The Start of it All – Belgium
It began in 2003. I was working in southwest Cork, Ireland. One of the Sales Directors needed me to meet with a client in Brussels, Belgium to help secure a deal. It was to be a quick one day trip with an overnight. No big deal. The client meeting turned out to be a success. It was now time for a little touring around the area and a nice dinner. I really enjoyed seeing the sites! Beautiful architecture and lots of history to absorb. I kept hearing about another city I should see. “Take an extra day and go see Bruges. You’ll love it!” I figured why not?
The next day was a short train ride to Bruges (Brugge). The sun was shining and there were cobblestone streets with horse carriages clopping through a gorgeous town square. A cold breeze was blowing off one of the canals as the ducks were paddling along. I was hooked! I walked all around that city and fell in love with its history, charm, and je ne sais quoi. With only a short while there before I had to get back and return to Ireland, I resolved that I would return one day and enjoy it more deeply.
Time Marches On
It is now 2017 and my Journey back to Belgium is finally here. My original plan was to stay in Bruges – the city I so fondly remembered. Hours of researching B&B’s, apartments, hotels, etc. and I finally had to rethink my plan. Lodging in the area was turning out to be a little too expensive for my budget. OK; so Belgium isn’t all that big – where could I stay that would not be too far away with an easy train or car ride to Bruges? What about this city – Gent (Ghent)? Time to read up on it. Decent sized town, large university, amazing history! Hmmm – ok, let’s check on lodging. Score! I found a great rate on an apartment so I could prepare my own meals and have a little space. That’s settled.
I arrived into Belgium on a Friday, late afternoon local time. I always try to get acclimatized to the right time zone and I was currently 8 hours ahead of my normal schedule and feeling a little off kilter with the long flights. My usual plan is to walk about for awhile. The exercise is what I need after the travels and it helps me get the lay of the land and plan out things to see going forward. The apartment host had recommended a local bar for a brilliant selection of local Belgian beers. I feel strongly about trying local cuisine and even more strongly about trying local beer, wine & spirits! :o) My course was set to walk on over to Trollekelder and see what this place was all about. What an amazing spot this was! They had a brilliant selection of Belgian beers, a fantastic staff (Thanks to Maarten and Thomas for being such great hosts!) and a very welcoming atmosphere. This was an excellent way to acclimatize to this new city.
The next few days were a bit like a dream – walking the cobblestoned streets; sometimes in the sun, often at night, and many times in the mist or rain. There are very few things quite like the feel, the sound, and the look of cobblestones. Every time I walk them I wonder about the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people who have trod the same path I am. What legions of soldiers past the same way? How many languages have these stones heard? How many families have walked along with their own dreams and hopes?
Walk, Bike or Ride
Gent is a brilliant city for walking! They are very proud of the limited automobile traffic in the centre and throughout. Everyone seems to be either walking or bicycling. Bikes are everywhere! Young, old, and in-between are on bicycles. I found I really didn’t need to worry too much about cars when I was crossing the street. It seems as if you even look like you are thinking about possibly, someday, crossing the street, the cars stop on a dime. You need to be vigilant of the bicycles though! They are both quieter and much more prevalent. It seemed like a sea of bikes
at some of the bike stands. No wonder everyone seemed so fit! It wasn’t just the large (~60,000) university population – it was the overall lifestyle.
They also have a very robust public transportation system with buses, trams and trains to get you just about anywhere you want to go. Of course you can also rent a bicycle! I prefer walking the streets. It allows me to stop, listen, take pictures and enjoy the slower pace. For places to see in Gent you should definitely check out their Tourist Office in the old Fish Market. I took entirely too many pictures of this façade but I loved it!
It is also just across the street from my favorite tourist attraction there – Gravensteen. That will be the subject of an entirely separate blog post as it deserves one all its own. The folks in the tourism centre are extremely helpful, knowledgeable, and they have lots of great maps, brochures and information on the area!
After several wonderful days in Gent, I took the train to my beloved Bruges. We’ve all experienced the situation where we go back somewhere and it is not quite how we remembered it. I walked many of the same streets, saw the lovely canals, and enjoyed the squares again like I did 14 years ago. This time I climbed the Belfort (Belfry) which I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. It is well worth it! As always, I took a ton of pictures. My lunch was excellent at ‘t Lammetje! The brasserie’s and patisserie’s were as lovely as before.
As I sat and watched the horse carriages trot by on the cobblestones, I realized it was the overall number of people and the feeling of it being a bit more touristy than I remembered. I found myself wanting a little less congestion and the somewhat more leisurely pace of Gent. I think of Bruges fondly as it helped solidify my love for Belgium and brought me back. It also allowed me the chance to explore Gent and I am extremely grateful for the acquaintance.
For the Love of a City
Back to Gent on the train. I wanted to have a lovely Trappist beer on the Graslei, watch the sun play on the canals as the boats went past, and enjoy watching the people pass by. I couldn’t help but smile and relax as I wrote in my journal about the idyllic scene. The Flanders region of Belgium is worthy of a Journey to experience the history, the people and the charm. Bruges brought me back to Belgium but my new love in Belgium was Gent. I look forward to the chance to return and perhaps find a new gem!