Around Belgium in Six Days: Romantic Bruges

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We saved the best for last: Bruges is definitely worth all the hype it gets. Back at the wedding, when we mentioned our plan to finish our holiday in Bruges, the response was always the same: “Heh heh, so the lady wants to go to Bruges? *wink wink, nudge nudge*” In fact, the idea was Chef’s, and what a brilliant one it was. Bruges has a well-deserved reputation of being the perfect romantic destination for two. Ornate buildings, cobbled streets, beautiful canals crossing the city: you simply cannot get enough of leisurely strolls around town. Let the pictures speak for themselves!

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Around Belgium in Six Days: Brief Detour in Ghent

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We spent the remainder of our trip in a hotel in the lovely Bruges. However, a couple of the wedding guests had also recommended Ghent for us. Since the train trip was short and we wanted to get the most out of our Rail Pass, we decided to follow their suggestion.

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Ghent seemed quite alright with its canal and old buildings, but we only ended up staying for half a day. All the other cities pale in comparison to Bruges! A longer stay might have allowed us a better feel of the vibe of the city so many people seem to love, but this was still a nice detour.

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A special mention goes to the Thai restaurant De Orchidee, where you get to choose the ingredients for your wok lunch. First, you need to decide whether you want to have vegetarian, meat or chicken. The type of sauce and its level of spiciness is picked off another list. There is a buffet table with various  different raw veggies and mushrooms, and you get to pick and choose your own combination. The plate is then handed over to the chef, who prepares your meal to your specifications. A bit like the Subway of wok meals?

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Another thing worth mentioning is the Zumex orange juicer found in many grocery stores around Belgium. I saw these in Austria, too. You grab an empty bottle (comes in many sizes) and simply pull the lever. It is oddly satisfying to watch the oranges roll down and turn into peels. No additives, nothing but delicious orange juice! When do we get these in Finnish stores, too?!

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Having a siesta in the cool shade of a park is always a great option. I must say, Belgians really know their greenery. My favourite sight, however, was the flock of geese carefully watching an elderly couple working on their paintings. How adorable!

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Driving in Belgium: A Sloth’s Nightmare

I am not much of a driver; my preferred modes of transport include walking, biking and piggybacking. I went to driving school for about 1.5 years before getting my license in 2008. After that, the times I have been the driver could probably be counted on two hands. As that results in about one practice drive per year, I’ve never developed a routine. As soon as I get my hands on car keys, my stress level soars. So far, so good: every car is still intact and nobody has died yet.

IMG_2319  Snail pace, best pace

By now, I can sort of handle driving in Finland, but driving in Belgium kept me in constant fear. As already mentioned in a previous post, C left us his car to use. Most people would be happy about such an opportunity, but for me, it was just an unfortunate matter of practical arrangements: we couldn’t have made it to the wedding reception with public transport. Since Chef doesn’t have a driver’s licence, there were very few options left… The driver, c’etait moi. The morning of the wedding, we hopped in the car and I just hoped for the best. My wish was not entirely fulfilled.

The drive to the church consisted, for the most part, of straight highway, and I had no problems there. The real nightmare only began once we got to the village of Neufchâteau. In Belgian villages, there is absolutely no hope for grid plans of any sort: zig-zagging mazes of one-way streets are the way of the land. Google Maps is no use, either, when the only suggested route is blocked for construction and finding the detour takes some serious sixth sense abilities. I believe the Belgians develop their supernatural navigation skills with the help of a life-long diet of frites & samuraï sauce. There is no other logical explanation.

Despite some minor hiccups, the actual wedding day went pretty well driving-wise. The next day, after a night well-danced and little-slept, I was behind the wheel again. C’s sister had invited us to spend the evening at her place, some 100+ kilometres away. Chef the co-driver first guided us on “a shortcut”, where tarmac turned to gravel and gravel turned to a bumpy footpath. Much to my amazement, I managed to turn the car around without getting us stuck in a muddy ditch. Since we had a plenty of time left before we had agreed to meet up with C’s sister, we made a pit stop in Namur.

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We started with a snack break in the comfortably cool shade of the trees in Parc Louise-Marie. Belgian fries are usually served from a cardboard cone, with at least one sauce from a mouth-watering selection. After stuffing ourselves silly, we took a little nap on the warm grass and then hunted for pokémon like hundreds of other slaves to their cellphones. There just happened to be some kind of an arranged Pokémon Go event at the park that day. Everyone in the picture below was looking for pokémon – you can probably tell there were tons of lures there! :D

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When it came to our time to get going again, I couldn’t help but wonder how a land as flat as Belgium still manages to boast so many steep hill roads. I had managed to tuck the car away very nicely by the park, but leaving wasn’t quite as easy. I had to push start in reverse, which turned into quite the spectacle for the poké-hunting teenagers right next to us. Namur is no stranger to mazes of one-way streets, either, and finding our way out of the city centre was no peace of cake. Google Maps was, yet again, rendered useless when the route it suggested was allowed for buses and taxis only. I solved the problem on the go by doing about ten rounds in a traffic circle while Bunni frantically searched for an alternative route.

Next up, Chef & Sloth as victims of language barriers. C’s sister and her husband greeted us outside at their yard. After some awkward miming and a combination of bad French and bad English, we realized there had been a major misunderstanding and we were not, in fact, going to hang out and have dinner together. The couple already had other plans for the evening, but we could have spent the night in their guest bedroom. Tired and hungry, we opted not to raid their fridge. Instead, we got back in the car to return to C & B’s place in Liège. I filled up the gas tank for the second time ever in my life, and still ended up having to help a German pensioner with the pump. As if aware of the theme of the evening, he also spoke very little English. Chef and I, both of us hangry and desperate, stopped at a Greek restaurant only because it was right next to the road and there was easy parking nearby. Fortunately, the food was delicious – we really needed it at that point.

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The sunset views on the road surely would have been a treat, if only my nerves had let me look at something other than the road ahead. When we finally made it back to Liège, it was already dark, but the nightmare still wasn’t over. Free parking spots were nowhere in sight. I kept circling the block like a hawk until I noticed an empty spot by the road.

I carefully parked the car, but as soon as I was stepping out, a man next door appeared on his balcony and started raging in French. Now, I didn’t understand a word of the yelling, but being a smart individual I could deduce from the context and the furious swinging of his arms that it wasn’t okay to park there. Unfortunately, I had left little space between the next car and ours, and I had to push start in reverse again. (Seriously, how does Belgium have this many steep hills?) As I simultaneously tried to avoid the bumper ahead and the obstacle behind, the car just kept stalling. During the frantic steering, my hand slipped to the horn repeatedly. I’m sure the neighbours all enjoyed my honking and cussing echoing in the quiet summer night. Sorry, C. Sorry, C’s neighbours. Sorry, Chef.

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The car finally found its place next to a nearby pizza place, and I finally got to sleep off the living nightmare. Oh the relief the next day, when we got to travel by train again! Belgium has such a convenient and inexpensive train network that the average tourist is better off avoiding driving completely. Train travel is especially cheap with the Rail Pass, which includes 10 one-way trips between any two Belgian cities (only 7,60€/journey + possible Diabolo fee on the way to the airport). Rail Pass can be bought at a regular ticket machine, and the same pass can be used by several people at a time. It’s easy to use, as well. Before getting on the train, one empty line is filled out for each traveller: just add the date, departure station and destination, and you’re good to go! Under 26-year-olds can get the pass at an even cheaper price (50€/10 trips), but for me, that train has already left the station. Hee hee.

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Around Belgium in Six Days: A Belgian Wedding

The morning of the wedding, we hopped in the car and drove for 1.5 hours to the church of Neufchâteau. (Driving in Belgium was such a traumatic experience that it deserves its own blog post, coming soon.) The weather was unbearably hot and the refreshing morning shower at C & B’s was but a distant memory by the time we got to the church. Capturing our sweat-drenched selves in photographs would have caused some serious nightmares to any future generations, so my camera stayed in the bag for most of the day. The few successful photos of the happy guests I will keep private, but here is a small collection of the most memorable details of the wedding.

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The wedding ceremony was quite similar to the Finnish style. Outside the church, the newlyweds were not showered with rice as is custom in Finland – instead, everyone threw rose petals on them. A fun addition was the paper airplane sendoff. Red and yellow paper planes were given to the guests from separate baskets. Perhaps the colours were supposed to represent the bride’s and the groom’s sides of the family and friends? Bunni and I just rushed to grab the first airplanes we could get our grubby paws on.

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The groom wore a kick-ass top hat and drove his beautiful bride to the location of the wedding reception in the stylish convertible above. The rest of us drove in a queue ahead of them. The reception was held in a castle, Chateau de Resteigne, 40 kilometres from Neufchâteau. Chef and I had reserved a room at the castle for the night, which turned out to be an excellent choice despite the salty price. The day was sunny and warm, but at night the most massive thunderstorm I have ever seen in my life swept over the village. I really would not have wanted to be one of those guests who had opted to camp outside in the castle garden. The lightning looked much better viewed through a window, from the comfort of a soft bed…

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Before dinner, there was a cocktail hour outside the castle. The hors d’œuvre were amazing. Unfortunately, many of the waiters were really apprehensive towards us, but we did just fine as long as we only bothered the one nice gentleman who had no problem with speaking English. For dinner, people were guided to their seats in an imaginative manner, with the help of movie themed puzzles. First, everyone had to find a piece with their name on it from a separate board (picture above), grab the piece and head to the correct table. At the table, each seat had its own puzzle, and each puzzle was missing one piece. When you found the puzzle where your piece fit, you had also found your seat.

The seating must have been very carefully planned, as everyone at our table was more than happy to speak English. All the numerous speeches were of course held in French. Much to my surprise, I could follow the main points quite well! Every once in a while, everyone at a specific table would stand up, yell something that still remains a mystery to me, and then all the guests would toast the newlyweds together. This was repeated in waves throughout the dinner.

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The cherry on top was the spectacular dessert table, which was arranged like a Finnish buffet table. The only difference was that guests were not supposed to grab anything by themselves, but rather ask the waiters to give them an assortment of what they wanted to taste. The apprehensive individuals only gave us tiny slices, but when I went in for seconds, my favourite gentleman plopped a huge chunk of everything on my plate and winked. Such a wonderful man.

The most memorable thing, however, was the overall feeling and how friendly all of the guests were, even toward us language-challenged folk. Chef already knew many of C’s friends from before, but we also got to chat with everyone else, from B’s grandmother to C’s cousins. We stayed on the dance floor until the morning and fortunately had the good sense to stop drinking early enough. By midnight, one of the guys was already so drunk that, despite his best efforts, he could no longer utter a word in any language. A very successful party in every way!

Around Belgium in Six Days: Liège by Night

After Prague, another three weeks flew by at work. The last week of August, I got another chance to travel. This time it was with my fiancé Chef, whose best friend C was about to get married in Neufchâteau, Belgium. As Chef and I had a very limited budget and little time off work, our only shared vacation this year was planned around the wedding weekend. The cheapest AirBaltic flight from Helsinki to Brussels required a five-hour stopover in Latvia, but it wasn’t a problem. The whole Pokémon hype was still going strong, so we spent those extra hours happily chasing after pocket monsters around the beautiful parks in Riga.

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At the Brussels airport, we immediately noticed how this year’s terrorist attacks had had a major impact on security policies. Three years ago, when I first visited Belgium, I hadn’t noticed anything special about the arrangements, but this time there were guards and metal detectors at every corner. Somehow we managed to steer away from the “official” route leading to the correct train platform and ended up in a queue of people trying to enter the airport. Stressed out and already running late, we figured we would never catch our connecting train if we had to go through yet another security check. A friendly guard let us jump over the fence when he heard the situation and, thanks to him, we got to the train just in time. Either the the massive security operations were just for show to give people a sense of safety or we both seemed 100% harmless. I would probably put my money on the former.

At the actual railway station it became clear that there had been no need for rush. First, our connecting train was only supposed to be a couple minutes late, but then the bonus minutes really started piling up. Finally, 45 minutes behind schedule, we were on our way to Liège.

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Our welcome to Liège was luxurious. C and his future wife B had already travelled to the village of Neufchâteau well in advance for their wedding and left us their apartment (and car!) to use. Their friendly neighbour gave us the keys and encouraged us to knock on her door if we needed anything. We hadn’t discussed the specifics with C, so at first, we were looking for an inflatable mattress or something similar for sleeping arrangements. However, a peek at the master bedroom revealed that, in addition to the apartment and car, the “good” bed had also been reserved to us. Gotta love Belgians! <3

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After a long day of travelling, I would have been ready to collapse into bed immediately, but hunger drove us back to the city centre. An unusual heat wave lingered above Belgium, and Liége by night felt almost Mediterranean. Deux spritz, s’il vous plaît. I managed to order us drinks without using a word of English, despite the fact that I had painfully pushed my way through spring semester French with the lowest grade possible. 100 hours of study truly paid off, here!

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