We made it! It’s been almost a week since we arrived in Brussels on Monday, June 25th, and boy were we glad to get here. After some stress making it to the correct Terminal at O’Hare (turns out United flights are not at the international terminal), getting my bike checked (oversized luggage), proving to the United agent that my (ahem, very large) carry-on could be squished down, and a long security line, we made it to our gate with a few minutes to spare. Our luggage arrived in tact in Brussels and we even found a taxi that could fit everything in one van on the way to our temporary housing. We were greeted on our first day with beautiful sunny weather, which has only gotten better over the past week- no complaints from us since we’ve done a lot of walking and have been able to enjoy the back terrace at our apartment/hotel.
Our first couple of days flew by as we got to know the area we are staying in temporarily by enjoying some delicious dinners at local restaurants, running in beautiful parks, and stopping for Belgian beers when we passed a friendly looking café. We’ve met very friendly and helpful locals, including the librarian at the small library down the street who helped us print our documents, a waitress who assisted in translating a menu for us, and associates at the bank who pointed us in the right direction to open our accounts. We are the first to admit that our French is very limited (I’ve mastered counting to ten, asking if someone speaks English, ordering water and wine, and requesting the check at dinner), but I have every intent to learn as much as possible over the next two years in order to make life a bit easier… I’ll make sure to report on that progress when all is said and done here.
Dan received his car on Friday, so we were able to make a rather last minute decision to make the drive up to Ghent on Friday, stay the night in an Airbnb, and then drive over to Bruges on Saturday. Ghent is about an hour drive north-west of Brussels when there is no traffic… but we got our first taste of the “famed” Brussels traffic on Friday afternoon on our way out of town. Dan handled the driving out of Brussels and into Ghent like a champ, despite us being very unfamiliar with the narrow roads and numerous uncontrolled intersections, city trams, and pedestrians who seem to have the right away here. Ghent is in the Flemish region of Belgium, which means the primary language is Dutch, but we were able to get by with our English just fine. Our last minute Airbnb delivered as it was not only nice, but also situated very nearby the Historical City Center and most of the sites in Ghent. We immediately took to the streets to start our own self-guided walking/ wandering tour that took us past canals, the Gravensteen (castle of the counts), Vrijdagmarkt and many cozy cafes with enticing outdoor seating.
I was on a mission for my first Belgian waffle, and Ghent delivered – neither of us were disappointed. We then decided it was time to taste a new Belgian beer, so we found a comfortable seat at a café in Veerleplein with the Gravensteen castle across the street, and settled in to figure out dinner plans. After passing the canals a few times, we were on a mission to scope out a spot on the canal for late dinner and after a fairly short wait at Aba-Jour restaurant, we were rewarded with a table for two on the canal and lively entertainment in the form of passing boats carrying some fun parties. We called it a successful day in Ghent, both of us impressed by the beautiful medieval charm and welcoming atmosphere, I’m sure we’ll be back!
After a morning run through the Art Quarter and up to the Citadel Park, we stopped for brunch with a view of the three towers in Sint-Baafsplein. It was a great people-watching spot and an excellent last view of Ghent before we were on our way to Bruges. We had a good laugh along the way after we finally figured out the best way to pay for the diesel for the car since our cards were giving us a hard time when paying at the pumps- we were thankful for the patience of the woman at the gas station after our third trip in.
Upon arriving in Bruges after about 30 minutes, we parked the car near the train station on a tip from friends who told us we wouldn’t want to drive through Burges. That was great advice, because we quickly learned that Bruges is tourist central this time of year! We followed the crowds from the train station into the city center (no map needed when everyone is going the same direction), specifically on the look-out for the Belfry of Bruges. We were familiar with this icon of the city after watching In Bruges, an “enlightening” movie that served as our first introduction to the city when we watched it a few months back… the movie is a little out there, and Bruges has a lot more to offer than hit men.
We passed the rest of the early afternoon, walking around town and avoiding crowds where possible, grabbing beers (a Belgian witbier for me) at a café that offered a shaded table, and planning our big adventure of the day- renting bikes in Bruges and venturing out to Damme. I had read that this was an easy way to get out of the city center to explore the surrounding country-side. Dan and I both agreed that the bike ride along the canal out to Damme was probably our favorite part of the trip! We made it out of the congested city center and were greeted with a wide and fairly empty bike lane for 7 kilometers (still getting used to that) that allowed us to travel at our own pace and easily stop when we wanted. Of course we stopped for a drink in Damme before making our way back to Bruges on the other side of the canal. Fortunately we met some nice folks out for a walk who took our picture as proof that we survived our first bike ride in Belgium.
We were on our way back to Brussels awhile later that Saturday evening; overall we called it a very successful first weekend in Belgium! Today, I ventured out to find a public pool for some lap swimming and was met with a long line to get in and a crowded pool, but I was glad to get outside and enjoy this beautiful Belgian weather. I was sick over the weekend but am hoping that with a solid night of rest, my body will finally adjust to the time difference (fingers crossed no more falling asleep at 3am). Looking forward to a great first week of work and planning our next adventure!