Sunday, 25 August 2013

Interrailing, part 3: Brussels

Grand Place
It was around the time when we headed to Brussels that we started to realise that each city had it's own little personality; rather like the people who pass in and out of your life. Amsterdam had been the educated hipsters in university, taking their bike everywhere and...experimenting. Brugge was the good girl, into reading and long walks through the park in autumn. But Brussels was harder to place. A city renowned for mixing the modern with the old it was sometimes hard to know where you stood with it. As home of the European parliament it has a sense of importance and yet at times one of uneasiness: like the high end banker with the 2.4 family who is secretly falling apart inside.

Despite this, we were won over by Brussels. At first unsure as we got to know it we found it's idiosyncrasies endearing and once we left we were genuinely sad to go.

Hostel: Sleep Well 6.5/10
This was a perfectly respectable hostel however not somewhere to go if you're hoping to meet other travellers. As we were only staying one night it didn't bother us however the place was dead considering we were in high season. It's about a ten minute walk from the central station and just down the road from a metro station so location is pretty good. The rooms were pretty spacious and what I really liked was how big the ensuite was- all rooms are equipped with their own bathrooms. There was a pretty good selection at breakfast which was included in the price and internet is available, but for a fee. There was a bar but I rarely saw anyone using it. Laundry facilities are available. The difference in this hostel compared to the previous two was the atmosphere; at times it all felt quite clinical and lacked the warmth we'd become used to. Saying that we did have lovely room mates and overall enjoyed our stay.
Beer testing :) 

The city:  The moment we arrived we set off in search of the Cantillon Brewery. We simply could NOT leave Belgium without going on a Brewery tour, and as we were arriving on a Saturday afternoon we only had a chance of seeing it if we went immediately. However it probably wasn't the best idea to head straight there as it takes you to a rather seedy looking part of town. I thoroughly suggest letting yourself see some of the more beautiful aspects of Brussels before venturing out of the centre. Once we found it things got even more confusing as you have to enter through a side door which looks like nothing more than a back alley storehouse. We happened to walk in on the end of a tour and felt like we'd just gate-crashed a private barn party! However we soon realised that we were in the right place, got our tickets and started to relax. You're given a short introduction and then allowed to wander around by yourself following a written guide. The ticket includes 2 beers at the end where you can sample the brewery's famous Lambic beer. 
The Royal Palace
After the tour we headed into the centre of Brussels where we saw the old part of the town. We passed the Palais de justice, the Royal Palace and the countless museums to offer. There are literally hundreds of attractions to see in this varied city and it's impossible to fit them all in. We ended up in the Grand Place meeting square, a very impressive and bustling area, outlines by lots of tiny streets with great places to eat. Two or three streets out from the actual centre is where you'll find the best value food. On our second day we headed further out of town to see the headquarters of the European Parliament and many of the surrounding buildings which are equally important. My favourite was the Parc de Cinquantenaire with it's massive central arc. I was honestly overwhelmed by the amount that Brussels had to offer and wouldn't surmise to even suggest an itinerary. If you only have a few days make sure you see Grand Place and the Royal Palace and after that I'll leave the research up to you!

<3 I loved this 
Tips: At one point we managed to stumble upon the red light district (yes, Brussels has one too!) and it was a very different atmosphere to that of Amsterdam. While the previous had been jovial and busy, that of Brussels felt seedier and downright sad. It's located in the north district and it's inadvisable to walk the area at night. DON'T try to see too much. It genuinely is impossible to get around even half of what's on offer. The metro is quite hard to work out at first so grab a map from your hostel/hotel and maybe ask advise at reception before stepping on. Also don't forget to get your ticket stamped before getting on, the machines aren't always obvious.

One piece of advise which applies to Brussels and Brugge is to pick up a Use-it map! They are available in other cities but Belgium was the only place we really saw them in. They are fantastic little guides which are perfect for travellers. They have an easy to use city map which is surrounded by great advise that you don't normally see in the mainstream travel guides; they're created by locals so they have all the top class secrets. They tell you where to eat, party, see, the usual but also give some more quirky ideas such as where the local underground art squat is, or where to find an all night rave once a month. They usually supply an "act like a local" guide along with quotes from young people who live there and all in a funny, honest tone- if they think something is rubbish, they'll tell you! We loved these guides and I thoroughly suggest you look out for them, especially seeing as they're being developed in many more cities.

Next post: Berlin

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Interrailing, part 2: Brugge

View from the Belfry
Second stop on our interrailing adventure was somewhere which could not be more different to bustling, modern Amsterdam. Brugge is a city in the province of West Flanders, Belgium. It's mostly famous for being the location of the film, In Bruges, a dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. It's a quiet, fairytale-like place with beautiful canals and lots of history. It was the perfect place to have a rest after busy Amsterdam and chill out before heading onto the capital cities of Brussels and Berlin.

Hostel: St Christopher's Inn- Bauhaus. 7.5/10
This hostel wasn't so close to the train station as the last but it was easier to find that we expected. The instructions on the website tell you "You can take bus 6 or 16 (going every 10 minutes). The driver will tell you which stop you take for the Bauhaus. " and that is absolutely true. It sounds a little odd, but just mention to the driver that you're looking for the hostel and he'll call you when it's time to get off, and point you in the right direction. The journey takes about ten or fifteen minutes and you'll get to see a little of the town on your way. It wasn't as wild or bustling as our Amsterdam hostel but it was a great place to stay! The bunks are great. it's the only hostel we stayed in which gave curtains to each of the bunks, so you got a lot of privacy. Although we did had the pleasure of one guy near us assuming he had a little more privacy than he actually did.... sex noises in hostels are just not ok.
Belfry and central square
Considering we were there at the weekend the bar wasn't as lively as it could have been, however we did go to bed a little earlier than most, as we were pretty exhausted, and many other travellers did find enough to do for a good night out in the city. The bathrooms were clean and large and the rooms were quiet as we were in one which was a separate complex to the main bar. Breakfast is free and the internet connection was brilliant, it even stretched to the rooms. You can also catch  a "In Bruges" special film city tour from the reception. They also have bikes for hire which would have been fantastic had we been staying longer as the city is very bicycle friendly. 

The city: We fell in love with Brugge. It really is beautiful and we all agreed we wished we had a little more time to relax there. I can see it being the sort of place I'd love to go to year after year, just to relax. the main thing to visit is the Belfry tower a medieval tower located in the central square. The top gives you a great view of the whole city. The other main thing on our list was to have our first REAL Belgium Waffles. Which of course were fantastic. In fact on our second day we checked out the Chocolate museum and saw a live chocolate cooking demonstration. We really didn't give ourselves enough time for it so make sure you have around 2 hours to really enjoy it. We also had a few drinks at De Republiek , a cool open plan bar with wood interior. A rum company were doing promotions that day so we were handed free mojitos within 20 minutes of arrival! However more than anything the best thing to do in this city is to just wander around. As we were only there for around 24 hours we didn't want to spend much time inside. The streets are gorgeous, especially around dusk.
Ask Becca to order you a drink and she brings a jug. That-a-girl!

Beautiful canals
Tips: The bike advise applies to here as well, I was inches away from serious injury in the central square... kind of embarrassing. Take money out when you can as we found it a little hard to find ATM's off the central square. However do venture out of the square when you want to eat as it can be pretty pricey. We searched quite a bit but eventually found a street full of affordable cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of that street now... sorry! Other than that, just relax and enjoy. This is a city to slow down in and spend your day eating chocolate. Oh and do watch 'In Bruges' before going, I didn't and I regret that! It's really good and would have been hilarious to location spot.