So, without further ado, BELGIUM!
My trip to Belgium was originally supposed to include a few days in the Netherlands as well, but thanks to unforeseen complications with train schedules and availability I ended up staying in Bologna a few more days and flying instead. This wasn't as disappointing as it might have been because it meant that I had a travel companion rather than taking the train alone. I also had some time to relax and gather myself together again after my first final exam and my roommate Ceci's birthday party (several of her friends came from Milan to celebrate and it turned into quite a night--full of fava beans, gelato cake, and dancing--that ended with eight people sleeping in our four-person apartment).
When my Belgian adventure finally did commence, it commenced very early in the morning. Simon and I met outside of my apartment at 3:30 in the morning to begin our journey to the airport. We arrived with plenty of time, but as part of Ryanair's never-ceasing quest to be as inconvenient as possible, they charged me 40 euro to check-in. Bummer.
Eventually we made it to Brussels Charleroi, conveniently located an hour-long bus ride outside of the city (read: half-way across Belgium). After a series of buses and metros we arrived in the city center, where we ate waffles without further delay. While it is true that the waffles in Belgium so delicious as to be everything you could ever want and more, this is not the case with the remainder of Belgian cuisine. As I would learn over the course of the trip, the only things worth paying to consume in Belgium (other than the waffles) are the frites (french fries), the chocolate, and the beer. Healthy, no? Everything else is generally overcooked and full of ham.
|Brussels is beautiful, even if the food is a bit iffy.|
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I learned why there is no such thing as a Belgian restaurant, I learned that our travel difficulties were far from over. Rob met Simon and I in Brussels after mistakenly catching the wrong train from Amsterdam and arriving rather late. This meant that by noon, when we made it to the other train station to pick up the car we had rented, Europcar had closed fifteen minutes before. After some frantic discussion with the man at Hertz and with the knowledge that we had to be in Westvleteren by 3:00pm or our beer reservation (the one Simon had called the brewery 108 times for) would be void, we caught a taxi to the Brussels airport (the one actually in the city) to try and pick up a car from the Europcar there instead. After what seemed like an aeon of paperwork...success!
So we struck off in our little white car across the Belgian countryside to Westvleteren and, more importantly, the brewery there where a case of the alleged best Trappist beer in the world (Westvleteren 12, which is not commercially available) was awaiting us. We made it to the brewery without too much trouble and picked up the beer without incident (amazingly enough, considering the way the rest of the trip had been going). After lunch and a full flight of the Westvleteren beers (the 8, the 12, and the blonde) at the brewery cafe and a nap in the grass, we got back in the car and continued on to Bruges, with Simon in the driver's seat learning stick-shift. Yikes!
|Look at all those Westies!|
We got a bit lost and ended up circling Bruges for a while before realizing we had actually passed our hostel several times already. Once we had settled in, we walked into town and found a relatively inexpensive restaurant with outdoor seating. Unfortunately, during dinner Rob had a bit of a choking attack and scared the waitress, but in the end the worst that happened is that his salad was taken away before he had quite finished. After dinner we took a nighttime walk around Bruges and enjoyed some more fried before spending a miserable night at the hostel full of plastic mattresses and hourly alarm clocks.
Fortunately, the next morning we managed to stumble into an adorable little tea shop for breakfast where we enjoyed some of the richest hot chocolate and waffles of our lives. The waiter brought huge bowls of steaming milk, a little chocolate bowl full of chocolate chips, and a whisk, and you literally drop the chocolate into the milk and stir. We were plenty hungry when we arrived, but even Rob (who usually serves as our garbage-disposal) had trouble finishing his!
|There were also cookies involved.|
After breakfast we continued on to the Groeningemuseum, which was a treasure trove of interesting works drawn from six centuries of Flemish and Belgian painting. I was saddened to discover that In Bruges had lied to me (something that would occur repeatedly during our time in Bruges) and that there was nothing by Hieronymous Bosch in the museum, but that was really the only complaint I culd come up with, especially considering the 1 euro student entry fee.
The fourth member of our little group, Loren, arrived in Bruges from Amsterdam just as we finished in the museum, so we went back to the main square with him and climbed the tower (which, we were disappointed to find, was not actually the same tower as the one featured oh-so-prominently in In Bruges. Hollywood lies. Who knew?). When wemade it back down to the ground we grabbed one final snack of fries from the stand at the base of the tower, sat in the square for a bit, took in the view, and got back in the car to drive to Watou, where we had a reservation at the Brouwershuis, a bed&breakfast connected (almost literally) to the St. Bernardus brewery.
|The tower in the main square in Bruges.|
|Pride in Bruges!|
|A view from the car in rural Belgium.|
|Welcome to Watou!|
Once we had checked into the B&B, been shown our (incredibly nice) rooms, and enjoyed our first free beers from the St. Bernardus refrigerator (one of the major perks of this particular B&B), we decided to take a walk through the nearby fields full of cows. It was a wonderful pastoral moment, and definitely a big change from Bologna.
|Simon, Loren, and I in front of the field across from the B&B.|
|Ben & Jerry's cows.|
Dinner that night consisted of unreasonably delicious French onion soup and unreasonably awful macaroni and cheese (remember what I said about overcooked and full of ham?). Once we had seen all of downtown Watou (the one street that there was), we headed back to the Brouwershuis (Dutch for "brewer's house") for cards and some more of that delicious free beer. The four of us played a round of hearts (I won!), and then we made friends with a group of German and Flemish retirees who were drinking in the next room and also staying in the B&B. Only one of the six of them spoke any English, and out of our group only I spoke any German, so it was a wonderful opportunity to practice my speaking and translating in a low-stress, alcohol-aided situation. We all sat around their table and spoke in a combination of broken German (me), broken English (one of the Germans), and hand gestures (almost everyone else) for hours. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.
Breakfast and showers the next morning were positively extravagant when viewed in comparison with the hostel fare and accomodations that we student-travelers were (and are) used to. With no previous specific plan for the morning, we decided to follow Rob's suggestion and head to a beach in nearby northern France for a few hours. So we set off, without a map or any clear idea of where we were going, and followed the signs to Dunkirk/Dunkerque. This was a mistake. The only good thing I can say about Dunkerque is...oh, wait. I can't. The place is an industrial wasteland that makes Newark look picturesque by comparison. To top things off, we had been in France no more than fifteen minutes before we were yelled at by an impatient Frenchman (Simon stalled the car at a stoplight and, rather than waiting a few moments for us to re-start the car, this man swerved into the opposite lane, rolled down his window, and gestured at us angrily, yelling the French equivalent of "It's green, you idiots!" before speeding away. So much for countering stereotypes).
|The only pretty part of Dunkerque/ Proof I've been to France.|
|What the rest of Dunkerque looked like.|
After a bit of dis-spirited driving in circles and fruitless searching for the hint of a beach (rather than an industrial pier flanked by giraffe-cranes), we were taunted further by a series of banners along the side of the road advertising the many wonders of Dunkerque: Culture! Historical! Gastronomy! Sea & Shore!
It was too much for us. We turned around and went back to Belgium.
More specifically, we drove back to Watou, where we dropped off the crate that had come with our case of beer (which we carefully re-packed into Loren's suitcase for safe transport back to Bologna) and enjoyed another lunch of Croques Monsieur (grilled cheese) at the brewery cafe.
Once we had eaten and taken another brief nap on the lawn, we hopped into the car and drove back to Bruges. After getting a bit lost (again), we realized that Belgium (or at least Flanders) is very tiny.
When we finally made it to our hostel in Bruges, all of us were inexplicably exhausted and passed out in our bunk beds for a few hours before fixing a little picnic dinner at the hostel (we had given up on Belgian cooking entirely by this point). Rob still hadn't quite given up on the idea of going to a beach, so once we had washed our dishes and taken care of the travel logistics for the next day, we set off for Blankenberge, a beach town on the North Sea right outside of Bruges. Fortunately, this little outing proved to be much more successful than Dunkerque had been, and we thoroughly enjoyed several hours of frolicking in the sand and watching the sun set over the water.
|Beachy success! Especially since it was called "Amy Beach."|
|Wind blowing sand over the beach.|
|I want one in my living room.|
|A fitting close to a wonderful trip to Belgium.|
The next day was another one full of travel and little else. Rob, Simon, and I woke up at 4:30am and drove back to Brussels, leaving Loren to sleep and catch a later train back to Amsterdam. Fortunately, leaving the rental car proved to be much easier than picking it up had been, so we arrived at the Charleroi airport with plenty of time to spare.
Back in Bologna, we were in the final stretch of our five months. Nothing remained between us and the too-near end other than exams.