Sunday, 9 April 2017

Backpacking BELGIUM

Chocolate, waffles, beer, fries and history all come to mind when Belgium is mentioned.  I usually try to avoid travel stereotypes, but the Belgian delicacies were just too difficult to resist. I thought I’d share some thoughts based on my recent trip to Brussels and Bruges (Brugge).

To give a quick background, Belgium is a small and very diverse country sandwiched between France, Germany and Holland. French is spoken in the south and Dutch in the north with the capital Brussels being bilingual.  The linguistic and cultural divide soon becomes clear when traveling here; neighbouring cities can vary so drastically making Belgium a fascinating place to visit.

I took a while to warm to Brussels – it wasn’t love at first sight.  The weather was grey, the roads congested and I’ve never seen so many office blocks.  Brussels is not as uniformly elegant or pretty as Paris or Amsterdam and it’s not packed full of star attractions.  But the more time I spent in the city, I came to realise that these ‘downfalls’ actually make the city quite a charming place to visit.  It’s a real, working city and not a tourist trap.  There’s a good foodie scene and lively nightlife and there are some pretty cool things to see.  Even if you come to Brussels and only see the dazzling old town square - Le Grand Place - it’d be worth the trip!

It’s worth a trip to the edge of the city to see the futuristic Atomium tower, which looks as if it’s fallen from outer Space.  Built as a plus-sized replica of an iron molecule, the structure has become symbolic of the city and of Belgium as a country.  Entry fees are a bit pricey (12 EUR when I visited) but the views from the top are stunning and the exhibition is interesting.  Take Metro line 6 to Heysel.

My next stop was Bruges.  I can’t express how much I love Bruges – the medieval centre feels like an open-air history museum and the backpacking scene is thriving here.  The city is idyllic and charming.  There is such a positive energy - just walking around the old cobbled streets is so uplifting.  A stroll through Bruges is a stroll back in time.  An extensive network of canals and rivers is the lifeblood of the city and a wonderful way to see Bruges is by boat. 

Bruges is a chocoholic’s dream - there’s a chocolatier around every corner.  The temptation is constant when walking anywhere in the city.  For me, the Belgian chocolate definitely lived up to its reputation - I must have come back half a stone heavier!  And because there are is so much competition, the chocolate is priced quite reasonably.  I really enjoyed the chocolate museum, which delves deeper into the history of chocolate and how it became synonymous with Belgium.

Unsurprisingly, Bruges is a tourist magnet.  In fact, the city’s population more than doubles in the summer months as hordes of tourists flood in from around the world.  For those who wish to get a more authentic experience of the Flanders region, Ghent and Antwerp are good alternatives to Bruges.  Whilst not as idyllic as Bruges, both cities have interesting historic centres without the mass tourism.  Trains in Belgium are excellent and relatively inexpensive, so it’s easy to see multiple cities in one trip.

Belgium is a great backpackers’ destination.  There are tonnes of things to do all over the country and travel is very easy.  However, it can be quite pricey, particularly for food and accommodation.    Expect to pay 15-20 EUR for a bed in a hostel dorm and about 18 EUR for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.  Despite the relatively high prices, budget travel is definitely possible in Belgium.  French fries (which actually originate in Belgium, rather than France) are a good cheap meal which is readily available anywhere in the country.  I also made use of supermarkets and cooked a lot of my meals in the hostel which brought the costs down considerably.  And most importantly, beer is cheap and plentiful!

As such, I have given Belgium a ‘backpackability’ score of 4, meaning it’s ‘mostly favourable’ for backpackers and budget travellers.

Have you been to Belgium, or thinking of visiting?  Let me know in the comments section below! Thanks for reading,

Elis Griffiths. x

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