Chocolate, Waffels, Beer… oh my!: Welcome to Belgium

So, its been over a week and so much has happened! We had our first week of classes and our first “international weekend” in Belgium! 

The first week of classes is always stressful, getting a syllabus with everything that will happen during the whole semester. And, the work came right away! I quickly learned that I will have to keep up with schoolwork during the week in order to enjoy our weekend travels. I’m taking four classes and working on a research project independently. I really like most of my classes. I am taking an Anthropology class on Multiculturalism in Europe and it really makes you think. Right now, we are reading about how Muslims are treated in France and talked about the correlation to Mexicans in the US! I am also taking a History course about the last 100 years of Germany and our professor is so enthused by the topic. It’s great! The only thing that isn’t so great is that we have over 1000 pages of reading over the course of the semester… Yikes! My last two classes are Business Management and Finance, each lasting one three hour class period once per week. It’s so hard to get through these classes from 3-6pm without being hungry or falling asleep, but I’m sure we will figure it out.

In my “free time”, I’ve gone grocery shopping, read, journaled, and, most importantly, worked on planning trips around Europe. Planning a simple weekend trip, I quickly learned, is not so quick or easy! You have to get a group of students who have the same schedule and want to commit to going to the same place for the weekend. From there, we have to go to the train station to book our trains, which usually include at least two destinations and a lot of planning. It’s amazing, you can’t buy your train tickets over the internet here, so everything has to be done in person. Another interesting thing is that, unlike the US, most places only take cash, so you have to have enough cash on hand at all times. After booking transportation, we look into accommodations for the weekend. Being students who will travel almost every weekend, we are looking for the most affordable accommodations, but in decent areas. Usually, we book youth hostels, and I’m sure we will have our fair share of interesting experiences, but that is just what makes it all the more interesting! Finally, the fun part comes… getting out a tour book or searching for things to do. 

So, this is how it all starts! This past weekend, our chateau planned a trip on Friday afternoon to Orval Abbey and Brewery and it was free! So, we decided to take it and then planned to go to Brussels for Saturday and Bruges for Sunday being that they were within a few hours of Orval. So, Friday morning came and I had everything for one weekend packed into a teeny backpack… Here we go. After classes, we got on the bus to Orval Abbey. We arrived and got a tour of the snow-crusted grounds and abbey. It was so incredibly beautiful, although a little cold. We learned that the French had burnt down the original abbey and so we saw the remains of what was the original abbey. Today, the monks live in a new abbey and produce beer and cheese. After the tour and exploring for a bit, we went to a beer tasting of the Orval beer. It was very dark and I didn’t end up liking it… in fact, none of the girls at my table did, so we ended up taking a few sips and handing it over to our friend, Ryan, who happened to like it! 

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We hopped back on the bus and it dropped us off at the Arlon train station, so we could all split up for our separate weekend trips. Our train ride to Brussels was only a little over an hour and we met a really interesting French student on the train. He sat next to us and was born in Paris, but was Greek. He spent part of his childhood growing up in Greece and returned back to Strausburg for university. He had just applied to study for his masters degree in London. Being that he was our age, we had so many interesting conversations about politics, society, and just things to do in Europe. He had been to Brussels a few times and gave us some places to go. 

We hopped off the train and found ourselves in the beautiful city of Brussels, hungry and ready to find some great chocolate and waffles! We tried to use our map, but had to ask people where to go. We eventually found our way into a touristy area of the city and we summoned by this Italian guy to eat at his restaurant. It was pretty funny. We got lucky and they offered student discounted meals with an appetizer/salad, main course, and dessert for only 12.50E, and we were all in! I decent meal in Europe is pretty expensive… its about 15-20E, which is about 23-40 US dollars!! So, during the week, we try to save part of our lunches and get food from the grocery store because meals get expensive very quickly. Ok, so back to the dinner. We were starved and so excited to eat. I ordered a salad and grilled steak and it was pretty good! The meal came with dessert and it was a Belgian waffle. It was sweet and had this bitter butterscotch type of sauce drizzled over top and fresh whipped cream. The combination was really good and I was so excited to eat my first ever Belgian waffle! 

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After dinner, we set out to find out first hostel and our friends who were meeting us there. We didn’t get done with dinner until around 10PM and to our hostel around 10:30. We checked in and found our private six person room. For a hostel, it was pretty nice. I was really surprised how clean it was and it was super nice to have our own room as a group because we didn’t have to worry about locking anything into locker. We freshened up and headed off to the “best bar in Belgium”, Delirium. There were three huge floors crowded with people and 500 kinds of beer! The best part was that there were tons and tons of young people from all over the world. We actually walked in and saw another Miami group there, so we got a table and hung out. Later, we explored and met people from Brussels, Bruges, London, and so many others! It was a late night, but a great night. That concluded our first day in Belgium!

The next morning, we got up and left the hostel, headed for The Grand Place, the city center, to  see the city before the museum that we planned to go to opened at 10. We had heard all about this famous statue called Mannekin Pis that we had to see. So, we wandered the city, passing the government center and beautiful town square before we came across Mannekin Pis. We got there and found out that this little statue is only 2 feet tall! Thank goodness we hadn’t traveled any farther. We laughed and took a picture and met a couple from the US that were studying in Switzerland. 

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Next, we headed to the Margritte Museum, an art museum. It was only 2E for students to get in and it was so relaxing. We set a meeting time and split up to walk around. The art was really interesting and you could see how the artist’s work transformed and changed over time, with different life stages and world events. We were absolutely starved when we got out of the museum. We wandered, looking for somewhere reasonable to eat and found an Italian restaurant. At lunch, one of my friends realized that she thought she had left her iPhone charging at the hostel. While they were paying the bill, we went into a shop across the street to buy postcards. When we came out, our friends were gone. This weekend, our phones had not been activated yet, so the four of us had no way of contacting our other three friends! So, we figured that they had gone back to the hostel and went to get a waffle and chocolate and then would come back to that store in a few minutes to see if they returned there. We went to a few amazing chocolate shops and I could not resist, but to try a chocolate or two at each place. The Belgians are known for their pralines and chocolate-dipped biscuits, so I had to try one of each! We headed back and waited a while and eventually found our friends! 

Next, we passed by one of the most beautiful cathedrals I had ever seen and decided to stop in. The inside was so ornate. Our jaws literally dropped! I was so glad to have my panoramic camera for the church! One of my friends, Anna, had a conversation with the priest. 

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After the cathedral, we went to the train station to catch our train to Bruges. We arrived in Bruges, and again, were hungry for dinner. We checked into our hostel, called Snuffels, where a huge group of Miami kids were staying and set out to find a reasonable meal. For dinner, we ended up at Cafe Pick, and, even though I am not a huge ham fan, I got the best ham and cheese panini that I have ever had! It was so cheesy and amazing… I downed it! We went back to the hostel to meet up with the Miami group because there was a concert at our hostel. It started out slow, but it ended up being pretty cool… Euro tech… a new genre for all of us! After a while, we decided to head out for the night… all 30-40 os us at one time. We looked like a herd walking down the street; it was pretty funny! We had another good night… I went to bed around midnight tonight, hoping to get a little more sleep.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hostel and headed out into the snowy weather to see what Bruges had to offer. The city is so beautiful and picturesque! Unfortunately, my camera had run out of battery by this point, and in only two days. So, I used my video camera to take pictures. The quality wasn’t as good, but at least I got some pictures!

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We climbed a tower that was from the World Fair and had over 300 spiral stairs to the top! It was slippery and the staircase was very, very narrow. You could barely fit one person through the stairwell and when people were coming down, it was quite the challenge! We got to the top and saw the most wonderful view of Bruges and laughed about the trek up to the top. Next, we explored the city, did some shopping, and got lunch. We went on to tour another cathedral, known for being the Cathedral to house the only Michelangelo statue that left Italy before he died! We walked in and an orchestra and choir were setting up for practice, so we had the chance to listened to the beautiful, classical music and then toured the cathedral. 

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At this point, we were pretty tired and decided to take the train back home. We got to the train station, caught a train to Brussels, and on our layover, enjoyed one last Belgian waffle! I got a waffle filled with chocolate and it was so out of this world amazing! We slept the entire 4 hour train ride home and were so excited to get showers the moment we got back to our house!

It was a fantastic first weekend! We got lost more than we found places, tried some awesome Belgian food, and had a memorable experience with loads of laughs! Now, time to buckle down and get back to school work… Yikes!

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