When I imagined Belgium, I pictured rivers of dark chocolate, a tradition of cycling, beer so strong it would make Hulk Hogan wobble, and fairy tale architecture. Expectations set, we pedaled south from the Netherlands and arrived via a tree-lined path fit for royalty.
Our first stop in Belgium was Bruges. Our hosts, who run an amazing B&B and also give tours of the city, are often asked, “What time does the city close?” as if it were a Disney Land kingdom. As a pleasant surprise, the hordes of tourists we were warned about never arrived. Or perhaps my expectations of “busy” is based on places like New York City, where foreigners clog the streets like cholesterol.
There is magic in ancient cities, subtle hints of centuries gone. It is present in the echoes of foreign languages off an old cathedral, or the dark hues of old beams in a restaurant. Wandering into the Rose Red bar with its hundreds of fabric roses suspended from the ceiling, we ordered a “sampler” of Belgian beers. Sampler indeed. Four practically-full glasses arrived, plus a bottle of Westvleteren Trappist recommended by our beer-genius friend Lucy. Two hours later, heads fuzzy and hearts happy, Chelsea and I wandered along the cities canals past spotlit historic buildings and ate more chocolate. Hey, when in Bruges…
A wonderful surprise was having the Belgian vegan community graciously host us. Chelsea commented on the Bruges Vegan blog and the author, Trudi, extended an invite to stay with her and her husband. We pedaled up to their picturesque country property and enjoyed a relaxing day talking, eating delicious garden-fresh meals and hanging out with friendly donkeys. For our next stop, Trudi posted to a Facebook group and Lyra and Martin opened their home in Ghent to us. Sitting around their table with their three dogs dozing around our feet, I was struck that two Americans were learning about Belgium from a Brazilian woman and her Dutch husband.
The nuanced differences of a foreign country trump obvious statements like, “wow, the language ain’t the same as back home.” (For the record, in Belgium the people tend to speak Dutch in the north and French in the south.) Through fun dinner discussions, we learned that yard sales are a once per year event done via a city permit. The idea of an every-weekend yard sale in the U.S. cracked our hosts up. Insurance is a bedrock-strong right in Europe, and not having the secure foundation of health care for citizens is unthinkable to anyone we have discussed this with. In the legal realm, I found the inheritance laws in Belgium goofy; a parent can’t write their kid out of the will. Maybe kids in the U.S. are brats and parents need more choice?
We bid farewell to our friends – why doesn’t it ever get easier? – and rode SE through Belgium toward Luxembourg (here’s the map of our route). Europe responded with a record-breaking heat wave where the thermometer rose as if attached to a hot air balloon and days blurred to a haze of 95 degrees and 80% humidity that felt like riding in a sauna. We pedaled past wheat and corn friends interspersed with grazing cattle. Very few people in northern Europe use air conditioning, so refuge proved elusive. Instead, we soaked our jerseys and hair as often as possible (a feeling better than eating dopamine-laced raspberry sorbet), then rejoined the fray. Cold showers at night were divine.
Following the famously difficult Tour of Flanders route, we bounced our way over the gamut of road surfaces – I’ll admit to cursing the sadists who marked “bike route” for one cobblestone-hell-path. Next up were the hills of the Belgian Ardennes region, site of the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. I couldn’t begin to imagine how terrifying traveling through would be with howitzers lobbing explosives in my path. The serene villages and bustling markets felt a world apart from that chaos as we crossed onto the smooth country roads of Luxembourg.
Behind us was hard work and heat, but also delicious chocolate and great new friends. Inside my head were memories of laughs around meals and a welcome so warm any traveler would feel at home.