I had the pleasure of spending two days in what I now know to be one of the most vibrant, exciting cities in Europe. Brussels plays host to some of the most fascinating architecture and incredible history I’ve ever seen, and for us Brits on a tight budget a return ticket on the Megabus costs just £20.
The adventure began with a four-hour bus journey to London one Friday afternoon, giving me more than enough time to rediscover my travel sickness. In London I spent two hours visiting Buckingham Palace, Parliament and St James’ Park, which are all well within walking distance of Victoria Coach station, my new home from home. My excitement reached its peak three hours into the overnight bus journey to Brussels when I realised we would be travelling to France…on a ferry! As soon we alighted from the bus I ran straight up there, desperate to watch as the ferry left the white cliffs of Dover behind. Fond memories of doing the same crossing annually as a child had led me to believe that I could withstand the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute journey on the top deck.
I was so wrong. Within a few minutes I couldn’t feel my extremities, and I resorted to napping on two rigid metal chairs. (One benefit of wanderlust is that you develop the knack of sleeping anywhere, at any time.)
I was in Brussels for 6am, just in time to head down to the river and get some early morning photos before the sun rose. With only a small rucksack and the self-defence techniques taught to me by an ex sniper in Portugal three months prior, I felt relatively safe, although I later found out that that particular area is not where you should be at that time of day. The lesson here: do your research beforehand.
For this trip I’d decided to splash out and get a bed at a hostel rather than couchsurfing again. They both have their pros and cons, but my reason for spending the extra cash this time was that after a hectic trip to Germany the weekend before I could have really used some time alone. This is impossible while couchsurfing, albeit a little unsociable in a hostel. But it did allow me to check in early and get two more hours of sleep before heading out again to explore.
My hostel was five minutes away from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a minute away from shops and bars and within sight of a metro station, making it the perfect place for a quick weekend getaway. Brussels has many interesting places to visit, more than I could see in one weekend. I felt welcome here, the city giving off a strong sense of history and culture.
There are plenty of cheaper restaurants and bars for those on a strict budget, and spending time with a local, as I did, will help you find these. Both days I met up with a friend from my hometown who had moved back recently, and she showed me all the best places.
My favourite part of the trip by far was finding a small, empty cocktail bar and filling up on 3-euro beers and 5-euro cocktails, before stumbling around the corner to be confronted by the majesty of a floodlit Grand Palais, and finally ending the evening with some traditional Belgian food. ‘Croquettes de crevette’, cheesy, shrimp filled croquettes, are simply divine. On the last day I spent a relaxed morning with a picnic of freshly baked baguette and soft camembert in front of the Basilica, before heading back down towards the river for a cold morning walk. This was how I stumbled onto a colourful and exciting market in the Arab quarter. There are advantages to being completely underprepared and overwhelmed by the weekend. As I wandered I regretted not having more time here, already thinking about the journey home that evening, but remembered that with the life I’ve chosen for the next few days, these random weekends will be the best I can get.
One of the problems with travelling on a budget, and especially by bus, is that you are more prone to delays. Due to a massive storm over Dover, ferries were delayed by three to four hours, which meant that the 11pm coach didn’t get into London until 10:30 am. This made me two hours late for my connection back home with the next bus being at 9:30pm, causing me to have to cancel two appointments, but giving me the perfect excuse to head to the pub. It’s midday somewhere, right?