Belgium is pretty great

November 25, 2014

One of the reasons I was particularly looking forward to going to ArrrrCamp is that it's held in Belgium and I'd never been there before. I was able to squeeze in a bit of sightseeing and had a really fun time! I would definitely go back again some time.

The conference is held in Ghent. I flew in to Brussels and took the train up to Ghent, which was a ~50 minute ride. The trains run about twice an hour. There are ticket vending machines around, where the main screen interface is in English but then the instructions to the side where you swipe your credit card weren't, so I never managed to make them work for me. Not sure if my card was getting declined (I'd put a travel notice on my card beforehand, and it seemed to work everywhere else, even if it was a bit slow to get the approval sometimes) or it wanted some input from me that I didn't know to give. There are ticket windows with actual people, so I ended up getting my tickets from them. Pretty much everyone spoke fluent English and I never felt condescended to for only speaking English too, so that was really nice.

It would have been helpful to have some euros in cash on me, particularly coins. I purposely withdrew a bit more than I expected to need for this trip, so I'd have a few bills and coins for the next time I'm in the EU and be able to get by until I can find an ATM.

I basically followed the city's guide for if you have a half-day in Ghent. Ghent is really cool, it's got plenty of old structures (and art museums that I'd hit next time), but it's quite developed as a city and is obviously still a place where normal people live and work. I really liked that about it. I walked by a high school just was it was letting out and there were so many stylish students, from the Belgian equivalent of the punk/goth kids to the hipsters to girls wearing hijab.

Church with the panels: 4 euros, I got here just 20 minutes before closing, so wasn't able to listen to too much of the audio guide, but what I did hear seemed like an accessible and thorough explanation of the different panels. The church didn't look like much from the outside with a lot of restoration work going on, but it was worth it even just to walk inside and see the immensity of it, with the great height and the stained glass windows. There were signs saying not to take photos, so I refrained.

Belfry: 6 euros. This was fun. You get a laminated self-guided tour with your ticket, and there's a lift from the second floor up to the top level you can get to, so there's not too much of climbing narrow stairs. Great views of the whole city from the top level, where you can walk around outside a bit, though it's quite narrow and I'm glad there wasn't anyone else there since I went so close to closing time. Mostly fairly narrow openings to the outside, so it might be ok even if you have a fear of heights.

Each of the different floors had a bit of mini-exhibit. I accidentally timed it well to be at the top during the 5:30 bells, and could see the mechanism running that. There were also an exhibit of the retired versions of their famous dragon weathervane. That dragon is actually kind of adorable! What I might've enjoyed the most was this short documentary playing on a loop about how the bells are cast that had English subtitles. Lots of fun kids toys in their gift shop, like wooden swords, slingshots, and other dragon-themed items.

From there, I walked over to see the castle. My guidebook said there isn't much inside, and it had closed at 6, so I just walked around the outside. It's not too big but it's still just funny to me that there's this medieval castle in the middle of cars and tram lines. I found a nice view around the back that basically looks to me like the castle in Robin Hood.

Speaking of the cars and tram lines, you should be careful when walking around just because the sidewalks are pretty narrow and there isn't really the concept of a shoulder to the road as a buffer zone between pedestrians on the sidewalk and the cars/trams. Also, in some places, there seems to be a maroon-painted half of the sidewalk that's for cyclists, so stay out of that if you can.

There are some really beautiful views around the canals and bridges, at dusk and at night, so make sure to check those out.

I didn't go out for specific nice meals out while I was in Ghent, but had some very high quality pasta and great service at the bistro next to the venue. The waiter very patiently read and translated every single line of their menu for me, though I saw plenty of places with English menus outside too—probably more designed for tourists?

Oh the breakfast at the hotel deserves its own paragraph: this was maybe the best hotel breakfast buffet I've ever had, and I've traveled a fair amount. First, they had really good chocolate croissants, the sausage/scrambled eggs/bacon were quite decent, and the fruit juice machine included grapefruit juice. More importantly, though, they had a make-your-own-boiled egg machine!!!

Just a bowl of raw eggs and this machine of boiling water with little mesh holders for individual eggs, and a timer so you could have soft- or hard-boiled eggs. And, actually egg cups! I mangled it pretty badly the first time I made some soft-boiled eggs, but one of the days, I ran into some other people from the conference who kindly taught me how to successfully eat boiled eggs on an egg cup.

My last comment about Ghent is to be careful about which train you get on for trying to get back to the airport—I should've asked the ticket agent about this, but I just got on a train with another ArrrrCamp attendee that was also heading into Brussels. He wasn't going to the airport though, and I realized that the train I was on didn't actually go to the airport station, which is Brussel-Nationaal-Luchthaven. I had to take a 65 euro taxi to have a shot of getting there in time and then begged for leniency from the counter agent to let me check my bag with less than an hour to go before the flight.

I planned my trip so I basically had all day Saturday free. Because I was staying an extra night in the same hotel in Ghent, I decided not to spend the day in Brussels and instead took the 25 minute train ride up to Bruges. Yes, mostly because I'd seen the movie In Bruges years ago and wanted to be able to say I'd been in Bruges.

I was prepared for it to be pretty touristy, but really, it was tourists everywhere!! Really almost felt more like an amusement park of medieval architecture, with many many many large groups of people walking around together. Seems it's very popular with middle-aged and retired tourists, as well as British folks visiting for the weekend. Luckily, it still felt mostly peaceful while walking around, I just had to work quickly to try to get photos without enormous numbers of people in them. There is a reason tourists flock there—it really is very beautiful and well-preserved.

I got in around 10 and first went to buy a ticket to later take a tour at the brewery. Then I walked over to the Church of Our Lady to see the Michelangelo statue (2 euros). Unfortunately you can't get too close to it, but you can still make out the artistry. I also popped into the convent place.

The brewery tour was really fun. It was more different stories about the company's history than about the process of brewing beer, but our guide was quite funny and the view from the top was so good I decided I didn't need to rush to try to climb the belfry for the view from there. When they say that there are lot of really steep and narrow steps to climb as part of this tour though, they aren't kidding. The drink they give you at the end as part of your ticket was a legitimate amount, and even though I'm not particularly into beer, I really liked it.

I then did the walk in Rick Steves' book, but backwards, and met up with the bike tour I'd booked with Quasimundo for the afternoon. There were only four of us, and the guide ended up taking us out on his far route, which was 40km total. My butt was pretty sore at the end of it, the bike I got didn't fit me all that well, but they did have helmets available if you wanted one, despite all the Belgians I'd seen biking around with no helmets.

It was really refreshing to break away from the crowds and get into the countryside. We stopped just a few times for history talk + I snapped a few photos, so it was mostly chatting with the other tourists in the group and admiring the tree-lined canals and fields and sky. Also, cows. Some very healthy-looking cows out there. We did stop at a small pub and had another drink there.

When I got back, I rushed back to the brewery to pick up some souvenirs for my dad and father-in-law, and then to a chocolate shop to bring back for my co-workers, mom/sister, and myself of course. I stopped in Dumon, which was recommended in Rick Steves' book. Tiny shop really, and they told me they're just one of only 5 families left in Bruges making chocolate still. I would've liked to get some lace-themed souvenirs from one of the many other shops, but there was a sudden downpour and I didn't make it to any of them in time before they closed. I was told most of those are just made in China now anyway because handmade lace is incredibly expensive, but it still would've been nice to get a little lace Christmas ornament for my mother-in-law. Oh well, maybe next time.

The last thing I did in Bruges was get mussels, which came with fries and a trio of mayo dipping sauces. I would've liked to go to the green stands in Market Square, but I probably wouldn't make a special effort to get to Bruges again. It might be a fun short romantic weekend away, but my goal was say that I'd been IN BRUGES and I accomplished that.

I bought a used copy of an older version of Rick Steves' abridged book traveling to Brussels and Bruges. This was really nice, the book was nice and light while still being informative. I wish I'd looked more closely when I got the book from Powell's, I thought I was buying the more recent version of this some guidebook which includes Ghent. If you're doing a Brussels/Ghent/Bruges trip, that's the one I'd recommend.

I also checked out the Lonely Planet guide to Belgium from the library. This was useful since my other book didn't include Ghent, so I was able to use that to get around. It's a bit heavy to lug around though, when I didn't need all the rest of the content and didn't need information about hotels and such too. Might be more useful if you're planning a longer trip from scratch and are going to farther apart places.