Right after we got back from Paris, we received our EURail passes in the mail. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the European rail system, it is all-inclusive and very easy to navigate. They offer an EURail pass to non-European citizens so that tourists have an easy way to see the sights of Europe without having to worry about rental cars, buses, or even buying individual train tickets (which can be daunting when you don't speak the native language). This is especially true for anyone under the age of 26, as a "youth" you get extra discounts on the passes; they are really pushing for those recent college-grads who do European backpacking trips. They offer many different levels of passes: a single country pass, a regional pass (there are 25 to choose from), a select pass (where you choose 2, 3, or 4 countries), or a Global pass which includes all 21 countries in the European Union. After much deliberation, we came to the conclusion that three countries would probably offer up plenty of opportunities to keep us busy for the next two months (passes give you a set amount of travel days within a 2 month span, we opted for 10 travel days), so we bought a select pass to include France, Germany, and BenNeLux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg...they are so small that EURail considers them one country). So we received our rail passes just after our trip to Paris, but being the general procrastinators that we are, we didn't decide until Thursday night to go to Bruges, Belgium the next day.
(FYI: the following section is written by Michael due to his infinite love and compassion for Lauren and all of the work that she does)
We were planning on riding our bikes to the train station Friday, but as we were preparing to leave, the air valve on one of my bike's tires broke and the tire went completely flat. I guess that's what we get for buying second-hand bikes (luckily new tubes are only a couple of euros as Cora). We took the bus instead and got our rail passes verified at the ticket counter and hopped on the next train to Brussels. In Brussels we decided to wander around and find lunch somewhere. Apparently the main train station is in the middle of the immigrant neighborhood, so we went to a Middle-Eastern sandwich shop and got a chicken plate and a Bicky Kofta (kind of like a Belgian, Middle-Eastern lambburger). We then hopped on the next train for Bruges. The EURail passes are so nice because once you mark down that you're using a "day" of your pass, you can just hop on or off practically any train in Europe that doesn't require a reservation (unfortunately the high speed trains, like the one we took to Paris, and the overnight trains require that we make a reservation and that cost a few euros but can be done at most train stations). We have a little book of of the time schedules of all of the trains between most larger cities and, unlike the airlines, you can count on the train to almost always be leaving on time, so you only have to show up at the train station a couple of minutes before the book says the train leaves. Anyway, we finally arrived in Bruges that evening and were able to walk around and get acquainted with the city pretty easily; it's about the same size as Metz. We checked into our hostel which was located right downtown, met our roommates (two from Mexico and two from Australia), and dropped of our bag. Before we left Metz, we "borrowed" from the give-a-book/take-a-book library at GTL "Rick Steves' Europe 2009". Before we left the hostel, we wrote down the names and addresses of all of the bars, restaurants, and shops that we wanted to go to so that we didn't have to lug the book around with us the whole time. Using our newly formed list as a guide, and being the thrifty travelers that we are, we decided to make a dinner out of french fries and waffles. Unfortunately most of the waffle places that we had written down were either closed for some reason or had stopped serving waffles, as waffles are a lunch food in Belgium and we were now into dinner time. We managed to find a place along one of the side streets that was serving them still though and we ordered one, although I was skeptical that a plain waffle could really be worth almost 2 euros. Needless to say, it was. It was definitely the most delicious and filling half-waffle that I've ever eaten (Lauren had the other half, that's how "thrifty" we are, splitting a waffle for dinner). The waffle was super dense and had a sugary glaze/crust all over the outside. We then went and got fries at one of the little carts that are parked right under the Belfry in the main square. They were good, but not awe-inspiring like the waffle was. Thirst by this point, and being in Belgium, we went to a bar for drinks. We decided to walk to a place that was kind of on the outskirts of downtown but that was supposedly the oldest bar in the city (1515). It was fairly small, with seating for maybe 30 customers, but it had a lovely atmosphere and really made you feel like you were sitting in an "Old Master's rec-room", as Rick Steves put it. After a few delicious local beverages we headed back out in search of some actual food, as waffles and fries weren't going to cut it for dinner. We realized that it was Friday evening, and thus pizza night, so we went on a search for an Italian restaurant with pizza. We managed to find a nice place back towards the hostel and had a delicious pizza. We felt slightly guilty about eating Italian in while on a trip to Belgium, but there seems to be an odd fascination with Italian food in Bruges (lasagna is considered a snack and served at practically all bars), and the fact that the chef at the Italian place was actually Italian made us feel a little better. By that time we were pretty tired and decided to go back to the hostel and get some sleep. When we got in, we realized that our Australian roommates were still there from when we saw them in the evening. They had apparently fallen asleep right after we left at around 19h and hadn't woken up since. They were the last ones up the next morning as well. As they explained later, 1.5 months of travel combined with Oktoberfest and then Amsterdam can do that to you.
(Ok, now back to Lauren's side of the story)
Saturday morning was most delicious! Bruge has a quite well-known Saturday market filled with lots and lots of good things to eat. We found a little coffee stand at the market where we were able to get 2 coffees for 1 euro each, a far cry from Paris' 4 euro coffee where you had to pay for them to put milk in it, and it tasted just as good as the Parisian coffee. On the whole, living in Europe has re-affirmed my appreciation for good coffee, everyone here knows how to make it well. After coffee, we found a yummy cherry turnover to snack on while we found something of more substance to eat (a.k.a. meat). All around the outside of the market, there were stands upon stands selling rotisserie meat, apparently there is a large demand for this as each stand had 3 or 4 (or more!) 7 foot tall, 3 foot wide rotisseries going constantly to keep up with their ever-emptying cases. Without even knowing what it was, we ended up buying this because it looked so good and was a reasonable size for the two of us. The lady at the counter told us it was a ham after we had bought it and it turned out to be the best ham that I have ever had in my life. Needless to say, we devoured it; we sat on the bench, eating with our fingers and getting some pretty funny looks from other tourists. After "breakfast" we went shopping...we didn't have much luck but I did manage to get a new pair of dressier shoes. We've both realized that shopping in normal clothing stores is a difficult feat after so many years of shopping at the Goodwill and TJMaxx type stores where there is so little you actually like that you buy whatever fits and suits your fashion; normal stores, where we like most of the fashion, can be incredibly daunting. We wasted enough time shopping though that by the time we were done, we were ready for lunch. We found a small lunch place where Michael had another waffle (good, but not as good as the first), I had a sausage roll (super delicious!), and we both had a Jupiler (the "cheap beer" in Belgium which tastes so much better than any of it's counterparts in the US). After lunch we found De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery to buy our tour tickets then we killed time before the tour by seeking out the chocolate shops that Rick Steves suggested. I can't tell you what all of the different kinds of chocolates were that we bought. I know we had a bay leaf flavored one, we had some strawberry chocolates, a couple of caramels (both salted and unsalted), a couple of pralines, and one rum chocolate. I can tell you that they were all absolutely delicious. While eating our lovely chocolates, we walked around the southern part of the city and enjoyed some peaceful time walking through the beautiful convent on the left. We walked back to the Brewery to begin our tour where we met up with our Australian roommates, Anna and Goose (real name, Andy) who were going on the same tour. The tour was interesting, mostly going through the history of the Brewery, we probably would have liked it to include a little more on beer-making, but us being the cookware freaks that we are were more interested in the massive amounts of copper and enameled cast iron left over from previous use at the Brewery. In the past, De Halve Maan was one of many breweries in Bruges, but mainly due to the inability to export (very very small streets), all of the other breweries closed and De Halve Maan, which at one point made something like 10 beers, now only makes two. They have also (obviously) salvaged the brewery by pushing the tourism with tours through the brewery. In short, we enjoyed the tour, but we enjoyed the complimentary beer at the end of the tour even more. After the tour we made the trip up to the eastern side of the city to see 2 of the 29 original windmills that used to surround the city (there are 2 more, but they were both rebuilt). I've found that what I enjoy most about visiting European cities is simply walking around to admire the architecture. The churches, fortress buildings, and houses around Bruges, especially in the less-populated parts of the city, are incredibly beautiful and ornate. And there are so many remnants from the past ages left to admire in the city, like the canals and ancient draw bridges. For dinner Saturday night, we went in search of the quintessential Bruges food, mussels and fries, and flemmish stew. And since you cannot get free tap water in Belgian restaurants (they believe you should be enjoying the beer), we of course had some more fine Belgian beer to accompany our delicious food. We shared our entrees and as Michael took a mussel from my plate, he notices something very strange about the mussel. Apparently (as you can see by the picture), the mussel had been halfway through a lovely crab dinner when he was caught! Poor guy, harvested in the middle of a meal. After dinner we fought our reclusive urges that pushed us to retreat to our hostel (we just don't go out much at night) and decided to go to another bar suggested by Rick Steves, 't Brugs Beertje where we samples even more delicious Belgian beers from their selection of 300. We even managed to make friends at the (very cozy) bar, Neville, an older truck driver from Britain, and Rich, a fun, local character. We spent the evening laughing, cracking jokes, and drinking beer with these two until we both were about ready to collapse from exhaustion, which is exactly what we did after the long trek back to the hostel.
Sunday wasn't very exciting, we wanted to get back to Metz with enough time to get some homework done for the following week. We got up and out of the hostel, found some breakfast (coffee, waffle, and a grilled ham and cheese, I know...strange breakfast food), and hopped on a late morning train headed for Brussles. We had a short wait for our next train in Brussles, so we each got panini (again, the strange infatuation with Italian in Belgium). We had another, longer wait for our next train in Luxembourg city so we got out of the train station and walked around for a bit. Luxembourg city is really a beautiful city, on our short walk we managed to see copper roofed buildings, beautiful gardens and we walked on a bridge that crossed over a huge valley with stone fortresses. We will have to plan a trip there in the near future, it is only 45 minutes away by train.