Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fun in Antwerp and Gent

So I have just arrived back home from a wonderful extended weekend in Belgium and I enjoyed my stay so much, that I am definitely going back there, hopefully in the near future. Here is my little travel diary:

Friday, 19th of August 2011
I rush out of the house at a quarter to 8, knowing I am running a bit late, as usual. I miss the tram I originally wanted to take, hoping the next one won't run late, else I will miss my train. Fortunately there is no delay, and I can finally relax on the first step of my journey, taking the train from Mannheim to Cologne.

Not having had breakfast, I enter the train's board bistro and ask if they accept credit cards, since I am low on cash and am assured that I can pay with my Visa card just to find out after eating the overpriced mediocre food that they apparently have trouble getting confirmation through my prepaid Postbank Visa. Not having enough cash on me, I am at a bit of a loss how to pay the bill, asking them if they are willing to wait in Cologne until I can rush to an ATM and come back with the cash, but they agree to send a bill to my house instead. Works for me, but take this as a hint: Prepaid credit cards are not usable for expenses on Deutsche Bahn trains.

Arrival in Cologne is in time (yes, DB trains CAN be punctual!)and I stroll over to the other platform with plenty of time to spare for my connection train to Brussels. Time to stand in the "smoking zone" and feed my nicotine addiction.

In Brussels I have 10 minutes to find out which platform the train to Antwerp leaves from. Announcements through the speaker system are in French and Flemish and I realize while I understand regular Dutch fairly well, I have a hard time with Flemish. Fortunately there are some nice people around who translate for me and I have a very nice lady sitting next to me on the train who lets me know at which stop to get off the train.

I arrive in Antwerp and spot freethinkeronice, who is waiting for me on the platform. I'm happy to see him but also hungry as hell after the mediocre breakfast, so we stop by the next available food source, which is a hot dog stand and I feel a lot better afterwards, especially when spotting the Starbucks up the stairs, which is where we spend the next hour and a half, since we can't check into the hotel before 4pm. While the Starbucks at Antwerp train station has no free internet (which is unusual for a Starbucks), there is a Telenet hotspot available that you can access if you have an account with them, or alternatively via Skype credit.

We check into our room at Budget Flats in Antwerp at 4pm. The receptionist is extremely nice and perfectly honest about the shortcomings of the flats available, such as the free WiFi cutting in and out in the building where we have our flat, suggesting that it would probably be a waste of money to pay the additional fee for the fast internet, since the WiFi is unstable. We pay the extra 5 Euro anyway and notice a bit of a difference in speed, despite it cutting off now and then, and the 5 Euro will buy you faster internet for a full month. If you need the WiFi only to check mail, you may be perfectly fine using just the free WiFi though. The flat is nice and big with huge windows, but the cleaning personnel could have done a better job. We find some prehistoric ice cream in the freezer, left there by a previous guest and the dishes appear to have just been rinsed off, not washed, so we rewash all dishes we intend to use first.

Later that night we go out to find something edible as well as some fun stuff to do. We end up having some Belgian beer at an Irish Pub (sounds silly, I know) and I realize that Belgians indeed equal Germany when it comes to beer brewing, then move on to a karaoke bar that is simply weird, since the background tracks aren't the original but some cheap version in a key that renders the songs unsingable, since you have to sing either way lower or way higher than the original. We leave after one song since it's late anyway and we still want food. We end up in a turkish fastfood place where I have some chicken, fries and salad, then head back to the flat.

Saturday, 20th of August 2011
I get coffee in bed and freethinkeronice buys fresh rolls from the bakery for our breakfast. Kitchen in the flat works well and I manage to produce some fairly decent scrambled eggs for a good start into the day despite missing a spatula. Afterwards we stroll around Antwerp and do a bit of shopping, then go back to the hotel to relax and have fun.

I cook an extremely late dinner in our little kitchen, we are having Bratwurst, Rotkraut and mashed potatos (why do I insist on cooking typical German food while in Belgium?). We do the dishes and head to bed way too late, having to get up early to check out by 10am tomorrow.

Sunday, 21st of August 2011
I hate my alarm clock, which goes off at 9am, but it has to be done, so we get up, take our showers, pack our things and manage to head out right at 10am. Perhaps we should have gotten up a bit earlier. Rushing sucks. We head to the Antwerp Centraal trainstation again and put some of our luggage into a locker there, since we don't need it all for our one night in Gent. Afterwards we have some real coffee at the Starbucks again, then catch the train to Gent.

We're on the train to Gent shortly after 1pm. The ride takes us 50 minutes. Although we know there is a tram going from the station to the hotel in Gent, we decide to go for a bit of luxury and take a taxi. The driver is odd, speaking no English, no German, barely any Flemish but apparently French. Sorry to say, neither freethinkeronice nor I speak French. If you drive a cab in the Flemish part of Belgium, shouldn't you speak Flemish? Just sayin'.

We check into the Ibis Gent Centrum Opera hotel at around 2pm. The room is tiny, the beds are not the most comfortable, but the location is nice. We inquire about areas to smoke and are told the entire hotel is smoke free and has no terrace, so we have to smoke in front of the hotel on the street, which turns out to be a blatant lie by the receptionist later on.

Hunger is killing us! So we head out on a quest for food and stumble across this wonderful little restaurant in Gent called Mistral. The food is simply godly and I doubt even Gordon Ramsay would have anything bad to say about it. If you ever end up in Gent and are looking for good food, I can only suggest the Mistral. This cook knows his job!

From about 6pm on we sit at the hotel bar, waiting for Skorpys to arrive, debating whether he will take the tram or a taxi. I bet on taxi and am proven right. A taxi pulls up and spits out Skorpys. When he checks in, the receptionist actually asks him if he wants a smoking or non-smoking room! Are they kidding me? I complain that not only was I not asked that question (since I would have taken a smoking room), but even was told there is no smoking in the entire hotel. The receptionist simply ignores me. Am I made of thin air?

The three of us head into the city of Gent to find something edible for Skorpys. Unfortunately the Mistral is closed by now since the owner is celebrating his birthday, so we find another restaurant. While I don't remember the name of the restaurant, the sentence "Nice to MEAT you" on the menu leaves a lasting impression. I wonder if they considered the implications of such a sentence before printing it.

We stroll through Gent a bit more, have another drink at some pub, then run into a group of students having a jam session by the river. The guitar player is simply awesome and there is a female singer with a great voice. We hang out and sing together, having fun jamming until it gets too cold to stay any longer. Phone numbers and Facebook pages exchanged. We will definitely stay in touch and jam again at some point!

Monday, 22nd of August 2011
freethinkeronice is up early, but is a sweety and lets me sleep while he goes and gets breakfast and more smokes somewhere. By the time I get up the hotel doesn't serve breakfast anymore, but Skorpys and I manage to get some mediocre and much overpriced coffee to get us out of zombie mode. Not satisfied with the coffee there, the three of us head into the city again to search for some proper breakfast and find a nice little café in some side street where they make a really good omelette and nice coffee. Ready to face another day!

We head over to the river again and go on a boat ride to tour the city of Gent. I'm filming a lot of footage and while writing this blog entry remind myself to edit it and post it on YouTube! I will edit this post and link to the video once it's done.

The day is over way too soon and we head back to Antwerp in the evening, checking back into the Budget Flats for our last night.

Tuesday, 23rd of August 2011
Where did the weekend go? We check out of the flat at 10am again while a massive thunderstorm is raging and temperatures have dropped. I put on my sweater, since I forgot to bring a coat. At least I have my umbrella. We take a taxi back to the train station anyway, since the rain is blowing sideways. We spend the rest of the time at Starbucks again until I have to get on the train, which is delayed by 5 minutes. I panic just a little, since that only gives me 5 minutes to find out which platform my connection train in Brussels leaves from and get there, but all works out well, since that train has a delay of 20 minutes as well, leaving me with some time to spare. When I get on the train I have to argue a bit with the lady that is occupying my reserved seat before she finally gets up. The connection train in Cologne is on time, but the original 40 minute layover allows me to be relaxed about it. Other than that the trip back is fairly uneventful.

All in all I really enjoyed Belgium and am looking forward to the next time. I just wish I could have stayed longer.

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