Tuesday, March 12, 2013

36 hours in Brussels and Ghent

My recent trip to Brussels was not work-related (thank goodness), but to meet up with my favorite San Franciscan and dear friend who has been selected as a Marshall Memorial Fellow. This is a month-long programme for emerging leaders to learn about European politics/law-making, public policy, culture, and history. Each Fellow is assigned five European cities, hers includes: Brussels, Lubeck, Budapest, Rome, and Paris (lucky her!). My friend is a corporate attorney at a big law firm; she's taking a leave from work to be part of the fellowship and hope she's having a blast!

Originally, I wanted to meet her in Paris but Keenan and I had already booked our Easter holiday to Bologna. Then I considered Budapest but the flights were expensive and the timing wasn't right as I had a few deadlines that week. We settled for Brussels, a quick easy train ride on the Eurostar from St. Pancras, and it worked out perfectly as she had free time on that Saturday evening in her packed schedule of events organised by the Marshall office.

I arrived in Brussels as she was landing on her red-eye fight from Washington D.C.; and meet at the Aloft Schuman Hotel, a new concept hotel from the Starwood chain, which was just around the corner from the European Commission. Strangely, I felt as if I was going to a client meeting being in the European Quarter on a weekend! A quick hello and my friend was off on a walking tour, whilst I made my way to the Grand Place for some sightseeing.
The first order of business was to get some frites at Antoine's Place Jourdan, supposedly the best frites in town according to my former colleague who used to live in Brussels. 

I come to Brussels fairly often for conferences or meetings but it has been ages since I went to the Old Town area. It was nice to stroll around the charming streets and inhale the smell of 1) moules, 2) chocolate; and 3) beer, Brussels' top three gourmand specialities. Keenan's favourite Belgian beer bar is "The Good Old Times" -- a little bar he stumbled upon with his Dad during their 2009 Brussels trip. I sent my regards to Madame Triste, the pub owner, and ordered myself the Westvleteren Trappist beer. It cost 10 euros for a small 33cl but according to
beer aficionados, Westvleteren is considered the "the best beer in the world". I am no beer connoisseur and ended up nursing the beer for over an hour whilst eavesdropping on a tour guide giving a lecture on the history of Belgian beers. 

Later in the evening, I met up with my friend who unfortunately had some things to wrap up for work so we had a casual dinner of pizza nearby the hotel and caught up on life, friends, and work. It was great to just hang out, just like old times when Keenan and I were living in the Bay Area. Makes me miss California even more... maybe it's time to book a trip back to San Francisco? Keep you posted on our next trip back to the U.S.

The next day I decided to head to Ghent for the day to check out a quintessential Flemish city. Quaint little Ghent is less touristy than neighboring Brugges, and it is possible to see both cities in the same day if you're efficient. The weather was painfully cold. I did a walking tour along the canal on
Graslei, soaking up the perfectly preserved medieval architecture, strolled around the lovely square of Groentenmarkt, and visited some lovely cathedrals.

Before leaving this lovely Flemish town, I had to try the regional specialty of Flemish stew and a local brew. Of course, I couldn't leave Belgium without a suitcase full of Trappist beers and chocolates for the husband at home. My weekend in Belgium was short, but a chance to catch up with a dear friend from home was well-worth the 2hr 15 minute train ride to Brussels. 

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