This past weekend I ventured to Belgium on my first solo trip outside the US.
On an early Friday morning, I hopped on a Eurostar to Brussels and then grabbed a regional train back north to Brugge (because, for some reason, the trains are not routed to stop elsewhere in Belgium—go figure).
The train ride itself was filled me with a pleasant kind of deja-vu; between commuting in and out of Manhattan and traveling to and from Boston all the time, I’ve probably spent at least a year of my life riding trains. Daunting though that thought is, I’ve come to appreciate those hours spent watching the trees blur past as my own personal type of meditation. Long car rides feel the same, but those are few and far between these days.
A visit to Bruges is like living in a fairytale. I was greeted with a picturesque fall day, made all the more charming by the cobblestone streets, canals and sections of ivy-lined brick. The city is an absolute masterpiece in the fall (as I'm sure it is year round).
If I hadn’t already been convinced, my hotel room would’ve sealed the deal. My London housing situation is less than ideal— I have eight flatmates (yes, eight) and therefore rarely have any space to myself which is how I justified shelling out some extra cash to treat myself to a real-adult vacation and not stay in a hostel with a gaggle of strangers.
I selected Hotel Bourgoensch Hof for my temporary luxurious home due to its incredible location. Upon arrival, I expected a typical European hotel with weird furniture, a closet sized bathroom and hardly enough space to walk. Instead, I received a gigantic room with a beautiful bathtub and gorgeous windows located directly on the canal. It was a dream.
After settling in, I ventured to Markt square to climb the some 366 steps of the Belfry of Bruges. From here, visitors have a spectacular view of the city and can look directly down on Markt square— my mother visited more than 30 years ago now, and I was able to recreate one of her photos from this spot almost exactly.
After making my descent, I set out in search of some famous Belgian chocolate. Ultimately, I found a small, family run store staffed by an older woman and her grandson who both greeted me with massive smiles, like I was exactly who’d then been waiting to see. One the most amusing things about traveling, in my experience, is watching people size you up to decide what language to try first. I often get addressed in whatever the local language is, as was the case in Belgium. Unfortunately, I only speak English, so I am constantly letting everyone down just a tiny bit. So it goes.
Together we muddled through a short conversation about who I was and what I was doing there— the grandmother seemed particularly intrigued that I was alone before parting ways with 500 g of chocolate and a warm feeling in my chest. As an aside: the chocolate, which I am enjoying as I write this, is absolutely incredible.
Across the street, I found a small bookstore. While on co-op in Serbia, I picked up a tradition of buying a book everywhere I go. I've not kept to this in every city, as books are heavy and take up a lot of space, but there's a growing collection on my bookshelf that are marked with a city and date to commemorate where they have come from. So far there's one from Budapest, one from Serbia and two from Romania, among a handful of others. Now, my copy of Saturday by Ian McEwan will join them, marked Bruges, Belgium: 4 November 2017.
With my new travel companion in hand, I set out in search of a hot meal. I treated myself to a lovely three course meal of french onion soup, steak with the ever-present Belgian frites and some nutella filled crepes (not particularly Belgian of me, but I was feeling some nostalgia for Belgrade's palachinke).
By far my favorite experience on my little adventure was the morning I spent with Photo Tour Brugge, which offers walking tours through the city with a professional photographer to help you refine your technical skills, provide new perspectives and also give you some of the history you might learn on a traditional walking tour.
I met my guide/instructor Andy at 10 am sharp only to find that my budget group tour had just been upgraded to private one, free of charge as no one else registered for my time slot.
As with the other small, off-the-beaten-path tours that I’ve done, this one felt much like a day with a friend more than anything else. Andy is a fantastic guide and photographer, and possesses a perfect mix of both charm and wit. I recommend his tours highly both for his skills as a photographer and because he’s truthfully a fun person to get to know.
Over the course of the tour, Andy will show you examples of how he has approached capturing certain scenes and help you figure out how you can make your photos tell the story you want them to tell. These are some of mine:
You can view the rest of the photos here.
Overall, I had an excellent experience on tour and gained a real insight into life in Brugge both today and throughout history. Fun fact: the cobblestone streets that are so iconic to the city's image were once paved over until then-mayor Frank Van Acker decided that paved roads did not fit with the character of the city and brought back the cobblestones.
Another thing I enjoyed in Belgium as the food: their typical dishes are all fairly hearty which was perfect for staving off the budding winter's chill. My favorite (aside from all the chocolate, of course) was the flemish beef stew (naturally served with "proper" Belgian fries).
After visits to several other museums, including a limited exhibition of Salvador Dali's work (!!), some souvenirs shopping (Belgium is known for its sewing and lacework), I made my way home to London.
I'm not sure coming 'home to London' will ever get old. It certainly never did in Belgrade. There's something exciting about finding a new place to come home to, even if that home is only temporary. After catching up with friends over an English breakfast and a day in the library, I felt somewhat nostalgic for Boston, where my friends and I do much the same. But that's the thing about living in cities: you never really leave them.
I'm a New Yorker, born and bred, a Boston transplant, a temporary Serb and, for now, a Londoner. As I look to the ever nearing 2018, I am curious to see where I will be. Right now, the plan consists of Boston and then a series of question marks over the spring and summer on my calendar. 2017 has been all kinds of busy, but I can't help but be on the look out for the next city that I may call home, at least for a little while. And Brugge certainly made an impression.
My little solo trip to Belgium was a much needed retreat from my ever-busy life in London and I am proud to say that my traveling skills hold up just as well as I thought they would (you know that thing, “if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I had a lot of thoughts to the tune of“if I’m traveling, but not stressing responsible for keeping everyone entertained, will I still enjoy it?”) (the answer is yes).
I’ve always been comfortable traveling with others and done just fine traveling on my own, though I had never done it for fun. When I saw a free weekend in my calendar I figured it was time I changed that because after all, new things > known things. And if we never try anything new, how are we supposed to learn?