May 16, 2012: Entering the Continent

Up at four this morning.  Ugh.  We got up and were out the door pretty quickly.  We knew that it was a long walk to the train station and there was a lot that could go wrong on the way with us having to carry all of our luggage the whole way.  It may be traveling light but when you have to cart it all around it is not fun at all.

The walk ended up going well and we had enough time, just, to get coffee for the train before we embarked.  We felt exhausted and rushed this morning but with a two hour train ride we had some downtime to just sit for a bit and do nothing.  We had reserved seats for this busy commuter train but only two seats so Liesl and Luciana had to ride on our laps all morning.  They did really well but it was quite tight and uncomfortable.

We arrived at St. Pancras station, where we are making the relatively easy switch from the East Midlands line to the Eurostar taking us to Brussels.  We had plenty of spare time so we stopped and ate breakfast at the Pret a Manger in the train station.

The Eurostar was awesome.  We got our own private compartment, the family compartment, on the train.  We could not have asked for more!  Not only did we have a family seat (that’s four seats with two facing two with a table) to ourselves but the entire cabin with four of those and all of the associated luggage area completely to ourselves with closed doors separating us from all of the other parts of the train.  So we had our own restroom as well.  The best possible way to travel.

The Eurostar is so fast. The southeastern British countryside was so beautiful.  It was a bright and shiny day and we were relaxed and able to just enjoy it all as it flew by.

The Chunnel portion snuck up on us quickly and you barely notice it other than the pressure on your ears – wow does that create some pressure.

We were pretty excited to pop out into France, not that northern France looks all that different from southern England, but the houses and human-influenced scenery does change a bit.  It is a very rural part of France so mostly fields, barns, woods, etc.  But very beautiful.

The train passes through Lille, the “capital” of the French Netherlands (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) and is our first sight of a French city (and the only one today.)  This is the only stop for the Eurostar as it passes through France.  Altogether it only stops in London proper, once south of London, Lille and Brussels-Midi.  The trip from Lille to Brussels took no time at all.  We were in central Belgium before we could believe it.    The Eurostar is crazy fast.  We so need that in Texas between Houston and Dallas.

Getting off of the train in Brussels was a bit of a shock.  We didn’t have to leave the Brussels-Midi train station but even just the few minutes we spent there switching trains it was apparent that Brussels was unlike anything we have ever seen in Europe.  It was dirty and nasty and the people there were not really friendly or helpful and you felt like people were always watching you and I am pretty sure that a pickpocket made an approach to “bump” Dominica and only veered off when they realized that I saw them and was stepping into their “exit” path – so they maintained a tiny air gap but I’m decently sure that they were at least sizing her up for a pick attempt.

Belgium definitely seems to have no interest in making Belgium’s main train station give a good impression to people coming through town.  They are doing nothing to encourage tourism.  Just passing through the train station would make us want to avoid Belgium altogether had we not already been on our way there.  I can’t believe that they let the Eurostar go there.

While waiting for our local connection we did stop and get a little chocolate from one of the specialty vendors, as people do in Belgium, and Luciana ate a huge portion of it.  She loves Belgian chocolate.

The ride out to Brugge, out in the west near the English Channel, took a little over an hour and was pretty smooth on the local, inter-city Belgian rail.

We got in to Brugge (Bruges) and using the maps that we had tried to find out hotel and ended up going miles in the wrong direction because every map, including the Rick Steves map, are outdated and are drawn based on the old train station.  So we had a really rough  morning walking all over the neighbouring city in the heat trying to figure out why our hotel, or even the street that it was on, were nowhere to be seen.  We were not at all happy.

We finally found someone in a hotel who explained that we had gone out the wrong side of the train station (which we had checked carefully) and that everyone does this (I wonder why, if all of the maps are wrong – duh Brugge) and so we walked back through the train station and figured out what to do.  Belgium is doing little to give a favourable impression to tourists, that’s for sure.

Once we were out the right side of the train station we could see Brugge immediately and it was obvious where to go.  We got right to the hotel and check in.  We were settled in in no time and had just enough time to pop into the town to see a little bit before I had to get back to the hotel so that we could work.  In Brugge we are staying at Rick Steves’ recommended hotel which is one of our few hotels on this trip that does not have en suite bathroom facilities but it is right in old town Brugge which is really awesome.

We walked several miles into Brugge and got a bit lost.  We walked all over and I have to admit, there is nothing like Brugge.  What an amazing city.  The entire city is a real medieval city that grew up long ago and has never been built over.  It is really easy to say but hard to actually picture but it is a real, living city made up of all buildings that were standing there, exactly as they are today, five hundred years ago!  Nothing has changed except for the window glass.  You really have to see it to believe it.  And it is big.  This was not a trivial city back in its heyday and so there is a lot of this town to see.  You can just walk and walk and every single building is something worth checking out – and real people live here and work here every day.  This is not a tourist attraction, this is just the city of Brugge.

Our one project for today was to get to the downtown market square, the Markt, and get pom frietes (French Fries for those of you in the US.)  Belgium is the home of “French” fries and serves them everywhere.  We saw them in both Belgian train stations – restaurants selling nothing but fries and waffles.  Very odd.  Belgium is the epicenter of awesome, unhealthy food.

We ate two large orders of frietes first with mayo and then with curry.  Liesl thought that it was awesome and called the mayo “whipped cream” which was pretty funny.

I worked from the hotel for a while and then during my “lunch break” we ran out into Brugge again and discovered that the town had shut down and there was basically nothing available anymore.  We found one “fast food” place in town that was closed but was willing to make us some waffles so at least we got real Belgian waffles on our first day even if we did not manage to get much else.  They were really nice there and talked to us for a while about town.

Okay, so… Belgian waffles.  All I can say is WOW.  Nothing in the US is even remotely like an actual Belgian waffle.  They are not, in any way, made like how we make them.  It is no wonder that they are famous.  There are few foods that I have ever eaten that were this good.  We could not believe how good these were.  I got mine with butterscotch and whipped cream.  Dominica got hers with butterscotch, banana and whipped cream.  We ate them while overlooking one of the canals in Brugge which was just so beautiful.

We took a good number of pictures while we were out so there was something for the folks back home to see then we had to get back to the hotel.

That was the evening for us.  I worked the rest of the evening.  This was the first really rough night for Luciana.  Up until now she has had her own room, thanks to the great apartment in Nottingham, so she was able to go to sleep more or less like she was at  home with a pack and play in a silent room, alone.  Here we are all in one room with just two beds.  So it is Luciana and Dominica sleeping in one bed and Liesl and I sleeping in another.  It took easily two to three hours for Luciana to fall asleep and she kept Dominica and Liesl up to do it.  It was a really rough evening.

Tomorrow we are off to Antwerp for SpiceCorps Benelux.  I have always wanted to see Antwerp so that should be fun.  Hopefully we will manage to get in some sleep before we go.  We are all pretty spent.

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