fun in bruges

Whenever someone found out our next assignment was going to be Brussels, nine times out of ten that person would ask, “Oooh, and are you going to visit Bruges?” (And no, we have not yet seen the movie In Bruges — but it is on the to-watch-soon list.) Friends of ours who have served in Brussels twice recommended that we go to Bruges to get it out of our system, then just send visitors there and revisit Ghent multiple times ourselves. As I’m writing this a few weeks late and we’ve been to both Bruges and Ghent, I completely agree with what they said, but more on that later.

Our second weekend in town, we took the train to Bruges for the day. I had bought tickets online earlier in the week, getting the special online “weekend ticket” for Grant and myself (if you go roundtrip between Friday evening and Monday morning, there’s a 50% discount) and an under-26 discount ticket for Laura. The trains work more like NJTransit than Amtrak in that you don’t get a ticket for a specific train but can take any one you want (with the caveat that with our tickets, the travel had to be within that weekend timeframe). This made planning a lot easier! We easily took the metro to the central train station, found the track for the train, and got on when it arrived. We were early enough that it wasn’t very crowded, which was good. The ride to Bruges was a bit over an hour and then we were there.

Provinciaal Hof

Provinciaal Hof

Once in the Bruges train station, getting to the old part of town couldn’t have been any easier: we just followed the crowd. I picked up a map at the info center, then we joined everyone else in the picturesque walk through a park to town. We weren’t disappointed, as Bruges is beautiful (despite the hordes of tourists). The Grote Markt, or main town square, is definitely something to see. We stopped there to snap a few pictures before walking down smaller streets to get to some of the canals.

As a general rule, we usually avoid doing the super touristy things when traveling and prefer to do a lot of walking and getting a feel for the place on our own. But everything I had read said that a canal tour is a “must” in Bruges, so I suggested we do that right away, before the lines got long. At eight euros, the half-hour ride is not inexpensive (and we were squished like sardines on the boat itself), but it was worth it. The boat driver spoke number of languages and provided some commentary about the surroundings throughout the tour, so we were able to get a good feel for Bruges and a better sense of the layout of the town.

canal in Bruges

canal in Bruges

After the boat ride, we stopped to get some waffles to snack on before tackling the Groeninge Museum, which houses Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Madonna with Cannon van der Paele, among numerous other wonderful works. But seriously, it is worth going just for this one painting. The museum is closed on Mondays and when we went was eight euros for adults and six for those under 26. The ticket price also includes the nearby Arentshuis.

Following the museum visit, during which I tried not to linger too long but inevitably made the others wait for me numerous times, we decided to get something to eat. We had scoped out some potential places near the museum and now went back to examine their menus. The place we originally had wanted to go to didn’t have any outdoor seating left (and it was a beautiful day!) so we looked around a bit longer before deciding just to sit inside. It was possibly the best decision of the trip, as the inside was tastefully decorated and much quieter than if we had sat outside. Not to mention the food at Gruuthuse Hof was fabulous. Laura and I had the fixed price tourist menu and Grant enjoyed his first moules frites of our time here. Grant and I also ordered a local beer, Brugse Zot, which is now one of my favorites.

Grant's moules frites

Grant’s moules frites

During our lunch, we watched as the waiter had to turn many people away because, as is the case with many restaurants in Europe, the kitchen closes in between lunch and dinner. One is usually able to get a drink at any time, but food is another story. So if you’re in Bruges and want to go to Gruuthuse Hof (and I highly recommend you do), make sure you get there early enough! Even better would be to make a reservation ahead of time, as by midway through our meal, all of the tables had been reserved for dinner that night.

To round out our Bruges trip, we walked around some more, visited churches, checked out an outdoor concert, and walked through some truly lovely places. The only thing we missed that we had wanted to see is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Childsculpture in the Church of Our Lady. We made it to the church, but the section with the sculpture had closed for the day (it requires a fee), so we didn’t actually get to see it.

Bruges is adorable and well worth a visit if you’re in Belgium. It is so easy to get to on the train from Brussels that there really is no excuse for not taking a day trip out to see it!

part of Bruges' Grote Markt

part of Bruges’ Grote Markt

the beginning of brussels: a whirlwind

As you can tell from the latest Snapshot Sundays, we made it to Brussels! Home Leave was fabulous, if much too short. We finished up our month in the States with a few days of consultations in DC, where we stayed near the Oakwood in which we lived for Serbo-Croatian language training. Scarlett definitely recognized the neighborhood and always wanted to go into Oakwood whenever we walked by.

despite being in Brussels, Scarlett was still worried about being left behind

despite being in Brussels, Scarlett was still worried about being left behind

After our last nightmare flying out of Dulles with Scarlett when we were PCSing to Belgrade, I was really nervous about this one. Thankfully, Grant was able give me a big “I told you so” because everything went smoothly: check-in was five minutes (not nearly two hours with nasty United people hiding their name tags so we wouldn’t know their names to complain) and the line at security was no problem so we got to the terminal with hours to spare… Scarlett behaved beautifully on the flight and spent nearly all of it sound asleep, which I really appreciated.

Once we got to Brussels we discovered that there’s no such thing as an expeditor for new arrivals — guess that’s how you know you’ve arrived at a cushier post — so we piled our suitcases on a cart and navigated our way out to meet Grant’s office sponsor, who greeted us both with giant hugs and provided a running commentary on the trip from the airport to our apartment.

We walked in to our apartment and found someone in the process of installing our internet (yay!), so we let him finish his work and Grant’s work sponsor walked us in the light rain to one of our nearest grocery stores (there are at least three, which is great), so we’d be able to pick up supplies for that day and the next, which was a holiday. Later during the day, Grant also navigated public transportation to go pick up the box for our television before we both crashed pretty early.

Following many hours of sleep, we got up and decided to explore our surroundings by taking Scarlett on a walk. Because it was Belgian National Day, there was a lot going on: officials were setting up for a parade, the city park was full of food and games, and everyone seemed to be out walking. We had a great time exploring and getting a sense for the city — plus I had my first Liege waffle (yes, it was delicious).

first beers in Belgium

first beers in Belgium

After dropping Scarlett off at home, we walked to meet up with our social sponsors and explore the area around Brussels’ central square, the Grand Place, where they treated us to beers as we watched aircraft flying overhead in celebration of National Day. We had heard that the social sponsor program here was not very good (and we weren’t expecting much because we only received sponsors days before our arrival); I must say, we were pleasantly surprised by how friendly and accommodating our sponsors are. Not only did they show us some of the downtown sites and their apartment but they also made us a great welcome gift basket full of things like beer, wine, soft drinks, snacks, and even metro cards! Plus they showed us how the metro works, lent us reusable bags for going to the grocery store, and did other incredibly helpful things like escort me around the embassy when I needed to go to do some paperwork and take me to one of the large grocery stores on the metro.

Our first week went by in a blur (or should I say our first month, since we’ve nearly been here that long!) with lots of house- and admin-related appointments for me and busy days at work for Grant. Tomorrow we are supposed to have some of our furniture exchanged and I am so excited about it! Despite writing on all our housing surveys and documents that I do some work from home, our apartment was set up with just bedrooms and no office, so I am looking forward to having a surface to work on that isn’t the same one we use to eat on every day. Plus having some bookshelves will be nice so we can move our stacks of books to a more permanent home! We will be much more settled when we can put out our rugs and get things hung on the wall, though we did receive all of our things (including our car) fairly quickly, which did help.

side view of the Grand Place

side view of the Grand Place

At the end of that first week, we took the bus out to the airport to pick up our first visitor, my youngest sister, Laura. We hadn’t yet received our stuff or our car so she really got to experience what moving is like in the Foreign Service (and the joys of cooking with the Welcome Kit items — I was counting down the days until I could use our knives!).

Laura was a huge help for me, not just giving someone to explore our new city with but also with all the deliveries, unpacking, and workmen, she helped me get a lot more done at once (and made it so much more fun, too). She was stuck doing a lot of shopping for home goods and waiting around for workmen, so we didn’t get out as much as we would have liked, but her company the first few weeks here made my life a million times better. Sadly, Laura is back in the US now, but our next visitor is only days away, so not much downtime here!

More on what else we’ve been up to (and it’s a lot) soon!