Brussels, Belgium, where I turn 60.

Monday 19 September 2022 – Brussels, Belgium.

I was 60 on Saturday 17 September, a milestone that pretty much snuck up on me. I don’t feel 60, it sounds old and most of the time I don’t feel old; I feel like a young 59. This trip was primarily to celebrate my birthday and I wanted to, and should have, spend more time on planning it. I’m good at planning holidays and get almost as much pleasure from the planning as I do from trip.

I struggled with organising this trip, possibly due to being too busy, but I mainly think it’s a Covid hangover; a lack of trust that we will actually be able to go mixed with a nervousness about being in crowds again and not being in the mood to ‘have fun’. I had a few attempts at making a trip work but couldn’t get time, location and budget to fit. In the end I just thought ‘fuck it, let’s go to Brussels’. I chose Brussels as it isn’t Berlin or Amsterdam, Rome or Paris; it’s not a city you go to celebrate something and it’s the centre of the ‘hated’ EU. It sounded perfect, and I don’t hate the EU by the way. I would rejoin tomorrow if it was my choice.

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We arrived in Brussels after two great days in Gent on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t raining then, it saved that for my birthday. Not that rain put us off roaming the streets to check a place out. As with Gent we stayed a little off the beaten track in what seemed to be a largely residential area in the suburb of Ixelles, a thirty minute walk from the old centre and a similar distance from the EU Parliament sector. It was a great spot, close to some good places to eat; a critical consideration when I book a holiday. We had three great meals in Ixelles, all different; including a very nice birthday dinner I had booked before we left London.

We enjoyed Brussels; of course it’s a big city, and it isn’t particularly touristy though it has a number of interesting attractions. I took a few photos, as you would expect.

On Saturday, we took a walk into the centre, it rained off and on during the morning, getting quite heavy at times. It didn’t put us off too much; it also kept the crowds down.

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We took a break from the drizzle over beer and cider in a small  bar before visiting the Magritte Museum, an adjunct to the art gallery. I quite like some of his work; especially his later ‘apple’ series.

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There is a bit of art around the place, both modern street and the more traditional sculpture, including Brussels number one tourist attraction, the Manneken Pis fountain.

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I especially liked this terrible statue of Jacques Brel.

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We went into a couple of churches, one had the most amazing modern abstract stained glass windows, which is very difficult to see in this photo.

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I was really surprised to find a Phlegm painting in the city; one of my favourite British street artists.

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We spent Sunday walking to and then around the European Parliament area and up to the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the Triumphal Arc. The walk through the lovely old cobbled streets of Ixelles towards the EU Centre was so quiet and pleasant and we wondered at the absence of cars and the abundance of pedestrians and families on bikes.

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It was not till we were in the centre that we realised it was Brussels annual car free day… It explained a lot, we thought this bit of Brussels was just like this all the time; a dream for me is a mostly car free city.

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Sadly the Royal Court of Justice was covered in scaffold.

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I want trams back in London.

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Gent, Belgium.

Friday 16 September 2022 – Gent, Belgium.

There won’t be a lot of text in this, nor the following couple of posts, though there are quite a few photos in all three. Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam are photogenic in their different ways.

We loved Gent, I think we possibly could have done with one more day, though we saw most of the things we planned on seeing. The main thing we missed was the ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral. Something for next time; I like to think we will go back one day, it is a place to return to.

Gent is a medieval town surrounded by canals, very similar to the more classically beautiful Bruges. Gent had the edge for me as it has a student population and is a little more ‘grunge’ than Bruges; there is street art and some graffiti and student type bars with decent music. It’s not just a tourist town, though tourism must be one of its primary income sources, it’s a lived in and loved place. For an ancient town it is young and it felt right.

Some highlights.
Gin.

Le Alchemist. We popped in because it was raining and stayed for two very nice, and expensive, glasses of gin and tonic each. They had a nice range of different gins and tonics, the music was great and we were the only customers for a while; it was mid-afternoon. The steps to the bathroom were not for the faint hearted; nor the drunk.

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t’Druepelkott. A number of people advised us to visit this tiny canal side bar in the tourist area, and all those people were right. What a place! The (I assume) cigar smoking owner only serves hots of flavoured gin, poured into a large or small shot with a shaky hand. The glass is filled to brim and you have to sip from top before lifting it from the bar to take back to your seat. 70s and 80s funk sound tracked our couple of drinks and it is up there with the top moments of the trip.

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The food was great as well, vegan food is common, we found a couple of places that were 100% vegan; it’s not overly cheap, but it was very nice and we ate well.

Walking.

Gent is an easy town to walk and cycle, there were definitely fewer cars than most other places. The narrow and cobbled streets twist and turn and cross the canals that edge the town. We walked a lot, an awful lot. It’s the only way to see and feel this place.

I took a lot of photos. Castles, cathedrals, wonky ancient houses and street art from throughout the ages, who could ask for more?

Street art. 

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Castles and cathedrals.

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Streets and canals.

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S.M.A.K. The museum of contemporary art is lovely gallery with a great exhibition featuring some small works by Derek Jarman part made from items found around his Dungeness Beach home. As a recent Jarman convert these were the first pieces of his I had seen up close.

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A 60th birthday treat to Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Wednesday 23 September 2022 – Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Theoretically there’ll be individual blog posts with photos from all three places, though I can’t promise anything as I’m not enjoying the blog that much anymore. I feel it’s time is done, so we will have to see how it goes over the next few weeks. This could be the last one for a while, but then again it might not who knows.

I’m in a small neighbourhood bar a short way off the beaten track in Amsterdam as I type these first words into the laptop I’ve been lugging around for a week and not used until now. I like this bar, it’s small and dark, other than the Heineken the tap beer is all new to me so there is plenty of choice and the music playing at a sociable volume is some obscure (to me anyway) reggae. It’s all quite conducive to scribbling a few notes. In fact we haven’t been into a bad bar in the three cities we’ve visited on this, my 60 birthday trip away and the first time we’ve been to Europe since July 2018 when we last visited Valencia, a situation we have to change this coming year. I love and miss Europe, especially places off the beaten track like this small backstreet bar. Experience says bars in Europe are different to bars in the English speaking world, and different in a good way.

I spent far too much time to work out an affordable and sensible break for my birthday, initially trying to link a stay in a town to a concert by a band I liked. Nothing really made economic or time sense so I stopped trying and chose a simple train based trip to three towns in close proximity (read cheap) to England. I’ve not been to Gent (Ghent) or Brussels and last visited in Amsterdam almost exactly 35 years ago, very close to my 25 birthday. Eleanor’s experience of these places closely mirrors mine; she’s been to Amsterdam but not Gent or Brussels.

It’s now a number of days later and we’re back in London, Eleanor’s house sale and purchase is getting close to being finalised and we had a good weekend down at my flat. Work has been as busy as you would expect after two weeks away and I’m just getting my head back into writing a bit more of this post. Thankfully all the photo editing is done. I still stand by my earlier thought of winding the blog writing down, but aim to at least upload some of the edited photos I took in each city. There isn’t a lot of point in taking photos if they just stay on a hard drive in a dark drawer somewhere. Anyway….

It was a fabulous, awesome, wonderful holiday. It was so nice to be out of the UK for a few days and to spend that time in three great cities. We had nothing planned, other than the train back to London and a birthday meal in a restaurant in Brussels. We could do what we wanted, when we wanted; perfect.

It’s impossible to name a particular highlight and there is no way I can nominate one city over each of the others, I liked them all. So, here are some overall impressions and things I learned.

Cities with lots of cycling and walking and fewer cars are so much more pleasant than cities dominated by cars. In all three places non-car based transport was king.
I like trams.
Lots of young people smoke cigarettes in NW Europe; there was very little vaping going on. I was surprised.
The music in all the bars we went into was way better than most bars in London and Auckland.
The gin in Gent is lovely, as were the bars we drank gin in.
Every bar we visited I felt like I could rock up on my own, order a small beer and read a book in a corner on my own and the other customers would not make me feel like I was weird.
Canals are awesome.
Walking 20,000 + steps a day seven days in a row is tiring; though not walking up steps meant my knee survived the trip.
Neither Gent nor Brussels are dead flat.
Brussels had a car free day on the Sunday and I loved it.
Everyone speaks English; my constant shame is not speaking another language.
Good coffee can easily be found everywhere.
Excellent vegan food is easy to find.
The trains in Europe are cheaper than the UK by a long way.
In Amsterdam vans park on canal bridges.
I still love castles and cathedrals and cobbled street and anything that is a bit old.
I still love mainland Europe a lot and feel I’ve wasted years not coming here as much as I should have.

A favourite photo from each city; not for the quality of the photo, just for the memories.

Gent
Gravensteen Castle and the lovely Le Alchemist, a gin bar over the road from the castle that we nipped into as it was raining.

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Brussels
Car free Sunday

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Amsterdam
Vans parked on photogenic bridges over equally photogenic canals.

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Brisvegas.

Sunday 13 January 2019 – Brisbane, Australia.

I am going to strike while things are hot. Having just written my first post in over three months I am going to start and will aim to finish, this, a second.

When I was in New Zealand in May I committed to mum that we would come over for Christmas. Come October when I finally got around to booking tickets the intention and desire for Christmas was still there. I knew it was going to be expensive to fly either side of Christmas, but wow. It was a lot, a very large lot. Made infinitely more expensive and complex by our desire to go to Brisbane, then Auckland, finishing in Singapore. Our original thinking had also included a week in Japan, but we soon gave up on that idea. With added work restrictions on timing and duration I ended up having to call mum and tell her we could not afford to be there for Christmas, but would come over in early January. Which is what we did.

Fast forward to Friday 11 January, and we were finally off. British Airways to Hong Kong, then two hours later Qantas to Brisbane, Australia. Arriving at 6:00am on Sunday. We completely lost Saturday somewhere.

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We had 29 hours in Brisbane. A very quick trip, here to spend a little time with my son Dom and my granddaughter Cadence. Unfortunately things had conspired against us and Dom and his partner had to finish moving house this weekend. They were moving from south of the city to Murgon, a town three hours north. I wasn’t willing to make that drive after 27 hours of flying and little sleep, and then repeat the drive back to the hotel a little later.

It was convenient in the end, we met Dom in a park as they were passing through town, and I only had a short drive to make to get there. It was great to see Dom, his partner, Tabithe and their daughter Cadence again. Cadence was very shy this time, and was not very interactive, and very unhappy with me taking photos. She is two years old now, and more self aware. The move has been a bit disruptive for her, but she did enjoy the late Christmas present we brought over with us.

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After an hour or so with them in a quite warm park El and I drove back to the hotel and had an afternoon nap. We needed it. It was late afternoon when we arose. I had booked us in a hotel that was close to the Brisbane River, on the northern, city side. The South Bank is quite a popular tourist destination, similar to London’s version, there are numerous eating places and things to do, alongside a relaxing river side walk.

The sun sets really early in Brisbane, and with no daylight saving to extend the day, getting out for a walk early was important, I had a bit of a plan in mind and wanted to get the first part done in daylight. We walked through the botanical gardens (a recurring theme for the holiday), though just along the riverside path. Thankfully it was a bit cooler on the riverside and in the late afternoon. Crossing over on the Goodwill Bridge we stopped at the first restaurant we came across that had a free outside table. Even though we had been eating pretty much non-stop since we left London, I was still hungry!

After eating my bodyweight for the second or third time in the last two days and supping a couple of very nice Australian wines we set off into the early evening dark for a walk along the river.

It is a very busy place, and there were a lot of walkers, riders and electric scooter users wizzing their way along the path. Even the beach and pool was still busy.

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The most bizarre thing on the South Bank is this Nepalese Peace Pagoda. It was assembled in 1988 for the World Expo after having all its component pieces made in Nepal. It is quite lovely.

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Crossing back over the river we walked back through the downtown area, past all the closed shops and surprisingly closed restaurants. It was a Sunday night I guess, and we certainly did not need any more food. Back at the hotel we stopped for a glass of wine in the river side bistro, before heading off for more sleep. Day one of our holiday was complete.

Monday morning we were up early, I think I woke up about 3:30 am. Lying in bed until a reasonable time to get up. Yesterday we had found quite a nice cafe up the road so went there for breakfast. 

Our flight to Auckland was at 13:00, but we headed to the airport at hotel check out time, got checked in early and waited for a third flight in three days. On our way to Auckland.