30 November 2012 – Farewell to our Parisian home, hello Belgium!

We set our alarm for 7am to make an early get away from Paris. Of course Miss Astrid picked this day to sleep in, and we crept around trying to get packed up without waking her. Our plan was to get out of the apartment with plenty of time for some relaxed coffee and croissant at the train station. Best laid plans always come unstuck. Despite having packed what we thought was most of the luggage earlier in the week, to send to London, we kept finding more things. At one point last night we thought we should have a spare bag. Somehow things kept appearing out of cupboards and drawers and our bags rapidly filled up. Once Miss Astrid woke up packing and cleaning up became more difficult as she repeatedly unpacked for us and helpfully packed (hid) our phones in bags. In the end we just threw everything into whatever bag we could find and loaded up and tried to get out so we didn’t miss our 9am train.

We usually use either the carrier or the ergo for train trips as the stroller is a pain. However we couldn’t easily get the stroller to London so we still had it with us……..plus about 6 small bags. Getting them all down our windy stairs was a pain. We didn’t even have time to bid our Parisian home au revoir properly but it had been a good home for the past (almost) 2 months. We were totally over the tiny bathroom and the tiny bed though. Especially since the bed collapses every time you move on it and we spend most of our time sleeping on a slope. Aside from that though it has been great and we LOVED the area we were located in.

Anyway, we trudged off to the metro station with all our gear. On the way we tried to stop and give away a bag of left over food items to one of the many homeless people. We picked one at random and she refused our offer and we didn’t have time to go looking for another person so we left it in a nearby bin. The homeless tend to go through the bins, so we figured someone would end up with it. It was all packaged up nicely and I’m sure they would have appreciated the biscuits, fruit, yoghurt and other bits and pieces. Once at the metro station it was another giant pain to get all the bags, the stroller and Astrid down to the gates. We were again contemplating how to pass them all through the tiny gates when a metro officer helpfully let us through one of the doors rather than having to pass heavy things over turnstiles. Once on the metro it was a quick trip through to Gare du Nord (we know the way very well!), and it’s easy to manage bags with the escalators and flat layout of Gare du Nord.

We located our train platform and Anto headed off to obtain coffee and croissants for breakfast. We ended up eating them standing up (or in the stroller for Astrid) surrounded by our bags, not the relaxing ‘farewell Paris  breaky we were hoping for but still yummy none the less. Astrid hoovered an entire pain au chocolat and most of her parents croissant aux almondes too. Our train to Brussels was announced as running 5 minutes late, but mysteriously appeared seemingly on time and once
we boarded it took off pretty much bang on time. This was our last day travelling on the Eurail pass so we thought we’d enjoy first class, but it was again pretty full. We were in a 4-way booth with a nice Asian couple who didn’t seem too worried by the small child invading their space. Being a Thalys train we got served a snack during the trip, which was more croissant and coffee. But you can never have too much! Luckily the trip through to Brussels is only 1 hr 20 mins and by the time Astrid was distracted with food (she still doesn’t understand why it takes the man so long to get from the other end of the carriage to her end with her food) and a nappy change we were in Brussels.

Brussels train station has been freezing every time we have been there. Today was no exception. coming into Brussels there was so much frost it looked like snow and it was bitterly cold. It couldn’t have been much above zero and it felt icy. Inside wasn’t much better. We had decided during the train ride that we needed another suitcase or we were going to be over our bag limit for our flight out Sunday night. We scoured the train station for a bag and found a few options. They weren’t too badly priced and we figured buying one now would save wasting our sightseeing time later looking for a bag. So we ended up being ‘those people’ buying a huge suitcase and emptying their bags into suitcases at the train station.

With the bag situation more under control and our next train due in, we headed out into the cold, and it was still cold! Astrid was not keeping her mittens on much to our annoyance. Our train to Bruges was running late and there appeared to be people on the platform piled 10 deep. This was a train without reserved seats and we had a mountain of luggage and a stroller to get on, so it wasn’t looking good. Sure enough, once the train turned up it was already partially full and hundreds of people were getting on. Entitled to a first class seat, that cabin looked slightly emptier so we headed there and only just managed to haul all our gear on before the train took off. There were people standing everywhere and luggage piled up in the vestibules. I took Astrid into a cabin hoping to get a seat as I wasn’t keen on her standing in the stairs for the hour train ride. I don’t mind standing but she ends up falling and hurting herself if she is on the ground and I can’t physically hold her for that long. Typically no one was looking keen on giving me a seat until a nice older gentleman gave up his seat. It is always older men or women who give up their seats, never the young people. We have noticed this on the metros in Paris too.

Once sitting Astrid was keen on finding dad, who was still standing with all our luggage, in the foyer of the carriage with a bunch of British people. Once she figured out where he was she took to trying to get the attention of everyone in our carriage. Once the ticket inspectors went through and kicked out all the people who didn’t have first class tickets, many seats magically opened up and more people ended up standing between carriages. A rather silly situation but seemingly large fines were threatened. In the end Anto got a seat and heaps of people were trying to dodge the ticket inspectors and repeatedly sitting then standing.

After just under an hour we pulled into Bruges and got off the train and were pleased to find it was cold but not as bad as Brussels. We headed off walking to our B&B, which was only about 1.6km away. Not too bad except when wheeling/carrying bags and navigating old cobblestone streets. Cobblestones and wheelie bags aren’t good friends! Astrid had immediately fallen asleep and we even managed to get her mittens onto her. Once out of the vicinity of the train station we started seeing the ‘fairytale’ buildings and canals of Bruges. It is indeed very pretty.

On a mission to get checked in we decided to admire as we walked and take photos later. B&B was located and they had our room ready. This is another winner as far as hotels go. A beautiful recently renovated property, lovely big rooms, tastefully decorated and an enormous bathroom and walk in shower. Luxury!! We wished we were staying longer. It is also a bargain compared to most other hotels. While we checked in and stored bags Astrid stayed sleeping in her stroller. We figured the chances of getting her upstairs and into her cot still asleep weren’t good so we headed out for a walk with her still sleeping.

Our general plan for Bruges was to walk around and admire the sights. It’s a pretty small place and only takes 30-40 minutes to walk from one side to the other. The whole Bruges area has around 120,000 residents but only 20,000 live in the historic centre. Of course if you are us you can manage to walk 10+km’s easily and only see about a quarter of it because you continually walk in circles……… We seem good at that! I was thinking that Bruges had probably been over-rated in the prettyness stakes. Some places we have been so far have been so pretty that it was going to be hard to better. The buildings are so pretty and the main square is lovely, especially with all the Christmas lights up, and the horse drawn carriages.

The main square ‘Markt’ also has a Christmas ice skating rink up and it’s all lit up with pretty lights! The Belfort tower is one of the most impressive we’ve seen and the Post Office is mighty impressive. We wandered the streets around the main square and checked out some of the grand churches while Miss A slept.

We had been warned repeatedly not to eat in the Markt as it is a tourist trap so we wandered some nearby streets window shopping and looking for food options We found a few places that looked really interesting and reasonably priced, mixed in with some that were some that would break the bank. We found a place that we liked and thought would look like a good option for dinner so we asked about booking for tonight. They weren’t that sure about us having a baby with us and seemed keen on us coming at 6pm which suited us.

Dinner sorted we decided to find Anto some mussels for lunch. Around the corner was a nice pub type place and it was packed with locals so we decided to head there. Anto got some mussels and beer (he has been hanging out for more mussels and beer), Astrid, freshly awake and in a good mood, got a kids meal of meatballs in a tomato-cream sauce with apple sauce and some chips. I got the only vegetarian option of a tomato, basil and mozzarella panini. Mine was acceptable but Anto and Astrid lucked out. Astrid was being a bit silly and not wanting to eat much despite Anto declaring her meatballs fantastic. She did eventually eat some meatball, simultaneously covered in apple sauce and creamy-tomato sauce. For once she wasn’t keen on the chips. She did enjoy colouring in her place mat though! We were drooling over the cakes, waffles and desserts coming out of the kitchen but Astrid was getting antsy and driving us a bit bonkers so we thought we should get out quickly.

We headed back out into the chilly afternoon and discovered the sun had come out. We walked over to the choco-story museum, which gives a history of chocolate from Aztec times to modern times and demonstrations of chocolate making. It was quite interesting reading bits of it and seeing old fashioned chocolate molds and machines. We also liked seeing the impressive chocolate creations being made. Astrid mostly enjoyed cuddles from other museum visitors and stuffing her face with the free chocolates that were being handed out.

All chocolate-ed out we headed back towards our B&B for a quick rest. It was now after 4pm and getting dark. All the Christmas lights were coming on and we enjoyed a bit more window shopping. We managed to find our way back and enjoyed the comforts of our room for about an hour while we thought about having to go out for more food.

We were all tired and weary so an early night would have been nice but we needed to get food at any rate so head out we did. Of course we hadn’t managed to write down the name of the restaurant we had booked for dinner…… that would be too sensible! We were a bit tired and we had found it twice so we thought we wouldn’t have an issue finding it again. Um, yeah that was a good theory! we knew it was near one of the churches and around the corner from the place we went to lunch. We found both the church and the lunch place but we walked around blocks multiple times without finding the dinner place. Unlike Paris, Bruges is actually dark at night. Really dark, everything looks different too. We must have walked around every block 6 times and it was 6.20 and we were about to give up when we finally found it! Astrid had fallen asleep in the ergo but was happy to be woken up for dinner.

The restaurant was a cute little patisserie come restaurant and did set menus and had heaps of really interesting food, including fantastic vegetarian options. I had a 4 course set menu, for 19 Euro. Yes 19 Euro (about $22 Australian)….. and it was awesome food. A starter of a pumpkin fritter (similiar to a samosa), an entree of home made soup with sage ravioli with a Parmesan crostini and fresh baked bread. A main of pastry with 5 different root vegetables and chestnuts. Then dessert was a warm apple cake. All of it was divine (and it was more food than I could possibly eat). We also got extras like home baked Parmesan biscuits and chocolates with our coffee.

Anto had a poached halibut tart with beetroot and some homemade puff pastry, a main course of turkey osso bucco with some wonderfully cooked root vegies and a desert of a passionfruit tart with a thin coating of coco dusted chocolate. We finally found a way to keep Astrid from eating chocolate, put it in close combination with a fruit! We also had a lovely bottle of Italian wine (Bruges not exactly being know for the ability to grow grapes).

Astrid mostly ate bits of bread and played with the wooden spoons they served the Parmesan biscuits on. She refused to try any of our food and didn’t even go for dessert, except the chocolate. Today we were too tired to care and she is hardly fading away. We were the only people in the restaurant until after mains, which was for the best since we didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone.

Once our amazing dinner was over we headed back out and looked at a few of the pretty lights. It would have been nice to walk through the main square and maybe have some gluwein they were selling that smelt delicious, but we were all buggered so we headed back to the B&B and enjoyed the large shower. Astrid finally got to sleep and we did yet another bag repack and looked forward to a good nights sleep in our comfy bed.

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