You can't always trust first impressions, but the times that you can tend to be positive first regards. I sit writing in a "bar" in Brussels called Poechenellekelder. It sits number two on TripAdvisor's list of things to do in the city, so I figured it was a must try - a sentiment aided by its easy location.
The second I came in, I could tell it was my kind of place. It looks closed from the outside, and the darker, cozy atmosphere continues throughout.
Strictly speaking, it is not a bar but a _______________. For lack of a proper noun, I'll go with beer establishment. Nouns aside, the place has a superb ambiance. A beer list that is exclusively Belgian and not too long to be overwhelming while still offering choices to last for weeks graces each tables and makes up the heart of the spot. But its the decor that sets it apart, as anywhere can offer plentiful options when it comes to beer. Each beer has its own dedicated glass in varying shapes and sizes. The walls and shelves are full of trinkets, old posters, instruments, ethnographic statues and enough other knick-knacks to fill a small history museum. The music is what really seals the deal. Unlike your normal bar which plays shitty pop or rap music, or rock or alternative if you're lucky, the sound track was nearly exclusively 30's - 50's jazz - comforting and often melancholy sounds of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole. Alone you feel as if you've returned home; with friends you feel as if you've spent a lifetime together; and in neither case do you ever want to leave. With a pen and notebook, its the sort of places that encourages the fountain of words to never stop flowing.
Seeped in delicious beer, serenaded by Sinatra's crooning, in a place made up of old wood and history, and I knew my first impression was spot on.
I had a similar adoration of Gent the second I stepped out of the train station. In Gent, the easiest way to get around is on a bike. More importantly, everyone there realizes it. Just in front of the train station it felt as if there were more bikes than all of Amsterdam.
On top of that, the city is purely beautiful. With its numerous rivers, churches and palaces, it has a distinct history and stunning architecture. These trickle down to the smallest street and lonesome house, casting an overarching ray of splendor across the whole city. It is all pleasurable to see.
It was undoubtedly the cold, but I wasn't even close to functioning in full tourist mode. Tourist mode entails a mindset to see everything and leave no second unplanned. When your whole body freezes on the short walk from point A to point B - tourist mode becomes impossible. I therefore spent a lot of time in bars and cafes - an action that made Gent feel a lot like home. I think being a tourist can often lessen one's enthusiasm for a place because you can't function as your normal life plays out. But in Gent my go to daily experiences were transplanted to a new town that had already left such a favorable expression on me, leaving a great feeling of fulfillment.
After seeing the start of the bike race I headed in the direction of the historical district of town, aka the tourist center of the city. Five minutes into the walk and I was too cold to take another step, lucky I was within striking distances of a coffee shop I had earlier noted.
A coffee shop needs a couple of things to be successful for me. First and foremost, good coffee is necessary and they shouldn't have snobbishly high prices for something as simple as an espresso. Second of course, is the ambiance. In Paris I take my coffee in one of two ways. I'll go nearly anywhere for an espresso at the bar, an encounter that takes no more than a minute. But if i want to take my time, it takes a place with ambiance to make the experience enjoyable.
A coffee shop with ambiance is one that puts as much thought into the environment, space and feeling as it does in its coffee.
Or Coffee (Koffiebranderij Or) has it all right. Big rustic wooden tables spread across the middle, with smaller ones across the sides for those seeking independence. There's a great quote about seeking solitary company in coffee shops that I shouldn't have written down long ago. Being neither truly alone or social is a fine line to straddle while working or enjoying coffee. Good indie music played on the stereo, big enough to fill the space yet small enough to not be intrusive. The coffee was imported from Brazil and Columbia and roasted on the spot, dry beans transformed into a perfect double espresso at the hands of a beautiful Belgian girl. The clientele was a mix of studiers, conversationalists and coffee addicts lost in their thoughts. In the Belgian fashion, there was no cherry on top, rather a chocolate served on the side.
And so my day in Gent went. A hearty apple tart in a warm bakery for breakfast, followed by the the excitement of the bike race. Then to the coffee shop, where the espresso warmed me enough for a jaunt to the stunning cathedral. Refuge at a waffle shop followed by a quick tour of the castle. Watching the end of the bike race led to an awesome bar built on the premise that all you need in life is Rock and Roll and beer.
If its winters weren't so cold, I could live in Gent without a second thought. But that will never happen. It did however, remind me of something vital related to traveling. Vacation isn't an excuse to sacrifice our values or to abandon the things that we love to do in life. Rather, travel is heightened when we bring our lives with us and incorporate them in the the new places we see so they can take our breath away even more.