The past week and the next two weeks are filled with some good old family fun! (That includes you Julie :)) so last week the baby brother and dad hopped the pond and joined me in Belgium. Due to crazy snow storms back home they ended up coming in a night early which was great! I met them in Brussels Thursday night after class and we did a bit of wandering and had a nice dinner. Since the two of them had had the day to explore, aka wandering around in the rain to find the hotel, they had already seen most of Brussels so I had no pressure to be a tour guide.
Friday morning (valentines day!) we got up early and headed to Brussels Midi, the international train station. We were definitely a sight considering we all had on huge backpacks and were walking around all confused about where to get our train. Bunch of Americans. Anyways, we got onto the Thalys train and settled in for a quick trip over to the Netherlands! The train was awesome, similar to the one I took from London to Brussels way back when. After causing multiple scenes about the wifi we made our way to the bar.. Yes the bar. On the train. So great. (Side note: the young lad Cameron is legal here at 16!) When we got to Amsterdam we got out of the trains station and walked into a bustling European city. There were canals, bikes, trams, buses, shops, restaurants, people… It was beautiful! Our hotel was about a half hour walk from the train station so we ended up walking past a lot of the sights just to get there. Also- thank god for me having a phone GPS because those two get no where fast. Amazing how conditioned we are with our technology. After checking into the hotel it was already late in the afternoon and rainy outside so we decided to hit our first museum, Van Gogh! A short walk from the hotel we arrived at the exhibit. We got those dorky headset guides and spent about 2 hours learning about the famed Van Gogh. I was really impressed over all and definitely learned a lot, plus those paintings are what I’ve only seen in text books. But here are my takeaways: the man loved painting selfies, i.e. “self portrait in straw hat”, he had a bizarre obsession with his brother, and he seemed overall pretty cranky. Dude’s the man. His life story is actually quite interesting and it was definitely a great educational experience for all of us. For dinner we ate at a steakhouse and had a nice Valentine’s Day feast. By nighttime it had stopped raining and we spent the night out on the town exploring a few bars, card games, all good fun.
On Saturday, we had lunch at a great little pizza place! We then booked 24 hour tickets for the hop on/off canals so that we could tour a bit of the city from a different point of view. We spent the afternoon exploring different parts of town. We saw the red light district which was just frankly an enormous culture shock on every level, and we were amazed by the amount of drug paraphernalia that was just for sale on every corner. Amsterdam definitely has a mind of its own. As we were doing a bit of shopping we came upon a Heineken gift shop and decided to go in. We spent a solid 45 minutes looking at the tshirts and bottle openers and then struck up conversation with a girl working there. We told her that we planned on doing the brewery tour the following day and she excitedly let us in on the worlds best kept secret: that day, February 15, was Heineken’s 150th birthday and all entry for the tour was free of charge! It was great because they do not advertise it and we just happened to stumble upon the gift shop. So we were able to get on the last canal shuttle to the brewery and jump in at the last tour time of the day. The brewery was awesome. The first half was a tour through the history of the company and how the beer is made. We got to try all of the ingredients and all that jazz. And then the second part was about how they bottle the beer and advertise. So there was a lot of interactive games and stuff to keep us busy! Plus two free beers are included in the admission, so throughout the tour there were several bar stops. At the end, there was basically a giant club with a DJ, bar, music. It was so fun! We had a great time bopping around laughing at everyone getting weird off their two free beers. On our way back, we stopped at the famous “I Amsterdam” sign and got some great pictures. It was definitely a successful day.
Sunday rolled around and we wanted to get up and at em so that we could take the canal to the Anne Frank House tour. After a 3 hour fiasco of missing various canal stops and walking about 10 miles we finally made it back to the hotel canal stop where we intentionally left in the first place. Lol. So we got to Anne Frank Huis and waited in the ever present line, but it was so worth it. Considering The Holocaust is an event we learn about in school for years, it was truly fascinating to be in the actual location of the famed Secret Annex. The tour was a self guided walk through the house with explanations and photos along the way about what was in each room, who stayed where, etc. There also were a few stops with short video clips of interviews with the people who knew the Frank family and had had various experiences with them. At the end, we got to see the original diary and read a few page excerpts. As a book worm myself, and having read the diary back in like 8th grade, this was an absolute treat. It was truly incredible to be in the presence of such a famous piece of work and be able to truly appreciate it. Although it is a solemn tour, it is so educational and interesting to read about and follow. By the time we finished, our 24 hour canal passes has expired and we decided to just walk some more to see more of the city. We enjoyed a fantastic Italian dinner and settled in for the night because we would be up early the next day.
On Monday, we trained from Amsterdam to Ghent, Belgium. Ghent is known to be somewhat of a hidden gem, the sister city to Bruges that no one really talks about. I absolutely loved it! Again, our hotel was a good walk from the train station so we got to see a lot of the sights along the way. Lots of canals and castles and clock towers complemented by tiny cafés with cozy outdoor seating. We had a good lunch in the touristy section along the water and then did a tour of the mid evil castle. Since we only had a half day to spend in the city we kind of rushed through, which means I didn’t get too much background about the castle and all that but it was truly a mid evil structure filled with ancient weapons and old artefacts. We got to walk around the top and had a good panorama of the city too. Afterward, we headed toward the large clock tower where we would be able to climb 200 something stairs to get to the top. On our way, we ended up passing through a small alley way that is used for graffiti. This was really unique because you never really see anyone actually drawing graffiti at home. We were able to watch a girl spray paint her work, awesome stuff. We got to the clock tower and Cameron got carded for the first time of the trip (19 and under gets in for free lol). We had a good laugh about that and then made our way to the start. 200 stairs and a lot of breaks later we made it to the top and were able to enjoy a gorgeous panorama of the city on each side of the tower. The clock even chimed a few times while we were up there, absolutely worth the 6 euros! After leaving there, we had a beer at the oldest pub in Ghent (year 1220 or something ridiculous) and then had dinner at a really local place near our hotel. Cameron was afraid to speak to our French waitress, definitely the first time the kid has ever been flustered around a girl, or anyone for that matter, and it was so funny. After some exploring of the city under a pretty dark blue night sky we capped the night off with a stop for some classic Belgium chocolate and called it a night.
I had to be back in Louvain-la-Neuve early for class on Tuesday, so we got on a train bright and early and made our way back. After class, I had the chance to show the guys my campus, apartment, class buildings, and all that. Michael was able to join us after dinner and so Cam and dad got to meet my friend who was my Belgian lifesaver, thanks Michael!!!!! We then went to a local student bar and Jenna, Paul, and Anisa joined us for some drinks. I was so happy that my family had the chance to meet some of my new friends here, I think it was great for them to put some faces to names and meet the people I’ve been traveling with. Cameron savoured his first kabob and we turned in for the night.
Wednesday was the last day of the boys’ trip, so we headed to Brussels in the morning and checked into their hotel. We enjoyed a casual day of naps, lunch, shopping, and wondering and by 6 I headed back to LLN. I was sad to say goodbye to the fam but we had a great week, and I still had so much to look forward to!
I only had one day of class on my own, and then I picked mom up from the train station on Friday morning. We will be spending the next 12 days on a trip through Paris, Brussels, and Zurich, Switzerland! I’m so happy to be able to share my family’s first trip to Europe from the perspective as a student here as it definitely adds some flair to the vacation. All is well!