Three years ago, in July 2017, I came back to France after an extraordinary year in Australia. I had lived many amazing adventures in the past twelve months, but I didn’t want to stop travelling yet; I had already booked my tickets for a second long-term trip beginning in September, and the first thing I did after spending a couple of days at home with my parents was beginning a road trip around Europe. From Switzerland to Belgium via Germany, Czech Republic and Poland, here’s the story of that trip, including beautiful landscapes, gorgeous cities… and a lot of food! This is the second part, from Wroclaw to Bruges.
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Stage 4: Wroclaw, Poland
Have you ever heard about Wroclaw before? The honest answer for most people would probably be no, and yet this city is the 4th biggest of Poland with almost 650.000 inhabitants! Family reasons brought me there. My grandfather who passed away seven months before this trip was originally from this region (Silesia), which belonged to Germany at that time. He had a huge passion for mineralogy (among many other things; he also knew a lot about nature, birds, plants, chemistry, … and so much more), and before he died, he left a big part of his giant rocks and stones collection to the Mineralogical Museum of the University of Wroclaw. There were so many items that an entire room of the museum was dedicated to his collection, and I wanted to see it.
Apart from this visit, I had no expectations about Wroclaw; I only stayed one day and I didn’t leave the Old Town, but I discovered a really beautiful city and I wish I had had more time to explore it a little bit further.
My explorations focused mostly around the Market Square. This huge square (one of the largest in Europe) is surrounded by dozens of gorgeous facades, with a beautiful harmony of pastel colours: green, orange, pink, yellow, red…
The middle of the square is occupied by the New and the Old City Hall; built in the 13th century, this amazing building is a masterpiece of gothic architecture.
I also discovered a very odd and entertaining attraction in Wroclaw: the “Wroclaw’s dwarfs”. There are more than 350 little figurines of dwarfs everywhere around the city and it’s a real challenge to hunt for them! I quote Wikipedia about their origin: “In 2001, to commemorate the Orange Alternative (Polish anti-communist movement), a monument of a dwarf (the movement’s symbol) was officially placed on Świdnicka Street, where the group’s happenings used to take place.” Many others were installed in the following years. I only found a few of them, but each encounter with one of these tiny bronze statues was a funny and pleasant moment.
There was a little night market directly next to the hostel where I was staying, so I decided to eat there in the evening. It was a very “hipstery” market: everything was organic, handmade, with a lot of vegetarian and vegan stalls, but the atmosphere was nice and the dinner was good… and the next morning, I treated myself to another yummy breakfast in a café of the Old Town.
Stage 5: Dresden, Germany
After Wroclaw, I began the journey back home to France. I wanted to go to Belgium first, but that was too much road for one day (around 1,000 kilometres). I had friends in Dresden, not far from the border between Poland and Germany, and they invited me to spend the night at their place. It split the trip in two, leaving me “only” 750 kilometres to drive for the next day.
I had already gone to Dresden once before, in 2009. During that first visit, I discovered a beautiful city but with a tragic history. In February 1945, the British and American Air Forces dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs and incendiary devices over the city centre, destroying it entirely and killing around 25,000 people. Dresden was slowly rebuilt after the war, and it has now regained its baroque splendour. It was nice to walk around the many gorgeous buildings of the city for the second time, even if it was for a couple of hours only.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to write about Dresden in this section, as my friends and I simply went to a cheap kebab restaurant close to the city centre. But we also had a great refreshing beer in a “Biergarten”, a large terrace next to the Elbe, the river that flows through Dresden. Cheers!
Stage 6: Brussels, Belgium
After an entire day driving through Germany with pouring rain most of the time, I eventually arrived in Brussels in the evening. I was tired, I got lost many times before I finally found my hostel, and that probably partially explains why I had such a bad first impression about the city… which remained quite unchanged after a whole day exploring it.
Apart from the Grand Place (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998) and the cathedral, I didn’t find the city really beautiful, even if I have to admit that the grey clouds and the showers during the day didn’t help.
I also was very disappointed by the Manneken Pis; I had been warned before that this famous statue wasn’t big, but I still didn’t expect such a ridiculously small thing, barely visible due to the crowd permanently standing in front of it. I much preferred the “Manneken Peace” mural a little bit further on the same street!
The only thing I really enjoyed in Brussels was the Atomium. Built for the 1958 World’s Fair, this 102m-high structure represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. An extraordinary architectural and technological masterpiece, which is now one of the most famous icons of Belgium.
The Atomium was supposed to be dismantled after the World Expo, but just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it was so popular that it never was removed. Six of the nine spheres are now open to the public, sheltering temporary exhibitions, a restaurant or a panoramic viewpoint from the highest one. Visiting the Atomium is almost like a journey through time; the futuristic lights in the corridors and stairs between the spheres made me feel as if I was in a spacecraft or in an extra-terrestrial vessel!
To be fair, the Atomium wasn’t the only thing I liked in Brussels; I also enjoyed the taste of a delicious Belgian beer! I met two friends of mine during the day I spent there, and they took me to a bar called the Delirium Café, which is known as the bar with the longest beer list in the world, a title that was officially awarded by the Guinness Book of Records in 2004. It is located in a narrow cul-de-sac close to the Grand Place, just in front of the Jeanneke Pis statue, the female (and not as famous) equivalent of the Manneken Pis.
Finally, a trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without a good waffle, topped with Belgian chocolate of course!
Stage 7: Leuven, Belgium
Leuven is a medium-sized city (around 100,000 inhabitants), 30km to the East of Brussels, in the Flemish Region of Belgium. You might not know the city, but you probably know a product that is brewed there: the beer Stella Artois! It’s not because of the beer that I went to Leuven, but because I wanted to do a short day trip outside of Brussels, and also because I had a friend living there. That’s the great thing with travelling: you meet people from all around the world, and there’s always someone to welcome you anywhere you go! I found the city really beautiful and very interesting to visit, especially the “Grote Markt” and the “Oude Markt” (the “Grand Square” and the “Old Market Square”) as well as the stunning gothic Town Hall, decorated by 236 statues.
Leuven is also famous for its Great Beguinage. This vast enclosed area (three hectares in size) was founded during the 13th century by a community of Beguines (women who lived by following spiritual rules but without taking permanent vows). There are around 80 houses and many religious buildings in the Beguinage, which has been part of UNESCO World Heritage List since 1998. It belongs to the University of Leuven today (teachers and students have replaced the Beguines), and it’s open to the public. It was very nice to meander around the paved lanes of this beautiful and peaceful site and between the brick houses that hadn’t changed in centuries. A great visit!
If you think about Belgium and food, the first thing that might come to your mind is chocolate. I randomly discovered a little shop called “Bittersweet” in a lane close to the Grote Markt, which created the most original chocolates I ever saw. Yes, everything you see on the pictures below is made from a cocoa base! And it was very tasty as well… They now moved to a different (and seemingly bigger) location in Leuven.
Last stage: Bruges, Belgium
For the last day of my road trip before going back to France, I decided to visit Bruges, in the Flemish region of Belgium. This city used to be one of the wealthiest and most flourishing of Europe between the 13th and 15th century, trading with the entire continent via its harbour. It declined in the following decades, facing the competition of Antwerp, but it slowly won back popularity and it’s now the most visited city of Belgium. Its very-well preserved medieval centre has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
Bruges is criss-crossed by many canals, with the large Market Square and the very impressive 83m-high belfry in the middle of the historic centre. If you’re ever visiting the city, make sure to climb to the top to enjoy the great view!
This last day in Bruges was a perfect conclusion to a great road trip. Even if it’s a very touristic city, it’s very easy to escape the crowds that gather mostly around the Market Square and the neighbouring streets. On many occasions, it felt like I was travelling back in time, and I really enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of the canals, the dozens of very photogenic bridges and the many beautiful medieval facades.
I didn’t try anything special during that last day, but I treated myself to a very good burger and a Belgian beer at a restaurant called Jilles not far from the Market Square, that I had been advised at the hostel where I was staying. It was really tasty and I didn’t regret my choice!
That’s where this culinary road trip around Europe ends; if you haven’t read it yet, have a look a the first part of this article!