This post is written by Katie, about her solo trip to Belgium, Germany, and Austria.
After staying up until 4am planning my trip, I slept until 10am. I’m really not adjusting to the time change well this time as I’m never tired at night and always feel terrible when it is time to wake up in the morning.
After packing up everything, I checked out of Brussels Hotel Belgium (Euro 395.72 for private double with private bath for four nights on Booking.com). The hotel was fine, but not worth the almost Euro 400 that I paid – and it seems from postings on the wall at reception that the minimum is actually much more than I paid. The room was big, there were plenty of cabinets, the wifi was decent, and the bedding and towels were fluffy. The sun room with the desk was a pleasant place to work. But the walls were super thin – you could very clearly hear doors closing, neighbors talking, neighbors watching TV, and water running. I awoke multiple times during the nights to doors closing and neighbors talking. Additionally, the shower awkwardly faced the curtain so you had to stand too close to the curtain to shower. There was also no in-room safe, and the two chairs in the room were pretty worn. Finally, the cleaning staff did not adequately clean my room prior to my arrival as there were many sticky places around the room that I had to clean up myself.
After buying a 24-hour metro pass (this seemed easiest and no more expensive than the other options on the machine since it did not give me the option to buy the 5-journey card which would have been much nicer), I headed to the Midi station where I stored my backpacks in a Euro 3.5 24-hour locker and bought a Euro 10 round-trip weekend ticket to Ghent. I quickly hopped on the 12:32pm regional train marked Bruges that was scheduled to stop in Ghent. A ticket checker came by within the first 20 minutes, so when he did not complain I felt more confident I was on the correct train!
Mainly abandoning my planned itinerary due to there being significant chances of rain almost every day of that itinerary has led to having to plan on the fly. Since I was not planning on visiting most places I will visit, I will often have very little idea of what I will do when I arrive (which is not how I am used to traveling). You also waste a lot of time in the mornings and evenings planning. I’m really wishing I had brought the Belgium Lonely Planet and the Germany Rick Steves books, as these would have made this a bit easier.
After arriving in Ghent around 1:40pm, I walked about 2.5km to the historical center. The walk is straightforward and safe – there are signs from the train station. There was also a reasonably priced grocery store on the way where I got a yoghurt drink and toothpaste (since my toothpaste cap had fallen down the drain). I wandered around and saw all the canals and historical churches, buildings, and even a castle. Ghent was mostly destroyed during WWII, so the historical buildings are what remained or has been rebuilt.
The town was really busy with tourists, some conferences/conventions, and a classical music festival that seemed to be starting. I had read that Bruges is more touristy than Ghent – if this is true, I would really dislike going to Bruges. Between the boat tours (the cheapest I saw was Euro 6.50, which actually isn’t bad, but I also saw some listed to be much more), tourist info people in hunting stands and safari clothing with mega phones and whistles, and mostly excessively priced cafes, it was not a town for me. I tried to find a tourist map/guide at the train station, but did not find a tourist info stand – and I surely was not going to ask the people in the safari outfits. The buildings are pretty and it grew on me, but I would not recommend it unless you either really like historical buildings or you like places with lots of tourists (many in large tour groups or drunk). The singing/yelling guys on multiple different multi-person drinking bikes topped it off – somehow I had assumed the drinking bikes had to be an American thing…
I eventually walked back to the train station, stopping along the way to get 1L apple juice, a small bag of chips, and a banana for just Euro 1.05!
Once at the train station I tried to consult the timetables to find a train. Either I read them incorrectly or they had the wrong tracks, but the train did not come when and where I expected it to twice. I finally looked at the main departures board and got a 5:12pm regional train to Brussels Midi (arriving about 60 minutes later).
Once at Brussels Midi I collected my backpacks from the locker (you just put your receipt under a reader and the door opens), and caught a 2/6 metro towards Elizabeth to the Rodgers stop. Then I walked a short distance to my hostel for the night – Sleep Well Youth Hostel (Euro 23 for one night in a 6-bed female dorm on Booking.com). It is really big, but seemingly not full as some floors might still be in the process of being renovated.
I was in room 311, bunk E in a 6-bed female dorm. Two of the women were there when I arrived, one a young Chinese woman with good English (who of course apologized for her bad English, at which point I noted that it is much better than my Chinese) and the other a young seemingly-shy Korean. The dorm seems neat, spacious-enough, and clean. So far so good.
After settling in, I went to the first floor lounge area to work on my laptop for a bit. Some people walked through and sat down at other areas, but the vibe at the hostel is not social. After a bit I decided to go get dinner. Since I had an unlimited 24-hour metro pass, I decided to go back to the Turkish kebab place on Avenue Louise. As I was walking to the metro I started to wonder if walking back from the metro would be safe, but fought down the urge to eat somewhere closer.
I planned to order to-go so I could get back to the hostel quickly (and before it became darker/later). The guy got confused and made it for there though, so I went with it. I figured it would not take long. I ate in the little dining room upstairs, and then one of the guys came up and started trying to talk to me with his limited English. He ran downstairs and got us beers at one point. After a while I realized he was trying to ask me to go to a cafe nearby tomorrow. I said I was leaving Brussels the next morning, and then attempted to get across that I’m married (again – I thought he already understood that). All the time I’m trying to figure out whether he is interested or just being friendly and enjoying trying to talk with a American. Eventually he tries to ask me to drive with him to see the Atomium at night. I try saying no multiple times in multiple ways. I eventually hear a woman downstairs who seemed to be speaking some English, so I went down and asked her to explain to him that it is not a good idea to go with someone I just met to the Atomium alone (especially when I do not have a good idea of his intentions). She listens, and then suggests that we all go. This seems more reasonable, and they all seemed excited about the idea, so I agree.
The closed the shop up, and then the guy I was talking with left to go drop off some friends with the idea he would meet us there. I rode with the woman, a guy who works at the shop, and his friend (who might also work at the shop?). We stopped on the way and the woman bought us all sodas.
Once we got to the Atomium we went to the MGM bar where we listened to people singing karaoke (pretty well, actually). The lady bought us all more soda and water, and we eventually walked over to the Atomium. After taking pictures, we walk to a rain-forest styled bar. I decided to try Kriek here, a sour berry beer, and one of the guys insisted on paying for us all. They all looked tired and I realize it is really late, so when the bar closes around 2:30am I ask to be dropped off at my hostel (since public transit surely was not running at that point). The lady insisted that the car drop me directly in front of the hostel and wait until I entered before leaving (which was nice).
A strange note is that the guy who originally wanted to go to the Atomium never showed – probably for the best. It was overall a strange night, as the only person who really knew English was the lady, so I often had no idea what was happening unless she translated. It was interesting, and hopefully they had fun, but I’m still not sure why or how it happened.
It ended up okay, but I should probably listen to my gut intuitions more and be more ready to just leave and not worry about seeming rude if they actually are just being friendly. I struggled because I do think he was just trying to be nice, but it came off really strange.
The front desk was still open when I arrived back at the hostel around 3:00am They greeted me, and I retreated to my room. The other five women seemed to be in the room, and a few stirred when I returned. Luckily I had set out my shower things on my bed earlier when I unpacked, so I grabbed those and quickly showered. As I was putting my shower stuff and dirty clothing (which reeked of smoke from the bars) into my cubbie, I knocked my Nalgene on the floor and it loudly clattered. Seemingly everyone stirred, and I felt bad – I was that girl that no one wants to have in their room! 🙁 I finally fell asleep sometime after 4am.