Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Birthday Backpacking Euro Vacation (Part 1: Belgium)

A classy bike in Brugges

For my thirty-third (??!!??) birthday, I decided to pretend that I was once again a college-aged vagabond and take a little backpacking voyage through a corner of the continent. With a few minor upgrades of course.

From Oslo it's a quick hour+ flight to Brussels, which puts you in the middle of Europe. From there it's pretty much a two-hour train ride to anywhere. With that in mind, I decided to use Brussels as my hub and tap into my network of friends to fill up my nine days of European vacation. I left Oslo with a sketched-out itinerary, but no set plans for my days, trusting that things would work themselves out. They did just that.

Brugges vs. Ghent

It's probably unfair to pit these two medieval Belgium towns against one another, but in consulting with friends, I was often told that while Brugges is nice, Ghent is cool. So I decided to do some day touring in Brugges and head to Ghent for a couple of nights. Correct decision. 

When in Brugges, don't think, eat the fries. 

In Brugges I wandered around, in awe at the beautiful architecture and the mass amounts of tourists, even in October. I didn't go into a single museum, but rather used food and drink as my guide. I started off with a hot cone of fries at Chez Vincent that I enjoyed while eavesdropping on some sort free tour for backpackers. I admit that I had a certain smug satisfaction in knowing that I no longer had to travel through Europe on a $15 a day budget and share dorm rooms with smelly strangers. 

Gourmet Food Festival

After a little bit more wandering, I decided to head back to the train station a little early, but on the way there got distracted by a major gourmet food festival at a park. This was a local event that featured professional chefs sampling their best dishes for a few euro a taste. Yes, Please. I got a handful of tokens for about 20 euro which provided me with four dishes and two beers. I had an Indian style burger, a waffle with fresh seafood, and a crem brule dessert. I chatted with locals who had traveled from neighboring towns for the events and listened to some live music. I had been ready to write off Brugges as a quaint old town ruined by tourism, but this stop saved it. 

Noodles in Ghent (plus beer, of course)

From Brugges it was on to Ghent, where I would spend the next two nights. My friend and travel buddy wouldn't be joining me until the next morning, so I decided to brave the rainy night for a hot bowl of noodles from a noodle shop I had passed earlier. Not since Seattle had I had a good bowl of ramen with homemade noodles, so this really hit the spot. 

When my friend arrived, trooper that she is, we headed straight out onto the town to find some champagne. We had read that on Sunday mornings there is a stand that serves champagne and oysters at the market, so we joined the navy blazer wearing locals and had ourselves a little morning bubbly. From there it was on to enjoy a day of shopping with a stop at a local brewery for lunch. On our way back to our AirB&B (an excellent way to stay) we ran across another street purveyor of champagne. Seriouly, two street carts selling champagne in one day, what an amazing place! We of course decided that having a little more bubbly was a good idea and got to chatting with the owners of the retro little cart. They were so excited to have visitors to Ghent, that they wrote down all kinds of fabulous places to go out that night. 

So after a nap and cleaning up, it was on for an evening in Ghent. By time I was totally convinced that Ghent was far superior to Bruges, but an unexpectedly eventful Sunday night sealed the deal. We had good food and good drinks, all at bargain prices compared to Oslo. We ended the evening at a little hole in the wall jazz club where we were treating to excellent music, and of course some of the best belgian beer I'd had yet. 

A fuzzy night at Hot Club de Gand

Ghent beautifully lit at night

 The next day before heading on the Brussels we put on our running shoes and took a jog around town, ending at the Ghent Castle. It is a small little fortress right in the middle of town, but does have a great little museum on the many ways you can torture someone. 

Torture Museum at the castle
Then, on to Brussels. Neither of us had any specific things to see in Brussels, so I don't have much to highlight other than saying there was food and drink. Brussels is very much a modern city, with some history, so we didn't worry about doing the touristy thing. We rested up for our last night as a traveling duo before my friend headed back to Oslo. 

Mussels, fries, and beer in Brussels

Our final night in Belgium was also my birthday, the whole point of this trip. Sadly, there are no pictures suitable for posting, but needless to say it was an excellent night. I had the good fortune of having a couple of Norwegian friends from Oslo in town for a meeting, so they joined us for a night of rockabilly swing dancing at some country bar somewhere in Brussels. Who knew?

The next morning we packed up, me to continue on to Germany and Luxembourg and my friend back home. Stayed tuned for part two.