I love Belgium.
That is not a phrase that you hear often but it is a country I really like. It feels like stepping back in time. Lots of places feel like that, like Prague, but Belgium is different. It feels lived in. A little bit shabby. And it is a mish mash of eras all butting up against each other. You can walk from the Dadaist decadence of the 1930's into the rampant commerce of the 1600's within one street. Turn the corner and you are in the heretic frenzy of the Middle Ages. Kings rub up against wool merchants.
It was the first country I ever visited on my own, almost thirty years ago now after I ran away from home for an adventure one summer. I've been back many times, full of fond memories and stories. I always wonder if it is wise to go back to places you liked. The time matters as much as the place. Sometimes it matters more. But I keep coming back here, to this strange little country. I don't know what it is.
This trip surprised me. I really did not know where I was going to go. It was an adventure that happened day by day. It did not look promising, I got there in the middle of a blizzard, it was around minus seven and it was damp and grey. But mid-way through the sun came out and the world made a stuttering step into spring. Drifting round Flanders in the cool February sunshine was beautiful.
So this is where everyone goes. Doesn't stop it being a beautiful, atmospheric little town. And yes, you have to walk around saying "Bruges is a shithole" in an Irish accent like you are the first person to think of it.
Antwerp is a real gem. Belgium's second largest city and what Brussels should be like if it wasn't such a shithole. I hated it the moment I stepped outside the station but by the end of the day I had fallen in love with Antwerp.
Brussels really is a shithole. Alright, that is not fair. It is a big, modern city of politics and business and has all the downsides that come with it. The people are arseholes, everything is expensive and it is dirty. But it is also a city of character and surprisingly beautiful on a spring afternoon.