Belgium / by Shaun Ventulan

Brussels, Belgium. Bruges, Belgium. 

Prior to my departure, I have been warned multiple times about the dangers of going to Brussels ,and superfluous reasons as to why I should avoid it at all cost. Travelers I've met throughout this trip have all be wary about this tiny city. A few days before I left, there was another report of a threat within the city, which I read on one of the news sites I follow online. Ultimately, I ignored everyones advice of skipping Brussels. 

I took a high speed train from Paris Gare du Nord to Bruxelles Midi. The ride was rather interesting. I read a significant amount of Game of Thrones hoping time would fly. When I arrived, I had mixed feelings about my destination. Heavily armed military personnels, Africans and Middle Easterners dominated the station. I had an assumption that the city would be homogenous. It caught me off guard. As I took the 51 tram to my hostel, I was welcomed with heavy graffiti on the walls, cigarette butts, garbage on the streets, and tons of clothing spilled throughout the streets. At that very moment, I thought I made a huge mistake. I really thought I fucked up my travel itinerary as to how aesthetically unappealing the small city is. 

Traversing through rain and exhaustion, I made it to Meininger, a renovated hotel to fit a hostel. I was in awe. The signage stated that it's a hotel, and that made me doubt myself. I casually walked in and asked about my reservation. Freight kicked in. I was told my reservation had been canceled via Hostel World. Fortunately, they still had openings in the hostel. I was given a four person room with a comfortable bed and fast wifi. My misfortune became a blessing. 

My first day in Brussels was a rather dull one. A casual stroll along the city looking for something to do was my itinerary. I ended up finding a small restaurant at the exterior of the galleria. I had an overpriced piece of shrimp croquet, which was amazing, but not for its value. I powered through the city, still starving and thirsty. I found a relatively cheap restaurant serving moules-frites. I was a bit unimpressed as I could easily make this dish back home. I decided to end my day a bit early. The thought of sleeping on a comfy bed resonated. 

Day two in Brussels was so much better. At around 10:30, I went on a free tour around the city. The group was lead by an enthusiastic guide from Dublin. We walked through the square, Manneken Pis, and all sorts of touristy sights. To my surprise, the small city has deep rooted history. My favorite part of the tour is something guides never usually talk about, and that is the abuses of Belgium during its conquest in Africa. I was floored when the guide talked about the rubber trees and missing limbs. I deeply appreciated the fact that he addressed the taboo. Atrocities should never be forgetting. Mick, the guide, thanked us for coming to Brussels, despite all the warnings and the travel advisories. 

After the tour, the group had a rather wild one. The beer tour was a somewhat shallow overview of brews, trappistes, and history. Without beer, there wouldn't be civilization is what I gathered from the guide's explanation. Rochefort, Chimay, St. Bernardus, and Delirium Tremens. The combination is enough to put down a horse. The walk back home with my friend Ryan was an adventure on its own. 

The third day was spent in Bruges. Before I left California, my friend Daniela convinced me to go to Bruges. I was a bit hesitant to explore the west of Belgium. Bruges reminds me of a Colin Farrel film that I never finished. I had explored so much of Brussels that I had nothing else to do. I woke up around 8:00 with more hesitation. The comfy bed and dehydration made it almost impossible to get up, but I pushed through. At 10:30, we were on our way to Bruges. Remember the homogeneity that I mentioned earlier? Bruges is not as diverse. 

Bruges is a UNESCO site for a reason. This place has to be the most photogenic city. A duel between nature and gothic architecture - this place is just out of this world. I could easily say I enjoyed it more so than Venice. Bruges in comparison to Venice and Paris is far more romantic. The uneven cobblestone, archaic buildings, cool breeze, greenery, towering trees, swans, the murky river, the Lover's Bridge,  and the Lake of Love - felt like I was walking through a novel. 

A life without risks is a life not worth living, in my opinion. My journey was graced with wonderful views and great stories, something that cannot be done if you shelter yourself. I'm glad I ignored everyone's advice and went on with my journey.