When I thought of places to visit in Europe, Belgium was not at the top of my list. I knew I wanted to go to Luxembourg as I hadn’t been there and I knew I wanted to see more of The Netherlands, having had a taste of it before. To travel overland, it made sense to go through Belgium, so I thought I should explore it in a bit more to see if I could change my perspective of this country. And I’m glad I did.
I got the train from Luxembourg City to Namur in Northern Belgium. I hadn’t wanted any of my train journeys to be too long, so this seemed like a natural stopping point, on my way to Brussels. I jumped on the train and was excited to do my first inter-railing trip through Europe. I boarded the train and waited for the passport inspector to check my passport as we crossed the border but he didn’t come and then I realised how easy it will be to get around Europe. The train trip through the north of Belgium showed me mostly farmland and small villages. As the train chugged on, the towns got bigger, roads busier and architecture more appealing.
We rounded a bend and Namur came into sight and it looked breathtaking. After pulling into the station, I decided to walk the 30 minutes to the hostel, not thinking about all the cobblestones I had to roll by bag over. As I followed the maps.me app to the hostel, I seemed to be overtaking everyone as they were walking at a snail’s pace. Arriving at the hostel, which was on the banks of the River Sombre, I sat on the terrace, had an amazing Belgium beer and relaxed with a really breathtaking view of the river snaking its way back to the city. As I was reading about Namur in a brochure ‘as told by a local’ it stated that they’re a known city of slow walkers and are proud of their reputation. Good for them I thought, but slow walkers bloody bug me. Good job I have a new-found sense of patience, since leaving Melbourne. As I arrived late in the afternoon, I decided to take a stroll along the river to make the most of the setting sun and get a feel for my surroundings, which were stunning.
Namur is the capital of the Wallonia region of Belgium and stands at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers (thanks for that Wikipedia!) The language spoken in this part of Belgium is French. Namur has a dominating citadel overlooking the city and the architecture and cathedrals are super old and the city is beautiful. This made me look forward to my day of exploration even more, following a good nights sleep in this comfy and friendly hostel.
The following day was the warmest of my trip so far. 22 degrees and sunny. I put on my shorts and t-shirt, leaving my fleece in the hostel and set off to explore the city. I started by climbing to the top of the Citadel and let my breath slowly exhale as I took in the stunning river and city views. On the Citadel is a giant, gold-plated statue of a man riding a turtle, which is entitled ‘Searching for Utopia’ and as I understand it, there are a few of these statues around the world. It was pretty cool to see with the sun glistening on it. I wanted to climb on and search with him but thought better of it, continuing on my own search, which I sometimes hope doesn’t end.
I walked the city streets, up every hill, along the rivers, through the old town and then the new and Namur really is breathtaking. It is also small and if you omit going to the many museums, including the strawberry museum (yep, they have one for those too), you can pretty much see every highlight in one day. Which I did. On my second day there, I had a rest day and just chilled out, reading, writing and watching. I decided I needed to stretch my legs for a little while so went for a stroll along the other side of the river and after 90 minutes, realised I had to turn back. As my feet were so blistered from the past week of walking 20km + each day. I thought I would get the bus back but it didn’t turn up. I started the 90 minute walk back to the hostel and 40 minutes in, realised that I didn’t have my wallet – I had dropped it at the bus stop and it had all my money in it. My pace picked up on the way back to retrieve it and I was so relieved to see it still there, untouched, all money accounted for. Then I walked for another 90 minutes to get back to the hostel, my feet screaming, as this short stroll had turned into another long hike.
I definitely think Namur is worth a visit for everyone but I don’t think you need more than a weekend there, as there isn’t enough to do and that’s perhaps why the people walk so slowly, as once they get to where they’re going, they may not be sure what to do next. I was able to experience it in glorious sunshine so if anyone is looking for a summer city break somewhere different, this is definitely the place to come.
My next stop was Brussels. I had been to Brussels once before on a hens weekend and didn’t really experience it quite as I should have, so was excited to see the city again with explorer’s eyes.
At the train station in Namur, I noticed a poster advertising the Steve McCurry expo in Brussels and I was beyond excited. Steve McCurry is a photographer who travels the world taking the most epic shots in countries at war and unrest and also swoops in following natural and man-made disasters to document the full account of the human suffering they have left behind, encouraging people to help in any way they can. My first stop was to the exhibition and it was amazing. I actually got overwhelmed at the quality of his photos and teared up a few times at the intense stories each one told. He is arguably most famous for his shot of ‘the Afghan girl’ which was taken in a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghan border and was seen on magazine covers and billboards the world over. He managed to track the girl down 17 year later due to persistent enquiries on how she is doing and her whereabouts and he managed to photograph her again and, as I understand it, raised enough money to guarantee her children an education.
Following the exhibition, I wondered into the Grand Market Square and the gold detail on the exquisite architecture took my breath away. It was super busy here, with tourists as far as the eye could see. I kept walking, seeing more of the city centre and finally got the chance to see Brussels without a hangover haze like on my last trip here and it was definitely worth the return visit.
That night, I met up with a friend who I made on my UK road trip in Dublin, who was in Brussels for work and we went out for dinner and a few drinks, to soak up the city at night.
The next day I took a 5km walk out of the city centre and explored Parc Cinquantenaire and European Parliament. The Park is grand and well manicured and again, the architecture is of the opulent European standard, with which we’re accustomed. It houses a number of museums (auto, military, art) and is a great place for families and for city workers to escape to when needed.
My walk took me to the European Quarter, which is the heart of the European Union and while I wandered around, I got a twinge of sadness, knowing my days as a European Citizen were numbered and soon roaming as freely as I am, won’t necessarily be possible. I was able to have a really interesting interactive tour of parliament and get to see where so much legislation and peacekeeping frameworks have been executed since the second world war. I think for any traveller, they need to explore places like this. Some may find it boring but it is good to know where all the decisions have happened to shape parts of the world as they stand today and to see where the future of Europe is heading. Make of that what you will.
I got back to the hostel and struck up a conversation with one of the guys in my dorm. We decided to head out for a traditional Belgium dish and agreed to have one beer at Delirium bar, which is in the Guinness book of World Records for stocking the most beers in the world. Over 3700! That night, one was enough for me.
My penultimate day in Brussels saw me head to Notre Dame, the Atomium and Mini Europe. It was another long but beautiful walk to get there, through old cobbled streets, manicured gardens and parkland. Notre Dame was on the way to the Atomium but was sadly closed, so I couldn’t go inside but if it was as opulent as the graveyard next to it, I can only imagine how impressive it is. I kept going to the Atomium which is in stark contrast in its construction, compared to Notre Dame.
It was constructed for the first World Fair in 1958 and the shape is of a unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. (Again, thanks Wikipedia!) Although you can go in, I didn’t feel the need as it was so unique to see from the outside and I have to consider my daily budget as well, as I had already decided to pay to enter Mini Europe.
For some reason, a lot of us love little things and Mini Europe was super fun. It was great to wander around buildings and monuments which I will see in real size later in my trip and learn a little more about each country as I went. There is a huge portion of the park dedicated to England with lots of sites to enjoy and I wonder what they will do with the space, once Brexit has happened. As I left, I grabbed a postcard for my nieces (one from each country) and headed back to the City Centre.
Despite having seen everything in my wanderings of Brussels, I didn’t necessarily know a lot about the city and as my train to Antwerp wasn’t until the afternoon, I decided to go on an organised walking tour of the city, retracing my steps over the past few days but this time with someone providing expert local knowledge. It was really enjoyable with an enthusiastic and friendly guide from Viva Tours, which provides free walking tours, with a view to you providing a tip at the end if you choose to. (I did). It was great weaving the knowledge I learnt on that tour into the views and buildings I had already enjoyed and it was a strong end to a great trip to Belgium’s capital. After a light lunch, I headed to the train station and on to Antwerp for two very unusual reasons. See you in part 2!