Brussels, Belgium: Day Trip to Ghent

Brussels was boring. There wasn’t a whole lot to do other than watch the statue pee and it wasn’t very pretty, so I decided to do a day trip to Ghent, a small medieval town about an hour northwest. Brugge is a similar and more popular town, but notoriously touristy and overcrowded. Ghent was supposed to be the Brugge of years ago.

It seemed, however, I had used up my one day of good weather in Brussels. The day started out very cloudy, foggy and wet. I took the morning train to Ghent and ended up on the other side of town from the central, medieval bit, about 2 kilometers away. Fortunately, there was a very popular museum of modern art along the way, which was one of the main reasons I came to Ghent.

The museum had one of the best names for a museum: SMAK, for Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst. The receptionist at the front desk was very nice and asked if I was student. I said yes (hey, we never stop learning …), but said I wasn’t under 26. “Much older?”, he asked. I told him I was 27, and he gave me the student discount anyway. Only a euro!

The gallery was nice, especially for a euro, but sometimes it was a bit too modern and abstract for me.

I tried to self-guide myself to the town centre.

I had my LP map, but I figured a tourist town would make it easy to get to the main area. I looked around for posted signs and directions, but found few. About 20 minutes later I stopped to check the map and realized I had drifted off of it. I walked around until I recognized a street name and then finally I came to the narrow and winding cobblestone streets of Ghent’s old town.

A light rain was falling and combined with the usually diminished sidewalk traffic of Sunday mornings, I was expecting a ghost town. There were a few people walking around the attractions and shops, but they seemed like day travelers like me who were trying to make the most of the bad weather.

There didn’t seem to be much to do if I wasn’t interested in Belgian antiques, chic fashion or — of course — medieval castles. I walked around the city and found a sandwich shop to dry off and have lunch.

The waitress at the cafe asked if I wanted anything to drink with my chicken panini and I asked for just a glass of tap water. She gave me a worried look and asked if I would prefer a bottle of water unless I wanted to drink the tap water and spend the next few days on the toilet. “The water is not so good here, maybe its ok to drink in France, but not here,” she explained.

I walked up to the castle and after seeing the price just to walk around the grounds, promptly walked away. At that point nothing short of being paid to enter a medieval castle would compel me to visit.

On my way to the castle I had passed a nice looking Belgian beer pub on the canal’s edge. The pub was small, cosy and the bartenders were friendly. I ordered a beer and found a quiet booth by the window. There was one fellow in there who was incredibly drunk and wandering from table to table, looking for someone to entertain. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him stammer something at me, but I chose to ignore him than endure his attempt at being sociable. Later, the waitress asked me if I would like to join him in a drink; apparently, he decided to buy everyone in the bar a round. Having suffered countless drunk people and their antics in Wanaka, I felt entitled to throw a drink on this guy’s tab. Plus it’ll help punctuate the lesson the next day when he checks the balance.

For my last round I ordered a Gulden Draak, a darker specialty beer from the Netherlands, which was given the thumbs up by a young guy at the table next to mine who turned around and told me it was the best.

Before I left I asked the bartender which of the hundreds of chocolate shops in town was the best. He pointed me in the direction of one just a few blocks away along the river. I needed to get Sophie a birthday present and I figured a box of Belgian truffles would be fitting. On the suggestion of the exuberant shopowner, I selected a modest sample box. He asked me if I wanted it wrapped up with a ribbon. “This is a gift for a girl?” “Yup, for a friend of mine.” “Is she Belgian or Dutch?” “Dutch.” “Oh, I promise you, these chocolates? They’ll never be touched. Dutch girls don’t eat these chocolates.” What a strange thing to say, I thought as I walked out of the shop. All girls like chocolates, regardless of nationality, right? Maybe it was a Holland vs Beligum thing. The Dutch seem to have rivalries across all their borders.

I took a couple pics by the river before I walked back to the train station.

This time I checked the map thoroughly and frequently. I bought a ticket back and killed time before departure by visiting a nearby bakery for a delicious baked good.

I dozed off on the journey to Brussels, but woke up just as we were approaching the city. Confident I still had time, I fell back asleep. The next time I woke up I didn’t recognize the station, so I asked the gentleman across the aisle if we had already passed the Gare du Nord. “No, it is the next station.” Phew. “Oh wait, no, I mean, it was the previous station.” Crap.

I grabbed my backpack and bolted off the train just before the doors closed. I didn’t bother buying another ticket, and just hopped on the next train going the other way. And that’s when it hit me: I left my green beanie on the last train.

I bought that hat in Hood River, two years ago, when I was visiting Ed and Peter. It accompanied me through three months of backpacking around Australia, keeping me warm during those frigid nights in Tasmania. It was essential in New Zealand when my bald head couldn’t take any more of the winter conditions. It was the perfect hat. When it was cold it would keep me warm, and when the temperature warmed up it was breathable enough to stay comfortable. To my friends it was iconic, they could always spot me in a crowd with my black North Face jacket and green beanie. And now it was gone forever, probably destined for a lost and found box, then some unappreciative scavenger’s dresser drawer.

It would take me weeks of searching through shops in 4 countries before I found a suitable replacement.

I didn’t have much time before the bus to Amsterdam because of my mistake on the train. I went back to the hostel, grabbed my things, then walked back to the train station. As I sat on the bus it finally hit me: the next day was Halloween. I was going to be in Amsterdam on Halloween … this could get interesting.

I had a reservation at the Inner Amsterdam hostel and checked in around 11 at night. I was only staying there for one night so I didn’t put much thought into the selection. But the hostel looked OK, reasonably clean and well-maintained. When I walked into the room, however, I was smacked in the face with the vinegary, burning stench of B.O., compounded by the heat of 7 bodies in a very confined space.

It was completely dark inside so it took me a couple minutes to let my eyes adjust. Now typically beds that are available or empty are either bare, without sheets or blankets in the case that the front desk gives them to you when you check in; or they’re fully made. The only two free beds in the room … were somewhere in the middle. They had sheets on them, but the sheets were tossed and scrambled, as if the beds were either occupied or recently vacated. Fortunately one person in the room was still awake, playing with his iPod on the top bunk. I asked him which bed was empty and he pointed at the bottom bunk of one behind him. I put my things down and sat on the bed, but I still wasn’t convinced. I asked him again and he said he was sure, since the person in the other free bed was his friend. I went to the front desk and told the receptionist that my bed hadn’t been made. In lengthier terms she told me to deal with it and confusingly tried to tell me where I could get clean sheets.

Tired and impatient, I went back the room and lay down on top of the blanket, fully clothed with my jacket on too. I was gonna put as many layers as possible between myself and the last occupant. I fell asleep almost immediately; I had been traveling all day, I walked several miles and visited three different cities. It was an imperfect, but well deserved rest.

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