A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in the Netherlands. As for Belgium, it’s not that far from France but I never went there before. So I just took advantage of the extended weekend starting on November 11th (remembrance day for WWI in France) to visit a few cities in the NL, especially Amsterdam.

Thalys takes you directly there in less than 4 hours (My grandmother wasn’t pleased when I told her it’s easier than going to her place !). Actually it will be even faster in a few years when the missing fast track between Brussels and Antwerp will be complete. Once arrived you’re right in the center and I found it rather small, easy to walk across. And with biking it’s the best way to see the city, urban transports are expensive in NL.

The first evening I met my host and we had diner at his place before seeing the city by night in a very instructive walk. He told me why people here have huge windows and never close the curtains. That’s because they want to show they’re « not having fun » :p. It’s inherited from calvinism : if you put curtains, you have something to hide. And yes I’ve seen these huge windows and all the inside of houses everywhere in the country.

The walk included also the red light district, which is one of the reason why Amsterdam is famous for. I didn’t like this part actually, it’s like a freak show, and you have only tourists there.

First thing in the next morning I rented a no-gear-back-pedal-break-bike, the default and cheapest one. Least than 2 hours later it was heavy raining. This explains what I have no photo at all until day 2. I went to 5 museums this day and saw many Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s masterpieces.

Day 2 the weather was really better so my host took me on a bike ride in the dutch countryside. It was just very very windy, which compensate the lack of hills !

Dutch countryside

Windmills are everywhere, it’s no legend. And most of them are very well preserved.


And water is everywhere. It seems that before 19th century, ships were the main transportation mean.

Ouderkerk a/d Amstel

Bike routes are easy to follow. I brought back a very detailed bike map of the Amsterdam area.

Signs for bike routes

Trails were sometimes really narrow and the wind made it hard to stay on it.

Bike trails

A castle surrounded by water :

Castle surrounded by water

We ended up riding 65km. Of course I made a map from the ride.


Day 3 I stayed in Amsterdam with another friend from Paris that my host nicely invited to. The weather alowed us to walk more in the center and to finally take pictures of the city.


House in Amsterdam

Tower in Amsterdam

Old factory in Amsterdam

Amsterdam house and bike

The harbour area, with more modern buildings reminded me of Copenhagen. This building is shaped like the opera of the danish city

Modern music house in Amsterdam


But the most important is that Amsterdam (and whole Netherlands) is the image of the paradise for urban cyclists. And the reality met my expectations on this point (although they were very high.) Bike paths everywhere, even streets only for bicycles. Easy ways to leave the city and go to the countryside. And bikes you see nowhere else.

Amsterdam station bike parking

Bike parking behind the station

Pink bike

Bike with 3 childrens seats


We left Amsterdam for Utrecht in the evening where we met an outstanding couple and their amazing pure white cats : Leeloo & Parker, named after the Fifth element and one of my favorite book, Life of Pi (but I actually didn’t remember the name of the tiger). They’re crazy about their cats and they know ticks. That was really fun to meet them.

Utrecht is a small city and on a sunday morning there aren’t many things to see or do. That’s pleasant anyway.


One of the specificity in the Netherlands is that it’s hard to guess whether it is a river or a canal. I’m still not sure. And which way it’s flowing, everything is sooo flat !

Utrecht canal



After a brunch with our hosts, which let us time to talk more (I usually prefer staying more than one night at the same place, otherwise you don’t get to know the other people much), we left for Rotterdam.

My expectations about Rotterdam were the lowest. I know the city was bombed flat during WWII so there is no such thing as an historic center like in other dutch cities. But I was amazed by the town anyway. It’s like not being in Europe anymore, several high-rise buildings and a very interesting and wild architecture. I think the tremendous aussie couple that hosted us as something to do with my feelings about Rotterdam.

Let’s start with the symbol of R’dam : the Erasmus bridge. As seen from the river side …

Erasmus bridge

… and as seen from our hosts rooftop.

Erasmus bridge

Rotterdam by night

On sunday my host guided me on a walk along the water front.

Rotterdam waterfront

Rotterdam waterfront

Old Rotterdam harbour Delfthaven

I can’t say which of both cities, Amsterdam or Rotterdam I preferred.


The last afternoon I made a quick jump in Delft, a charming and quite city nearby.

Old leaning church in Delft

Blue bike in Delft

Market square in Delft

Waterways in Delft

I waited for the train back to Rotterdam more than an hour and later for the Thalys 40min. Dutch trains are not better than french ones ! And around midnight while back in Paris there was a suspicious luggage alert that stuck me underground for another 40min. No need to say I was more than happy to restart biking to work the next morning. You definitely can’t trust public transport :p.

Once again a great trip with great encounters.

I realize that I’ve cycled and walked in 9 foreign countries over the last 6 months !


5 days in Belgium

Although Belgium is only a few hundreds kilometers from Paris I’ve never been there before and that was a place I wanted to visit for a while. I convinced my brother to accompany me. Traveling just us two is not something we usually do, because he lives 700km from me. Anyway he found fast trains to come north with me and accepted to give a try to couchsurfing.

Brussels is only 1h20min away from Paris. I barely had time to read a few chapters of my book. We met directly at Bruxelles-Midi (Brussel-Zuid) and started walking to the center, straight to the famous Grand’Place.

Grand Place : Maison du Roi

Grand Place : Hôtel de Ville

Grand Place : maisons de marchands et de guildes

Grand Place : maisons de marchands et de guildes

Beside the Grand’Place, the architecture and organization of the city is a bit chaotic and styles mix strangely. Well Brussels did not met my expectation at first sight. Lets say it, Brussels is generally ugly.  Plus I expected a way more bike-friendly city than Paris : it isn’t. Cars rule. So I was really disapointed by this first impression of Belgium. On the other hand I’ve never seen a so great variety of people from everywhere in a city which makes it full of life, not a museum city at all.

In the middle of this general ugliness there are of course a lot of hidden gems, especially on the Coudenberg, near the royal palace and all the museums.

Cathédrale Saint-Michel et Gudule

Old houses in Brussels

English style house on Coudenberg

There is a steep slope in this area, but the view is never wide open over the city, a lot of new buildings, are dividing Brussels between the center (Grand’Place) and the upper area (Coudenberg and European area), along the South-North junction. Here we are in the upper area.

Chapelle royale Saint-Jacques

Dominating the city scape is the huge unfinished palace of Justice. We went inside and it looked empty although 2000 people are supposed to work in it.

Palais de Justice

In the end of the afternoon we looked for the central station to catch a train for Ghent. The station doesn’t look like a central one, it’s all underground and like in the middle of a mall. Anyway this south-north railway junction is very practical. Almost every trains are stopping in the 3 main stations.


It takes half an hour to reach Ghent and it’s like being in another country. First the old railway station (in Brussels they’re all modern ones) looks like a castle and in front of it and in the adjacent streets is a sea of bicycles. Guess it was my favorite city during this trip.

Bicycles near Ghent station

Our host gave us some really precise directions and we found her place very quickly. She cooked for us and a friend of her and we shared stories. Then we enjoyed Ghent by night. And Waow ! Brussels appeared even uglier.

Ghent by night

This is the only picture I have at night. So there are still works going on on the main squares but we see the 3 towers of Ghent. The medieval belfry (2nd one) is my favorite. The day after, we went on it’s top for an amazing view of the city.

View from Belfry

Then we went down exploring the city.

Belfry and city hall by day

We spent a large part of the day in the very center, around the 3 towers and the Graslei, the most scenic canal in town.


We also visited the Gravensteen, a medieval forteress in the heart of the city, maybe a bit too much restored.


Towers from Gravensteen

Graslei from Gravensteen

We had also time to go deeper in some untouristy places like the beguinages (something to do with women and religion, check on wikipedia), very quiet areas.


In the evening our host gave us is keys before leaving for a night job. When he came back we went to a pub, listened to his amazing stories of bicycle trips and finally fell asleep in front of a 1970 french movie, Les choses de la vie from Claude Sautet.

The next morning, rain prevented us from sharing a canoe trip on the canals. So we left our host to go to Bruges.


This city is the touristic heart of Belgium. It’s a bit like a romantic disneyland. A very crowded center and lifeless streets around. Anyway it’s worth to go there. It’s really beautiful.

The center is a large square dominated by the huge belfry. Belfry made so famous by a movie a few years ago that it was impossible to get up there.

Bruges belfry

All around is a very dense network of narrow stone paved streets and houses almost exclusively made of red bricks.

Street in Bruges

And of course canals which contributed a lot in the romantic image of the city.

Canal in Bruges

Bridge in Bruges


Windmills in a park at the border of down town make it looks like Holland.

Bruges windmill

At night it’s even more beautiful. We stayed until late in the evening before going back to Brussels.

Bruges at night

Bruges Belfry at night

1h of train and we’re back in Brussels. We met our next host in front of the Bourse after enjoying some Halloween show. She was with a friend and we went to a good chinese restaurant and talked about couchsurfing spirit. She left us her keys because she had to leave the day after and we were supposed to stay 2 nights so we had the flat for our own use. I like the way people trust each other on this network.

The day after we made a quick tour in two cities nearby.

Leuven (Louvain) & Mechelen (Malines)

Those cities are smaller than the previous we visited and can easily be seen in a few hours, especially when everything is closed like a 1st of November !

Leuven town hall is impressive by it’s profusion of gothic details. It’s about the only thing to see in in the city, but worth it.

Leuven town hall

And there is also this strange sculpture of a dead fly …

Leuven dead fly

Mechelen has a very pleasant center made of wide streets, surrounded by big flemish houses. And in the middle a huge cathedral.

Mechelen Cathedral

Mechelen city hall

In a courtyard, there were young girls dancing …

It took us the whole day (starting late) to go  to both cities. They’re only half an hour from each other. This excursion was improvised. We thought there were a lot of things to see outside of Brussels and we didn’t want to remain in museums.

We eat so much good japanese food in Leuven that we didn’t eat at all in the evening. Instead we watched the Dark Knight from our hosts DVD collection. It ended up being her favorite movie and Nolan her favorite director.

Brussels again

The last day we stayed in the european capital, visiting the upper part of the city, the european area. The surroundings of the parliament looked still unfinished and new buildings were mixed with old houses … like everywhere in Brussels. The other name of the European parliament is le « Caprice des Dieux ». Well I guess it’s due to its shape.

European Parliament : "Caprice des Dieux"

Parc Leopold

Brussels is also the capital of comics-strip (but I don’t know how to rank it beside the french city of Angoulême). From places to places we found some painted walls and sculptures reminding of this.

Painted wall

Corto Maltese

While leaving our host place in the very living Saint-Gilles area we walked down to Porte de Hal, a remaining door of the city.

Porte de Hal

Back to the busy Gare du midi and a few hours later we were back in France.

This was my second use of couchsurfing for traveling outside of France after Sweden in May. And it was once more outstanding to meet those people.