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Of Cheap Hostels and Belgian Waffles

November 27, 2019

The Grand Place in Brussels

 

I love travelling alone. I love the feeling of getting off a long bus ride in a totally new place and walking the streets and finding my way. I love the freedom of being totally anonymous in a crowd full of strangers. I love finding the perfect cafe, the best picnic spot, a hidden alleyway or references to home.

 

Sunset in Antwerp


I spent the past week travelling around Belgium and Amsterdam with two of my closest friends. Travelling with friends was a new challenge for me, but also extremely rewarding. Being able to sit in that cafe with people I care about and reflect on our time apart was really special. Crawling into a hostel bed at night not in a room full of strangers but in a room full of friends, sitting back and chatting about the day - these moments add a whole new dimension to the experience of experiencing.

 

Souvenir shops in Antwerp 


Travelling often brings this added pressure of doing the most - seeing it all, experiencing the best, getting it right. Travelling and keeping Shabbat has helped me to reflect more on the experience of travelling as opposed to the experience of seeing it all (see my reflections on Shabbos in Jaipur here). Instead of obsessing over checking sights off a list, focussing on the all-around experience of taking in a new culture and location is something I’m trying to push myself to do.

 

Roadside cafes in Brugge

 
I really enjoyed the Belgian culture. One night in Brussels, we were strolling the lanes of the Old Town when a mass student rally passed us. Hundreds of students, all decked out in their distinctive student-rebel-fashion crowded the narrow streets with music and dancing. A passerby told us they were celebrating the anniversary of their college. Regardless of what they were celebrating, they brought an earthy energy to the streets that was contagious and alive.

 

Brussels City Hall


Our tour guide told us that Brussels is a city of outsiders. The historic main square once served as a residence for cultural outcasts of the likes of Karl Marx and Victor Hugo. Merchants from all around the world would convene in Brussels and bring with them tales of far-off lands and foreign customs, all of which became gradually accepted in the mishmash Bruxellois culture. One morning we sat in a cafe sipping hot chocolate and eating French pastries, picking up snippets of Dutch and French and German and English, and it didn’t seem touristy or overrated. It was just the locals enjoying their breakfast pastries.

 

 French pastries for sale in Brussels (yes we did eat them)

 
He also told us that Belgium is often an afterthought. People don’t go to Belgium, they just stop over for a few days between Paris, London or Amsterdam. But then he said that people are often surprised - they’re not expecting much from Belgium but they come away really enjoying it.

 

Brugge

 
Antwerp was my first stop. Despite the picturesque old town, there were hardly any tourists. The large riverfront was lined with a still-functioning port, and the lanes were filled with grocery stalls and local amenities in addition to the Belgian waffle and chocolate shops. We learnt about the vibrant diamond trade (the largest in the world), as well as the Hassidic Jewish population who runs it. We heard stories of industrialization and modernization and how a city that was once a centre of world trade gradually declined into what it is today.

 

Antwerp


One of the things that was so interesting about Belgium is its historical role (something I really knew nothing about). Wedged between Germany, France, and Netherlands (all former superpowers)(and also Luxembourg but that’s not much of a superpower), Belgium used to host some of the busiest ports in the world. Traders from foreign lands convened in Belgium long before the North America we know today was even a concept. Belgium made me realize how vastly and how (relatively) quickly the world can change.

 

The Antwerp Central Train Station

 
Brussels also surprised me. The Manneken Pis is the third most famous statue in the world (after the Statue of Liberty and Christ the Redeemer in Rio). It’s also voted the third most disappointing tourist attraction in the world. It hardly stands 12 inches tall, and I laughed out loud when I saw it (the guide book gave me the impression it was more of a grande statue). But I think that attitude of not trying to impress is so indicative of Belgian culture in general - it’s not flashy or overstated, it’s just itself. It’s comfortable with that.

 

The underwhelming Manneken Pis in Brussels

 
Brugge was a bit touristy, but I think if we had more time to explore I would have liked it more. Brugge is one of Belgium's best preserved medieval towns, although most of it has been built later in the medieval style for the sake of attracting renaissance-age tourism. Brugge had many impressive churches, quaint row houses and grande guild-headquarters, but what I remember most about Brugge isn’t the architecture or history. I remember sitting on the top floor of a Belgian friterie, sharing french fries with my friends and dipping in the mayo and ketchup mix. I remember strolling arm-in-arm down the road, trying to keep warm in the November chill. I don’t remember the city, but I remember the experiences it brought me.

 

 Brugge


Belgium was a whirlwind - three cities in three days with not much sleep. We saw a lot and did a lot, but I don’t remember the historical facts and dates and political lessons of our free tour guides (I do love a free tour). What I do remember is the crazy opportunity to meet up with people I love and experience new things together. I'll remember standing together, leaning out of our fourth-floor window, looking down at the street below. And I'll remember the incredible opportunities we have to explore the world and find our places within it. 

 

Brugge 

 

 Brugge

 

 Belgian waffles for sale in Antwerp

 

 A church exterior in Antwerp

 

Brugge

 

 Brugge

 

Brussels

 

 Sunset in Antwerp

 

 Antwerp

 

 The Grote Markt in Antwerp

 

 Brugge

 

Brussels City Hall

 

 Antwerp

 

Inside a church in Antwerp

 

 Antwerp

 

 Brugge

 

 Antwerp

 

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