Tag Archives: Coffee

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: Hanoi x2

Two and some years ago, I explored Hanoi with my dad when he came to visit. We spent a few days there before going to Hoi An to relax from the hustle and bustle that characterizes Vietnam’s capital city. This time around, I was travelling with my sister and we spent a total of three nights in Hanoi, bookending a trip north to Sapa (as a respite from Hanoi’s hustle and bustle). I really enjoyed being back in the city and showing my sister some places that I remembered. The weather was completely different this time around and far more enjoyable now, during Hanoi’s winter, than it was in the summer. We were able to do so much more walking because the air was (relatively) fresh and cool.

We arrived in Hanoi on Christmas Eve and found the city even busier than usual. Crossing the street is an activity of its own in Vietnam and the closed streets, parading Christmas celebrants complete with costumes (my sister likened it to Halloween), and jazzy Christmas concert (we actually heard a rendition of “happy birthday, Jesus”) made it more challenging than usual.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral

One of the things I really love about Hanoi is that the Old Quarter and French Quarter, though adjacent to each other and both quite small, feel like completely different cities. We spent time every day in the Old Quarter, which I think is the more fascinating:

 

Needing quiet, however, I wandered the French Quarter by myself the morning of our last day in Hanoi:

 

There’s an excellent café culture of Hanoi and coffee was a highlight of every day. Vietnamese coffee is served in tiny cups and I rather enjoyed visiting two cafés in quick succession.

Though we spent most of our time just wandering, my sister had told me that she really wanted to visit temples on her trip to Asia and Hanoi did not disappoint. There are Buddhist temples everywhere and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop in. We entered several instead of just passing by, especially at the beginning of our trip when it was all new:

 

Hanoi also has some very famous temples that I was more than happy to visit again. The first of these was Ngoc Son Temple, located on Hoan Kiem Lake, the center of Hanoi:

 

To get there, you need to cross Huc Bridge, which is cool because it’s red. I did take a photo during the day but this one was better:

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Turtle Tower is another Hanoi landmark, also located on Hoan Kiem Lake, but is inaccessible:

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My favorite temple in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius 1,000 years ago. I love it because in addition to being really beautiful, it is dedicated to learning (my favorite thing!). It contains massive carved turtles listing the names of students who passed state exams. Unfortunately, I was dissatisfied with all of my turtle pictures, but the Temple of Literature is still really pretty:

 

We also visited the Hanoi Citadel, which was new to me. The citadel is really more of a palace; it was the residence of Vietnamese royalty until the nineteenth century. It was lovely to walk through the grounds and see several small museum exhibits of artifacts found during various excavations. There was also an exhibit on the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call America’s War, as I learned when I visited Ho Chi Minh City) that was interesting because it portrays a different war than the one I studied in school.

 

Although I don’t have any pictures to prove it, we also went to a water puppet show, which was the other new activity for me! Water puppetry originated in the wet rice fields in Vietnam and now is performed on stage by puppeteers hidden behind a screen. They control the puppets on very long poles while standing waist-deep in water. The shows depict scenes of traditional Vietnamese life and are accompanied by singers and an orchestra playing traditional instruments. We didn’t understand the words but we understood the ideas and enjoyed it very much.

Again, no pictures to prove it, but we ate very well. There was far more vegetarian street food available in Hanoi this time than I remember from last time (or maybe I’ve gotten better at looking) and all of it was delicious! The only disappointment was not being able to find vegetarian pho, which seems to be everywhere but Vietnam.

From Hanoi, we took a sleeper train northwest to Sapa, which is up in the mountains and very close to the border with China. More on that soon!

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Travel Guide: Melbourne

Here is the third installment of our October break trip to Australia! We started in Sydney, drove down the coast, and ended up here in Melbourne, which I absolutely loved.

We arrived in sunny Melbourne after leaving Lakes Entrance in the rain, so it was already off to a good start. We checked into our third and loveliest Airbnb with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave us views that reminded me just a little of New York – and made me realize that I miss it! The rest of the city did much of the same.

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We ate a very late lunch and then began to wander, which is my favorite way to get to know any new place. I loved the hustle and bustle of the streets full of shops, people, and streetcars. I loved feeling neighborhoods blend and change. I loved being with so many people after thoroughly enjoying the exact opposite on the road. Many people were dressed head-to-toe in black, which we hadn’t seen elsewhere in Australia, and there were little alleyways and hidden streets with shops, restaurants, and cafés. Australia’s same-sex marriage vote was ongoing and there was pride everywhere, which was so great to see. It had been the same in beachy, chill Sydney but much more creative in bolder, grittier Melbourne.

Our first stop was the State Library of Victoria because we had read that it was pretty. And, truth be told, I adore libraries and don’t really need a reason to visit. I’ve waxed poetic about the NYPL more than once and still donate to them (because I just realized that I can still download e-books!).

Because libraries are the best, there was a free exhibit on the history of Australia since colonization and we thoroughly explored it. As in the Australian Museum in Sydney, I read everything in the exhibit and really enjoyed it because Australia’s history isn’t something I’ve ever formally studied. Outside the library, people were playing chess with giant chess sets. So cool! So community-oriented!

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The next day was our only full day in Melbourne and I loved every moment of it. We spent the morning at Queen Victoria Market, though I could have been there for so much longer. I seek out markets in every country I visit and they’re always a highlight. Since I love fresh vegetables and seek out anything locally sourced and locally grown, I would have loved to buy produce and other ingredients to cook dinner. Alas, we’d made a reservation at a very hip, cool restaurant and I didn’t want to miss it!

I did, however, have the foresight to ask my friends to arrange a meeting place and time in case we get separated. I’m a kid in a candy store when it comes to markets (and bookstores and libraries) and envisioned wandering off. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

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In addition to some cool local artists’ stands that I felt badly photographing without buying, Queen Victoria Market had a section for stuff . . .

. . . a section for produce and an entire building for perishable food items . . .

. . . and a bunch of restaurant and coffee shop stands. The picture below of the sign is specifically for my dad, who introduced me to (and perhaps invented) the word “under-caffeinated” many years ago. Caffeine, specifically from black coffee, plays a very important role in my family; claiming under-caffeination is the best way to get anyone to empathize when you’re having a moment or in a mood.

In the afternoon, we tracked down some of Melbourne’s famed graffiti streets, which we overheard a tour guide tell his group change almost nightly. It was really neat because nothing on these streets escaped the artists’ hand. There’s clearly a set of rules and norms that are associated with these streets and I’d love to know what they are. I didn’t see anything that could be considered obscene or anything that looked like it was encroaching on anyone else’s work. The streets seemed to be art, and respected like street art usually is, rather than graffiti, which sometimes seems more hurried, frazzled, and incomplete. I took a lot of pictures and narrowed down the list as best I could, but I really just want to share all of them!

We walked along the quiet, still Yarra River that afternoon. It was the only hot day we had in Australia and there was a noticeable heaviness to the air that we hadn’t felt since Singapore.

It was a nice break from the noise of downtown but somehow left me itching to return to the flurry of daily living that was present in the city streets. No one else shared this sentiment, but I don’t mind being out and about alone. I found another pedestrian alleyway, this one full of open-air restaurants and bars, and sat down at a popping wine bar. I flipped past the wine list and promptly ordered a beer, sneakily munching on the granola I had in my backpack.

I people-watched and journaled for a good hour. Some of my best personal reflection has been while traveling because I consider travel as time just for me. And since I’m in new places, or at least places different from the everyday, I seek out new things that make me reflect in myriad ways. I usually don’t travel with cellular data and don’t seek out wifi, so it’s easy to remain in the moment. I generally don’t miss being connected, either. It’s nice to be able to sit and dream every now and then without feeling obligated to do something else or be part of something else.

Melbourne, you are a vibrant, energetic, and liberating place. Thanks for ending the week in Australia on such a high note.