Weekend four in a row of travel ended the streak with a bang-I went to Belgium! My friend Chris (of Maras fame) and I went to Brussels and Ghent Thursday to Sunday. The usual day by day play by play would produce an entirely too long post, so instead I’m going to break things down into themes. Hopefully that will keep things fresh for those of you following along at home!
Transportation (The wordiest part of the post. There are pictures coming, I swear!)
The man at the checkout counter in Ankara lived in Woburn for a year. He gave me an aisle seat at one of the emergency exits for both flights, so I had all the leg room in the world. Boarding began early, a practical miracle for Turkey. The flight was at 9:55 and only an hour and fifteen minutes long, but good ole Turkish Airlines came through with a boxed lunch–cheese and veggie sandwich, veggie cup, and a little cake. In Istanbul, I successfully adulted my way to the correct wing and through the various checkpoints and called Chris to see where he had set up shop. The flight to Brussels was about three hours and included a full meal. I chose the paprika chicken and buttered rice, and it came with a classier cold slaw salad, warm bread and butter, crackers and soft cheese, and a coffee mousse. On land, the man I talked to at passport control was very friendly and had lots of recommendations.
The reverse trip was not as pleasant. Getting into the Brussels airport was insane. Starting in the parking garage, where the train station also lets out, everyone was slowly herded into a popup warehouse city. First was a security check, where you needed to show your passport/ID and ticket to enter. The next room was massive lines for check in, but for some reason Turkish Airlines had a sort of cutsies deal going on, so we went right to the room with their desk. Our passes were scanned as we exited, and we were finally able to enter the airport. Hardly anyone was inside, a huge contrast to the mobs we just left behind. There was another security check, followed by border control. We arrived at our gate just before boarding started. Not everyone left early enough to get through the unexpected security, and our flight was delayed. Meal service took entirely too long, and by the time they got to my row, they only had pasta left, which was fine with me but not with others. We got the bread and crackers again, but this time there was eggplant and a wild berry cream mousse.
Our flight had been scheduled to land at 4:15, but with the delay it was just before 5 when we exited the plane, less than 20 minutes before boarding for my next flight began. I had wanted to get the flight at 7, but the man at the office insisted I had plenty of time to get to the one at 6, because apparently Turks don’t think flights can ever be delayed. I was going to miss my flight, but when we entered the domestic transfers wing, there was an employee calling for people on the 6:00 flights to Ankara, Izmir, and Konya. We went through secret passage ways for a special passport control and security check. I got to my gate at 5:19, and boarding hadn’t even started yet. I was the forth person on the plane. This time the meal box was a turkey sandwich, eggplant salad, and chocolate mousse.
Moving About the Country
Getting around Belgium included trains, trams, and the metro. No one checked our tickets to/from the airport or Ghent, so it was on the honor system that you bought your fare. The same was true for the metro. Some stations had no ticket scanners, so we were able to hold on to our tickets for our next trip. I never realized how clean Ankara’s metro system is until I saw how dirty Brussels’ was. There weren’t rats or anything like you can find in Paris, but there was just trash everywhere. That aside, it was simple and affordable to get from one place to another.
Over the course of the trip, we were able to complete Belgium’s Big Four:
-Beer: Thursday night ended with a stop at a colorful pub for a glass of the famous Delirium. (We popped in to the actual Delirium Cafe on Friday to see what it looked like but didn’t get the chance to patronize it.) It was pretty quiet inside, but the stacks of glasses and the mural on the back wall provided plenty to look at.
-Chocolate: I got some cheapo chocolate to bring back for my students, but we also stopped into several of the nicer shops. We got macarons from one shop I can’t remember the name of and meringues from Elisabeth.
-Fries: Some of our meals came with fries, but we made a point on Friday to stop at Fritland for a large order. I admit that I have adopted the un-American custom of eating fries with mayonnaise.
-Waffles: Our last ‘meal’ was waffles on Saturday night. I got mine with nutella and Chris had his with speculoos. The waffles themselves had a nice crisp to them and were thick and fluffy on the inside.
Other meals included a veggie patty at Peck 47 in the city enter, hummus and roast veggies with a bulgar and red lentil salad at EXKI, and a hazelnut based veggie burger at Jack’s Premier Burgers in Ghent. The best/most adventurous meal was Ethiopian food at Toukoul on Friday night.
-Grand Place: Brussel’s main square is blocked in by incredible buildings. Each building had its own style, but they all were remarkably detailed. Chris said there were buildings like them in Vienna and other cities he’s visited but that they were never all in one place like that. Streets of shops and markets spiraled out from the square. Out AirBnB was only a few minute walk away.
-Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula: We went into a few churches during our trip, but there is no comparison to St. Michael’s. Intricate stained glass windows with fully saturated colors lined both sides of the cathedral and statues of saints were attached to the main columns. 10/10, would recommend.
-Atomium: The Atomium, so name because it was modeled after an atom, was built when Brussels hosted Expo in 1958. During the day you can ride up an elevator in the central tower and get a good view of Brussels.
Chris’ parents lived in Ghent for a year when his father was doing Fulbright, so they were able to give us some ideas of what to hit up. We spent part of Saturday there, more than enough for the small city.
-Small Beguinage Our Lady of Ter Hoyen: Our first stop was to what was an old convent. Apparently it used to be a very popular tourist destination, but now it’s just a courtyard of photo-worthy cool buildings to walk around.
-Gravensteen Castle: I’ve seen my fair share of castles in Turkey, but Gravensteen was of a very different style. Inside, there were rooms dedicated to weaponry and armor, torture mechanisms (as well as a guillotine), and other elements of medieval castle life. We also got to walk up to the tops of the castle and around its courtyards.
-Walking Tour: After the castle, we popped into an information office and the woman gave us a map of a walking tour that showed the best churches and other pieces of architecture in a loop around the city center. Some of the city was built on the river, which made for great pictures. The sun came out while we ate, so we went back to the river after and took better pictures.
-Musical Instrument Museum: Also called MIM, the museum had three floors of instruments from all around the world throughout history. The exterior stood out from the other buildings on the street as well. Below is a picture of me out front showing off my ‘I’m in Europe proper so I’m going to look fancy’ and ‘it was in the 40s and rained all day Friday’ combo outfit. (In this particular shot I was telling a woman on the sidewalk to pass through, but it came out best.) Upon entering, we were given head sets. Many of the instruments had numbers on the floor in front of them. If you dialed in the number, you could hear what the instrument sounded like.
-The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken: For three weeks out of the year, the Royal Greenhouses are open to the public. Our trip just happened to fall during those three weeks, so we started Saturday there. The pathways start you walking outside the greenhouses and taking in the landscaping behind them, and then you backtrack through the greenhouses themselves. The flowers were vibrant and abundant, and the greenhouses structures were beautiful. On the way out, we stopped for a pastry in the domed end of the entry hall. I felt very lucky to experience a part of the city that most people don’t get the opportunity to.
It was nice to get out of Turkey for a few days, and of course getting to Europey Europe was pretty great. My students told me I looked tired today, but I didn’t feel it (In Turkey, telling someone they look tired or unwell is meant and received as an expression of care rather than ‘oy, you look rough’ like it can in the US). French was spoken in Brussels and Dutch in Ghent, but everyone spoke English, so asking for information was painless. If we were awake we were moving (except for the evenings when we watched Game of Thrones and Star Wars), and as first trips to the EU go, I don’t think it could have gone better. Well, the weather could have been nicer. But what can I do sometimes?