Bonjour from Brussels

Our adventure has begun–we landed on Thursday, May 15 at 9:30 a.m. after an exhausting flight and Tori, our lovely hostess, picked us up. We hoped to go with only a carry on and a personal item, but our backpacks were too large, so we checked them. Image

Many people have warned that if you go to sleep after an overnight flight, you will never get adjusted to the time change, and that has proved to be true because it is day three and we are still exhausted. We slept for a few hours on Thursday, and Tori surprised us with a fantastic picnic in her garden. A basket full of German bread, two types of cheeses, salami, bologna and delightful cookies. The view from her organic garden is magnificent, and this picnic was the idea of Europe that we had been thinking of for so long. A leisurely picnic with tea and sunshine and great conversation. Beauty is in the simple things here, and we love it.

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After our picnic, Tori took us to the train station and we headed off to Brussels. Starting at the Grand Place, we had a kriek on the patio of Chaloupe D’Or. Kriek is Belgium’s famous cherry beer. We liked it, but it was a little too sweet for our palates. The weather couldn’t be more lovely here. The sunshine and cool breeze is the perfect cure for exhaustion.

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Catherine is very good at reading maps- and me, not so much. I just like to ask people for directions. But putting our strengths together we tried to find St. Michael’s Cathedral to no avail. It was our first day in a city that we knew nothing of and didn’t speak the language, so finding things was quite difficult, but we got better at it the next day. By this time, we really needed another beer, so we found a place called The Zebra Bar and asked the bartender for a good brew. He brought us Zinne Bir, a Belgian pale ale brewed at Brasserie de la Senne. It has been both of our favorite beer so far on the trip. I highly recommend it for any occasion. After the Zebra Bar, we searched for Delirium Cafe, a bar known for having over 2,000 beers. It is laid back environment and has a very diverse crowd. We met two guys, Eric and Alex that are Ph.D. Students in Brussels and they were our first inside look into the city. The beer was delicious- and much higher in alcohol than the beer that we are used to in the states. The thing about Brussels that pleasantly surprised me the most was how nice the people are. Everyone we spoke to spoke English and were very eager to help us. Day one was quite a success–more to come on lovely Brussels.

 

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Before you backpack: A Comprehensive Guide

So, you want to go backpacking. First, get carried away with daydreams of swimming in the lakes of Switzerland and sipping wine in France. Make sure this is what you want to do. Ask yourself some questions:

-Do I have enough money?

-Can I get off of work/school for the length of the trip?

-Is this a once in a lifetime opportunity?

-Do I have a longing in my bones to get the hell out of here?

-Do I desire to wander across Europe?

It didn’t take us long to figure out the answers to these questions. We were sitting in Highland Coffees, a little local coffee shop in Baton Rouge, La., and said: Let’s do it, let’s go to Europe! We worked out some practical things and were ready to make a commitment.

1. PURCHASE FLIGHT: The best time to buy an international flight is 3-4 months in advance on a Tuesday at 3pm Eastern. The cheapest day to fly is Wednesday. Sign up for Kayak.com alerts- they will send you an email when the price of your flight changes.

We didn’t really care what European city we landed in: we just wanted the cheapest. So plug in many different cities in Kayak and similar websites to see which one is cheapest. Brussels was the most affordable, so we are starting there. Being flexible will work in your favor for getter less expensive flights. We noticed a very big jump ($100-300) in prices departing the week of May 12-16 and the week of May 19-23. I’m not sure why this is, but that’s why we decided to leave the Wednesday of that week- May 14.

2. MAKE ITINERARY: Figure what cities you want to visit, and don’t be overly ambitious. A good rule of thumb is to plan to spend at least a week in cities you are very excited about, and 4-5 days in cities you aren’t as excited about. Get a big calendar and a map, and decide where you want to go and for how long. Remember that you can move things around once you get over there, but it is good to have a primitive idea of what you are doing.

3. PURCHASE EURAIL PASS: There are different option depending on how long you will be in Europe. We purchased the one that is 15 days of travel within 2 months. It was $827 for anyone under 25.

4. GET YOUR BACKPACK: If you really want to backpack, well… you will need a backpack! We chose Osprey Packs, the Aria and Ariel 65s. It seems like it will be the perfect size to carry on a plane, big enough for everything we need, but not too big to lug around for 2 months. North Face has great backpacks as well. Most backpacking stores have student discounts, so ask about that before you buy. We also got compression packs in order to fit everything we need in our backpacks.

5. START LINING UP WHERE YOU WILL STAY: If you know anyone living in Europe, see if they wouldn’t mind you staying with them. Get a Couchsurfing account and look up good hostels. Make your first 3 weeks’ reservations in hostels, and figure out the rest when you are traveling.

6. GET ALL MEDICINES NEEDED FOR THE TRIP: You will have to call your insurance company to get an override on refills, then call your pharmacy to make sure they got the override. You may also have to call your doctor to let them know you will be out of the country.

7. INFORM CREDIT CARD/ DEBIT CARD COMPANIES OF YOUR TRAVEL PLANS: If you don’t, your card will not work in Europe. Make sure to do this at least a week in advance!

8. START HYDRATING/ EXERCISING:  Backpacking is going to be a lot of walking and a lot of biking. Getting into shape now will help you not to be as exhausted while on the trip. Make sure you are getting enough water.

9. CELL PHONE: If you want an international plan, go to your cell phone provider and look at options. We are not using our phones, except when on Wifi, so we are not getting a plan. Apps such as Viber and What’s App are great for calls and texts over Wifi. If you choose to only communicate over Wifi, make sure to turn your roaming off on your phone.

10. PASSPORT/ ID: Make sure both of these are up to date.

11. BREAK IN YOUR HIKING BOOTS:  Or any other shoes. Your feet will thank you later.

12. TELL YOUR FAMILY/FRIENDS:  Or, don’t. As much as we would love to just run away, it is in our best interest for people to know where we are.

13. GET A RIDE TO THE AIRPORT: Bring your own snacks, airport snacks are expensive. Have a plan for what you will do when you land- taxi, someone picking you up?

Okay, you are ready to go! Fly off into the horizon, young grasshopper.  Have the time of your life– we are planning on it!