Published: July 3rd 2006June 21st 2006
Every time someone asked where I was going after France and I responded 'Belgium' their eyes glazed over. What was wrong with Belgium? On paper certainly a country whose two local specialties are beer and chocolate should be sensational. I didn't get it. Personally I was curious. I'd passed Belgium over on my previous trip and my Grandma Maynes' grandfather came from Belgium - so after my heady weekend in Paris, I caught the train to Bruges.
Everyone agrees that Bruges is picturesque. There is no doubting that. The place gets a whopping 3 million visitors each year and of these 1 million take a cruise through the meandering canals and probably the other two mill take a horse and cart ride. Apparently the streets of Bruges changed for the better when the horses were fitted up with carry bags for their droppings. Ridding the streets of animal excrement was only the first step, the Bruges City Council now doles out fines of 152 Euros for blokes caught urinating in the street! Hardly a problem you'd think, when both the local and the tourist population seem to comprise of a demographic someone aptly described to me as 'coffin dodgers'. This
influx of older, more affluent tourists makes Bruges a set menu nightmare. Though the food is certainly worth a try - mussels is the local dish (delicious), but ask for 'french fries' at your own peril.
I decided to dedicate my visit to Bruges to the two local specialties, beginning with chocolate.
Belgium produces a hefty 172,000 tons of chocolate per year with more than 2,000 chocolate shops throughout the country. I hotfooted it to the local chocolate museum which gave a super comprehensive and mouthwatering history of chocolate through time (and a free sample). But really, it seems that the museum was just a very well executed exercise in positive PR for chocolate. One section addressed all the serious issues - like Q. Does Chocolate cause cavities? A. Course not! Q. Does chocolate make you fat? A. Absolutely not?! The hot tip was not to buy expensive chocolates from boutique choclatiers, but to head to the supermarket for some Cote d'Or. I ate an entire block during Australia's win versus Japan in the local Irish bar!
So what next? Beer. Bruges 'De Vuurmolen' Bar holds the Belgian record for most beers per square metre. They serve 1750
The little boy peeing ... a must see attraction on the Brussels tourist trail!
litres of beer per week! Craziness! I visited De Halve Maan Brewery where they brew 'Brugse Zot' (fool from Bruges beer). The most interesting thing about this brewery, apart from the free sample at the end of the tour, was the complete lack of safety precautions as we climbed perilously steep staircases, without rails with a bunch of oldies who looked like they'd drunk a few too many pints in their time! The nightlife in Bruges certainly lent itself to sampling some of it's finer beers - including those of the flavoured variety, all in specially designed glasses. Something for everyone!
After Bruges, I caught the train to Brussels. I was prepared to be blown away by the beauty of cobbled streets, medieval square and the Grand Palace. In reality I couldn't see past the rubbish, pollution and tacky restaurants. Certainly my short visit really only took me to the Lower Town which has some nice old buildings, but is over-touristed to the max. It just didn't do it for me. My highlights were staying at the Van Gogh Hostel where the great man once worked and visiting the Mannekin Pis - the little statue of the street urchin
urinating (quite a fine the little bloke will have racked up by now)!
So at the end of my Belgian visit - I was so confused. The people are quirky, mostly unfriendly and downright bizarre. You never know what language you should be speaking - French, Dutch, German or some kind of local dialect. It's clear that on paper Belgium has the goods (beer, chocolate and picturesque Bruges), but in reality it's lacking in heart and substance. A big call I know, given it's effectively the 'head office' of the EU. With this strange 'identity crisis' and lack of popularity amongst young people and travellers, it may come as no surprise that Belgium has one of the highest suicides rates in the world (after Sweden). The issue has become so prevalent that in Bruges the council decided to take action by making one of the main streets 'Langestraat' an official 'hello' street. There are signs and everything urging you to say hello to fellow pedestrians. What's wrong with Belgium...?!
Without looking back, I caught a Ryan Air Flight to Stockholm to head back to Eastern Europe. Back to where I was supposed to be all along before Russian
Border Control so rudely intervened! Arriving in Sweden I was greeting by beefy, blond haired ground staff at an obscure airport somewhere in the woods. For 0.01 Euro Cents - what can you expect?! They love their 70's hits here and the airport bus was no exception as Sony and Cher 'I got you babe' blared from the radio.
Life in Stockholm is centred around the water, no wonder when the city itself comprises fourteen beautiful islands. There are 1.3 million boats in Sweden - that's like one boat for every 8 Swedes - so it was only appropriate that I hit the water for a boat trip around Stockholm for a touch of site seeing. Fishing is free and everyone seemed to be dabbling in either fishing or sunbathing on one of the many island 'beaches' and lapping up the sunshine. There's no doubt that I was seeing Stockhlom at its best. Sweden is also known as the 'land of the midnight sun' and with it only getting dark for a few hours between around 11pm and 2.30am during summer it was certainly confusing - particularly coming home after a night out! The Swedish are very proud their
water supply is unpolluted and plentiful - maybe this (and their world renowned welfare system) is one of the reasons why their life expectancy is among the best in the world - although they do have the highest suicide rate. It's said that over winter the people here are hit hardest by Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD.
Everything about Stockholm was attractive and well designed - even the people are great looking. Sweden claims a plethora of inventors and celebrities - among them Albert Nobel who discovered dynamite (his family set up the Nobel Prize in his honour), Pippy Longstockings (or rather famous author Astrid Lindgren), Ingmar Bergman, ABBA and even the clothes shop H&M is proudly Swedish. Not only do the Swedes pride themselves on their great people and great technology - like mobile phones and white goods (I'm purposely omitting Ikea) - but they are also quite traditional. The monarchy still plays a massive role here. I visited the Royal palace which has a mind-blowing 609 rooms. A huge palace, but a bit on the shabby side I thought. The highlight - apart from the massive postcards that were being sold in fistfuls with Princesses Madeline, Caroline
and Prince Carl on the front, was Queen Silvia's display of ball gowns. She's certainly a very stylish lady - with outfits and accessories to die for. After my royal experience, I was wandering Stockholm and inadvertently crashed a lavish parliamentary function on a patio overlooking the water. I mingled with guests, took photos and smiled and nodded at confused people who are probably still racking their brains trying to work out who I am!
I loved Sweden. The summer lifestyle, the city of Stockholm and even the City Backpackers Hostel was great. (It was fitted out with hands down THE BEST shower heads in European backpacking circles - a fantastic improvement after the joys of the pressure-less, push-button that seemed to be rampant in Western Europe)! Freshly showered and happy, I purchased a ferry ticket to Estonia ...
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