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.

Ghent

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.

Graslei

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

Gravensteen

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.

Beguinage

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.

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

Canals

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 …

Mechelen
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.

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