Belgium – May 2016
Still traveling in Europe, we’re now in Berlin, Germany and enjoying the unseasonable cool weather this summer. It has been good to have almost a week in every city we’ve visited so far and it gives us plenty of time to explore at our leisure and to enjoy our “vacation” from work and travel in the US.
While in Belgium we made our base in Antwerp and took a couple daytrips to Ghent and Brussels during our week-long visit. We really, really enjoyed our stay and it’s tied with the Netherlands as our favorite all-around country in Europe. Along with some snapshots from Belgium, we wanted to share some random observations based on our (limited) perspective after a week in the country. Here they are thoughts in no order:
1. We received a great deal of kindness from strangers while in Belgium. People went out of their way to help us with navigating, and would apologize (to us!) when they realized that we didn’t speak Dutch or French. This was even true among the service employees in more menial jobs, where one might usually expect a bit of grumpiness.
2. Within the cities we visited in country, we saw quite a bit of diversity. We love places with a mix of food, language and people (especially the food!)
3. 84% of the rough diamonds sold in the world transit via Antwerp – and just one little neighborhood – for grading.
4. More than 80% of the employees in the Antwerp diamond industry are Hassidic Jews, and Yiddish is the main language of the diamond trade centered in a neighborhood just west of the main train station.
5. Situated on the North Sea coast and laced with canals and various waterways, it’s not a surprise that seafood is everywhere. We’re jealous of all the fresh and cheap fish everywhere in Belgium, and tried to get our fill.
6. The stereotype of Belgium frites (or French fries) being everywhere is true, and they are not just for tourists. They are just as common as a side dish at a fancy restaurant as they are in a humble street fair. We personally didn’t find them all that special after trying multiple times to see the light (McDonalds is better!).
7. Bikes are everywhere and something like 50% of the population own and regularly ride bikes. It takes some getting used to being a pedestrian in Belgium since you have to watch out for more than just car traffic.
8. Belgium is near the top of the world list for average % of personal income tax, which is approximately 55%. There was plenty of joie de vivre among the population, which might correlate..
9. We rode the bus every day from the Crowne Plaza just outside of the downtown (which we booked for only 5k/night on the recent IHG pointsbreak list). Strangely, as far as we could tell apart from us and the other tourists, almost no one paid to ride it. The best transit deal we could find was a rechargeable card but it required swiping in each time you got on the bus. Maybe the locals have access to something we didn’t, but we almost never saw people tagging in and there was never a check to see if everyone had tickets.
10. There are actual two main types of Belgian waffles – “Liege” or thick and kinda chewy ones, and then the “Brussels” which, when done correctly, are very crisp on the outside yet airy and light on the inside.
11. Albert Heinen grocery store rocks! A good chunk of the store is prepared dinners, salads and snacks in individual serving sizes which is absolutely ideal for weary travelers like us looking for a snack. There were a couple dozen different salads alone, which was nice change of pace from the all the fried food we had been eating in Spain.
12. Public toilets are plentiful and even marked usually marked on the tourist maps. This might seem like a small thing, but it is easy to appreciate as a tourist.
13. Beer culture is big. Like.. Portland, Oregon big. There are plenty of European cities which have delightfully relaxing and quaint street cafes, but nowhere else do the majority of café tables have a goblet of hearty abbey brewed beer on them. It’s heaven for Mayne. Interestingly, the Belgians are starting to venture into the realm of IPAs which until recently was only a British niche beer and (overdone) American craft brewery thing.
Here are some random pictures leftover: