Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Ghent and Bruges

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.

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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 . . .

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. . . 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. . . .

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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.

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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.

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Travel Guide: Brussels

Spring break this year took me to Europe with the excuse of seeing my brother who’s studying in London. After two nights in the Netherlands with days spent in both Leiden and The Hague, I started for Brussels on what should have been an easy journey of just under three hours with a change of trains in Rotterdam. Well then. For reasons that are still unclear to me but likely relate to the train strikes that are not entirely uncommon in Europe, the journey ended up being far more exciting (and only about an hour longer) than I’d expected.

It took about 20 minutes and two stations for the fun to begin. We were stopped for an abnormally long time in Den Haag HS before an announcement prompted grumbles, eye rolls, irritated looks, and a flurry of activity. I can make very little sense of Dutch, but I do understand the universal language of mass transit delays. We got off the cancelled train; I asked directions and took the next train to Rotterdam. This train was due to arrive about two minutes before my originally scheduled train to Brussels and those two minutes were surprisingly enough time to grab my backpack and change platforms. All was well and good on train number three until that train, too, stopped unexpectedly. This time, the announcement came in Dutch, French, and English so I was clued into what was happening by the second announcement. We were in Roosendaal, I found our later, and a conductor told me I had two options: I could take the train about to leave for Antwerp and then go to Brussels from there, or I could wait an hour and take a train directly to Brussels. The Antwerp train, he told me, would be faster. And Antwerp, as I learned from the Dutch lady who told me where we were, had a really pretty train station.

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In Antwerp, I again asked directions and finally got on the train to Brussels. Now that we were in Belgium, all announcements came in Dutch, French, and English and I was pleased that high school French left me able to understand and communicate what I needed to know and do. And after deciding not to take one train and listening again to announcements, I also learned that Bruxelles-Midi and Brussel-Zuid are the same station. Noted.

It took five trains and four hours but finally I was in Brussels! A few friends had told me to be careful there and that they had not felt safe, and I immediately understood why. Brussels is metropolitan and creative, gritty and unapologetic, with a metro system that has seen better days. There is very visible income inequality and poverty and all the social problems that come with it. Homelessness is hidden in Singapore and the small towns of Leiden and The Hague are not the places where that’s generally a problem. Brussels, however, was a different story. Brussels also has very large immigrant populations and significant racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and I know (though it’s upsetting to realize) that’s often intimidating to people. More than anything, Brussels reminded me of Manhattan and I had one of those moments where I missed it.

As in Leiden, I dropped my bag at my Airbnb and headed out. I stopped at the first pancake restaurant I saw to get my bearings. Everyone in Brussels speaks multiple languages, much like in Singapore, and it was a great opportunity to practice my French. With the exception of a bar I’d visit later on, planning for my time in Brussels amounted to zero but the day was warm and sunny and that’s all I needed.

Not too long after I started walking along the Mont des Arts, I heard music coming from a group of street performers. Ed Sheeran gets me every time so I sat down on the steps, ate some almonds, and just listened to them play. Brussels and I were going to get along quite well.

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I really enjoyed the street art that I passed throughout the day. I like seeing how the people of a city want their city to look and I am fascinated by the social norms around street art all over the world.

Europe is easy to explore because every city, even the most modern ones, have stunning churches that act both as something to do and a landmark on map. Brussels was no exception and I stepped inside the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula when I accidentally found myself in front of it.

I followed signs to Brussels Park to see the Royal Palace . . .

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. . . and then more signs to the European Parliament, which was celebrating the life and work of early twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil. I read an anthology of her work a year ago, so that was cool and unexpected.

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I realized that I’d accidentally skipped a whole section of the city I’d wanted to see, which happens when you lack a plan, map, and cellular data, so I doubled back to visit Notre Dame du Sablon but decided not to go inside. One church was enough for the day.

When it started to drizzle, I took a seat on a bench in the park front of Egmont Palace, which is not a palace but a mansion, to figure out a plan . . .

. . . and realized that I was right near the Great Synagogue. My dad’s voice in my head led me in that direction and I asked the four Belgian soldiers at the heavy side door whether I was allowed in. You can knock, they told me, but we’ve been knocking and no one’s answering.

I took that as a no because I know that the Jewish community of Brussels is almost always on high alert. Instead, I kept walking and came across a World War I memorial that wasn’t on the maps posted around the city.

Just beyond the memorial was a pretty view that really captures Brussels for me. The picnicking couple had actually climbed over a fence to get to their spot and they weren’t the only ones. You’ve got to love a city with freethinkers like that.

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The only actual plan I had upon arriving in Brussels was to visit Delirium Café, a Mecca for beer lovers. Walking there took me past Belgian souvenir shops that made my mouth water . . .

. . . through the absolutely stunning Grand-Place (or Grote Markt), which is impossible to capture in still imagery and where I took photos for several groups of tourists . . .

. . . past the famous Manneken Pis . . .

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. . . and down more than one little alley lined with restaurants and shops and decorated with fancy street lights. But get there I did!

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I wandered through what is essentially an entire complex dedicated to good beverages and then found a seat at one of the many bars. I ordered a beer and some cheese and took out my journal and a book, planning to stay put for a couple hours. When the bartender brought back my change, I was too distracted by where I was and watching all the people to remember that euros, unlike Singapore dollars, come in two-dollar coins instead of notes. I ended up leaving a really big tip but became friends with the bartender as a result. And with a French medical student an hour later who asked me whether the wifi was working (it wasn’t) and to help him understand a word in the English medical textbook he was reading. The student nodded approvingly when the bartender asked what kind of beer I wanted to try next, brought over two bottles for me to choose from based on my requests (local and dark), and waved away my wallet when I asked to pay before getting up to leave yet another hour later.

It was raining hard when I stopped for Mexican food on the street where I was staying. One thing I noticed throughout my travels is how spoiled I’ve been in Singapore and New York where everything – grocery stores, convenience stores, full service restaurants – is open at all hours. Europe closes early and after 9pm, one cannot be picky.

The following morning, though, was bright and sunny. I was heading out to Ghent and Bruges for the day but I’d return to Brussels for the night. Brussels is a city I was happy to explore and would be glad to spend more time.

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Travel Guide: Leiden and The Hague

For spring break this year, I exchanged the heat and humidity of Singapore for the drizzle and early spring chill of the Netherlands and Belgium. The reason for the trip was ostensibly to meet my brother studying in London, but the first four days were solo travel days that took me to a new town (or two) every day. I haven’t traveled alone in a while and was struck, as every time, by how peaceful it is to be anonymous in a new place. A much-needed calm settled over me when I arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport and I held onto it.

The twelve-hour flight from Singapore to Amsterdam was a red-eye, which meant I arrived bright and early the same morning I had left. Though exhausting, time traveling can be quite useful! I immediately boarded a train for quaint, beautiful Leiden, about 35 minutes southwest of Amsterdam.

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After asking directions in Leiden (I’m one of those rare people who doesn’t travel with cellular data, which likely contributes to the calm I experienced) I took a bus to my Airbnb. My host had agreed to let me store my backpack for the day and I forced in my contact lenses only because it was drizzling outside, as it would off and on for the next five days.

My plan for the day was to take the train about 20 minutes south to The Hague because I’d read that many attractions in The Hague are closed Mondays, the next day. (It didn’t occur to me that said attractions would also be closed Easter Sunday, but that’s because I didn’t realize it was Easter Sunday.) This time, I walked through Leiden to get my bearings on the way back to the train station. I loved everything I saw and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the town for the two days I was based there.

It was raining when I arrived in The Hague, the world’s center for peace and justice. For that reason alone, I was glad to be there. I found a cool little market and bought a new thumb ring (I’m always on a hunt for rings) . . .

. . . before making my way to the Mauritshuis, an art museum of Dutch masters that houses Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Just like in Leiden, though, I was mostly content to wander the streets and see what there was to see. Many restaurants and shops were closed for Easter so the streets were quiet and fairly empty.

I was excited to visit The Hague because of my interest in peace. After having coffee in a restaurant that sources surplus food from distributors, I walked through streets lined with consulates from every country to the Peace Palace, open despite Easter.

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The free audioguide tour of the visitors’ center provided an excellent overview of the world’s history and interest in peace. It also mentioned recent concerns in international diplomacy (of which there are many) and specific cases that had gone to the International Criminal Court located down the road. I particularly loved the World Peace Flame in its little garden and the focus on global interdependence. Call me hopelessly idealistic, but these are things that make my heart happy.

Dutch food also made my heart happy. Coffee and cheese everywhere were delicious and, in the latter case, far less expensive than anything I can get in Singapore. I snacked on poffertjes while in The Hague before returning to Leiden for dinner. I ate at a pancake restaurant that had been around since 1907 and had my first of many local beers. Again, better and far cheaper than what we get in Singapore.

Before returning to my Airbnb for the evening, I let myself get a little lost as I wandered through Leiden. Without knowing it, Leiden was what I pictured when the words “quaint Dutch town” floated across my mind. Only a few outer streets were open to cars, giving the town the distinct feeling of being built for people rather than merely accommodating them. The alleys I walked through led me to a flight of stairs at the old fort . . .

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. . . which is now a park with beautiful views of the town. . . .

I managed to keep my jet lagged self awake until the very reasonable hour of just before 10pm. The next morning, my Italian host who had lived in Leiden for five years made a lovely breakfast and sat with me to have her coffee. Despite her two cats, our mornings chatting were a real highlight of my week and a prime example of why Airbnb is a cool thing to do. I spent that day in Leiden mostly taking pictures and stopping in cafés to get out of the rain, which, like the previous day, let up in the late afternoon.

I visited Leiden’s windmill . . .

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. . . accidentally found the church of the Puritans who fled England for the Netherlands before departing on the Mayflower to North America . . .

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. . . and visited Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, the National Museum of Antiquities, to learn a bit about Dutch history under the Romans (hint: largely the same as everyone else’s history under the Romans).

I quite enjoyed photographing Leiden’s old signs and the poetry of many languages that had been painted on buildings all over the city. I could happily live in this town, was a thought on my mind every day in every place.

In what sounds like a joke but is completely true, I dropped the lens cap of my camera into a canal before taking yet another picture of boats and tall, skinny houses. There was nothing to do but shrug and walk a lap around town looking for a camera store. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find one and instead had a glass of wine in a basement wine and cheese shop just in front of where my lens cap had floated away.

Everyone I met throughout the Netherlands was extremely friendly and helpful, which is always good when one is new to a place. Drivers stopped at crosswalks and waved pedestrians on. Workers in shops and restaurants greeted customers with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to be of service. Each city I visited was also very well marked for tourists with signs and city maps pointing the way to various attractions. I loved the Dutch lifestyle of bicycling, recycling, and supporting fair trade products.

After breakfast with my host the next morning, I was back on the bus to the train station. It was quite an adventure getting to my next destination, Brussels (blog post coming soon!), but a lovely, quiet couple days had me in a state of equanimity that made it impossible to feel upset. Leiden, you’re a good little place. Thanks for having me!

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