Cheesy travel guides are always talking about “the hidden gem” of a certain area. Since I think I have yet to refer to anywhere as a hidden gem, I’m going to go ahead and say Belgium is the hidden gem of Western Europe. Let’s be honest; since most of you reading this are American, you probably don’t know much about Belgium. It’s okay, you can admit it. I myself didn’t know it was an independent country until somewhat??recently. Well friends, I’m here to tell you, not only is Belgium a country, but it is also one of the greatest countries in all the land.
However, our first night in Brugge was quite weird. We stayed with a couple that I would describe as hillbillies. The guy, Pascal, had yellow teeth and thinning hair. He looked like he was about 45, but he told us he was only 30. His girlfriend, Yannick, was pimply and boisterous. Their house was filled with old junk and had mold on the walls. I felt like I was in an episode of Hoarders. We went out for a drink with our hosts–or, rather, they invited themselves along with us. At the first bar we went to, the waiter came over to tell Yannick to be quiet. She was honestly the loudest person I’ve ever met. It was like that SNL skit where Will Ferrell can’t control the volume of his voice. Then, at the next place we went to, while Yannick and Pascal were talking to a friend, the waiter came over and told us, “I feel bad for you, that you are stuck here with her, because she is so loud!” At that point, we were also feeling sorry for ourselves, so we left and spent the rest of our time in Brugge avoiding our hosts.
But I digress. Brugge is an awesome place to visit, even if you’re sleeping in a disgusting house with loud rednecks. All the buildings in the historical center are brick and about four stories high. Only the church steeples and towers poke up past the??surrounding roofs. The chocolate is incredible. Switzerland is going to have a hard time winning the best European chocolate award.
After our short stay in Brugge, we went to Antwerp and stayed with Jeltse, the enthusiastic girl we met in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Jeltse was??the best hostess, taking us on a walking tour of Antwerp and showing us all the sights and different??neighborhoods.??She made sure we ate good food, including waffles, fruit pies, stoofvlies, fries, and other things that I forgot the names of. We learned that what??us Americans typically call a Belgian waffle is actually more specific to Brussels.??The Belgian waffle that is popular all over the country is??smaller and has??chunks of sugar crystals??mixed in with the batter. Also, even though they’re called French fries, those delicious fried potatoes were (supposedly) invented in Belgium. (I can’t guarantee that’s true, but the Belgians definitely think it is.)
That night Jeltse and her friend Antony took us out for some good Belgian beers. Really, they’re all good. Belgium might just have the best beer in the world. Apparently the monks brewed them in the monasteries, and for whatever reason, their techniques were preserved and are still used today. Monks are still involved in production of some beers. Just like wine, certain beers have to follow strict regulations to earn the Trappist??appellation. The Belgians are also very particular about the type of glass??used, the temperature, and the??cleanliness of the tap. (Apparently, if the tap isn’t cleaned properly, you get a headache the next day. Again, I can’t guarantee the veracity of this claim.)
I think we would have enjoyed Belgium no matter what, but meeting up with Jeltse again really made our time there special. We had so much fun hanging out with her, learning about her country, and meeting her sisters. (Unfortunately, her parents were out of town, so we didn’t get to meet them.) I just wish we could have spent more time there! If we could do our trip over again, I would take time from France and add it to Belgium. At least we got a (delicious) taste of this great place!
In Paris we rented a cute studio apartment in the Montmartre neighborhood. Montmartre is more gritty than the central areas of Paris (you see a lot of litter and sex shops, for example), but it’s also a lively place with tons of cafes, bars, and boutiques. It used to be the creative center of Paris in??the 19th and early 20th centuries, but now I think the artists have moved on. Quite a few notable scientists and artists are buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, including Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.??The cemetery is actually an interesting tourist attraction. Instead of graves buried in the ground, everyone is put in tombs above the ground. Many of the tombs are grand works of art with statues and stained glass. Some of them are so old and worn, we couldn’t even read what was written on them.
The Moulin Rouge is just a couple of minutes away from the cemetery. Today it’s more of a tourist attraction than a scandalous cabaret, but the red light district of Pigalle is only a block or two down the road. From there, we walked up to the??Sacr??-C??ur Basilica, a white domed building on top of the highest hill in the city. It has impressive views of Paris.
We visited the typical sights as well. Notre Dame, with its dark, dungeon-like interior and huge stained-glass windows, is one of my favorite cathedrals. We saw the??Arc de Triomphe during the day, at sunset, and at night. One afternoon we bought a blanket and had a picnic beside the Eiffel Tower. We walked along the Seine and to the Louvre. (We didn’t actually go in the Louvre, though. At this point, we’re pretty tired of museums.) Each night we came back to our apartment, cooked dinner, and listened to French radio stations. It was like our own little home in Montmartre.
One thing about Paris that really stands out to me, besides the beautiful buildings and romantic atmosphere, is its diversity. I don’t know the exact figures, but there are many immigrants living there. Just walking around we saw all different races and religions. On our first day we ran into a parade and celebration of??Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu holiday. The first time I was in Paris, I wandered into an open-air market and suddenly felt like I was in Morocco or Algeria. The various ethnicities are interesting, especially since most people don’t think of them when they imagine Paris.
To experience a bit of the French countryside, we rented a tandem bicycle and rode through the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is known for its ch??teaus, vineyards, and quaint villages.?? France even has a directory of its most beautiful villages and many of them are located in this beautiful area.
We picked up our bike in Tours and rode out to a bed and breakfast outside of the town of Amboise.?? At first we were on a bike path sandwiched between the Loire River and a highway, so it wasn’t especially quiet.?? Eventually, though, the route curved away from the river and took us on the peaceful country roads.?? We spent a couple of hours riding through farms, vineyards, fields of wildflowers, cobblestoned villages, and the occasional ch??teau.?? It was almost exactly the same as I had pictured in my head.
I had communicated with Christine, our host at the bed and breakfast, entirely through email and she had always written back in perfect English.?? I even thought she might be from England.?? So I was pretty surprised when we rolled up the driveway and she could barely speak any English at all.?? She told us she’s taking lessons, so I’m assuming her teacher must help her write emails.
Leonardo da Vinci’s mansion in Amboise
Her husband, Francois, didn’t speak a word of English, so we had quite a language barrier.?? Despite that, they were both very kind and helpful.?? Francois turned out to be quite the jokester, making us laugh just with his actions and expressions and the bits and pieces Christine could translate for us.?? They also had a 17 year old dog, Maestro, so we had excellent company in Amboise.
Our original plan was to bike from there to the city of Blois, but the price of a luggage transfer was outrageous (180 euros!).?? Instead, we spent two nights at the bed and breakfast, then rode back to Tours and took a train on to Blois.?? It worked out fine and we enjoyed our little jaunt in the Loire Valley.
At this point, I would say that France has been fairly underwhelming. It’s not that we don’t like it. ??It just hasn’t impressed us as much as, say, Italy or Russia. Since I don’t want to be a Debbie-Downer, I’ll tell you about the good parts.
We enjoyed a beautiful train ride from Barcelona up through the Pyrenees to Toulousse. Once we were there, we couchsurfed with Louis, a 22 year-old avid skydiver who owns his own catering company. The first night we were joined with two other guests, Patricia and Fernanda from Brazil. They are both currently living in France and were just taking a weekend getaway. Louis had to work most of the time we were there, but he did spend one afternoon showing us “The Pink City,” which is Toulousse’s nickname because of its red and pink brick buildings.
From there we moved on to Bordeaux, a well-known wine center that has a fairly heated rivalry with Paris. In contrast to Toulousse, all of Bordeaux’s buildings are white. There are many shops along its cobbled streets and a large part of the city is a World Heritage Site. It was extremely hot while we were there, so we both decided to get haircuts. My hairdresser didn’t speak English, but I’m still happy with the results.
After that we went to La Rochelle, which is about the cutest French seaside town you can imagine. It’s a major port city and we saw many expensive yachts floating in the harbor. There are several lighthouses and medieval defensive towers along the coast. They also have excellent and cheap mussels, which we discovered at lunch one day. I ordered the??moules frites??and was very surprised when the waiter delivered an entire bucket of mussels to our table. They were by far the best mussels I’ve ever had, but I was stuffed before I could even see the bottom of the bucket! Brad joined the efforts and we did get them all eaten, but I think we had to spend the rest of our day digesting.
So, since we’ve had fun and seen some nice places, you might be wondering what the problem is. The truth is, we don’t really know. We like France, but we just don’t love it. Like Malaysisa, it’s lacking the “Wow!” moments. In the next few days we’re going to ride a bicycle through the Loire Valley, so maybe we’ll change our minds, but at this moment, I would have to say that we should have spent more time elsewhere.
Barcelona is the first city on this trip’s itinerary that I’ve already seen before. I loved being back in Spain, especially because I could actually communicate with people again. Once we were in the country, it was very tempting to go back and visit my old stomping grounds in Sevilla, but we decided to spend more time in new countries.
The main reason we went to Barcelona is because Brad hadn’t seen it. I was last there in 2007 with my friend Falafel. I remembered that I had loved the city, but I admit I had forgotten exactly why I loved it so much. As soon as I returned, it all came back to me. Barcelona has a beautiful location, right between the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains. There is fascinating architecture, including some of Gaudi’s most famous works. It has a vibrant culture with lots of art. There’s an easy-to-use public transportation system. And, of course, it’s home to one of the most famous sports teams in the world
Brad and I had one of the most fun days of our trip here. We met up with Jordi and Tanit, two couchsurfers that Yoshiko in Tokyo highly recommended to us. They were both awesome people and they took us to the Gracia neighborhood for its annual block party. Each neighborhood has its own party during the summer, and from what I gathered, Gracia’s is the best. They have a contest for the best decorated street and the streets go all-out in their participation. We saw an elaborate wild west themed street, a beach, a winter scene, and a Star Wars one. (There were many more, but we didn’t see them all.) They were all creative and the residents were very resourceful with their materials. For example, the cacti in the wild west street were made with aluminum cans that had been painted green and covered with Tic-Tacs.
The parade was the best and most dangerous part. First, people threw candy from trucks, which is pretty standard, except that they were whipping the candy at us. Then groups came through doing an intricate dance with sticks that they hit together and against other people’s, switching partners and moving the whole time. Tanit, who used to do this dance, said that if you make a mistake, you could whack someone in the head. Following them, men with guns arrived. Their guns were so loud, we could feel the shockwave in our ears. After that, young people dressed like devils came through with gigantic sparklers that whirled around and shot sparks at the crowd. I’m not exaggerating. The spectators had to duck and run for cover. A few people got small holes burnt into their clothing. Our Spanish guides explained that the devils are supposed to act mischievously. Finally a dragon with sparklers shooting out of his mouth came through. His fireworks shot even further and started a tree on fire. Again, I’m not exaggerating. The tree burned for a few minutes, threatening to set the entire district ablaze, before someone brought a fire extinguisher over. Brad and I got a kick out of how hilariously dangerous this parade was. Only in Spain.
Top three experiences?
- Our time with Jordi and Tanit at the Festa Major de Gracia. So much fun!
- Seeing the Sagrada Familia for the second time. A lot has changed since I last saw it. Gaudi’s inspired cathedral is slowly coming together and the inside is now finished. The many pillars on the inside are supposed to resemble trees in a forest and the stained glass windows are beautiful. It’s an amazing work of art. I can’t wait until it’s finished around the year 2025!
- While strolling around aimlessly, we came across a neighborhood with a lot of small, artsy boutiques. We spent a long time browsing through the eclectic offerings.
- The parade in Gracia. It was a blast!
- Sagrada Familia. It’s an incredible mix of shapes from nature and geometry. I liked reading the exhibit on Gaudi’s inspirations, which include microscopic plants, tree trunks, crystals, hyperbolic paraboloids, and twisted planes. The inside is stunning, and considering its finished height will be far taller than it is now, I really want to come back when it’s done in 2028 or so.
- Parc G??ell. The view was amazing and so was Gaudi’s work.
Bottom three experiences?
- Our hostel was actually in Badalona, a little bit outside of downtown Barcelona. We were very close to the subway, but unfortunately that section of the subway was under construction, so we had to take slow buses into town.
- Camp Nou, the stadium where Barcelona FC plays, was doing some renovations, so the locker room and media room were closed to tours. We decided it wouldn’t be worth it to pay for a tour if we couldn’t see these areas. And there weren’t any home games while we were there, so we didn’t get to see the inside of the stadium.
- The crowds. I was first there in the spring time, which is apparently the off season. This time around everything was packed with people.
- Construction in the soccer stadium prevented us from seeing it.
- The lizard in Parc G??ell was constantly mobbed by people, so it was impossible to get a decent photo. The only chance would be coming here during sunrise to beat the crowds.
- We stayed in a hostel a little out of town, but very near a subway stop. However, part of the subway line was closed for maintenance and replaced by a bus that supposedly came as often as the subways did. We essentially had to transfer to that bus to get to and from our place.
Nikki: The more traditional Catalan fare we tried with Jordi and Tanit. I had a sandwich with fuet (Catalan sausage) and Brad had a sandwich with honey and bacon.
Brad: The open-faced sandwich we had with Jordi and Tanit. Mine was bacon, brie, and honey. It was really good.
Nikki: McDonald’s. It had actually been months since we’d eaten there, so I was looking forward to it. And then I felt terrible after lunch. I might be done with McDonald’s for good.
Brad: We had McDonald’s for lunch one of the days. It was too much food and too heavy. I didn’t feel well that afternoon.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: Jordi and Tanit. Super friendly, funny, and interesting!
Brad: Jordi and Tanit. They took us to the crazy parade and a delicious dinner.
Nikki: The construction on our subway line.
Brad: We didn’t tour the FCB soccer stadium. It was under renovation and Nikki, who has seen it before, didn’t think it was worth the €23 admission if we couldn’t see the press and locker rooms.
Nikki: All of Gaudi’s architecture is very weird.
Brad: A musician in Parc G??ell wearing leopard print leggings, huge sunglasses, and ankle sleighbells. He played “Charlie Brown, he’s a clown,” at one point screaming gibberish and blowing a snot rocket as part of a guitar solo. He’s how I imagine a homeless Ziggy Stardust post-glam rock’n'roll suicide playing for change in a park. He wasn’t bad, just a lot unconventional.
Statistics for Spain
- Days in the country: 4
- Places we stayed: 1
- Rainy days: 0
- Blog posts: 1, this one
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 514
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 125, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 1
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 19
- Days on the road: 352
- Days remaining: 47
- Places we stayed: 145
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 40
- Photos taken: 15,812
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,745, 24% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 36
- Plane flights: 12
- Miles on plane (approx): 15,600