Second leg of European tour: Ghent, Belgium

So the domain is all paid for, and in the days of quarantine we’re in, made me all the more grateful I went to Europe when I did. This entry is going to be about Belgium, which is where I went next after Paris.

I left Paris from the Gare du Nord station on a high speed train. The train had WiFi so I was able to email my friend Fra who was meeting me at the station in Brussels-Midi. I thought I would enjoy looking out the window on the train but it moved so fast, I wasn’t able to look out!

Also, European bathrooms are not meant for American bodies. And I had to pay to use one in the Gare du Nord station, and again in Brussels! There are attendants in the bathrooms who constantly clean. My cousin Fergus told me they’re called “Madame Oui-Oui!”

So I made it to Brussels and Fra had emailed and said, “We’ll meet you at the bottom of the escalator.” By “we”, I thought she meant she and her husband Rudi. When I found her, she was with her dog! Such a cute dog too, his name is Spencer.

We locked up my luggage and decided to take another train to central Brussels to see the main part of town. So we went there and we went to Brewdog, a gastropub. I got to try Belgian frites! They are as good as they say. It reminded me of Pommes Frites in NYC which I used to go to once a week when I was a Freshman at Fordham University.

After we ate we walked around a bit. We saw the Brussels state buildings and the famous statue, Mannekin-Pis, the boy peeing into a fountain.

Brussels state buildings
You can get a chocolate mold of the statue at a nearby chocolate shop!
Me and Fra’s cute dog, Spencer… in front of another famous statue you’re supposed to rub for luck.

It was getting late by then and I wanted to be sure I could check into my hotel. I stayed at the Novotel in Ghent. They’re a chain of European hotels. Was very nice – wished I could stay longer. Fra called to check with the front desk they had my reservation and they did. They said they could hold it til midnight.

So we got on the train to Ghent and then took a tram to the hotel. Ghent, like a lot of European cities, has a pedestrian-only city center. Only trams and (I think) bicycles can go through. There are certain areas though, where you even have to walk your bike.

Fra’s husband Rudi met us at the hotel and I made us all a Nescaf√© and we talked. Rudi was nice enough to bring me some milk and other groceries, way more than I could eat in 3 days. Fra is a childhood friend, and she moved to Ghent several years ago to be with Rudi, and they soon after eloped in the Phillipines. They’re both great travelers, and had lots of stories to tell.

We went out to dinner, and I had a half chicken with vegetables. It was October cool, but we still sat outside among the torches to take in the square. After that they went home and I went to sleep. They said they would show me the rest of Ghent the next day.

My hotel breakfast was AMAZING… they had everything – eggs, sausages, Belgian fried hash browns, different breads and jams, salmon even. Whatever you could want. I ate up and emailed Fra and Rudi to come by.

Fra and I in front of the cathedral next to the hotel.
The Mystic Lamb altar featured in the film Monuments Men.

Then we walked through St. Bavo’s Cathedral, which is famous for the Mystic Lamb altar featured in the film Monuments Men. The film is about a group of soldiers in WWII who rescue priceless works of art from the Nazis.

Here’s some more photos from the cathedral:

Altar at St. Bavo’s Cathedral

We walked a bit through town and decided to get some hot chocolate and sweets before conquering Gravensteen castle. We went to Julie’s and I had Belgian hot chocolate. The way they make hot chocolate in Belgium is to put Belgian chocolate in the bottom of a glass mug and pour steamed milk on top. Delicious.

The castle is known at “The Castle of the Counts” and we did the audio tour. The audio tour was a little R-rated! The guide talked about the count who lived there in 900 AD, Philip and his wife Elizabeth. Apparently Elizabeth was younger than Philip and got mad at him for being out crusading and neglecting her. The guide suggested Philip couldn’t “rise to the occasion”! And there were kids on the same audio tour! The guide also used the word, “Bullshit.”

But the facts were interesting – the holes with wood on the side of the castle were for pouring cauldrons of boiling oil on invaders. There was also a pit called the “Oubli√©e” where enemies were thrown into a pit. A loaf of bread would be lowered and whomever caught it would spend another year in the pit.

Again, stairs…

At one point they’re so steep they have a rope to pull yourself up!
View from the top – worth it!
I’ve never seen a sign like this before – apparently the count and countess used an outdoor hole to “fertilize” the ground below!
Exterior of castle – even has a moat!

After the castle we went over the bridge of the river Leie and sat on the Korenlei. There are two sides to the river, the Korenlei and the Graslei. Fra and Rudi gave me some of the history of the buildings on either side.

This used to be a brothel in the olden days – it’s now a Mariott.
Rudi and Fra on the river Leie – don’t they make a cute couple?

As we sat on the river, I caught up with them and gave them some of my history. Fra had no idea some of the struggles I’ve had, but it felt good to talk about them to an old friend. I also recited some poetry to them, and at the hotel. They’re super nice people.

Back at the hotel, my voice gave out, probably from being the loud American. They went to check on Spencer (their dog) and their cats. I ordered a pizza and stayed in. We were due to go to a WWI museum the next day, but I was exhausted. We met later at their house and I was able to call my mom on their WiFi American phone. It was the first time I’d talked to her in 10 days. They also printed my boarding pass for the plane to Ireland the next day. We had some charcuterie and decided to go into town for Pho.

Fra and Rudi are very kind and they took me to a supermarket to buy Belgian chocolate for my friend Conor and my Irish cousins. Much cheaper than going to a chocolaterie. We had our Pho and went to a bar called Missy Sippy’s where there was a blues band. The harmonica player / singer was good, but it was really just a jam. They had to go home before the bus stopped running. Fra said she would meet me tomorrow to put me on the train to the airport.

I don’t know why, but in Europe you don’t even know what gate your plane is at until 10 minutes before boarding. So I was there way too early. Fra was sweet enough to meet me at 5:30 in the morning, which proved needless. Maybe not though because the line started forming behind me as I went through customs.

Fra and Rudi were excellent hosts and I hope to see them again on the other side of this. I miss them both. Next time, I’ll stay longer.

Next entry will be on Ireland, and I DO intend to post some thoughts on Coronavirus also, but let’s remember the good times first.