It’s taken a long time to fully recover from my recent two week Benelux/NW England trip. Here’s a long overdue potted summary of what happened.
01-2.07.09 – Brussels
Arrived late in Brussels via Eurostar. Following a trip here six months ago, there wasn’t too much to do here in the way of tourism, so most of our time here was spent catching up with family, doing some light shopping, and being baffled at how all the restaurants were charging an average of 17euros for a salad.
03.07.09 – Rotterdam
Free day. As so many cities are easy to get to from Brussels, it seemed worth it to do a day trip abroad. A 30euro return to Rotterdam trumped a 52euro return to Cologne, so we headed to Holland for the first time. Rotterdam is a fairly modern city focused on regeneration (a lot of the area around the central train station was being dug up when we visited), but it still has some great architecture, and enough variety around the city (a shopping district, museum park, a good selection of bars and restaurants around the harbour, and a more indie area around Niewe Binnenweg) – definitely enough to fill a day trip with change. A local designer on the corner of Westersingel and Niewe Binnenweg recommended this cafe for lunch, which bakes 14 varieties of bread in-house and fills them with fresh deli goodies of your choice for a mere 3euros.
04.07.09 – Bruges
An hour’s drive away from Brussels is the picturesque (dubbed “Venice of the North”) city of Bruges. Lined with boutiques and attractive lunching spots, it’s probably a better destination than Brussels for a short break, as long as you can get past the sense that most of the establishments here are aimed solely at tourist. There’s not really much to “do” here, but it’s a great place to relax and take in the Belgian traditions, from moules et frites to bike riding, lace, truffles, beer – or if you prefer, boozy truffles.
05.07.09 – Rock Werchter
The idea of festivals is great, but the practicalities don’t appeal quite as much. After checking in to the bizarre Chachow Palace Hotel, and taking a train to Leuven, shuttle bus from there to the festival site, and a short(ish) walk, I arrived at the main stage, where what I thought was Axl Rose turned out to be the Mars Volta, who opened the day’s line-up with a set that didn’t really rouse the mainly-there-to-see-Metallica crowd. Nor did the Black Eyed Peas, who kept insisting “I’m a bee” and asking the “niggers” in “Brussels” (Werchter is 24 miles outside of Brussels) where the after-show party was. The Kaiser Chiefs, who were on next, got the crowd a lot more excited, getting even the most hardened metaller to bounce along to one of their hits. Nine Inch Nails put on a solid set from what I recall, but my most vivid impression was of how bizarre it felt to see my favourite band in festival circumstances.
I left before Metallica hit the stage, for fear of the possible consequences of running home past midnight in a strange city.
06-08.07.09 – Amsterdam
After 3 hours on a coach the next morning, we arrived ahead of schedule in Amsterdam. The first thing that struck us was how beautiful the city – particularly the area around our hotel in Waterlooplein – was in contrast with the greyness of Belgium. Most of the first day was spent taking a boat around the canals, and around the bars and coffeeshops of the Red Light District, where we let ourselves become vulnerable to what we thought were tourist prices until we got to the Belushi’s Bar on Warmoestraat. I say “what we thought were tourist prices” because we had gone out with the assumption that Amsterdam would cater to British drinking habits, while in reality locals seemed to have more of a relaxed approach to alcohol, seeing it as a treat rather than something to gorge on. A pint of local Heineken, for example, costs twice as much in Amsterdam as a similar serving in one of London’s chain pubs. While there is a lack of chain drinking establishments in Amsterdam, there are several coffeeshops with branches across the city.
The next day we explored the cheaper Niewemarkt area, and the adjoining Chinatown, discovering perhaps all-to-late on our way back to the hotel that Waterlooplein also had a host of cheap places to eat and drink. Aside from a sprint across the city to find an Internet cafe, the day ended with an in-room picnic, followed by an early night in preparation for the next day’s show.
After a 3 hour car trip to Brussels, two hours spent illegally in a youth hostel, and a 4 hour train journey, we arrived outside Rockhal in Luxembourg, 11 hours after we left Amsterdam. We had been told that Luxembourg was expensive and boring, but as we spent the entire day next to a shopping centre with cheap sandwiches and surrounded by a few hundred people to talk to – including someone who turned out to be a friend of some good friends – and our first detection of free wifi on the whole trip (shocked that there was barely any in Brussels – capital of Europe?!), the day passed quickly and ended with our first full night’s sleep that week.
11-14.07.09 – Leeds and Manchester
Less than 12 hours after I’d arrived home, I was packing for another trip. A friend had just touched down from Australia and we were heading up north for the weekend before seeing a couple of shows. Bars we (re)visited in Leeds include: The Wrens, Mook, The Cockpit, Norman’s, Mojo, North Bar, Fab Cafe, Dry Dock, theSubculture and Browns. On the 13th we took the short train ride to Manchester to meet up with friends and visit their (inferior) branch of the Fab Cafe, take advantage of some discounted sushi, and taste the worst wine ever made. The next day required another early start, which led to us seeing the sun rise over the city.
15.07.09 – London
One overnight coach trip and morning nap later, and it was time to head to Waterloo for lunch before our day at the o2 arena. The concluding pub scout in Soho and mini-afterparty that went on until sunrise the next day made me grateful that I’d taken the next day off. The India Club provided our hangover lunch.
It’s not over yet, though. On Tuesday, Madrid beckons, and in September, Los Angeles.