First multi-country road trip. (kinda)
04.04.2010 - 04.04.2010 55 °F
When my friends here invited me to go on a day trip to Gent, Belgium, I immediately popped open my computer and got on the inter-web for some information about our destination.
Like many cities in Europe, there is a history that traces back over 1000 years or more. I was excited to check out a place with such a long story. My European geography isn't probably as good as it should be. (especially since my undergrad degree was in Geography) Side note: for those of you who saw the Colin Farrell movie "In Bruges", it is a very similar city.
Also my first road trip with David and Luisa, it is always a good way to get to know people very well (for better or worse). If you can travel with someone, you can be friends for a long time. Keep in mind that goes both directions. ;-)
Quick back-story: David is an America I worked in the US at T-Mobile for a couple of years. Luisa is from Germany and met David while on a job rotation in the US a couple of years ago and they hit it off and they moved together back to Germany. They are getting married this summer. They have been absolutely great! Been a big help with my transition to life in Germany. The combination of a native German and someone from the US who has already made the transition to life here has been perfect. I can't thank them enough!!!
Anyway, we got on the road at a decent hour in the morning, coffee in hand and excited for the adventure. Luckily David volunteered to drive so I got to sightsee out the window. Not sure if everyone has driven in Europe, but some of the biggest challenges are that there are dozens of highways going in every different direction. If you look at a map, it looks like spaghetti in a bowl. Another key is that there is no indication of direction (N/S/E/W) for the highways, you have to know what the next major city on the road in the direction you are traveling. While Google maps is helpful, it cannot tell the whole story. Another challenge is that often times the highways will have more than one number. (for example, you could be on 555, but it is also called A4. Google maps does not differentiate) And for my last point of confusion/complaint is that in different languages a city can be called something completely different. Not especially helpful if you are looking for a specific exit or direction to travel. Slowly figuring this all out, it seems to work for the Europeans, but still pretty confusing. (ENOUGH COMPLAINING)
Once we got on the road we had great conversation getting to know each other better. It was so interesting to get a view from a different culture on so many different common topics. We had about 2 1/2 hours to discuss everything from movies and music to the modern day German view of all that happened in WWII. (pretty deep stuff, but was very helpful to understand as an American) Thanks to Luisa for being willing to share her feelings about such a massive topic. I think I learned more about the German people in that 20 minute conversation than I accumulated in my whole life.
On our way to Belgium, we briefly drove through the Netherlands (Holland). Technically, I get to check another country off my list, but I am pretty sure I will get a longer view soon enough. One interesting note along the way is that all of the rest stops are very easy access from the freeway and are privately owned by the gas station company. Kind of similar to the NJ turnpike I think. The really interesting thing was the bathroom. There was a 0.50 Euro charge to use the bathroom, they said it was for cleaning and maintenance. They were not kidding. The bathrooms were spotless! Then, on your way out through the turn style you get a 0.50 Euro coupon to spend in the store if you want. Not a bad business move in my opinion. Smart.
Enough of the background and bathroom talk. We finally make it to Gent. We parked on the edge of the central part of town and decided to walk into the city and experience the area on foot. We had heard that there were some canals in Gent that we should see for sure. So when we saw the first one, I got out my camera and started snapping pictures of the canal and the architecture of the buildings all around. It was very cool. There weren't a bunch of people around, but it looked cool to us, so we kept taking pictures. The closer we got to the center of town, we realized that maybe the first canal wasn't the coolest thing going on in Gent.
In the 4-5 cities I have been in Europe so far, all of them seem to have a town center with cobble stone streets, beautiful architecture, and busy shops and restaurants. As we reached the edge of this area in Gent, we realized what a cool place it was. From the distance we could see 3 massive towers/spires in the central area. We followed the streets in that direction and found 2 towers and a huge church. The town square looked to be undergoing a face lift with many of the main areas of cobble stone being replaced. So, we weaved our way through the construction and to the main tower in town. We decided to go in and check it out, you could actually get to the top and get a better view of the city. So we had the choice of the elevator or the stone spiral staircase.....David, being Mr. Fitness, volunteered us to take the stairs. ;-) So as we made our way up the beginning of the stairwell it was clear that the stairway was only designed for one way traffic, but there were people going both ways. If you are familiar with spiral staircases, the outside of the stair provides much more room to step that the part nearing the center. There was a railing on the outside, but it was only mildly helpful. The inside of the stairs were less that 3 inches deep and only had a single rope to hold on to if you were taking that path. Keep in mind this stairwell was probably about a foot or so wider than my shoulders. People were actually trying to come back down the stairs...which was mildly insane. We got up to the second level and Luisa told us we were crazy and hopped on the elevator for the rest of the ride. In typical male fashion, David and I pressed on....even though we had managed to barely survive climbing over the people coming down the stairs. After 4 more levels we were in the final stretch, a straight stairwell to the top. Sounded good, but then I got a look at it and realized that the passageway was only about 3/4 the width of my shoulders. So for the last 20 stairs I was shuffling my way up a stone hallway nearly sideways. (No worry about claustrophobia....yikes!) When we got to the top we shuffled out way out to the "viewing areas". First of all, there was only enough width for one person to stand and so everyone lined up and shuffled along each side of the tower. The view was amazing, it really gave you perspective of the city and each direction provided a different view of the town center area. Side note, this system would never work in the US, there were no major guard rails or security fences, etc. I would be willing to bet they believe that if someone goes to all that trouble to climb to the top of the tower, they should be able to throw themselves off if they want without any governmental regulations hindering their progress. (I might agree)
On the way down we certainly took the elevator and enjoyed the ride down much more than the trip up. Once we reached terra firma again, we were determined to find a Belgium Chocolate shoppe. Normally not a difficult task, but it was Sunday and many of them were closed. However, there was one across the square from the tower that looked amazing. In the window there were 4 foot high chocolate bunnies and 2 foot high eggs. All looking very delicious. In the very crowded shoppe I noticed there was a roped off area and decided to go investigate. As I got closer I realized the floor in the area was made of plexi-glass and you were able to look down into the basement of the building and watch the chocolate makers at work. Very cool!
While we were making our way back to the car, we stopped and walked through a former butcher/smoke house that has been turned into a hipster cafe, chocolate shop, and information center. Through it all there are big shanks of pork and sausage aging while hanging from the ceiling. Makes for a great atmosphere.....especially for a meat-a-terian like me.
Our ride home was relatively uneventful, and we closed out the evening with a couple of beers and Luisa making a nice cheese and olive platter while we watched Jurassic Park in German. (not too hard to follow)
Great day trip....first of many I am sure.