Something I should have mentioned in part 1 was the amount of armed military personal who policed the streets of Brussels. In the wake of the terror attacks in London and Sweden and on the anniversary of the Brussels attack, the army were out in force and it was kind of eery. It did make me feel safe but also seeing them was a visual reminder that terror attacks could happen anywhere at anytime, so as well as making me feel fear, seeing them also made me more vigilant. I was in London the day after the Westminster attack and saw hardly any police at all, let alone the army. I thought it was interesting to see different countries stance on keeping their people safe.
I left Brussels by train, with army units patrolling all the platforms, machine guns at the ready and left the vibrant, touristy city for the quieter city of Antwerp. My reasons for going to Antwerp were strange, even by my standards. I love flashmobs and in 2009, there was an epic Sound of Music flashmob at Antwerp Central Station (click on the link below to see it) and I really wanted to visit and see where it took place. I also had lunch plans with Mr Leather Belgium. As you do.
As I arrived into the station, I was impressed with how grandiose it is. My understanding is that Antwerp Central station is one of the most opulent in Europe. I made my way to where the Flashmob happened and was stoked to be there. I could see where it took place and imagined Julie Andrews singing over the loud speaker. Although there wasn’t a Flashmob when I was there, they were giving away free beer, which I am also fond of, so I was winning all round 🙂
I made my way to the hostel I was staying in on my first night and stayed in my first 14 person mixed dorm. I had reservations about a dorm that size but rather than be standoffish about it, I joined in the banter and was soon making friends with an agreement in place that we’d all meet later in the evening for a drink and some more laughs. In the meantime, I did my usual and took off to wander the streets and see the city wandergrin style.
Antwerp is really pretty. Amazing architecture, great views along the River Scheldt and it seems very easy to navigate. It came as quite a shock, after hearing French since Luxembourg and through Belgium, to hear that people only spoke Dutch here. Despite being less than an hour from Brussels, they will refuse to speak it or respond to anyone speaking to them in French. So I had to stop with the mercy and start with the Dank je wel.
Belgium loves a good fable and legend has it that the city was named after a giant called Antigoon. He straddled the river each day, demanding a toll from the passing sailors, cutting a hand off those who refused to pay the toll. Eventually, a young hero managed to kill the giant and cut his hands off, before discarding them into the river, hence Ant in memory of the giant and werpen, which is the Dutch for hand. The hand is now the symbol for Antwerp (Antwerpen to the locals) and you see hands all over the city. I enjoyed a few drinks that night with some of the guys and girls from my dorm, before grabbing an early-ish night in preparation for my friend coming to visit from London, the following morning. I didn’t have to worry about an alarm clock though, as from 5.30 one of the guys started snoring like a trucker. If I wasn’t in a top bunk, I would have got out of bed and shook him until he woke up.
I checked out of the hostel and walked for 30 minutes in the rain to a smaller hostel, where there was room to host the two of us. Being Easter, most hostels were all booked up and although this one was out-of-town, it was cheap and Suruthi and I were able to stay in the same dorm. You may remember Suruthi from a previous blog (as I’m sure you’ve all committed each one to memory!) We met in the Philipines and I went and stayed with her on my UK road trip earlier in the year. Being the Easter break which allowed a long weekend without taking time off work and being much closer to the UK than Australia where I got very few visitors, I was happy to receive my first visitor of the trip from one of my UK based friends. After leaving our bags, we caught up over a slow meander along the city streets, updating each other on our most recent news and laughing a lot like we normally do in each others company. We made our way to a quieter part of town, where I had arranged lunch with Mr Leather Belgium. Again, if anyone can remember from my Dublin blog, I ended up on a rather random night out where I went to the biggest leather party for Ireland Leather Pride. It was there I met Georges and we remained friends since. Considering he is 6′ 5″ and is also a mounted Police Officer, you’d think he would be Mr tough guy but after spotting the spring in his step and the way his eyes lit up at the mention of the film Frozen, you’d quickly realise he is just one giant puppy dog. It was great meeting his partner as well and the 4 of us had a really enjoyable and amusing lunch. We found out that Georges is in the running for Mr Leather World and will be following his progress avidly.
After saying our farewells, Suruthi and I made our way to Grand Place, where our walking tour was about to begin. Antwerp City Hall
The walking tour showed us a lot of hands and a lot of statues of the Virgin Mary. I was completely distracted by the ‘local’ guide who was Spanish but had clearly been taught English by someone from South Wales. The mix of Spanish and Welsh inflections on her English really distracted me from what she was saying, so I don’t remember much of the history she shared, apart from about the giant.
The evening was chilled with us visiting a really lively square near our hostel, which at times felt like it was on the Gaza Strip, due to being smack bang in the middle of a Jewish and Muslim suburb. However everyone was getting along peacefully and it was quite interesting seeing all the traditional attire of both religions, as they went about their daily business. After a quick drink and a tasty kebab, we headed back to watch a movie before going to sleep in a much quieter, 4-bed dorm.
We’d made an agreement to go to either Ghent of Bruges on one of our days together and after a number of suggestions online from friends saying to go to Ghent, we went to Ghent. We’d planned on going on another walking tour, to acquaint ourselves with the city and from there would make decisions on where to visit in the afternoon but the English-speaking guide didn’t show and with neither of us able to speak or understand fluent Spanish, we decided to make our own way around the city.
I’m coming to the conclusion that any city that sits on a river is going to be quite lovely and Ghent was no exception. Like Namur, it sits on the confluence of two rivers and due to being one of the riches cities of Northern Europe in the middle ages, the architecture and church spires really afforded some spectacular views.
We had a really relaxing day in Ghent, wandering from site to site, with regular pit stops for waffles or frites or beer. Although it was chilly, the sun shone and we were really glad to have had Ghent suggested to us, as it was definitely a stunning place to visit. Despite its historical past, every now and again it gives a nod to the present and we saw an awesome graffiti street, where artists are given the opportunity to present their work and because it was such a stark contrast to the historical setting, it was a really great find to stumble upon.
After enjoying as much of the city that time and the cobblestones allowed us, we got a late train back to Antwerp. We went back to the hostel, grabbed some food from a nearby Moroccan restaurant and had another night in just chilling and enjoying each others company by way of debates, laughs, good conversation and our shared love of horror movies.
Suruthi left the next morning and realising I had the dorm to myself for the whole day, I decided to have a relaxing day, letting my feet rest and getting my travel and accommodation sorted for the next country on my European tour. Holland!
Belgium was a beautiful surprise. Like I said in part 1, I wasn’t overly fussed with the idea of coming here but I’m so glad I did. The people are lovely, the scenery breathtaking, both in the cities and on the train journeys taking me to them and having a good mix of time by myself and also with other travellers and also friends has enabled me to see how the rest of the trip will be as well. One thing that always enamoured me to a place is if I leave feeling that I haven’t seen everything or done it all and realising there is so much more to Belgium that I could do, I will definitely be back and hope you get the opportunity to go there too.