The clock tower in Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium, as seen in the film 'In Bruges'.

On quick and dirty travel.

How long is a trip abroad? What’s the difference between a weekender, a getaway, a holiday and a trip? Can you discover a new country in just a few days? Can you truly appreciate it?

Living in London is the traveller’s equivalent of the all-you-can-eat lunchtime special. We are quite literally 20 miles away from the most densely packed collection of countries, languages and cultures on Earth. The richness of Europe’s offerings to the curious traveller can only be fully understood as a product of her ancient heritage, her perpetually evolving borders and her march towards political unity. In fact, we are so spoiled for choice when it comes to nearby, easily and cheaply accessible foreign countries that many Londoners write off Europe straightaway as somehow not foreign enough, preferring to hook strangers at parties with exotic tales of the far east. I am guilty of the very same when it comes to writing on this blog; I was so proud of last year’s completely accidental trip to Thailand that it took me a while to figure out what (or rather, where) to write about next.

Of course, all of this cozy, comfortable closeness to the European mainland would mean nothing if we didn’t have the transport links to fully exploit it. Thank our lucky stars for the twin threats of Eurostar and Ryanair! One is the well-to-do aunt that buys us expensive, extravagant clothes when we visit (rarely) while the other is the friend with the newly acquired motorcycle licence (because comfort is in the eye of the beholder, and we can’t afford to see our aunt this month anyway). Given my rather peculiar habit of using liquid shampoo in quantities visible to the naked eye, I do prefer to avoid flight regulations and take the Eurostar, Queen of Trains when my bank account allows for it. Those of you familiar with London will know that the exterior of St. Pancras station, our local Eurostar terminal, looks like Sleeping Beauty’s Neo-Gothic castle: when I get that train, I feel like a princess …

But visiting Bruges in 2012 was like having a secret affair: quick, dirty and completely unplanned. I bought my tickets during the autumn flash sale, hopped on the train two weeks later with a 25L backpack and used up the charming, Fleming town in a mere three days. My mind swallowed up almost every art museum; my eyes skimmed hungrily along each major landmark; my feet devoured every inch of cobblestone path within the city walls. I rose with the sun, breakfasted on-the-go, and crossed off each museum, gallery and historical building on my map like a dedicated schoolchild. I tried beer after Belgian beer, scoured the city for every scene from the Colin Farrell film, used every word of my French vocabulary, photographed every windmill, counted each step up to the top of the bell tower, ate every last frite. I lived life in the way we can’t afford to do when we’re at home, with the mindless trudge of work, laundry and dishes killing every spare hour. When I caught my train home, I left Bruges without an ounce of regret, knowing that I had exhausted both of us. When I eventually arrived home in London, life was just as I had left it. No national disasters, just a couple of new e-mails in my inbox, no culture shock.

Do I know Belgium inside-out? Of course not. Did I have fun? Absolutely. I was thoroughly entertained for those three days, but I’ve had my fill now and I doubt I’ll be back. I’m not the first person to say that long-term travelling has its merits, and offers far more insight into the social, political and economic aspects of life in our chosen destinations. It allows us to explore the full landscape of a region rather than judging everything from one corner of one city. It’s the only way to truly fall in love with a country. But short-term travelling is just as valuable in just as many different ways. When we’ve had a bad experience with travelling, weekend breaks ease us back in. When we don’t have the time or money to commit to that three-month sabbatical in Peru, quick holidays are a temporary cure for our travelling appetite. Spending just a few days in a country means we have no time to uncover its dirty underbelly or taint our newcomer’s fascination with sour moments. Even if it is all just an illusion, what a fantastic one to be part of! In brief, a short getaway is like a vodka shot for the soul: while the adrenaline is running, life plays out in technicolour, but there’s no trace of it the morning after … and if that wasn’t enough to convince you of the value of quick and dirty travel, then I will end with this:

It is possible to buy a hot, sugary, freshly-made Belgian waffle on a bright Bruges morning and eat that very same waffle, still warm, at home in London 3 hours later.

Now book your tickets.


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