We decided when planning this trip that everywhere we wanted to go was within an easy train distance from Brussels. And with little kids we didn’t want to be changing hotels every evening. So with Brussels as our homebase, we decided we will spend one day in Brussels, one in Ghent and one day in Bruges – covering 3 of Belgium’s 4 cities (we won’t have enough time to make it to Antwerp) – our last day is a Sunday and since nothing will be likely open, we’ll just lay low around the area of our hotel til we have to leave for our flight.
Since it seems that everyone in Europe had All Saints Day off on Thursday and apparently a puente (bridge) holiday on Friday, everyone and their brother seems to be here in Belgium. When we planned this vacation, I had in my mind that this would be the off season – it’s not summer time peak and it’s not quite Christmas time for the markets yet – so who in the world would be coming to Belgium??? EVERYONE!! Everywhere we’ve been so far has been packed – restaurants, shops, public transit. By the way it was 4 degrees Celsius today (around 40F), rainy and windy – who decides to vacation in this weather? Us… and everyone else in Europe.
Today was our day to go to Ghent. We got a decently early start – like out of the hotel before 10. I love how far we’ve come as a family as far as how chill we are about when we get going. Now that the boys are older, we aren’t as held to a tight schedule. Yes, I know we need to feed them more often (hence yesterday’s debacle) but overall, we don’t have to be back in the hotel by 6 to eat and get ready for bed. We now have flexibility. And so we can head out whatever time we want and back whenever we want. It’s a really nice freedom that has been a long time coming.
The directions to Centraal Station were pretty easy – a straight shot from the hotel. Walking along a street lined with more waffles, chocolate and general shopping – it’s a good thing it was still just a tad early for them to be open. We stopped for more chocolate though… because, you know, it was there…and we needed (ok wanted) it. And I must insert here, that of the chocolate we’ve had so far, it’s been decent but for a country known for it’s chocolate, I have yet to be so impressed with any particular company that I go, OMG that is the BEST chocolate I’ve ever eaten. No, not yet. But I’ve still got two more days left, so maybe it will happen. I’m a chocolate LOVER and incredibly picky when it comes to the quality of my chocolate.
We detoured once again on the way to the Station by swinging through Grand Place – to see it in the daytime was well worth it. We didn’t take the time to explore the shops (we’ll do that Sunday and hopefully since it’s a tourist area, they will be open) since we wanted to get on our way, but we did stop for a few pictures.
Ok so back to Centraal Station – it was packed. Like lines at least 30 minutes long. Josh decided to try to the self ticketing while I stood in line – whoever got to the front first wins. But then he pulled me out of line because he didn’t know where we were going. Too bad that the self ticketing only worked with a Belgian credit card. Stupid machines. So back to the end of the line and at least a 30 minute wait… again. For a country that uses German as one of their languages, they lack German efficiency. Stereotype, I know, but just sayin’….
We finally got to the front of the line and bought tickets not just for today in Ghent but thinking ahead (so unlike us on a vacation), we bought our tickets for tomorrow for Bruges. Good thing is they don’t have a particular time so whenever we get out the door tomorrow is fine, no pressure. We got to our track with 5 minutes to spare and they also lack the Barcelona well marked train information – we hoped we got on the right train (we did) and headed to Ghent.
I don’t remember the last time I was on a train this crowded. It was ridiculous. Who in the world is on these trains? I know they are like the commuter rain and the FGC (in Barcelona) but seriously I’ve rarely seen them that full unless they are coming from a beach community in the summertime. We met some teachers from the US who are teaching at an international school in Italy near the Bulgarian border. Nice people and it made the time pass by quickly.
We got the Ghent and then had to figure out how to get into the city center. Yes, it’s a city, but really it just felt like a big town to me. There wasn’t much as far as traffic, the buildings weren’t all that tall. I guess essentially it’s a typical European small city. At first it felt a little sketchy and I thought, hmmm maybe this wasn’t a great idea. We were coming to Ghent on a suggestion of a friend of mine and I will admit for a moment I had some doubts (sorry Aimee!). But that feeling passed quickly as we got into the center of the city because it’s absolutely beautiful and did not disappoint.
Ghent is known for having the largest pedestrian area in Europe. Having lived in a large city for the last 3 years, we’ve come to appreciate more and more the beauty that comes with having a pedestrian only area. It’s great for shopping, for the kids to run a little more freely and to really take in the sights without the blemish of cars jumping into your picture.
Learning from yesterday (you would think we would have known this lesson long ago but sometimes I guess we need a reminder), we looked for lunch right away before starting our sight seeing. We were in an area that we at first (but later found out otherwise) didn’t appear to have a lot of restaurants. The first one we looked at was full. The one next door, t’Vosken, had one table left and we grabbed it. Turns out it was one of the top ten restaurants in my guide book (I thought the name was familiar when we got there) so it was good that we stopped there! Josh and I tried the waterzooi, a traditional broth that’s made with either fish (Josh) or chicken (mine). Both were excellent. Aidan and Liam stuck with more typical items of ribs and a ham sandwich (of which Liam ate only the ham, I suppose better than eating only the bread).
Now with full bellies we were ready to take on the world. We were walking in what we figured was the general direction of the pedestrian area and in the end, we were right. Many of the stores were ones we could find in Barcelona but there were a few here and there that we more unique to Belgium and this part of Europe. The views of the canal and the old buildings reminded me a little bit of Amsterdam and little of Strasbourg.
As we walked we randomly found a castle…yes a castle. Just on the corner of a street. I don’t remember seeing it in my guidebook and as I looked through the book for reminders of what the pictures I took today are, I still haven’t seen it. So it explains why I had no idea it was there. Apparently it is called Gravensteen Castle and in it’s current form was built in 1180 but prior to that was a wooden castle (who knew there was such a thing as a wooden castle) that dated back to the 9th century. It hadn’t been used as a castle since the 1400s and had several other functions since then and by the 19th century was in such decay it was slated for demolition til the city of Ghent purchased it and started renovations on it.
Now normally the kids are semi-anti-castle. They’ve seen a lot of them in their almost 3 years in Europe. They don’t get that we don’t have them in the US and that more often than not, they are hundreds if not thousands of years old. But we were pleasantly surprised that they were super into it! And Aidan most of all, especially because there were a few rooms dedicated to weapons and forms of torture. My hope is this is just a boy thing… right, this is just a boy thing??? I’m going with yes because Josh was just as into it and he’s not a psycho killer. Even so, it was so nice to watch all three of my boys really into talking about the castle, who might have lived there, why there were torturing and killing people with these inhumane methods, etc etc. So a little fun, a little education – makes for a good afternoon!
After the castle we walked aimlessly for a while and stopped for a gaufre for Aidan and I… we love our sweets 🙂 And then I made a fatal mistake. There was a toy store ahead. Aidan asked to go in. Josh said no, but I said yes but know that you aren’t getting anything. Seriously, has that line ever worked before? For anyone? Of course not. And they spent the entire time in the toy store begging for everything under the sun. The good thing is I now have an idea of what to get them for Christmas. The bad news is there were in spoiled brat meltdown mode. More so Aidan than Liam (why should I ever have two well behaved kids at the same time?). I might have given in to the little ankle biters had there not been a good 30 min checkout line. And so we plugged on despite the majorly fresh and disrespectful attitude of my eldest child. It was not a proud parent moment – more of a, “where did I go wrong with this child and end up with such a spoiled brat?”.
Eventually we moved on… but it was a testy 30-45 minutes that was a bit of a spoiler but did not in the end spoil the whole day. We found our way back to the train station just as the skies opened up (we had been really lucky all day as the weather called for rain all day and til that point we’d had none, just freezing cold). And since we had a half hour to kill before our train, we stopped at Starbucks for our coffee fiend 😉
The perfect end to the day (at least from the kids’ point of view), room service for dinner. A special treat. Not necessarily the way Josh and I would have chosen to have a night spent in a new city, but the kids overall were really good today and deserved a little something special that they really enjoy and ever since Lisbon in early 2011, they are hooked on room service. All in all a really good day… tomorrow, off to Bruges!