Perhaps it’s fitting that my last solo travel day in Europe before meeting my brother was also my favorite solo travel day. I started my trip in the Netherlands in Leiden and The Hague and then spent a day in Brussels. By day four, I had fallen into a comfortable rhythm of walking around, reading and writing in cafés, and eating wherever and whenever I felt like it. I did remarkably little thinking about anything in particular and didn’t listen to or follow the news at all during my week away. In regular life, my days start with NPR; when I travel, I’m much more attuned to the physical experience of being somewhere else and mentally try to do the same thing.
I left my Airbnb in Brussels early in the morning, before the cafés nearby were open for breakfast. I had some raisins and almonds in my bag and figured I’d eat when I got to Ghent (which happened before any cafés were open for breakfast). I took the metro to the train station and bought a ticket for Bruges, which is where I planned to spend the afternoon. Bruges is about an hour northwest of Brussels and Ghent is almost exactly between them.
It was bright and sunny when I arrived in Ghent. I grabbed a map from the tourist information desk and fell in love upon reaching the lobby of the train station.
With its cobblestone roads and architecture dating from the twelfth century, Ghent was like going back in time to a world of castles, knights, and fairy tales (and war, famine, and disease, but I wasn’t thinking about that). Since reading a map is not my forte and I don’t travel with cellular data, I employed the time-tested strategy for travelers arriving in medieval cities – head for the tallest building (most likely a church). But as this is the modern world, I met an Argentinian traveler who gave me a piece of chocolate, a map of Bruges for later, and showed me where Google said we were. He headed off to a join a tour group and I wandered through Ghent with a smile on my face. The words, I’m going to move here tattooed themselves on my brain.
Ghent was just beautiful and I would have loved to spend more time there and would definitely recommend if you’re planning to go.
I oriented myself around the Belfry . . .
. . . stared up at St. Bavo’s Cathedral . . .
. . . watched the wind whip the flags of City Hall . . .
. . . and just stood for a while in front of the old post office. . . .
I went inside a chocolate shop advertising cups of hot chocolate and purchased one for takeaway. The clouds were back and I was chilly but I wanted to spend as much time exploring Ghent as I could. My hot chocolate came with a real piece of chocolate shaped like a dragon. (You know that feeling when all you want to do is giggle and perhaps do a cartwheel in sheer delight? That’s the feeling I had eating my dark chocolate dragon in a medieval Belgian city. That and, I’m going to move here.)
I crossed a bridge to get a better view of St. Michael’s Church . . .
. . . and spotted some street art that really intrigued me. In addition to being a beautiful medieval city with real castles that I missed and must go back to see, Ghent is also known for a cool street art scene. Most of the art is located in more residential areas and outside the old city center, so I wasn’t able to see as much of it as I would have liked. Yet another reason to go back!
I’d planned on about half a day in Ghent so I took my time walking back to the train station and took a circuitous route through more modern parts of the city where people actually live. Completely by accident, I found the best cup of coffee I had all week (and really, a darn good cup of coffee) in a café with a menu only in Dutch. (Filter coffee is rare enough in Europe that Café Labath was the second Google hit when I searched “filter coffee in Ghent” while writing this because I couldn’t remember where I was.) Another reason I’m moving to Ghent.
The sun came out as I neared the station and Ghent became even more enchanting!
The sun stayed out (though it would again retreat) as I arrived in Bruges where I’d spend the rest of the day. Bruges is larger than Ghent and definitely the more tourist-trafficked of the two. But the canals are just lovely.
As usual, I headed for a tall building. This one was the local Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk) and it housed a Michelangelo Madonna and Child sculpture. It’s relatively rare for Michelangelo’s work to be outside of Italy and I was really excited to see it.
Taking a boat along the canals to see the city by water is a common activity in Bruges, but I’d rather walk than wait in long lines. (I also used to work on a canal tour boat so there’s not much going for me in terms of novelty.) I followed the canals to Burg Square with its ornate buildings . . .
. . . and then walked to Market Square, which is definitely the big attraction of Bruges. I got some frites waited out the rain, thinking about the time, effort, and money it takes to build building like the ones I’d been seeing all week.
Definitely my favorite activity in Bruges was climbing to the top of the Belfry, Bruges’ tallest building. I waited in line for over an hour to do it, an hour during which wind and rain made me a little doubtful. But I had a book to read and I can wait around pretty much anywhere with a book. (Except an airport. I despise being stuck in airports.) The staircase has 366 very narrow, twisty steps and I could immediately understand why everyone must be down by 6pm.
Afterwards, I sat down for my first real meal of the day, got a waffle around the corner and, because it was raining again, a visit to a wine bar that served me one of the most unique beers I’ve ever had. I asked for something local, as I always do, and the bartender suggested a beer brewed by a Bruges newscaster and his wife, who owns a coffee shop down the road. Doesn’t get more local than that! A regular customer (who is in the food industry and has worked all over the world) and I chatted about his children in international school, where he finds the best meals, and the merits of natural or synthetic wine corks.
The rain had stopped when I decided I should head back to the train station and back to Brussels. But before I left, Bruges gave me a rainbow. It was a beautiful end to a day that I think was life changing. I’d never been to Belgium until the day before and I am now certain that I will be back.