I arrived in Brussels in a bad mood. I was stressed from trying and failing to find a new host. I was irritated by having to spend money on a hostel. And I was exhausted from hauling my 40lb backpack around in the 85 degree heat. I had to walk a mile to the Antwerp station and then walk 2 miles from the Brussels station to my hostel. The walk in Brussels wasn’t great. It was through a fairly sketchy neighborhood that even had its own res light district. The entire time, I was preparing myself for the typical hostel experience: a stinky room, a messy kitchen, and dirty everything.
But I was pleasantly surprised. I was staying at the Train Hostel in the Schaerbeek neighborhood. Despite it being the cheapest option, it had high reviews and I was shocked when I checked in. The dorm room was spacious and I even got the coveted bottom bunk! Each room had its own bathroom with clean slate tile and modern stainless steel fixtures. It felt brand new!
I chalked the day up to a “de-stressing day” and sat in the quiet courtyard and caught up on reading. I enjoyed the free coffee and even made dinner in the spotless, non-crowded kitchen. It felt like I had a private guest house since no one was around!
In the evening, I was relaxing in my bunk when a new girl named Esther checked into the room. She introduced herself and we got to chatting. We hit it off and ended up leaving the hostel to explore the area together. She explained she was from England but living in Paris. Her friend Valerie was living in Luxembourg but they planned to meet in Brussels for the weekend.
Esther asked me what I had planned for the next day and I explained Ascension Day in Bruges. The Christian holiday is a big deal in the Belgian town of Bruges and a massive parade carrying the holy blood travels around the city. In addition to Bruges being a UNESCO Heritage City, the parade is considered a UNESCO Heritage Event!
Esther expressed interest and asked if they could join me and of course I said yes! Valerie arrived late in the night, so I met her the next morning and she was great.
Sleeping in the dorm was surprisingly good, too. Even though it was an all female room, there was one light snorer. But the bed was comfortable and it wasn’t too hot or cold. Overall, this was the best hostel I’d ever stayed at!
In the morning, the three of us headed to the train station to take the hour train to Bruges. We arrived to a massive crowd walking toward the city center. I guess we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see the parade!
I was also eager to see Bruges after the recommendation from the pilot in Amsterdam. If you remember my trip there in 2017, I met a pilot at dinner who highly recommended I see Bruges. I couldn’t go during that trip, but I made it a priority to see it during this one.
Bruges definitely didn’t disappoint. It’s known as the “Forgotten City” because the rest of Belgium progressed and modernized while Bruges stayed historically preserved. It has gorgeous canals like Amsterdam feels even more quaint.
We wandered the streets and felt the excitement in the air. Holidays always feel different than normal days. It’s like everything is buzzing with anticipation and energy.
We made our way to the town square and waited along the parade route. We didn’t know when it was set to start, but everyone else was waiting, too. We stood there like sheep for 45 minutes before it started to rain. We could hear drums in the distance and decided to go investigate. It turned out we were waiting at the very end of the parade route and wouldn’t have seen the parade for another hour or two! Luckily we intercepted it on a different street near the beginning of the route.
It was a bit hard to see, but it was definitely interesting. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind it, but it seemed like different groups of people were represented by costumes. First the religious clergymen, then the wealthy men on horses, then the jesters and paupers, then a large singing chorus and band, and finally the holy blood. There were even some parade floats depicting rocks and castles!
It would have been interesting to have explanation behind each section, but I just enjoyed watching it. To have such a massive parade in a small town really is a cultural sight to behold!
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Bruges. Luckily the weather cleared so we window shopped. I was amazed by the number of chocolate shops! There were at least 5 on every street! Waffles were also a popular option. Every cafe sold them and they were even available from vending machines. I saw so many people walking around eating plain waffles.
We found a quaint park and sat in the sunshine talking about Portland and laughing about yoga. Then we explored a bit more and took some photos. Even though I had just met them, it felt like we had known each other for ages. After spending so much of my trip solo or having awkward conversations with hosts, it’s ironic I find an easy connection in one of the last cities I visit. Funny how life works, huh?
The next morning we woke up and made breakfast together. They asked if I wanted to come with them to explore downtown Brussels and I happily agreed.
Even though I’ve been Couchsurfing and meeting hosts during this entire trip, I’ve secretly dreaded it. I’m an introverted person by nature, so meeting new people isn’t a fun task for me. I thought about what changed and why I suddenly enjoyed the company of these strangers. Even though Luigina in Antwerp was nice, I secretly preferred the hours she was away at work.
I think it is just a matter of finding the right personality match. Finding a romantic relationship takes several dates and having compatible traits, so why wouldn’t a platonic friendship be the same? You wouldn’t date any random person off of the street, so how could I be expected to be sudden friends with all of my hosts I met randomly? Especially when my hosts have typically been a bit older than me and with different interests. But with Esther and Valerie, we were all the same age and had a common interest in laid back travel.
I often clashed with my hosts because they wanted to go out and party, but Valerie and Esther shared my interest in casual coffee shop hangouts and relaxing in the park during the afternoon. I had finally found my people! I never realized how rare that was until now. It definitely makes me appreciate my friends in Portland.
I also forgot how nice it felt to laugh with friends. I enjoy my own company and often laugh at myself when I do something stupid, but sharing a silly moment with friends just feels good. I’m grateful I found that in Brussels.
We took the train downtown to the Comic Book Museum. I didn’t want to pay the 10€ to look at a bunch of comics, so I went to a cafe to work on my blogs while they went through the museum.
Afterward, we went to the Grand Place – the most famous square in Belgium. It was stunning! Each side of the square had buildings with golden facades. It felt like being in an outdoor palace.
We also saw the famous statue of a baby peeing! Legend has it that there was a fire in Brussels and it was extinguished by someone peeing on it. It’s incredible this silly, tiny statue garners so much attention. As always, I try to capture all of the tourists surrounding the point of interest!
We were eager to get out of the center of the city, so we took a bus south to the Bois de la Cambre Park. It was so big! There is a tiny island in the middle of the lake that is only accessible by boat. There’s even a bar on the island! We spent the afternoon drinking outside and laughing while they tried to name all 50 states.
We headed back to downtown Brussels to go to the most popular bar – Delirium. They’re famous for having over 2000 beers! I asked the bartender for one that tasted like caramel and he recommended a 10% beer for 4 euro. Such a steal.
Valerie and Esther had to leave early in the morning but I slept in. I was getting surprisingly good sleep in the hostel. No one was being rude or loud in the dorm room.
I spent my final day in Brussels on a trek to see the Atomium. It is a giant sculpture of an atom and you can go inside! I chose to admire it from afar and then enjoy the sunshine by walking around the nearby park and admiring the statues.
Unfortunately my hostel-luck ran out as I was kept awake for hours by loud people in the hostel. Our room faced the outdoor terrace so all of the noise came in through the window – but if we shut the window, it got extremely hot because there was no central air. A lose/lose situation!
In the morning, I packed my bags and headed to the train station to catch my carpool BlaBlaCar. It was going to be a 4-hour ride from Brussels to Le Havre, France, on the north coast. Luckily I downloaded movies!
Brussels was similar to Antwerp, but larger. I know I keep saying each city is diverse, but Brussels really takes the cake. It’s known as one of the main European capitals and it lives up to that reputation. Most cities I’ve been able to walk across, but Brussels is massive and, honestly, not that pretty! The parks and historical buildings are the only scenic gems. If you visit Belgium, definitely see Bruges, but spend minimal time in Brussels!