I’m just back from a week long trip to Belgium. I had a work meeting in Ghent on Monday and Tuesday, but Laura was able to come out and join me afterwards, so we decided to make it into a little holiday and explore Bruges and Antwerp before coming home.
This wasn’t my first time in Belgium; I had a similar meeting in Ghent nearly two years ago, but it ended up being my only foreign work trip in several years that I didn’t really enjoy. Nothing to do with Belgium, though, which seemed a nice enough place… mostly just because of the overwrought state I’d rather foolishly managed to get myself into by going on three other trips away in the few weeks preceding it. So I spent most of my time there (not very long as I couldn’t stay on after my meeting that time) wishing I was at home on my own and didn’t have to deal with any of it. Thankfully this time was a lot better.
I was away for seven nights in total, but I ended up staying in five different hotels in total, and my first four nights were all in different places. It wasn’t ideal, but there was a logic to it (basically, I wanted to stay near the airport the first night as I was flying in so late, and after the meeting I didn’t want to stay in the same hotel as it was expensive and work wouldn’t pay for another night). It did mean I got a bit fed up with wheeling all my luggage around with me for most of the first few days and was glad when I finally arrived in Bruges and was able to stay in the same room for more than about five minutes.
The first hotel was OK, except that it wasn’t as close to the airport as the name would have you believe, and the air in the room was so dry that I didn’t sleep very well. On the plus side, my room had a nice balcony overlooking the nearby motorway. Also on the plus side, the dryness woke me up while the lunar eclipse was going on so I managed to see some of it after all (though I didn’t, in my semi-conscious state, manage to get any decent photos of it unfortunately).
The Belgian trains seemed cheap, efficient and (the ones I ended up on, at least) mostly empty, so getting to the meeting was quite easy and painless, though I did have a long sweaty walk with all my luggage once I got to Ghent as the station isn’t very near the city centre. Our meeting venue was suitably grand:
After a good day of discussion, we had the conference meal. I had been gearing up for a big rant about this, because the venue insisted on everyone in the group having the same thing, which is one of my pet hates when it comes to catering. But the food was so delicious, and the chef’s moustache so worthy of Hercule Poirot’s native land, that I’ll forgive them this time. The starter wouldn’t have been to all tastes as it consisted mostly of raw meat, something I’d never eaten before, but it was much nicer than I expected.
After the meeting finished, I had one day to kill on my own before Laura arrived on Wednesday night. I’d decided to stay in Ghent for this since I didn’t get to see much of it last time, and I was very glad I did. My hostel (the building on the right with the crow-step gables in the photo below) was a lovely old building with friendly staff and good facilities.
(Only problem was, I think spending the night there re-awakened the part of me that loves to go hostelling, but one night didn’t feel like enough and I probably won’t get the chance to do it again for ages now, which is kind of frustrating. Bah. Oh well, I can surf around online and plan adventures for next summer, I guess).
I spent my evening doing the final week 9 run of Couch to 5K (which I’ll probably write a whole post about soon) at a nice park, then treating myself to a steak at one of the many pavement cafes to celebrate, followed by some good local beer in the hostel lounge. The next morning, I wandered round and took photos. Ghent has a very pretty old town so it was a good place to do this, and I was very lucky with the weather as well.
My favourite thing in Ghent (apart from the lovely hostel) was the belfry. Every quarter hour the bells play a tune – not just a short chime sequence like a lot of clocks back home, but a full-on polyphonic tune with melody and harmonies and everything. You can climb up and admire the view from the top (which is very pretty in most directions, but surprisingly industrial to the north), but even better, you can go in the “clock room” and watch the mechanism that works the clock faces and rings the bells. The bell sequence is controlled by a huge metal drum, a bit like a giant music box, that rotates while the tunes are playing.
(These sort of things kinda fascinate me. For some reason, when I was very small, I always wanted to be a clock maker. In reality as an adult, I don’t think I would have the patience or the dexterity for that and would probably have got bored with it by now if I was doing it full time, but it’s interesting to see examples of the craft occasionally).
Next, it was off to Bruges! I had time to check into hotel no. 4 and have a much-needed nap before Laura arrived. The hotel was unusual: all of the rooms had doors opening to the outside world rather than a hotel corridor, so it felt very like the sort of cheap American motel that you see in films (I’ve never seen one in real life but I assume they exist). It was fine though, apart from the connecting door to the next room which, although locked at least, didn’t block sound very well.
Bruges, like Ghent, was a very picturesque place to wander round and soak up the sights. Or even better, sail round. We took a boat tour round the canals, which is something I like to do whenever possible in a new city (done London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and possibly others now). The only slight disappointment was that the boat didn’t go through the long-ish canal tunnel I’d noticed on the map and then couldn’t resist going to have a look at when we were in the area.
There was also a belfry that seemed quite similar to the one in Ghent, though we didn’t go inside this time. It must be a traditional Belgian thing.
We left our two days in Antwerp ’til last, and to be honest it was a bit of an anticlimax compared to the other cities. There was nothing wrong with it particularly, it just didn’t seem to have much going on compared with the other places we’d been. I had a similar experience in Frankfurt earlier in the year… nothing much wrong with it, just didn’t live up to the other German cities I’d visited and loved (Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, Heidelberg). Apologies if anyone from Antwerp (or Frankfurt) is reading!
The highlight for me was the very impressive main station building:
Our Antwerp hotel was quite a long way out, among the seemingly endless stretch of ports to the north west of the city centre. On weekends the buses didn’t even go to it and we had to get off quite a distance away and walk to it. But on the plus side, it was right next to an amazing (and very popular seeming) world buffet restaurant where I ate far too much Chinese food, doughnuts and profiteroles on the first night.
As is often the case, I felt ready to go home by the end of the trip. I’d enjoyed it, but I was starting to get travel fatigue after moving from hotel room to hotel room so many times in a week, and I had lots to do at home… during my meeting, emails seemed to be pouring in giving me new tasks on my other project.
I’d like to thank several organisations for making the trip much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. Firstly, my bank for sending my new debit card to the wrong address. The old one then expired at the end of September while I was still away, so for half the trip I couldn’t get money out from my main account. Secondly, Sony for pushing an update to my phone just before I set off that pretty much halved the battery life – just what I needed when I was going to be away from home and away from easily accessible plug sockets for several days. And last but not least, my web hosting provider for rejecting my monthly payment for absolutely no reason whatsoever (at first I thought this must be due to the debit card expiring, but it was nothing to do with that – it worked fine when I redid it manually). It would have been so dull just travelling around beautiful European cities without all that stuff to keep me occupied.