A Tale of Three Countries

En route from Brussels to Frankfurt, and trying to make good use of travel time by writing once again. The interior of these long-distance European trains almost look like airplanes, but the feel is completely different. For one thing, the peripheral vision of scenery blurring past me gives me a headache, while I don’t have the same problem on an aircraft. This train also places all its seats in one direction, so I’m moving backwards on this ride, which further enhances the headache. But nonetheless, I’ll do my best.

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Belgium is a country with lots of history, but none of which is its own. It’s kind of a mix of France, Germany, and the Netherlands, and so all its famous monuments and places are famous because of its surrounding countries. Most of the places I saw were French, so lots of mentions of Napoleon, but you can tell that all three countries have a significant impact because Belgium takes all three languages as official languages: Dutch, French, and German. Depending on which part of Belgium you happen to reside, you’ll probably place more emphasis on one of the three languages. During my three days here, I saw mostly French, then Dutch, and I observed probably no German at all. (Or I just didn’t know how to recognize the language).

The whole country of Belgium is really green, connected by highways, and each city is actually quite far away from the next one. Now that’s the inter-city relationship, and that’s probably similar of every large-ish country when you have way more land than people. Canada is also a large, green country, connected by highways, with urban areas spread out within the country. But in terms of the intra-city pattern, Belgium is quite different. There are no large continuous urban areas; nothing comparable to the Greater Toronto/Vancouver Areas. It’s also different from Paris, because while Paris has straight one-way roads with crazy intersections, Belgium has one-way roads that wind around (and still the crazy intersections). There are close to no traffic lights, and even in urban centers they seem to be minimal. It’s probably something I would compare to Montreal.

We stayed in a small town called Waregem, and we spent the first day exploring this place. It seems that every Belgian city that we’ve been to, even Brussels, is not actually that big… it’s definitely possible to walk the entire city on foot. Waregem is a lot smaller, and I’d say that it’s like the town of Delta where I come from. Probably even smaller. The city is quite self-sufficient, and if you need to get anywhere, the train station is just a short 15-minute walk away.

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We never stayed out too late in Paris (we were too tired from jet lag and everything), so I don’t know if this is also true, but in Belgium, everything closes pretty early. In Waregem, lots of places are also closed on Mondays. Most stores in most places close at 6 PM regardless. In that sense, Belgium is pretty quiet and boring.

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Day two was spent in Brussels and Bruges. We took the Belgium Rail trains around, and they’re a bit different from the high-speed rail we took from Paris to Lille. First of all, they travel at about 130 km/h compared to the 300 km/h high speed trains. Also with the high-speed trains, they check your tickets at the station before you board. On the other hand, you can just hop right onto these intercity trains, and then they will check tickets on board… most of the time. Even though English is not an official language, people working at the station will still understand you. And if you’re under 26 years old, you can take a single-journey within any two Belgian cities for 6e!

The Grand Place at Brussels was under renovations… really?! Just like in Disneyland, they had a painted box on top of it. It’s just my luck, seeing both these places one after another in the same manner. But they must spend a lot of money renovating and maintaining European cities, especially when you have all these old and pretty buildings. I’d imagine that renovations are non-stop throughout the entire year, and all the perfect shots you see on postcards are taken at different times of the year.

(I didn’t take a direct picture of it this time, but you can see where the box begins at the right edge of this picture.)

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I’ve come to the conclusion that there is nothing to do in Brussels aside from eat. Belgian fries, waffles, chocolate… its just non-stop food! The saddest part is that the well-known Belgian brands, such as Leonidas and Godiva, are available all around the world. There’s nothing all that special about visiting it in Belgium.

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This is the one ‘souvenir’ I got from Belgium, and it’s something I could have also easily gotten in Hong Kong.

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I learned a bit about crepes and waffles, I guess. There are the crispy Brussels waffles, and then there are the chewy Liege waffles. I actually prefer the chewy ones a lot more; the crispy ones feel like there’s nothing. Also, my usual way of eating crepes is with whipped cream and fruit, or at least some chocolate syrup. But here, the crepes are so good that you actually want to taste the crepe itself rather than the filling. Instead of mashing a ton of flavours into a crepe, just add butter and brown sugar for a bit of complementary taste, and savour the original flavour of the pancake as well.

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One thing I really did enjoy in Belgium was the Tintin Boutique. I remember loving the comic book as a child, and the movie that came out a few years ago was also amazing. Brussels also seems to be proud of Tintin, as you can see random references to it across the city.

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Belgium is mostly flat, and so any wind blowing across Belgium goes a long way. We had two days where it started out nice and beautiful, then a huge rain cloud was blown on top of us to bring us a downpour, then the heavy gusts blew it away again and the sun was back out before evening. It was again, just our luck that we got the rain when we were at the Palais de Justice, or the Law Courts of Brussels. From there, you have a view over a fair distance of the city, but it doesn’t look that impressive under this gloomy rain cloud.

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In front of the Justice Palace, there were a bunch of streetcars in operation. I immediately recognized them as the Bombardier trains they brought over to Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics! Unfortunately, it was raining at that time and I was a bit cranky so I didn’t spend any time getting a perfect shot of those streetcars. But here, you can see the Justice Palace and the streetcar at the left side of the picture. After searching this up at the hotel, I realized that the new Toronto streetcars are of the same model… just that of course, the colour scheme is different. Even so, there is still something exciting about seeing literally the exact train that they transported over to Vancouver for the Olympics.

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We then went over to Bruges in the afternoon. I like this city. It’s a quaint area, with far fewer tourists compared to Brussels. At the same time, there’s still enough stores and things to make this seem like a hub rather than just the countryside. Someone told me that the night from Bruges is amazing, but sunset is at 9 PM these days, and again, everything was closed by 6. There wasn’t much to do after all the stores closed, so we just went back to Waregem.

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On Wednesday, we went on a road trip around Belgium. Our first stop was Waterloo, where the Battle of Waterloo took place and Napoleon suffered a harsh defeat. In this place now stands a small tourist center and a statue of a lion (and it costs 7e to take the hike up to the lion for a visit).

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Then, we went to a small town called Dinant, situated right on a river. It’s a tourist city, and I’d imagine for more local tourists who know where they’re going, because for someone like me, I’ve never even heard of this city before. You can tell it’s a tourist city because nothing was open – its not in season yet. During the months of June to August, the place will be crowded with people, but when we visited, only a few restaurants were open.

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There is a cliff that overlooks Dinant, and on that cliff is a citadel where you can get a beautiful view over the city.

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Our final stop was Namur, another small town with a citadel. This time, we skipped the town and went right to the citadel. The building now houses a store for perfumes, something that I saw not too long ago on The Amazing Race while they were in France. It’s not the same place, but that’s when I realized that perfumes are a big thing around here.

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Then, we went all the way up to the top of the hill, where there is a nice chateau which is now a hotel. It’s a great stop for a cup of coffee, and just to enjoy the scenery outside. We stayed there until almost 7 PM, but it still felt like early afternoon when we left because it was so bright out!

All these battlefields and citadels really tell you that Belgium is just the area of plains where the wars used to take place. Now that it’s all over, people have agglomerated to these cities, and the country has developed itself a unique, yet assimilated culture – a mixture of three countries.

Many washrooms in Belgium are not free, even if you are in a restaurant or a public place such as a train station. The common charge is 0.5e. But I learned from a friend while we were travelling in Okinawa – if you are ever looking for a washroom in the middle of a foreign city, look for a hotel!

Another tip for Europe – it seems like people really like strong cheeses here. I had a pizza in Paris, and then a four-cheese penne in Belgium, and they used something close to blue cheese in both of these common dishes that I can get in North America. Of course, our Canadian default is something with less of a statement, such as cheddar and mozzarella. It seems like here in Europe, they always jump to strong cheeses.

If you do happen to plan a trip for Belgium, I’d recommend renting a car and driving around the country rather than visiting only one city. The cities are really small, and you get bored of them quite soon. But each city is a little different, and I’ve been quite blessed to get to see so many places rather than just one city. Also, the lengthy highway sections of Europe is quite a relaxing drive – that is, as long as you stay away from the traffic jams. Once you get anywhere near Brussels, even if you’re not heading into the city, you would likely be delayed for quite a while.

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That’s it from Belgium. Next stop, Frankfurt!

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