2019 travel roundup

Happy New Year my dear readers! After a quiet December I’m looking forward to getting back in to the blogging groove so I’m kicking things off with my first post of the year! I’m not sure what the blogging schedule will look like this year as lots of change is coming but Thursday’s worked well for me last year and I committed to getting a post out every week so we’ll stick with it for now.

I’ve always considered blogging a hobby more than anything but with the new year in mind I did go and treat myself. I am now part of the dot com crew! That’s right, I’ve finally splurged on my own domain. I’ve not made any other changes (yet) to the website but it feels nice to have dropped the WordPress bit from my website link.

Anyway.. on to today’s post!

With the year ending I wanted to do a travel round up of 2019, it was another fun year for me with some great memories. Long time readers might recall I shared my early 2019 plans with you here. Following January payday I was eager to get planning and booked myself four trips for the first half of 2019. I planned to go to Germany in March, USA in April, Finland in May and Ireland in May. With the recap out of the way, here’s where I went and a (hopefully) small summary of each trip!

March – Germany!
My first trip of the year was a bittersweet return to Dortmund. I’ve had the idea to go live in Washington for quite some time and I envisaged getting to the halfway point of 2019 in my best financial position in quite some time. Enjoy the first six months of the year and then seriously consider going to Washington.

That change is happening in a little over three weeks from now, a bit later than I’d anticipated so I was desperate to squeeze in a Tottenham European away day before I went. It was potentially my last for a while and I said in this post (here) that I just really hoped it wasn’t going to be a third trip to Dortmund.

The “football gods” took no pity on me and were cruelly sending Spurs to Dortmund for the third time in three years. I’d done the area to death. Dortmund, perhaps harshly, doesn’t have all that much appeal outside of football so it wasn’t a city I was excited to return to.

The obvious option in that region of Germany is Köln, a city I’d been to three times already. Ordinarily I might have been reluctant to go back but the Dortmund game overlapped with the Kölner Karneval which I was intrigued to experience.

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Back in Köln!

I arrived in to Köln on one of the busiest days of the Karneval, Rosenmontag, which was just crazy! Streets locked down for the parade, fancy dress everywhere you look and of course being Germany plenty of beer too! It’s an interesting time to visit, crazy but interesting. The next day was an absolute ghost town – so bizarre but a fun couple of days topped off with a Spurs win!

March – Belgium!
I’d booked myself four days in Germany. I was excited about going back to Köln but it was my fourth trip, I didn’t need all four days to be in that city so I decided I’d spend the other two nights in Frankfurt.

I started having doubts about going to Frankfurt though, I wasn’t sure how much I really wanted to go. Could I change my mind? I mean, why not? My hotel had free cancellation, I hadn’t yet booked my train from Köln, what if I went somewhere else? Where though? I had a few ideas but Bruges was the one that grabbed my attention.

I went to Brussels in 2013 and took a day trip to Bruges with my friends Kelly and Walker. It was a fun day but I was tempted to go back and experience it by myself and likewise I was also keen to get some photos this time.

Bruges is still every bit as pretty as I remembered it. It’s a beautiful city to just get lost in and I was quite happy to do an overnighter on this occasion, it was also nice to enjoy a bit of the nightlife (the Belgian beer, let’s be honest).

I did a few things I didn’t get to do last time, tried mussels for the first (and last) time and was quite sad to be leaving come the end of it. I was flying home from Köln on a Friday and did debate staying in Belgium for the weekend. I then got back to Köln and contemplated staying there too but my head got the better of me – “Save your pennies, not long until the next trip”

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Bruges, Belgium

April – Washington State!
The “long term” plan was to get to Washington at the earliest convenience but I also had to see Haleigh in the short term so the first thing I did on January payday was book flights to Washington.

Easter seemed like a good time to go, I always try and maximise my annual leave so traveling around public holidays helps. Haleigh had a few days off in April too so it was perfect timing really.

It was a rather chilled trip but I got to see Haleigh obviously, some of Haleigh’s family and we also squeezed in a double date with Maddie and Cassie which was lovely. One of the other highlights was a visit to the unique Bavarian town of Leavenworth – a little piece of Germany on the USA’s West coast – I fully recommend a daytrip at the very least.

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Mountains, snow, Washington!

May – Finland!
What was I saying about maximising annual leave around public holidays? In 2018 I had a HUGE 30th birthday trip to the US which meant sacrificing any football away days in 2018 and it also meant sacrificing any holidays prior to the summer. Consequently no bank holiday fun for me!

In 2019 I was reclaiming BOTH bank holidays. The first Monday of May and the last Monday of May are public holidays in England which means a three day weekend! Perfect for a short European adventure!

I really wanted to get to Finland in 2018 and things didn’t quite pan out so I was adamant I was going no matter what in 2019. For those that don’t know already, I grew up living with a Finnish grandmother so the country has ALWAYS held my heart and been somewhere I wanted to see for myself.

Finally (or Finn-ally? Hahaha.. no?) I got it booked! Finland was happening! I was sad to say goodbye to Haleigh in Washington but I was also so excited to be going to Helsinki in just 6 days after getting back. So excited – dream trip! This perfect little paradise, the adult equivalent of Disneyland in my mind. I was going to LOVE Finland, wasn’t I?

Wasn’t I? I mean hang on a second, I’ve never even been to Finland. I’d somewhat unintentionally built up this fantasy in my head – Finland was obviously a real place but what if it wasn’t the Finland I was expecting or hoping for? What if I didn’t like it?

Suddenly the nerves kicked in, suddenly there was a bit of pressure on this trip. This wasn’t any ordinary destination, this could crush every thought I’d ever had about Finland.

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A moody looking Helsinki!

Fortunately I needn’t have worried. I think I’d fallen in love with Helsinki probably in the first hour of arriving. I quite possibly have Finland-tinted-goggles on but even months later there are still little moments that almost made it too magical. For instance on the train from the airport there’s this little girl with her dad singing a nursery rhyme and it just sounded angelic, it instantly brought a smile to my face. I eventually reach the centre of Helsinki, step off the train and snow is falling!

Snow! In May! There was NOTHING about snow in the forecast when I looked before the trip but of course there’s snow because Finland’s the most magical place on the planet isn’t it? It was the most perfect weekend, the highlight probably having a new Finnish friend drag me along on a bar crawl and I’ve just been swooning over Finland ever since.

My only regrets are that it took me so long to visit, that I wasn’t there for longer and that I haven’t been back 150 times since May. Did I mention I love Finland?

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My Helsinki, I couldn’t have said it any better!

May – Amsterdam!
“Hang on a second Jason, Amsterdam?”

Germany, Washington, Finland, Ireland! The eagle-eyed among you will note those were my travel plans for the first six months of the year. I’d budgeted the first half of the year perfectly but there was no wiggle room.

“Nor should there be really, is four trips not enough you spoilt little man!”

In my defence.. I’d said I wouldn’t be going to a hypothetical Champions League semi final in the unlikely chance that Spurs would compete in such a historic occasion. So I definitely had the right intentions to be financially sensible. Go me!

Anyway, backtracking a bit – I had to go to Dortmund because it might be my last European away game for some time. If I’d been confident we’d win I might have gambled but the Dortmund tie was a 50-50 tie that could go either way. It wasn’t a gamble I could take.

Our reward for victory in Germany was a quarter final trip to Manchester. Don’t get me wrong, I like Manchester but the only European away trip more underwhelming than a trip to Dortmund would have been a “European” away trip I didn’t require a passport for. Plus it wasn’t really 50-50 this time was it? It was more 80-20 in Manchester City’s favour and those were just the odds on a good day. So I felt quite vindicated in my decision to go to Dortmund as our European adventures were ending up in Manchester.

and then they didn’t. Our quarter final ended in the most bizarre and cruelest of victories but it was our night! We’d reached the semi finals of the Champions League (European Cup) for the first time since 1962. 57 years! Spurs were going to be playing in a Champions League SEMI FINAL!

“The Semi Final you said you weren’t going to?”

Exactly! I wasn’t going and that’s that, okay? I was committed to my original decision. I’d literally just got to Washington, hadn’t even been to Helsinki yet and May was looking like a crazy crazy month with too much on. I haven’t got the money, I haven’t got the time and the game in Amsterdam is on my mum’s birthday, I’ve got to be home for that!

I slept on the (non) idea – first night in Washington State. Then on the first morning in Washington I found myself scouring the internet for travel routes, costs and everything else.

Did you not hear me earlier? 1962 – fifty seven years! I couldn’t wait another fifty seven years for the next one! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity!

Amsterdam
Beautiful Amsterdam

My real mistake was my hesitation! I’d given every other Spurs fan a head start and flights and Eurostar prices quickly shot up. In the end I decided to take an overnight coach from London. I got back from Helsinki on Monday night, went to work on Tuesday and caught the coach on Tuesday night to get me in to Amsterdam on the Wednesday morning (Happy birthday mum!).

Amsterdam’s beautiful, it was nice to go back but let’s be honest. I was here for less than 48 hours and for one reason only – football! Finland was probably my favourite place I visited in 2019 but I’d be hard pushed to say this wasn’t the best trip of the year, dare I say this Wednesday in May was quite possibly the best night of my life.

I couldn’t get a ticket for the game but I had to be in Amsterdam for the atmosphere, this was the biggest game in my lifetime! It started horrifically, we were dead and buried at half-time.

I think it’s probably the angriest I’ve ever been at Tottenham in my life. I’m not unfamiliar in watching Spurs lose but at least do it the right way, tonight of all nights. Come on Spurs, you can’t possibly turn up like this on this occasion!

At half-time we needed a miracle and in all honesty I didn’t really want to stick around. I knew I could be enjoying Amsterdam instead of enduring this rubbish but that faint bit of hope always seems to linger – “you never know..”

We scored an early goal in the second half for a lifeline, followed by a quick second which sent the beers flying in the pub I was in – bedlam! 30 minutes to go, just one goal needed now.

The next 35 minutes of the clock ticking down were agonising! Be careful what you wish for I suppose. I wanted some fight in the performance and it was going to be too late, wasn’t it? I’d seen it a thousand times over the years. Spurs play useless, Spurs then give you false hope before falling short. At least when Spurs were consistently useless I was spared that cruel hopeful feeling.

Tottenham deserved NOTHING from this tie and here we were on the verge of a miracle and again we were going to fall short. Five minutes injury time was added on and we go for what the Americans like to call a “hail Mary” – just hit and hope really. 99 times out of 100 it doesn’t come off for you, just an aimless long punt and yet on this occasion Llorente knocks it down to Dele, Dele flicks it on in the direction of “MOURAA!!!”

Miracles (or Moura-cles) are real! As a neutral I’ve seen some incredible footballing moments but as a Spurs fan in the 95th minute of a Champions League semi final in Amsterdam? What the hell just happened?

I think I spent the majority of the remainder of the night in tears. Tears of joy? Tears of disbelief? Who knows? All I do know is the scenes spilled out on to the streets of Amsterdam in an atmosphere I can’t describe. Hundreds of fellow Spurs fans singing, hugging, crying with celebrations likely to run on for hours in to Thursday morning.

I got back to my hostel drenched in beer and still in no control of my emotions – hoping to sleep but unable to stop crying.

It was the best night ever! One stage further than 1962! Spurs had qualified for their first ever Champions League (European Cup) final in Madrid on the 1st of June.

Don’t worry! There’s no long debate here! I was never in any doubt I would go to the final in Madrid in the incredibly unlikely chance we reached it but first..

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Rubbish photo, best night of my life!

May – Dublin!
Washington, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Dublin, Madrid in the space of four weeks? Really?

Well, sadly not! Firstly it’s clear I hadn’t budgeted for two extra football trips on short notice. However honestly, the real reason I bailed on Dublin is because I was burnt out.

After my big summer trip in 2018 I sort of went through a little rut at the end of the year where nothing really happened – a seasonal rut to some extent I suppose. Spurs weren’t playing at home so going to the football had no real appeal, I seemed to have no social plans, friends were moving away, blah, blah, blah.

I’d definitely hit a social rut and there were lonely spells through that time but I’m also an introvert so there was a degree of comfort to having such few plans. Then life went to the opposite extreme come March 2019 and everything hit me at once.

Travel plans, family plans, catch up with friends, big birthdays. I’d find a rare free weekend and be so grateful for it and then suddenly – BAM!
“Jason, are you up for our first work night out in years?” – Sure, perfect timing, thanks!

Of course I’d wanted to do all of these things but life was busy and quite energy-sapping. I went to Washington in April which was a great chance to actually rejuvenate before Finland and Dublin and then of course Spurs decide to make history this year and I had to find time for two more unplanned trips.

I got to the end of May, knowing a quiet June was coming up but I was just desperate for a weekend of nothing. I felt like I could only do one more hectic weekend – Dublin or Madrid?

I could have struggled through Dublin, I know I’d have enjoyed it once I was there but I just bailed. Had it been further from home perhaps I’d have still gone but Dublin’s so close and cheap to fly to that I figure it won’t be long before I can make up for it with a trip there but I think I’d have enjoyed Madrid less had I gone to Dublin so it was the right decision. Dublin could happen any year, any time. A Champions League final will possibly never come around again for Spurs.

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Biarritz, France

May – Biarritz, France!
“Biarritz?”

Don’t panic! This is the Madrid trip! On the 1st of June Tottenham would be playing in their first EVER Champions League final in Madrid. However unfortunately our opponents had qualified an evening earlier and worse yet, our opponents were also from England – Liverpool to be exact!

With what promised to already be an expensive trip, having our compatriots get a 24 hour head start on the flight and accommodation hunt was not particularly helpful. Getting to Madrid within any reasonable budget was looking problematic. It was a “whatever the cost” type trip but I was in Amsterdam pondering what possible route I’d have to take to make it feasible.

Fortunately my dad decided to join me on this one! He’d done his fair share of European away days in his youth and I’d done my fair share of European away days in the 10’s but this was set to be our first Tottenham European away trip together – a Champions League final a good enough reason for a Father-Son adventure to Madrid

Dad: “I’m thinking of driving..”

Make that a father-son ROAD-TRIP to Madrid! It’s a long old drive from Peterborough so we agreed to have a night somewhere in Southern France and we stumbled upon the delights of Biarritz! I’d always wandered what the fuss over the South of France was about and it’s because of places like Biarritz. It was a heavenly place to rest our heads, I would happily have stayed longer and it’s somewhere I’ll possibly return to but Madrid beckoned!

June – Madrid!
I actually plan to talk more about Madrid in my next post as I first visited in 2017 so you’ll have to wait to hear about the delights of this city. Sadly we were only in Madrid for about 12 hours on this occasion. It was very much a flying visit due to the costs associated with being in Madrid for such an occasion.

Consequently I don’t have too much to say about this trip to Madrid. Glorious sunshine, a cracking atmosphere between both sets of fans but no fairytale ending. Liverpool won their 6th Champions League final but for us it was a journey that will be talked about for years to come.

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Dave, Lloyd, me, Dad

July – Paris!
The Champions League trips offered a setback to my plans this year, in particular the hopes of spending a few months in Washington with Haleigh in 2019. It was looking increasingly unlikely it’d happen before the year ended but fortunately Haleigh came to visit me for two weeks instead so there were still plenty of memories to be made together in 2019.

This was Haleigh’s second overseas trip, her second time visiting Europe with us spending a bit of time in London on the first occasion. I’d never tire of showing off London but I thought it’d be nice for us to go somewhere different for a weekend this time with Edinburgh and Paris being the two leading candidates – Paris obviously came out on top.

My first trip to Paris wasn’t without it’s disappointments, remember? So I was excited to be going back in the summer and with someone to enjoy it with on this occasion. It already promised to be a special trip but then we got to Paris late on the Friday night and my phone decided it was having the weekend off.

I plugged it in to charge and nothing, I plugged in Haleigh’s phone and it charged perfectly fine, tried a different charger nothing, tried Haleigh’s phone and it charged perfectly fine. Why?

My phone lasted until about Saturday lunchtime with the little battery it had remaining and then I was “off the grid” – unintentionally but it was actually such a novelty. My last proper “off the grid” trip was in 2014 when I went to Berlin, which is probably more recent than most, and it’s genuinely so nice to be completely unattainable.

I feel fortunate to have traveled abroad before the days of being accessible 24/7. If it’s an emergency here’s the number of my hotel, I’ll try and send you a postcard and you’ll see the photos once I’m home and they’ve been developed. I find it impossible now, arguably doubly so given I’m in a long distance relationship. The 8 hour time difference is a killer, every small window of opportunity me and Haleigh get to chat we take.

So in some respects, what a lucky trip to be off the grid. I had the only company I really needed, there was nobody else that couldn’t wait a weekend until I was back in England.

Where are we going? Let’s dig out our paper map!
What time is it? Daytime or nighttime dependent on the colour of the sky.
What’s happening in the world? No idea! Nothing outside of Paris mattered for that sole weekend.

It was completely unplanned but honestly, it was pure bliss! I feel a need for more trips like that – more “Latergram” than Instagram. I can’t speak for Haleigh but it was a perfect weekend.

Lastly I talked about loving Paris on my first visit but France in the summertime is SO much nicer. After Lille (2018), Biarritz and Paris I’ve definitely grown to love France.

Paris
Haleigh and me in Paris!

 

November – Washington State!
The long term Washington trip got a setback but at the end of August I finally booked my flights. February 3rd 2020 until May 1st 2020. Not long now!

So as crazy as the first few months of 2019 were, the second half of the year has been mostly about cutting back and saving some money.

I’ve done some cool stuff in England but my travels haven’t been as frequent. I found myself with one last week to use before the end of 2019. I knew I’d use it to see Haleigh, it was just a case of deciding when was best.

Haleigh had a few days off for Thanksgiving which seemed an ideal time for me to visit and experience my first American Thanksgiving. It was a short and sweet trip, most of which was spent in the city of Walla Walla but it was great to catch up with Haleigh’s family, share some good food and of course spend some time with Haleigh before the countdown to February could begin.

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A glimpse of Thanksgiving

Anyway, that rounds up 2020. This was probably a bit longer than I’d anticipated it being but I got a tad carried away with the football. In the end it was three trips for Spurs including a Champions League final, three trips spent with Haleigh and one new country in Finland. I’ll talk about all of these trips in more detail in the future but hopefully a good summary of what was a decent year and a good way to end the decade.

Thanks for indulging me in another summary of my year.Next up on the blog? 2017’s trip to Madrid!

Stay tuned!

Jason

Liege – Oct 2016

So there I was stood in Liege..

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up a minute! How did you get to Liege? Why were you in Liege? Where even is Liege? Where’s your usual introduction Jason?”

Nooo, can’t we just go with it!? I’m tired of telling variants of this same story so surely you’re tired of reading it by now? You don’t need an introduction. I was just magically there in Liege, no questions asked!

Alright, fine! My beloved Tottenham were playing in Germany and..

“WHAT? Again!?”

See! Don’t say I didn’t warn you! If you hadn’t already picked up on it in this post, this one but perhaps best put in this one – Tottenham can’t avoid playing in Germany. So for about the hundredth time of course I was going to experience it. It was October 2016 and Tottenham were playing in a tiny town called Leverkusen on the outskirts of none other than Köln (Cologne).

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Bayer Leverkusen v Tottenham Hotspur

Köln again! I’d been here as recently as sodding March and that was my second trip to the city. I sulked a bit after the schedule was released. As if another football trip to Germany wasn’t bad enough, it was the same region and not even a little bit away from Köln. For me to have stayed anywhere else would have been purely out of spite so reluctantly I booked my third trip to Köln and cried about it to anyone who’d listen.

“I can’t believe my luck, Germany again, poor me!”

Shockingly sympathisers seemed to be in short supply. Even the most supportive of people seemed to get swept up in the minor details such as it being my “thousandth trip of the year” and muttering phrases like  “you’re always out of the country” as if that was supposed to be some sort of consolation.

By the time the trip actually rolled around I’d perked up a bit and stopped wallowing in self-pity, Football, German beer, friends and best of all? No work. It almost sounded like it might be a fun trip. Who would have thought?

Nevertheless, even with a bit of a reality check I still had the dilemma that I was going back to Köln. It was a city I’d done to death and I knew I’d have to take a daytrip somewhere to freshen things up. One of the perks to Köln is it’s in a good location and its transport links are pretty fantastic. Day-trips to Western Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Eastern France, Luxembourg and Switzerland are all feasible so I had a good variety of destinations to pick from.

I fancied getting out of the country for the day and was keen to try and visit somewhere new which ruled out Brussels and Amsterdam as perhaps two of the most convenient destinations to get to from Köln. I’d been to Luxembourg last time I was in Köln so on this occasion I opted to go to a Belgian city called Liege. It wasn’t too far from Köln, I could get a direct train and the tickets weren’t too expensive so off I went. I hopped on the next train and soon enough I’d arrived at Liege’s main train station.

So there I was stood in Liege (“ooo, de-ja-vu!”). I’d successfully navigated my way across the border and could tick off another city in Belgium having previously been to BrusselsBruges and Gent.

Assuming you take the train and don’t magically find yourself in Liege, your first impression of the city is going to be in its train station and wow! The station itself is a spectacular piece of architecture. It reminded me of Kings Cross a little with its roof and then the open and welcoming space as you come out of the main entrance. It’d make a great meeting point, unlike Brussels which gives off a bit of a sketchier vibe in parts close to its main station.

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Liege’s train station

Of course I hadn’t come to Liege to drool over the train station, I was here to explore and see what Liege had to offer. I’d come here as a last minute decision so had no real expectation of the city. Unfortunately it meant I was also woefully unprepared and Belgium don’t seem fond of signposting things to help you get around. I mentioned this in my post on Gent too (another Belgian city) where I got hopelessly lost.

Things took a similar pattern here. Given I had no plans I was in no particular rush so getting lost wasn’t necessarily a problem but it’d be helpful if the Belgians gave you a helping hand in finding the centre of a city when the main station is a little further out. In the end I just walked, hoped for the best and inevitably had no idea where I was, the main upside being that at least I was seeing a bit more of the city.

Eventually I got on track but by this point it was close to lunchtime and all that walking had worked up an appetite. One of the very few things I’d read up on Liege before visiting was that one of its local speciality dishes was the boulet-frites (meatballs with fries). An odd combination but when in Liege..

I managed to find a restaurant / bar that looked like it had this particular dish on the menu so walked in and took a seat. A few moments later a waitress walked over offering a “bonjour..”

“Oh no! French? Take me back to Germany!”

Although Liege is within Belgium, the city has a heavy French influence and French is the main language spoken in Liege rather than the typical Flemish/Dutch across the rest of Belgium. Not that I’d have found that any easier but having woken up in Germany it took me by surprise a bit and quickly made me realise how unprepared I was for a day in Liege.

I’m often critical of how good my German is but I don’t think twice about picking up a menu or walking in to a restaurant in Germany. It’s nice having that reminder that my German isn’t so bad and I could comfortably go back to Köln that evening and get by, however in the meantime I had to muddle my way through ordering and my brain was scrambling for any French words I could remember from school.

Fortunately “je voudrais” (I would like) seems to be one of the very few French phrases I can remember so I managed to stumble together enough French words to place an order. Feeling pretty smug I handed my menu back to the waitress with a friendly “dankeschon” and immediately cursed my inability to switch the German off.

I didn’t bloody mean to say that, I knew how to say thank you in French, why didn’t I say merci beaucoup? I only seem to have an English mode and non-English mode which instinctively reverts to German regardless of what country I’m in. It obviously goes down a treat in Germany but the other Europeans just look at you weird when you’re muttering German at them.

Anyway, shortly after my moment of embarrassment I was being presented with a Liege speciality I was intrigued to try.

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Liege’s speciality

I have to say it tasted better than it looked. I’m not sure two large brown lumps are ever going to look particularly appetising but they tasted good at least. I’m not sure it’s a combination that’s going to take off in England any time soon but I had little cause for complaint. I like meatballs, I like chips and the Belgian beer accompanied the combination perfectly haha.

With a full stomach I was ready to explore and see what Liege had to offer. First impressions were good, it was a city I liked. It’s not my favourite Belgian city by any means but it still had that typical European charm to it. Old buildings, cobbled streets, pretty churches and the usual things you come to expect of anywhere in Europe.

The standout for me was the palace which was quite simply stunning, it felt a bit out of place situated on such a busy road but I couldn’t help but admire the building itself. It’s beautiful and was probably the thing that sticks with me most from Liege. I ended up taking quite a few pictures whilst admiring it from every angle I could.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon just aimlessly wandering, like most European cities it’s pretty walkable and nice to just dart through various streets and small alleyways hoping to discover a gem or two along the way. After a couple of hours of looking around I decided I’d round off my day with my preferred Belgian delicacy – the beer! I hopped in to this little bar which I thought looked quite nice and enjoyed a beer or two.

Happy I’d spent enough time in the city I made my way back to Liege’s train station, not getting so lost on this occasion and quickly boarded the train I needed to take me back to Köln.

As some of you know, I have a habit of falling asleep on trains which is bad enough at home but even more risky when in another country! I have a habit of feeling sleepy on trains and something else that makes me sleepy is beer. Having had a few Belgian beers earlier on made for a deadly combination, it seemed almost inevitable I’d doze off!

I woke up with somebody asking if the empty seat next to me was free. I indicated it was and couldn’t help but notice we were departing a train station. I was still a little drowsy plus a little panicked (“have I missed my stop?”) and kindly asked my new neighbour where we were.

“München”

“WHAT!!!?”

I can’t remember what I actually said but my panicked face said it all. Munich’s on the other side of bloody Germany! I’m miles away from Köln. What am I going to do now?

I’m not sure what occurred first. The wry smile on my neighbour’s face or myself realising the train wasn’t even going to Munich. The last stop of the journey was Frankfurt – still not ideal but less worrying. It was quickly apparent we hadn’t reached Köln yet which I managed to see the funny side of after the initial shock, although unsurprisingly I made sure to stay awake after that.

Shortly afterwards we’d arrived in Köln and I made my way to meet up with a couple of friends also in Köln for the football. We went and grabbed a few drinks before calling it a night, all taking amusement in my story of the German prankster.

Who says Germans have no humour?

Anyway, that wraps things up on my daytrip to Liege. A couple of months later I was rounding off 2016 with a trip to Paris which will likely be next up on the blog.

Stay tuned!

Jason

Gent!

It was October 2015 and I found myself back in Brussels, a city I’d already visited in December 2013. There’s honestly nothing wrong with returning to a place again, despite what other travelers might tell you but of course there are some downsides to going back somewhere (there are upsides too).

One of those downsides is you’ve often seen a lot of the main points of interests in a city which was very much the case for me with Brussels. So I figured why not use one of my four days in Brussels to take a daytrip somewhere. I considered a number of options in Belgium, France, Germany and even Luxembourg before finally deciding upon a Belgian city called Gent – for some reason the English spell it as Ghent so you might see it written this way too. The only logic I can offer for this is that it rhymes with bent so is perhaps written that way to distinguish the difference from the English pronunciation of gent.

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Gent, Belgium

Anyway Gent, a city I didn’t really know much about to be honest. It was a last minute decision to go there too so I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any research, I was just going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
Needless to say with that approach it didn’t take long for my first problem to arise.

After a short train journey from Brussels I was arriving in to Gent’s main train station which is unfortunately a little outside of the main part of the city. Which way should I be going from here? I had no idea and for some reason Belgians have an aversion to signposting things sufficiently.

Brussels isn’t as bad and fortunately in Bruges we’d got by using the tried and tested method of “follow everybody else” but that wasn’t going to work here – there were no tourists for me to follow! I didn’t foresee following random locals ending very well so I just had to pick a direction and hope I’d see some signs along the way.

I’ve been to Gent and now Liege (another Belgian city) and it’s a common problem in both. There’s a distinct lack of signs everywhere and then if there are some they often conflict. Perhaps they’re intended for different people such as pedestrians / drivers but it’s pretty frustrating following a sign that reads “right to the city centre” and 100 yards later coming across a sign advising you to go left.

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland guys, I need some clear directions please! Sadly Gent had no “Yellow Brick Road” so I got terribly lost. On the plus side I’ve probably seen more of Gent than your average tourist!

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Somewhere in Gent!

Eventually I got myself on track but I’d wasted a good hour of my morning already and had worked up a bit of an appetite.

Before thinking about lunch I stumbled upon Gent’s Sint-Jacobskerk (St Jacobs Church) – I generally like visiting religious buildings anyway but the dark grey skies hovering above were additional motivation to pop in and have a look around.

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Sint-Jakobskerk

It was a pretty church and I’d timed my visit pretty well, it was mostly empty with the exception of a small school choir getting some practice in so I watched for a little while before leaving them to it. I was off on the hunt for some lunch!

I found a long stretch of restaurants along each side of what was a pedestrianised street, I just had to find one with something to tempt me from the menu. Like many European cities, Gent weren’t going to be deterred by the miserable weather and most restaurants still had outside seating. With parasols providing cover from any potential rain and outside heaters and blankets providing warmth there were still plenty sat outdoors opposed to the warmth inside.
I followed suit and took up a prime seat for people-watching at one of the restaurants – a favourite pastime when traveling.

It’s easy to see why our European friends prefer this type of dining, I’m not sure even with parasols and heaters whether it’d work quite as successfully in England but I always enjoy it on my travels. It was a good lunch, I think I grabbed a steak accompanied with a delicious Belgian beer before getting back to exploring.

The lack of tourists make Gent a nice city to walk around. I don’t know how long that will stay the case, I don’t think it’ll boom in the same way that Bruges’ tourism has but it’s certainly a city on the up and somewhere that frequents my Instagram feed with a little more regularity now opposed to three years ago. Interestingly Gent is the location of my most popular ever Instagram post which is some indication as to its beauty and charm.

The weather brightened up a little bit after lunch so I spent the next few hours just wandering its streets and admiring its architecture. I didn’t really do anything noteworthy in Gent but it made for an enjoyable daytrip, you could perhaps squeeze a weekend out of it but a day is a good amount of time to see much of the city.

I knew I had to think about heading back to Brussels soon so rounded off the afternoon with a stroll alongside the river which offered perhaps some of Gent’s most stunning views. From the riverside cafes and bars to the boats floating on by, I was a little envious of those that got to stay and enjoy the pretty setting. However I’d had a fun few hours in Gent and called it a day, slowly making my way back to the train station.

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On the way to getting lost again!

Very slowly actually, I got lost again. It was a further chance to see more of the city, albeit unintentional again. I wound up somewhere near Gent’s university and rowing lake – not quite where I’d wanted to be and I was suddenly racing the clock to find my way whilst there was still some natural light. It was one thing being lost by day but I didn’t really want to find myself lost in a foreign city after dark.

It had been an adventure but soon enough I was back on track and pleased to see Gent’s main train station once again. I hopped on a train and quickly made plans for the evening. My friend Natalie had arrived in to Brussels ahead of Thursday night’s football so we were both looking forward to catching up over some Belgian beers.

We quickly found an Irish bar which was a little lively. A few other Spurs fans were also in town and keen to make the most of the karaoke at the far end of the bar. They proceeded to butcher a few songs, including a Britney Spears classic but fortunately the Belgian beer went down well to make it a little more bearable!

All in all it had been a pretty memorable daytrip! It’s a city I’d recommend, particularly if you’re in Brussels or Bruges and want to visit somewhere a little less crowded.

Up next? Amsterdam!

Stay tuned!

A day in Bruges

My last few posts have been a little more generic travel posts rather than destination specific, so I thought I’d get back to talking about solely one destination and maybe offer a little inspiration if you’re looking for somewhere to visit in 2018.
In this instance – Bruges!

If you haven’t heard of Bruges already (where have you been?), it’s a magical little town in Belgium. It has quickly become a popular European tourist destination and one of the Instagram favourites.
With its cobbled streets, colourful buildings and pretty canals it’s not hard to see why.

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Bruges, Belgium

Unlike most European destinations which peak in the summer, you’ll actually find peak tourist season in Bruges is around December and a big reason for that is because of Bruges’ famous Christmas markets. Whilst December is a particularly popular time to go to Bruges, if you visit any other time of year you’re not going to be left disappointed.

Anyway, on to my experience! Looking back at December 2013 takes us to a short day trip to Bruges. Myself, Walker and Kelly thought it would be a good idea to get out of Brussels for a day and take the short train ride across to Bruges and see what all the fuss was about.
We had a little look at train prices before leaving so it ended up being a pleasant surprise to arrive at the station and discover they were offering a seasonal train ticket – a 5 euro return to Bruges! What a bargain!

Call me cynical but I couldn’t imagine it ever happening in England. With the knowledge more people were traveling to Bruges at the weekend for the Christmas markets it would provide the perfect opportunity to push prices UP, instead Belgium were pushing prices down. What is this madness? On the plus side you do get a much better train service in England than the rest of Europe, right?.. Oh wait, is that another delay?

Arriving in to Bruges in good time we exited the train station and made our way in to the centre. I find Belgium as a whole isn’t particularly great for signposted directions so if you’re a first time visitor (like we were) it might not be particularly clear which way to go.
We adopted the tried and tested method of “follow everyone else” and soon enough we were where we wanted to be. For the most-part it’s a straight walk from the station so you won’t get too lost before finding your way.

Our first stop of the day was this cute little church. It wasn’t particularly big but we thought we’d poke our heads in and have a look around. Unfortunately we’d timed our visit pretty poorly as it was a Sunday and they were mid-service. It was pretty inside but wanting to be respectful we left pretty sharp-ish and made our way back out on to the cobbled streets to explore further.

In the heart of Bruges you’ll find the market square which is where we ended up next. Overlooking the square is the huge belltower which, I hear, offers fantastic views overlooking the town. The downside to visiting on a Sunday in December is that queues were long. If you want to climb it I’d recommend visiting early in the morning to beat the queues! With barely a day in Bruges it didn’t seem a good use of our time so we decided not to bother climbing it on this occasion. However it’s definitely something I’ll look to do when I go back!

Opposite the belltower was a decent sized ice-rink and a selection of Christmas markets. Given the hype I found the latter quite underwhelming; perhaps it’s just me but I had expected more. I’ve only seen a few Christmas markets but Brussels, Paris, Bremen and Edinburgh’s have all been better. The only exception is the pitiful effort in Peterborough but I wasn’t expecting any here so I suppose even that surpassed my expectations at the back end of 2017.
Maybe it was a bad day or we’d overlooked there being more market stalls elsewhere but it was a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless the smell of food tempted us to pick up some lunch.

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Christmas market in Bremen, Germany

Moving on in to the afternoon we ended up taking one of the canal tours that run throughout Bruges. It’s one of the best ways to see the town and our ‘captain’ pointed out a few pieces of interest along the way. It was my highlight of our short time in Bruges and I’d certainly recommend trying to do one of these if you plan on visiting Bruges.

After our tour we wandered through the streets and squares of the city to ensure we’d seen as much of Bruges as we’d wanted to before leaving. The squares were particularly busy but some of the backstreets we had mostly to ourselves to admire the architecture and houses found in Bruges.
It’s a really walkable town and you can see quite a lot of it in half a day. We were content we had seen all that we wanted to do in Bruges so picked up some souvenirs and then seeked out a nearby pub to try some of the local delicacy.

Belgium is famous for its beer and it proved to be a good spot to pick up some dinner too. An additional motive of the pub visit was that it allowed me a chance to keep up to date with the football back home. It seemed a good idea beforehand but a couple of hours later I was feeling much more deflated.
Fortunately I had good company with me and some (much needed) Belgian beer to drown my sorrows. A beer or two later we called it a night and made our walk back to the station to catch our train to Brussels.

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Enjoying all the beers in Bruges!

Bruges had looked pretty by day but perhaps moreso by night, particularly in December with the Christmas decorations adding a little magic to enjoy before leaving this wonderful little town. .

It ended up being a great day and is certainly somewhere that should be on your list to visit. Personally I’d recommend a weekend, you can see a lot in a day but I think I’d go back just to catch some of the things I missed the first time around – in particular catching some photos as unfortunately battery life was not kind to me on this daytrip leaving me with minimal photos to share with you. Credit to Kelly for the colourful picture of Bruges!

Despite the lack of photos it’s not a place I’ll be forgetting any time soon. If you haven’t been already I hope you’ll see it for yourself in the near future!

All the best!

Jason

Brussels!

In addition to Köln and Edinburgh, Brussels seems to be one of those cities I can’t escape from. If you were to ask me how many times I’d been to Brussels then I’d probably say “two and a half..”

Theoretically I’ve only been to Brussels twice. The first trip was a few days to celebrate a friend’s birthday in December 2013, I then went back for a further few days in October 2015. However I’ve also taken the train from London to Köln (March 2013) and Amsterdam (December 2015) via Brussels. The Köln trip left me no time to explore but on the way home from Amsterdam I had 2-3 hours to kill in Brussels before catching the Eurostar home. I can’t really count it as a full visit but it gave me enough time to have a little wander. Hence two and a half!

Two and a half visits later, what makes Brussels a destination worth visiting? Plenty!
Let me start by saying Brussels exceeded my expectations. You might think I’m getting carried away but let me clarify; I went to Brussels with such low expectations it would have been impossible not to. I fully understand why it’s neighbouring capitals Amsterdam and Paris get such high praise but Brussels should get far more credit than it does. It has its rough edges like any city does and it’s quickly associated as a city drowning in European politics but there’s definitely more to Brussels than just politics. Brussels has a fun side to Brussels too and plenty to admire in its architecture, history and most importantly – beer!

If you already have plans to visit Brussels or you’re still in need of a little convincing as to why you should visit, here are my favourite things about Brussels.

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Grand Place, Brussels

The architecture!
Your first stop on any visit to Brussels has to be Grand Place. This is arguably one of the prettiest squares in Europe and will leave you speechless at how impressive it is. A little on the pricier side but take a seat outside at one of the cafes or restaurants at Grand Place and just people-watch this busy square and admire how beautiful it is with gold splattered everywhere. Visit around Christmas time and it’s more impressive, particularly in the evenings with it all lit up! You’ll also find Brussels town hall and Tourist Information area here.
Whilst Grand Place is certainly the highlight, Brussels has other impressive architecture too such as its palace, beautiful churches and cathedrals. The symbol of Brussels is the ‘Atomium’ which whilst an attraction (read more below) is also a cool and unique piece of architecture.

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The artwork!
Brussels/Belgium is home to some really famous artists and characters including the creation of loved characters such as Tin-Tin. You’ll find plenty of street art in Brussels and it’s also well known for it’s comic-book scene. If this is something you’re interested in then you should give Brussels Comic Strip Centre a visit.
Art might not be particularly high on your list of things to see when travelling but you should definitely make a quick stop to visit the “Mannekin Pis”. The UK is well known for “the boy who lived” whereas Brussels is famous for “the boy who pees”. I’m not expecting a JK Rowling masterpiece for the latter but it’s something the locals are proud of and they regularly dress him up in new outfits for the tourists and locals alike to admire.

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Me and Brussels famous ‘Atomium’

The Atomium & Mini-Europe
Alright, this is two attractions but they’re next to eachother so quite convenient to do both at once. As mentioned above – the Atomium is the symbol of the city and a pretty cool piece of architecture from the outside. The inside is one of Brussel’s leading attractions and gives you the opportunity to see Brussels from a much higher vantage point. We were relatively content to just see it from the outside but it’s worth a visit.
Across the street you’ll find another great attraction called Mini-Europe. If you’ve always dreamed of travelling across Europe but not had the time or money for it then this is for you. You’ll find a number of famous landmarks in miniature form that take you right across Europe and fulfill that dream you always had of seeing sights such as the Eiffel Tower – you’ll even find a mini Grand Place here!
I’d certainly recommend it as a great family-friendly attraction but it’s one for the adults to enjoy too!

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Potential day trip – Liege!

The daytrips!
Depending on how much time you have in Brussels and how much mini-Europe has quenched your thirst for more adventure, you might find yourself tempted to see more of Belgium! There are a lot of things I love about Belgium but one of the added perks is how small the country is. It means most major Belgian cities aren’t much more than an hour away from Brussels, making it a wonderful country for day-tripping. I’ve personally been to Bruges, Gent and Liege which I’d be happy to recommend for daytrips (expect future posts on these 3). However other towns and cities such as Antwerp, Dinant and Ypres also remain on my bucketlist and are all within easy reach from Brussels.
If you’re content travelling a little further than Western Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of France are all fairly close by too.

The cuisine! 
One of the first things you’ll associate with Belgium is its cuisine – particularly famous for their chocolate, waffles and beer. No trip to Brussels would be complete with delving in to this area a little. You might also be surprised to hear that Belgium is where the “French fry” originates. If you want an authentic Belgian dish order the popular “Moules Frites” (Mussels with fries) accompanied with one of Belgium’s famous beers. ‘Jupiler’ seemed to be the most popular in Brussels but you really can’t go wrong. Personal favourites were the Duvel, Leffe and Hoegaarden.

Of course it isn’t all about local cuisine. Like most capital cities you’ll find that Brussels is a multi-cultural city and you’ll find a range of different cuisine options in the city.

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Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

Have you ever been to Brussels? Leave some recommendations in the comments on other tips you have.
If you haven’t been to Brussels hopefully this went some way in convincing you that it’s worth a visit!

All the best!

Jason