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5 Reasons To Not Miss Belgium On Your European Tour

February 8, 2012
Bruges, Belgium

Backpacking in Europe is almost a rite of passage for all of us non- Europeans. It’s what we all dream of for the summer right after high school and before university. And tourism in Europe caters to this. Youth hostels are abundant and cheap, public transportation domestically and internationally is excellent, and for the less independent, a variety of whirlwind European bus tours exist.

For many, a trip Europe includes stops at all the big names – London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and maybe even Berlin. But one country which is all too often overlooked is Belgium. Belgium is conveniently located near Germany, France, and the Netherlands and can be easily reached from any of those countries.

Cycling by a Windmill

Belgium is also a compact country, which makes it very convenient to travel in. You can go from one end of the country to the other by rail in under four hours, and as you will see, it is packed with reasons why you should not pass it up.

1) Varied Cultures

Belgium is made up of three main cultural groups. The German speakers, the Walloons (French speakers), and the Flemish (Dutch speakers). Each region is unique, with their language, art, food, and politics. Although it can be challenging for those new to the country to read a map (each city has both a French and a Dutch name), it also lends a very cosmopolitan feel to be able to hear the locals converse in several different languages.

2) Varied Landscapes

In tiny Belgium you can really find a little bit of everything when it comes to the vista. Sandy beaches can be find in Oostende, along with rolling sand dunes which provide an otherworldly experience to hike around. The flat plains of Flanders, dotted with windmills provide a stark contrast to the rolling hills of the French speaking Ardennes with their small towns and old monasteries. And for the most die hard of city breaker, there are plenty of urban areas to explore, all within a short train ride from each other.

Ostende / Ostend

3) Food

Belgium is not instantly thought of for its culinary delights – but it should be. Although, most of this food is not very good for your waist line. “French” fries, as any Belgian will inform you, were actually invented here – and of course, should be enjoyed with both mayonnaise and tomato sauce. And after a good dinner of frites (potatoes count as a vegetable right?), you can not forget the amazing Belgian desserts. Waffles and chocolate should be eaten in as much quantity as possible when in Belgium (in my opinion). Even the cheap chocolate is amazing in Belgium. Even the chocolate that comes out of vending machines is amazing in Belgium. And if you do spurge on some of the grommet chocolate – then you better be prepared for a mind blowing experience.

Ok, ok so we all know that Belgium is famous for waffles and chocolate. But something you might not have heard of exists in this country which is possibly even better. Its called Speculoos. Speculoos was traditionally a type of gingery cookie, but now it comes in all sorts of incredibly delicious varieties. The one type to definitely not miss is the speculoos pasta (or paste), a sinfully mouth watering spread for toast (or you can be like me and just eat if out of the jar – on another note – I wonder how I gained so much weight in Belgium….hmmm…)

My first taste of Speculoos Pasta


Although, after time it is possible to become tired of gorging yourself on chocolate and french fries (I’ve been told), so rest assured, there are some more wholesome Belgian specialties as well. Why not try to kilo of Oostende mussels …. cooked in beer? Which brings me to my next point….

4) Beer

Don’t listen to the Germans – it’s the Belgians who are the masters of the beer. And with over 700 different varieties, everyone is bound to find something that they like. Before I moved to Belgium I actually hated beer. I hated the taste, I hated the smell – I hated everything about it.

I started off simple (and girly) by trying as many of the fruit flavoured beers as possible. Kriek – a cherry beer is a great way to ease yourself into enjoying beer. Before I knew it, I was an avid lover of dark beers, and would enthusiastically try to drink my way through the beer cafe’s extensive menus. One at a time of course – I am a weak drinker.

Belgian Beer Bottles

Belgium also produces six of the seven world famous trappist beers. Trappist beers are brewed by monks in a monastery, and all profits must go to either the monastery or to social programs. The most famous, and difficult to obtain, is Westvleteren beer, with only a limited amount produced each year. The most famous internationally is probably Chimay, while my personal favourite is definitely Orval.

Still not convinced? Do you hate all beer? Well Belgium also has its own signature spirit. Jenever is a type of gin and comes in a myriad of flavours. From the traditional jenever, to fruit flavoured jenever, to even creamy jenever (hazelnut is amazing!) – there is really something for everyone.

5) History

Lovers of history will find their itineraries packed while in Belgium. Belgium was the site of several WW1 and WW2 conflicts, and those interested in military history will of course want to visit Flanders Fields and the Ypres war memorial.

Dinant

For those who love beautiful medieval architecture will find everything they are looking for in Bruges (although you will also find a lot of other tourists as well), and for those who love Art Nouveau will love wandering through Brussels which has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site for its iconic Art Nouveau houses.

Also not to miss is the old fortress in Ghent, the citadel in Dinant, and the glittery Grote Markt (town square) in Antwerp.

So why not give Belgium a try?

Despite being somewhat of a wallflower when it comes to international tourism, Belgium offers so much to tourists who give it the time. There is really something for everyone packed into this small country, and once you have seen it all, it is just too easy to jet off to yet another European destination. Let the European backpacking tour begin!

This is a guest post by Jade Johnston.


Jade Johnston is a writer at OurOyster.com – the website for budget travellers, long term travellers, and the simply adventurous. She and her partner currently live in Australia and are planning an epic overland trip all over this great country. You can also find her on twitter and facebook.

Europe, How To Guides, Travel Blog

Tips on travelling in Europe on a budget

October 19, 2011
Dining with locals

Travelling to Europe doesn’t come cheap, we know that.  Airfare from Manila is already expensive costing at least 30,000 pesos return. It’s no wonder that trips to Europe are often reserved to those with deep pockets.

But travellers don’t despair, there more ways to travel than doing it high roll. You don’t have to be rich to experience Europe. For those adventurous and open-minded enough, here are a few simple tips you can follow:

1. Research before your trip

Planning on where to go in Bruges, Belgium

Doing good research before a trip helps in managing the budget.  Read travel blogs and forums as they offer tips on what to see and how much is needed to see them. Museum websites, for example, can give you dates to getting in free. Paris’ Louvre (first Sundays / Friday evenings for under 26) and Madrid’s Prado museums (from 6-8pm Tues-Sun)  both offer free entrances on certain dates and times. 

2. Do Couchsurfing

Couch in Brussels

Couchsurfing  is a great way to meet local people and get free accommodation as well.  The website offers over thousands of hosts with “couches” to surf into.  It’s also a good way to experience local living. Giving out a simple gift or helping out with household chores often is enough to pay back for their hospitality.

3. Spend a day on parks

Park Cinquantenaire - Brussels, Belgium

Europe has the best parks in the world– and most don’t cost a Euro to visit. They’re beautiful and usually donned with trees, bike paths and old monuments and statues. It’s a good place to relax and still feel the city’s vibe. During summer, parks also play host to free concerts and street performances. My personal favourites – Parc Cinquantenaire in Brussels, Retiro Park in Madrid, and Vondelpark in Amsterdam.

4. Eat local and stack up at groceries when you can

Dining with the locals in UK

When in a new place they say to “do as the Romans do”. This comes with dining too. Avoid tourist dining establishments if you can. Find places where locals go and try some local flavour instead for an authentic travel experience. They serve good perhaps even better food at a lower price.

For those who want to take shoestring travel to the next level, head  to a supermarket and get ready-made salad or sandwich. Stack up on water as well for your day trips. Another cheap alternative is to cook at your hostel or at your host’s place.

5. Join free city tours

Free city tour in Amsterdam

Keep an eye for organisations like the New Europe tours, that offer guided tours around most big cities. It’s a great source of information about the city and a good way to meet other travellers. It’s completely free yet they do accept tips for those who enjoyed the tour (which is often the case).

 6.  Rent a bike

Bicycles in Amsterdam

Public transport is already a good way to travel cheap around but to those seeking a richer travel experience, best is to hop onto a bicycle. It’s a cheap (and healthy way) to jump from various sites. You can go around at your own pace and can control which route or area you want to see. Smaller cities like Amsterdam & Brussels can easily be navigated with a bicycle. In Brussels, check out Villo which rents out bikes starting at 1,50 euro a day.

What are your tips on travelling on the cheap in Europe? Share your tips on the comment section!

This article has originally been published for Discounts Philippines.  I wrote it together with another article on tips about Backpacking in Bohol. Grab a copy of their anniversary issue on most magazine stands and bookstores today. 🙂

Travel Blog

Confessions of a newbie travel blogger

October 12, 2011
Balloon festival

It”s been six months since I started this travel blog and I realised that this is a tough gig to crack.

For the most part, I”m enjoying the experience.  But as with any endeavours, I developed a  love-hate relationship from making this travel blogging work.

I”m not saying goodbye to travel blogging. I am not keen on doing that. But rather, I would like to tell a few experiences I”ve realised from a few months of being part of the community. Here are a few things that have made this whirlwind experience both challenging but most of the time, inspiring.

  • Travel blogging is, at most, a one-person show

It’s not easy to work and manage a travel blog. You work from start to finish – from buying the domain, doing the design work and fixing technical issues, writing blog posts to scheduling tweets and managing social media channels. It has become a juggling task, that  has taken most of my free time.  Building a blog from scratch requires a steep learning curve,and in order to get your head on the game – you need to have both discipline and patience.

It”s been difficult to keep up and you can see it with the ireggular number of posts I do per week. This is not what I want and I”m trying my best to put it back into a good rhythm – but mind you that it”s not an easy task to do to make sure that you have fresh & interesting content available.

But despite that most of the tasks belong to me,  I have friends helping me out with 25travels – proofreading, writing posts and giving editorial advice – I couldn’t do it without them.

  • Success doesn”t come easy

From a travel blogging context , it means that building your name online won’t happen in days, weeks or even months.  This is an accepted fact. But keeping the momentum going to write and improve your blog, without any return on investment, is sometimes discouraging.

  • Every new visit, follower or fan counts.

Checking my analytics has become a daily obsession. I check fanatically my blog”s search keywords, visits, page views, time spent  and comparing it with the previous months hoping that it’s going to be better. But that single increase on my page views is enough to put a smile on my face.

I watch the numbers closely and with every milestone – my first 100 twitter followers, my first blog comment, my first 25 fans on Facebook –  comes as a challenge to work hard and invest more time.

  • Comment Lover

Once you write and upload your post, then you wait on how your readers respond. How will your post fare to the reading public? Will they gate it and love it?

For me, comments are big metrics to see how popular your posts are. Also, if someone re-tweets your post – you are happy. If someone famous (more on #4) re-tweets it, then you start jumping out of your seat. 🙂

It bothers me when a post doesn’t get any comments or feedback.  If I don’t get comments on a post then I assume that there must be something wrong with it. Was my post boring,  uninspiring or just plain unreadable?

  • I get excited when talking to travel blogging celebrity

My first days as a travel blogger was like going to a new school. I am the new kid joining a pool of people who have been in that community for years.They, the popular travel bloggers,  have mastered the art of travel blogging and amassed a huge amount of followers, fans and comments on their every posts.

As a new kid, I get excited every time a travelblogger celebrity reply to my tweets, RT my blog posts or comment on my blog. I can’t help to get star struck. So if you are one and you are reading this, please do say hello and comment back – that will surely bring smile to my face.

  • Travel community is a great bunch

Being a part of a travel community like #TTOT, have given good traction for my blog and a supportive hand in improving it. New & fulltime bloggers work hand in hand in making everyone new feel welcome.

The community allowed to meet people who appreciate and value travel like I do. I’m continuing to learn about places I’ve never heard off , food that I never knew existed and experiences that is now on my ever growing bucket list. Through this community, I also got inspired to work towards doing an #rtw trip soon.

And I’ll also like to extend my thanks to the great people I met in the journey particularly beforeiam35, amzkiz, packsandbucks, hyperren, shivya, fourjandals, 2girls1journey, pckyourpassport, toniwonitravels, our_oyster, a6packofstories, confusedjulia, budgetplaces, AE_carhire.

  •  Small words can have an impact

I talked about success in the context of building a name online. And I”m far from achieving that form of success. But what is the measure of success anyway?

My biggest realisation in doing this blog is that through telling stories about my goal and adventures, I can impact the way you, my readers, think about travel.

This keeps me going,  knowing that through my work, I  manage to influence another person”s travel decisions – even if it’s just a simple hostel recommendation or to begin their own travel goal.

I remember that the reason why I started blogging was I was inspired by other bloggers to start my own.  And now that I am actually doing it, it’s been rewarding to see emails & comments pouring in. That validates me as a travel blogger, even if it”s only in a small way. It’s only a handful of emails since I started – but all those emails, tweets and posts, inspire me to continue this work.

Challenges

You don’t have to be rich to see the world

August 11, 2011
25travels - rich to travel

That man is rich whose pleasures are the cheapest. – Henry David Thoreau

Vietnamese Dong

Somehow, the phrase ‘luxury to travel’ have been used as if each word reciprocates the other. Our understanding of travel has been confined to the idea that you need to have lots of money to do it. Does this mean that travel is only reserved for the rich?

NOT AT ALL.

 

Travel is a lifestyle and a mindset. It’s not money that fuels that desire, but travelling comes from the desire to live life to the fullest, to go beyond the confines of our own space and get out and see the world. Travel is a state of mind – and you don’t need to have all the money in the world to do it.

And while having the ‘luxury to travel’ is true for some people who are lucky enough, the fact is that at this time, travel is not limited to those with deep pockets anymore.

The travel industry is continuously moving towards adapting business models that fit budget travelling – with flights, accommodation and transportation prices kept low – that normal people like you and me can now afford. We are living in a time where travel has been open to everyone – and that the idea of going out to see the world has been made easier and more importantly, cheaper.

I admit that my job allows me to earn more than a peer my age earns here in Manila and it is definitely an advantage that I’m lucky that I have. But I’m not living life like a millionaire. Like you, I pay bills and debts, I work 8 hours a day, and do public transport. And I save, too.

But I can say I live a life that I want and I’m sacrificing a bit of myself in order to make this a reality. AND YOU CAN DO IT TOO! And often, I have to get rid of material ‘wants’: instead of an iPhone, I booked a flight to Vietnam; instead of buying new shirts or shoes, I saved that money to pay for Angkor Wat entrance; and I’ve taken jeeps/buses instead of a cab, so that I can pay for a boat ride on the rivers of Loboc, Philippines.

That is how I travel – I work and save. And I feel happy because I know that this is a kind of long-term investment I want for myself. I’m sure I’m not going to remember when I’m 50 that I have had the newest Blackberry or the latest shoes or jeans during my youth, but rather, I’ll look back to the places I’ve seen, friends I met and experiences I had.

Morocco - Circle of friends

For me, it all boils down to motivation and passion. I am passionate about travel – and I work hard to keep the passion going.

When I do get on the road, I travel not with my wallet but with my eyes, ears and nose. I stay in hostels or ask for free hosting. I take public transport even if I’m scared of getting lost sometimes. I eat street food as if my mom cooked it. I’ve slept in airports, train stations, places of strangers, fast food chains and coffee shops. I’m a sucker for low-costs flights, too. I’ll take a flight that is 1000-2000 pesos cheaper even if I have to wake and leave at 2am or travel to the ends of the earth to catch it. This is the life I chose to live and I aim on getting the best out of the experience.

And there more people who are doing more with less – hitchhiking, volunteering for free accommodation, couch-surfing, walking thousands of kilometres just to see the world and live their life.  I admire them, and want to join their ranks soon.

That’s actually my aim for this blog: to let people know that there’s nothing that limits you from seeing the world, be it money, your job, your family, your phobias or your allergy to insects. There are more ways to travel, and all you need is to keep your desire and dedication to see the world.

Live your life now. Go and see the world.

Thank you to my travel heroes too for the inspiration behind this post

 

Travel Blog

Final Four : Finishing my 25-country goal

July 28, 2011
25travels - final four countries

I’ve been getting comments and emails asking me about my goal to visit 25 countries by 25. I’ve turned 24 last June. With less than a year to go, I’ve already been thinking and planning where do I cap-off my current goal.

NYC - MoMA: Jasper John's MapPhoto from Flickr

I have four more countries to go to for my ‘list’ and picking these countries and making plans weren’t easy.

I have two sets of plans for the year mainly because of a possibility of coming back to Europe for work in the coming months. So I divided my list into two – with one involving moving back to Europe and the other with me staying in Asia. Now of course, plans CAN and most likely WILL change but here’s how I see my year of travels going through.

If I come to Europe…

 

Sweden

Sweden 2011Photo from Flickr

I’ve never been to Scandinavia – and I’ve always been intrigued by the lifestyle and the winter weather. I’ve heard that it can be quite brutal on winter, but this is something that I don’t get to experience living in a tropical country (sounds like torture, but I’m all about challenges). One of my best friend currently lives there, and I’ve promised to visit when I come back to Europe. Hopefully, I get to arrange time to see the Northern Lights as well. Perhaps I will get try surströmming as well (not really).

Portugal

LisbonPhoto from Flickr

I had missed my flight to Lisbon back in 2009 because of issues with my visa – but once I get to come back, I’ll definitely give it another go. I’ve always heard lots of nice things about Lisbon and the surrounding cities. A trip from Porto down to Lisbon will most likely be on the itinerary – with visits to Peneda-Gerês National Park and Cabo da Roca.

Ireland

Cliffs of Moher 1Photo from Flickr

The Cliffs of Moher is a place that I’ve always wanted to see! With RyanAir flights coming cheap – definitely, this is worth a shot! There is a visa requirement though that I have to go through, annoying – but a must-do for someone like me. Of course, a definite visit to the Guinness factory and an Irish pub should be added.

South Africa

table mountain sunsetPhoto from Flickr

Now, it’s not close to Europe – but given a European salary and work holidays – this is a place that I’ll be able to visit. I’ve always wanted to visit South Africa and definitely a few weeks’ vacation here is something I’ll get to do. From Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town – this will be a great addition on my list and a great culmination for my goal.

Other countries on my list:

Norway:The fjords and all things nature. I want to stand on pulpit rock (Preikestolen)
Croatia:Dubrovnik and the rest of the Croatian coasts for a great feel of summer
Greece:Athens and Santorini – why not?

If I stay in Asia…

 

Thailand

Maya Bay (The Beach)
Photo from Flickr

I’ve already booked tickets thanks to flights sales from Cebu Pacific. Everyone has been raving about Thailand, so I need to see what it has to offer. Of course, I’ll get to visit Bangkok and spend a few days there – and then probably go down to the Andaman coast for some beach and drinking time.

Laos

Vang Vieng
Photo from Flickr

I’ve always been intrigued by this country and I been drawn by what I read of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng. It’s a country rich with new cultures and experiences – I should say that I’ll regret not including it my list. I would also like to get to see the Irrawady dolphins. And it’s a relatively easy jump-off point after my trip to Thailand. So yes, this needs to be here.

China

Great Wall of China
Photo from Flickr

Of course, with only a sea separating Philippines and China, this is a definitive yes. The Great Wall, Olympicsstadium with an included train trip with the new train from Beijing to Shanghai. Plus of course, there’s Hong Kong and Macau – which is only an hour flight from Manila. The food is already enough drawcard for me – just say Xiao Long Bao and I’d book a flight there soon!

South Korea

My Farewell to Seoul
Photo from Flickr

I am not a huge fan of Korean soaps nor of their music, but I’m intrigued by its sudden growth in terms of destination. A visit to the de-militarised zone is an option, though I’m not sure if in anyway this supports the northern neighbour regime. But on anycase, definitely I’d like to sample Seoul’s vibe – and a few anyangsaeo. 🙂

Other countries:

Indonesia:It is our southern neighbour – and a visit to Yogyakarta, Bali and Lombok is on the list. Though flights from Manila is really bad for this.
Myanmar:The Bagan temples. Enough said – though the country’s political situation somewhat stops me from doing so.
New Zealand:Considering that I might be unemployed at this period, then this might not be a practical option. But definitely if the flight and visa gods support me – I will make sure this happen.

Have you been to any of these countries? What are your suggestions of places to visit or experiences to try? Do you have any countries you’d like to suggest?

Travel Blog

1 month to go: Vietnam & Cambodia Trip

April 12, 2011
Vietnam & Cambodia

It’s only a month to go before I start our 10-day trip to Vietnam & Cambodia. And am I excited? hell, yeah!

I’m excited for the trip because of a couple of things – one because this will be my first international trip for 2011 and the longest backpacking trip yet (it will be a 9 day trip!). It’s also my first time to go to Vietnam & Cambodia.

With 9-days, I expect to see much more than a weekend – and of course, it will be a bit more relaxed than a weekend trip. I’m particularly excited for the Cambodian leg of our trip as I get to finally visit and see Angkor Wat. At the same time, I’ve been looking forward to be part of the traveller circuit  again. And of course, I’m also adding 2 countries to my 25-country list and will up my travel points to 21 countries.

I’m not doing the trip alone but with a good friend of mine, Riya. It will be her first trip outside of the country – so she’s more excited than I do when it comes to this trip.

We’ll arrive their early morning of 14 May and will travel to a few points across the country and will need to be back to Ho Chi Minh by 22 May at night for our flight back to Manila. When it comes to preparation, we have our draft itinerary below which of course is subject to change:

Day 1 (May 14) – Around Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam
Day 2 (May 15) – 12 hour trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia from HCMC
Day 3 (May 16) – Angkor Temples
Day 4 (May 17) – Siem Reap // Travel at night to Sihanoukville
Day 5 (May 18) – Sihanoukville
Day 6 (May 19) – Sihanoukville
Day 7 (May 20) – Sihanoukville to HCMC (12 hour trip)
Day 8 (May 21) – HCMC to Mui Ne (day trip)
Day 9 (May 22) – Around HCMC
Day 10 (May 23) – Trip back to Manila

View Vietnam & Cambodia Trip in a larger map

Now, it is only a draft itinerary for now – looking at it, I’m a bit concerned that it maybe too many places with too little time, and I’m open to suggestions.

Have you been to Vietnam or Cambodia? What are the places that we should definitely visit? Food to try?  Share them below!

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