my friend Danean and I ventured to Kinderdijk! Kinderdijk is a small village near Rotterdam and also a UNESCO site featuring 19 windmills that pump out the water around the polder and plenty of tourists. From there we took a spur of the moment bus ride to Utrecht. Although, I didn’t get to see much of it, I did finally meet up with my fellow Clarkie, Leah studying in the Netherlands for dinner (I definitely need to go back). Now I’m off to Berlin, more on that next week!
Rachel and I at the Burcht in Leiden

Danean and I in Kinderdijk



Clark in Utrecht!!

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