friendly Ghent with a touch of medieval times

Last weekend I hopped on a train to visit Ghent, a town that is supposedly 35 min away by train. Liars. It was definitely more than 35 minutes, the train was ridiculously slow and I couldn’t help but miss the awesome train service in The Netherlands. I did like that I was able to buy the weekend return ticket on the train though. That was a relief, since the queues for buying a ticket in the station were insane and I figured I might as well pay a bit more if I need to get it on the train. Nope, the cost was the same! One bonus point for Belgium.

I was greeted by Dore in the train station and she took me to her place on her bike. It was a bit terrifying to sit on the back of her bike at first, but she is Dutch and has perfect control of bikes, so I calmed down after a while. (Didn’t stop me from making scared girly squeaks every time we hit one of the many holes in the roads.) Willemijn informed us later that riding on the back of someone’s bike is forbidden in Belgium. Oops. We didn’t get fined though, so all was good.

The architecture in Ghent was impressive, just as I expected from a Flemish town. When buying things, I experimented with my slightly broken Dutch. Only had to revert to English a few times. I blame the Flemish, obviously they can’t understand my Dutch from Netherlands. Or if I’m absolutely honest, I would probably have to blame my bad pronunciation, but it’s more fun to blame it on the Flemish. Anyway, despite my faulty Dutch, I managed to buy a nice waffle. Since it was Dag van de Klant (Clients’ Day), both Dore and I got a free goodie bag with our waffles.

We got a small iced bun, a mini-croissant and tiny chocolate pastry. They were all delicious and solved the problem of food for a while. With our stomachs full and moods good, we continued our walk through the centre of Ghent. Occasionally it looks like a medieval theme park with entire streets full of nicely preserved old buildings. I had a mission to take as many photos of nice views as possible and Dore had a mission to jump in front of as many photos as possible. I mastered the skill of sneaky shooting though, so I managed to get my photos without a certain blonde friend in every shot.

One of the main tourist attractions in Ghent is Gravensteen or the Counts’ Castle. It was built in the 12th century and has served as a castle, court, prison, cotton factory and now as a castle museum. We didn’t go in there this time, so my next Ghent visit will definitely have to include a trip to Gravensteen. There is also a torture museum in there, it should be creepy and informative.

Some of my favourite views of Ghent were with De Leie, the river running through the city. One of my best photos over the river is with a Dutch flag. Can’t help it, there weren’t any Belgian ones in sight. By the way, implying that the Flemish (people from the Dutch part of Belgium) are basically Dutch, is very much frowned upon and could probably ruin a potential friendship between you and a Flemish person. They are very different, or at least so they say. I don’t have enough evidence yet (haven’t even spent a month in Belgium yet), so I’ll just smile and nod and agree.

If you are in Ghent and need a nice place for breakfast/lunch, I strongly recommend Simon Says! All the waiters look like they belong in an indie band, the food and drinks are delicious and the service is very friendly and cheerful. We even got blankets to wrap ourselves in when it got a bit too windy outside. (And on a random note: the tap in the bathroom was shaped like an animal head. Moose, if I remember correctly.) The house is worth a look as well, it has delightful colours. See for yourself:

We got lucky with the weather – while I was out with Dore, we didn’t even get any rain. When we arrived at Willemijn’s place later for a board game night, the weather wasn’t as kind anymore. The dramatic clouds I’ve learned to love in Brussels had already made a return and for the next day we got mostly heavy rain. But at least the sunset looked nice.

The board game night was awesome. Willemijn and Alje made lemon sponge pudding and a really delicious cherry tomato pasta, I made mint and lemon muffins (they looked delightfully greenish), Alje made us a strange shot/cocktail named The Octopus’ Garden and we played about 7 different board and card games. Dore left for the night, but she rejoined us next morning for more gaming. I’d say it was a weekend well spent. This weekend I’ll be hosting Dore in Brussels, so we’ll have more exploring together and board games as well.

In other news, I now have two Estonian friends in Brussels and I had a lovely day out with them yesterday. No photos of that, I left my camera home. I’m glad I did, the camera is a bit heavy and we did a lot of walking. The only thing I wanted to do once I got back home was to drink a lot of water and put my feet up. Slept like a log after that.

Advertisements

cloudy Brussels and finished room

I am beginning to understand why even people who whine about London being rainy say that Brussels is worse than London. I have been here for a bit more than two weeks and I have seen clear skies once or twice during that time. Usually it’s either dramatic clouds or dramatic clouds with bonus rain. Still, I’m not whining – I’d rather take a lot of rain than a lot of snow.

Every time I go out in Brussels, I find at least one graffiti I haven’t seen before. My latest catch:

This one actually looks so cool that I wouldn’t mind having it on canvas as my room decoration. Too bad I can’t take a proper photo of it though, the fences are so high that someone as short as me can’t get a photo without those. On a slightly related note, it’s rather difficult to find a proper raincoat for someone of my size without paying more than 100€ for it. I already got soaked today, going out with my non-rainproof coat. Thanks, surprise rainfall! I might go back to the skyscrapers district where I found some possible rain protection in stores. If those are too pricy… I guess I have to look through the kiddy stores again. I’m not short, I’m just vertically challenged!

I don’t have much to write about the latest city trip, I mainly went through stores to find stuff for my room. I do have a few photos though, so here you go:

The last photo is a short walk away from my home. It’s a very nice neighbourhood and I know that there should be a street with lots of art nouveau buildings close by. My mission for the next neighbourhood walk is to find that street.

In other news, my room does not look like a temporary crashing place anymore, it has furniture and lights and it looks really cosy now.

The MIM

I want to try to visit at least one museum every week until I have gone through all museums I want to see. This week I went to The MIM (The Musical Instruments Museum), which gives a nice view from the rooftop in addition to showing a lot of old and newer musical instruments. To get to the museum, I first had to go through Warandepark / Parc de Bruxelles. It looked very different without the biofood stalls and massive crowds. I got a chance to take a proper look at the odd sculptures in the park. I’m not sure whether they were there for a week or these are a part of a permanent art collection in the park.

The Brussels sprout in the front is decorated with newspapers, the silver one looks like a hot air balloon… there were also colourful waffles and fries etc. (If you end up in Brussels, it’s better not to say French fries. Belgians are very proud of being the real inventors of fries and referring to the French on that topic might not end well. Nasty little fries-stealing Frenchies! Just frieten or frites is a safer option.) Anyway, after I had walked through the park, I got a nice view of the royal palace. The king doesn’t actually live there though and during summer months visitors are allowed to take a peek in the palace.

At Koningsplein / Place Royale I got a lovely dramatic view with old buildings and cloudy sky. That square is basically museum centre, nearly all houses around and near it contain a museum of some sorts.

The Musical Instruments Museum was right across the square, so I found the entrance, gave my coat and umbrella away (umbrella is basic equipment when visiting / living in Brussels), got a music machine for the visit and was ready to explore the museum. Of course touching any instrument was forbidden, so the problem of curiosity (“Oo, what sound does this instrument make?”) was solved by the mysterious machine. As soon as you got close to something, it showed the instrument on the screen and played a short clip of someone playing it.

Normally it would play music through headphones, but the ones I got with mine were a bit broken, so the machine either used its own speakers or only played music to my right ear. But that was a minor issue, so I didn’t go back to change my machine for a new one. I’m no musical expert, so I’ll just show a few photos of some interesting instruments I saw. If someone is more knowledgeable, feel free to share what you know in the comments section!

There were also some rather strange instruments like a barrel organ with scary-looking dolls. I had forgotten I had taken that photo and might have scared the kids with it a little bit when showing them my photos from the museum. I hope they don’t remember that photo anymore.

The rooftop offered a very nice view and you could also sit at a table there to enjoy food in the museum restaurant. I skipped that since I had spent a lot of money already and eating at home was a lot cheaper, but I did enjoy taking photos from there.

When I was on my way home after seeing everything in the museum, I noticed a random pencil graffiti. Again. I think I’ll start counting the pencils I see in Brussels and taking photos of all of them, they intrigue me for some reason.

Also, the poster on this photo reminded me that I haven’t eaten Brussels sprouts in ages. I should look up a good recipe and make dinner with them next week. Perhaps a nice soup. Or oven potatoes and steamed Brussels sprouts with sauce. I’ll have to think about it. And now I made myself hungry, so I’ll go and raid the kitchen. Au revoir!

Car Free Sunday

I’ve been a bit busy this week, exploring Brussels and getting used to taking care of kids and learning their quirks. On September 16th I was out for most of the day – first had a walk with the host family to enjoy the strange sight of no cars on roads (Car Free Sunday) and later went to meet up with strangers from CouchSurfing to get to know some locals. It was strangely exciting to walk in the middle of big roads that day and see only pedestrians/cyclists passing by.

There were a lot of outdoors events to celebrate Car Free Sunday, the closer I got to the centre the more activities I found. For example there were quite a few stretching/yoga/whatever else groups around.

Car Free Sunday has been celebrated in Tallinn as well, but there it’s “recommended to leave your car home and use public transport / bikes instead”. Brussels has gone some steps further, it’s actually forbidden to drive any motor vehicle in the city limits, except for a few streets that have been kept open for traffic. If someone really needs to use their own vehicle that day, they have to get a special permit that they have to show to the police if they are caught driving. And nearly everyone would get caught anyway, police is everywhere that day to ensure there would be no random cars driving around.

Tunnels were of course closed off – bikes don’t go there and cars had no business in town that day. Such a strange sight, at some points it seemed like I was walking in a ghost town and next moment there was a huge group of cyclists passing by. Everyone was on the bikes and even small kids were finally allowed on the big streets. Also, I saw a few horses. Later I saw piles of horse manure.

As I got closer to the centre, streets got more and more crowded. When I reached Jubelpark / Parc du Cinquantenaire, it was full of food stalls and different areas for dozens of different sports activities. I haven’t seen so many kids in one place for a long time, there were families everywhere. Of course there were activities for adults as well, some of them even looked really appealing to me… but the massive queues were not that appealing, so I walked on.

Later that day I went to the centre by metro (which was free that day, so of course rather full) to meet up with people from CouchSurfing in a park. The mini-picnic was great, I met some lovely people and hopefully I’ll have some time soon to meet up with them again and do something together. I showed up to the picnic without any food because I had just had lunch with my host family, but soon enough I felt a bit peckish and went to explore the park with one Belgian girl. Warandepark / Parc de Bruxelles was full of delicious bio food, there were stalls everywhere.

It was difficult to go through the crowd, most people were walking really slowly (which is appropriate for a slow food area, I guess), but I was in a bit of a hurry to get back to the others. Eventually I just got a nice raspberry sorbet and rejoined the picnic. Too bad we were sitting on the other side of the park, there was a nice lounging area created near the slow food stalls. It was already very crowded though.

After the picnic (and gathering contact information from some people who said they would like to join a board game and cake night if I manage to organise one), it was time to move to another meet-up. I had signed up for a Dutch conversation table, but unfortunately I found there that the conversation moved a bit too fast for me. I could understand most things that were said, but by the time I had a nice Dutch sentence formulated in my head to join in, the topic had already changed. I made a promise to revise a bit on my own and return to a later meet-up either this or next month to try again.

On the photo above you can see the European Commission. A rather massive building, I wonder how often do the employees get lost in there? It would probably take me months to get to know the building properly. The metro station right at the Commission building was quite a shock to me. I already knew that Brussels doesn’t have the nicest-looking metro in the world, but the Schuman metro stop looks quite scary. Hopefully this is just being renovated at the moment and it will look normal again soon.

After navigating the system of stairs and tunnels down the the metro stop, I noticed a strange mirror on the wall. It seemed to be a mirror, but I could barely see myself in it. I looked like a ghost, strangely fitting for that location. So, have a nice ghost portrait of me to finish this post:

Brussels in photos

Brace yourselves, this is going to be a photo-heavy post. I had my first visit to the centre of Brussels and of course I took my camera with me. I popped out of the metro in Saint-Cathérine/Sint-Katelijne station. My only source of amusement on the metro was to say the names of the stops in my head in both languages. Most signs and advertisements in Brussels are in both French and Dutch and occasionally there’s German and English added to the mix, especially in the centre.

The first thing that happened outside the metro was not too pleasant, I do not enjoy getting dirty comments from random men. And it was just because I was wearing yellow shorts with (thick and grey!) tights. I will probably make a separate blog post about street harrassment some time later, it’s shocking how common it is in some areas. Anyway, continuing with more pleasant things: the following photo was the view just after stepping out of the metro station.

I already know that there is a special ice-cream parlour on that street, Comus & Gasterea has flavours like carrots, wasabi, basil, caviar… and for those who don’t feel quite as adventurous there’s also normal flavours like caramel, coffee, speculoos and apples. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll definitely pop in and give it a go, picking some of the craziest flavours. This time I was hurrying to a youthful information centre named Use-It to get a free map of Brussels. The lovely young lady behind the counter gave me some nice tips and even drew me a route for a nice walking tour in the centre. The first stop was at Place du Beguinage to take a look at Èglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste:

The next step on the suggested route was a parking house, because it was possible to get a nice view from the rooftop. Since I don’t know Brussels that well yet, I can’t comment on the buildings seen from there. So, photos without any comments:

And no, the last photo is not crooked – the buildings are upright. To finish off the parking house mini-series, have a photo of the roof where I was walking around:

The walk continued through an area that had a lot of eastern influences. There was a Japanese restaurant named The Ninja House, a lot of other restaurants with all kinds of foreign cuisine, supermarkets with all kinds of awesome foods from far east… in one of those supermarkets I got my bags searched because the security guard thought it was suspicious I didn’t buy anything. He did send me off with a smile though when he realised I had only a bag with maps and a camera bag with me.

As some of you may already know, there is a fountain with a peeing boy in Brussels. Manneken Pis is the symbol and mascot of the city. Before seeing the famous boy, I saw another peeing statue: Zinneke the dog.

Every street I saw in Brussels was completely different from the previous one, at least as far as buildings go. I don’t think I have seen two buildings next to each other that look the same, it’s as if everyone looked at their neighbour’s house before building theirs and thought “how can I make mine look nothing like that house?”. No two buildings have exactly the same height, colour, style, roof, windows… I could continue the list but you get my point.

Another thing I have noticed in Brussels: lots of graffiti. Some of it just scribbles, some as proper art installations. I am yet to find the proper gold mine of awesome graffiti, so have this while I’m still searching:

The route continued towards the centre of Brussels, past Beurs / Bourse, the Brussels Stock Exchange. It was built there after the river Senne had been covered up. There used to be a river in the centre of Brussels, but it got heavily polluted as the city grew and in the end the river got directed underground with big boulevards and fancy buildings standing where the river once was. The river got covered up in 1865 and a few years after that the grand stock exchange building was erected in its place.

On my way to Grote Markt / Grand Place (the central square of Brussels) I spotted a guy sitting on the street and making jewellery. Some tourists were taking a photo with his hat that he gladly gave to them for that purpose. (They did return the hat later.) I ended up having a nice conversation with him and found out he has a friend in Estonia. We both agreed that Estonian winters are insane and I left after buying two dragonfly earrings from him. I’m sure I’ll check his jewellery out again when I go through that street.

The big square was not as impressive as it had seemed from photos. Perhaps it was because there were some stalls around that blocked the view to the impressive houses around the square, perhaps it was the weird weather… but I was left underwhelmed. Better luck next time.

After Grote Markt / Grand Place, I had to go through a street full of the amazing smell of chocolate and fresh waffles. Fighting my way through hordes of tourists, I managed to see Manneken Pis and have an awesome waffle for just 1€. Since I had tips from the Use-It tourism office, I went for a Liege waffle to get the proper experience. It had sugar inside and despite being nearly disgustingly sweet, it was delicious. Most people took the extreme tourist version with whipped cream, strawberries, bananas, chocolate sauce etc. I decided not to be a silly tourist and took a plain waffle, which was a good choice.

As the waffle and all the walking had made me thirsty, I headed to a nice cafe pointed out by the tourism office girl. I had a delicious fresh mint tea there and rested my legs a bit before taking on the last bit of the walking tour. The cafe was situated on a fancy shopping street that had a glass roof covering.

Next stop was Beenhouwerstraat / Rue des Bouchers. It’s a narrow street, full of restaurants and waiters who try to lure you to their place to eat. I said no to all the waiters, eavesdropped on random Estonian businessmen having lunch / early dinner at one of the terraces and took a look at another peeing statue: Jeanneke Pis. The peeing girl was locked up behind bars for some reason and I didn’t bother taking a photo of her, it was too dark.

Last stop before heading back to the metro station was the chocolate heaven. There’s a lot of fancy chocolate stores gathered around one square a little bit south of the centre, so of course I had to take a look there. I got three nice-looking ones from Marcolini, peeked in some other chocolate stores and accidentally crashed a mini-movie-shoot in one of them, got recommendations from the store owner in Godiva and I think he pointed out a place where I should be able to get amazing minty chocolate. But exploring that was left for the next trip to the centre as it was getting late, so I took a photo of the Godiva store with a random tourist in green and left for the metro station.

There’s not much to say about the metro. It’s not overly impressive and occasionally it can look a bit scary, but it’s nowhere near the dystopian-looking one in Milan. I end this post with two random shots from the metro:

welcome to the family

Brussels. It’s my third day here and I like it so far. The main thing is that I got a really warm welcome from my host family. FrenchDad and EstMum (because EstonianMum would be a too long nickname and just mum and dad are reserved for my own parents) even brought out the champagne in the evening when kids were in bed. A proper welcome! The kids seemed to like me from the very beginning as well and they keep calling “tädi-tädi-tädi!” or “tädi Terje!” (auntie Terje) when I’m in another room. Since I do not want to mention the kids’ real names here and they both seem to really like Disney characters, I’ll just call them Mickey and Minnie.

Minnie is three years old, she loves climbing on everything and listening to Adele. The latter can change soon if she finds new music to love, but her climbing addiction is likely to stay with her for life. Mickey is two years younger than Minnie, he loves playing with the vacuum cleaner and drooling on everything. Tomorrow I’ll have to stay home alone with them both for the first time, hopefully everything will work out fine. I already spent a few hours with Mickey yesterday and he only cried for mummy for a few minutes, after that he showed me the doll dishes and pretended to eat from them.

Minnie is super-active. I will probably get my daily needed physical activity just from picking her up from the kindergarten, she runs and climbs and keeping up with her is a challenge when I have Mickey with me. Fortunately Minnie has learned pretty well that she is not allowed to cross the street on her own, otherwise this would get dangerous. Talking to the kids is easy, I can just use my own mother tongue. The most French they use when talking to me is usually just small random words like “d’accord!” or “encore!”.

I’m living in the family house, so commuting to work takes about 30 seconds. The time can be shortened once I learn to climb the steep attic stairs without fearing for my life. The entire attic floor is one big room and that’s my domain. It’s still rather empty, but today someone is supposed to come over to see whether they can install heating here (and if not, an electric radiator will be bought) and on Saturday we’ll go to Ikea to pick up some essentials like a desk / table, garbage bin and a chest for my blanket and pillows so I could morph the bed into a couch for the day.

I now also own a Belgian number, so if anyone feels the need to have it, give me a shout. I have no idea how expensive texts will be, but at least I can talk an hour for free every month. And for those who are curious what my room looks like, I took a sneak peek photo of the most cosy-looking corner. Of course it will look a lot better once I have more furniture and perhaps a carpet or two.

Nijmegen from above

By now I have unpacked everything in Brussels and at least one corner of my attic room looks like home with all my dresses and skirts hanging there. The room still needs improving, some essential pieces of furniture are missing – but this will be fixed soon, there’s a visit to Ikea scheduled for Saturday. More about Brussels a bit later, because I first want to post some photos from the last Nijmegen days.

Since my first trip to Nijmegen I have wanted visit the tower of St. Stevenskerk, but it’s not open too often and there has always been something else to do when it finally was open to visitors. This trip was different. On Monday morning, Matthijs persuaded me to leave the bed (nooooo, nice and warm bed and pillows!), we grabbed our cameras and off we went.

Some rather tiring stair-climbing later we arrived at the topmost point where visitors were allowed to go. No, we didn’t see an awesome panorama of Nijmegen from there. We saw something that’s perhaps even more awesome: the bell-player! (If there’s a special name for that occupation in English, do enlighten me. It’s late and I’m tired and bell-player is the best I can come up with.) We sat there for a few songs, watching him in action, and later had a small chat as well.

It was quite interesting to watch him play rather difficult songs on a set of bells. The biggest ones were played with feet and others with hands. I kind of felt like I would want to try that one day, but my utter lack of coordination would not go well with that – just look at the amount of pedals! Even beginner rhythms on drums are a huge challenge for me and the number of pedals is a lot lower there.

After seeing the bell-master at work, we descended one flight of stairs to get to the viewing platform. The guard there provided tourists with loads of information about the surrounding areas. He spoke mostly in Dutch, so what I did not understand on my own, Matthijs translated for me later. One of the first things I saw was the Grote Markt, busy with cafe terraces and the Monday Market. (There’s two weekly markets in that area, one on Saturdays and one on Mondays.)

The next photo has one of the two bridges in the centre of Nijmegen. Google Maps tells me it’s called Snelbinder. De Waal (the river) will have some of its water redirected soon through a new channel, because the sharp bend in the city centre is not very safe and it’s essentially a bottleneck, creating rather widespread floods. This link has a nice explanation and if you click on the pdf-file there, you can see the changes on small maps, showing how the extra space for water is created.

You may have noticed something strange in the background. If not, you’ll see it better on the next photo. It’s a bridge on dry land with no roads underneath. Why? Because they are building an extra bridge over De Waal and they are first putting it together on land.

The traffic on the river seemed to be rather light at that time, but I did notice something I have never seen in Estonia: garbage transport on the river with an open ship. Probably nothing too exciting for most people, but I still wanted to take a photo of it.

And now it’s time for a random photo of the rooftops of Nijmegen:

This is what the platform around the tower looked like:

On our way down I took a photo of some of the biggest bells in the tower. It was really dark in there, but the photo still turned out rather decent. I really love my camera. (Canon 600D, if anyone is interested. Highly recommended, it’s brilliant!)

The last day in Nijmegen also included a trip to the market (fresh fruits!), some cooking, another board game evening and of course some new muffins. This time they were with chocolate and coffee and I had a lot of fun decorating them.