Belgium

After my brief time in London, I boarded a bus bound for Brussels, Belgium. One fortunate aspect about my time in Europe is that I have several various connections throughout the continent, which makes finding people and friends to stay with much easier. A typical traveler will likely sleep in hostels, participate in couch surfing (www.couchsurfing.com), or camp if they don’t have a place to stay in the various locations they may visit. For me, I try to find as many places to stay for free as possible in order to prolong my trip into the future. Belgium will be the first destination where these connections will come to benefit my traveling life.

I arrived in Brussels after a six hour bus ride through southern England, the Chunnel, and part of France. I’ve always wanted to see what the Chunnel was really like, having only heard small details about it in the past. I imagined it being a tunnel through the English Channel that was just a road, similar to tunnels through mountains throughout the U.S. Boy, was I wrong. The Chunnel is actually just a train with about fifteen empty cars on it. The concept is similar to a typical train in that it carries cargo through the water; however, the empty train cars hold vehicles (buses in my case) rather than the typical cargo going into a train.

Once I arrived in Brussels I boarded a train bound for Diest, Belgium, and was picked up by an old friend of my parents who lives there with his family. Diest is a beautiful town of around 15-20,000 people east of Brussels about forty-five minutes. Its filled with history and is a really neat town to see in Belgium outside of the go-to tourist cities. Small, quiet, and in the middle of the countryside, I’d definitely recommend taking the short train ride there for a day trip.

After arriving at Bert and Martine’s home, I met their family and enjoyed a nice BBQ which they had kept warm for me due to my bus and train delays throughout the day.

Side-story on the delays: Due to the conflicts in the Middle East, several refugees are fleeing out of the region and into Europe at a fairly high rate. Most of it is concentrated in southern Europe around Turkey and Greece, however many of them are continuing to flee north towards Great Britain, a country which will offer free healthcare and citizenship to anyone arriving there. Because of this fact, there has been increased border control within the Chunnel as many immigrants are attempting to flee through the Chunnel from France to England, causing backups and delays for the more typical traveler.

The train station in Antwerp. Rated as one of the most beautiful stations in the world. 

After I enjoyed a nice, home-cooked meal, I took a long overdue shower and went to bed, this being the first time in two-and-a-half weeks that I’ve been able to enjoy a bathroom and bedroom to myself. As you can imagine, I slept very well this first night.

The next morning I awoke to a typical Belgian breakfast of meats, cheeses, pastries, and bread (Nutella and jam on bread is one of the greatest creations there is). My first full day in Belgium was to be spent with Bert and Martine’s daughter, Lise, traveling to Antwerp, one of the major cities of the Flanders part of Belgium. Belgium is somewhat of an oddity in that it has two completely different cultural groups sharing the same land. In the past Belgium has been fought over, claimed, and shared by France and the Netherlands. Because of this, there is a fairly drastic division between the two regions of Belgium, the Francophone region, Walonia, and the Dutch region of Flanders. As you can imagine, each region speaks their own respective language of either French of Dutch (actually it’s Flemish which is just Dutch with a twist), and to make things even more complicated, the southeastern corner of Belgium also has some German influence where the people, as you expect, speak German. Languages have always fascinated me, but this country really is brining a lot of language diversity to the table.

We spent the day in Antwerp seeing the sights and walking the old streets. Like most European cities, the main attractions center around the main old-market square where the city hall, church, and shopping buildings lie. After spending the day roaming the streets, we headed back to Diest for another delicious meal. Following dinner, a dip in the pool and some dessert put me in the mood for some sleep, and I headed to bed to prepare for another day of sightseeing on Saturday. Plans for a long bike ride in the morning around Diest and the neighboring villages gave me motivation to catch up on as much sleep as possible.

Countryside of Belgium

Saturday morning, as planned, I devoured another delicious meal and headed out on a 20-mile bike ride with Bert. We toured through Diest and some of the main attractions there including the Begeinhof, a neighborhood within the city for woman devoting their life to the catholic church. Though they are not nuns, their lifestyle follows very closely to being one, committing years of service to God and the Church.

We continued our ride into the countryside and to several other churches in the region. Religion is a predominant part of world history, but in Europe, the Catholic/Protestant history has completely shaped the boundaries between most countries today. Even within a country like Belgium, this is very prevalent throughout the countryside as well, where religion may change drastically from village to village. Following our bike ride we came home to a delicious lunch and a relaxing afternoon around the pool before preparing for our drive to Leuven, a city halfway between Brussels and Diest where we planned to have dinner as a group.

Headquarters of the European Union

Leuven is a university town, and just like university towns in the States, the population of the city is quite young. Lise, the daughter of my parent’s friends, studies here and she showed our group around for an hour or so before we sat down for dinner in the city. Following dinner we roamed around for a bit more before heading back to Diest for the evening.

The following two days were spent touring even more of Belgium (by the end of these five days I had seen what the family described as “all of the important places in Belgium”). On Sunday I traveled to Brussels with Bert and Martine where we toured the city and saw some of the government and royalty buildings along the way. Brussels is also the capital of the European Union, so we stopped by the headquarters to see where all of the important decisions regarding the EU are made. I imagine they’re quite busy right now with Greece and all…

Monday I traveled again with Lise to Bruge and Ghent, two cities north of Brussels that are capable of being seen within the same day. Bruge is a very touristy city for the more “artsy” folks of the world. I like art and all, but I found it to be a bit too busy for my liking.

Ghent's canals

Ghent on the other hand was fantastic. A city filled with canals and beautiful churches around every corner,  I really enjoyed the few hours that we spent exploring the town. It’s bit smaller than some of the other cities we’d visited, and still a very manageable city to walk.

After arriving back in Diest, I enjoyed one last meal with Bert, Martine, List, and Tim (their son who’s been busy studying for university exams during my visit), along with Martine’s sister and her two daughters. We talked about lots of things including my travels and the time that Lise and her cousin Caro spent in Thailand (where I’ll be heading in October). There was also a lot of Dutch being spoken, which I’ve started to pick up a little bit of here-and-there. Languages are great to be exposed to especially when you don’t necessarily understand what is being said. It forces you to listen and watch for other forms of communication that we rarely even pay attention to like hand gestures, tone, and inflection in different words. It was common for me to pick out one or two words from within a conversation, and then based on context clues, hand gestures and the inflection in their voices I could understand relatively what they were saying.

I’ll be leaving Belgium today (Tuesday) and heading to Cologne, Germany for a couple of days before coming back into the Dutch side of things in the Netherlands where I’ll spend the weekend with a friend from Madison who has relocated to ‘s Hertogenbosch for work (with my former company).