When 2015 rolled around I felt more than a tinge of worry about the year ahead. Without a doubt, 2014 was the best year of my life so far. I earned a merit in my postgraduate degree, got my first graduate job in PR, travelled across Mexico, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Mallorca, Paris and Belgium and upped and moved to a stunning city that I now call home.
How can 2015 beat that?
Then I remembered some of the bad parts.
Like Brussels. Definitely Brussels.
While I love writing posts about countries and cities I fall in love with, brimming with positivity and gratitude, there’s always a perverse kind of satisfaction in letting loose on my keyboard and explaining why I disliked a certain destination. First, to see if I’m some sort of freak for hating on that place, or if there’s a general consensus that the place does indeed suck. Second, because being candid is part and parcel of my personality, I’d never big up a destination that I honestly thought was a waste of time. And finally, because you guys love the to read the hating. My most-read post is the rather bluntly titled ‘Why I hated Sihanoukville’. That single post, my very first post actually, has more traffic that the rest of my posts combined. Crazy. Granted, some of the people who land on it are peadophiles on the hunt for underage girls to sleep with, but still, numbers don’t lie. Yes really.
Moving on. This year there were three places that ended up on my blacklist. Playa Del Carmen, Paris and Brussels.
Playa Del Carmen
It’s no secret that Mexico was my favourite destination of 2014, and perhaps ever, but one city left me desperately lacking the love. Playa Del Carmen was the final stop on my Mexico jaunt, and within an hour I knew I’d made a massive mistake booking five nights in the seaside town. Five hours later I was desperately searching for free rooms in towns and cities within a two-hundred mile radius.
Playa del Carmen isn’t the worst place I’ve ever travelled to. Not by a long shot. But it was the complete opposite of what I wanted to see and do in Mexico. Even in the relatively touristy Isla Mujeres I could easily find a stretch of deserted white sand to relax on, eat authentic Mexican cuisine at a local cafe and find people who couldn’t a lick of English. In contrast, Playa Del Carmen felt like a gimmick. The beaches were smothered in American and European package holidayers, the town filled with partying teenagers getting wasted on cheap cocktails and the streets were lined with expensive American chains and souvenir shops filled with tourist tat. I genuinely believe 90 per cent of the world’s sombreros are located in Playa Del Carmen. Everywhere I went touts tried to entice me (speaking perfect English) into overpriced, Westernised restaurants such as Senor Frog and Taco Bell, and seemed genuinely surprised when I replied in Spanish. I ended up spending more money in just five days in Playa Del Carmen than I did in the previous weeks in Mexico.
It didn’t help that my hostel was located on the notoriously party street Fifth Avenue. The bass from the nightclub next door (not mentioned on the website) was so loud that my bed literally shook. Thankfully after a sleepless night spent cursing my decision not to move on to Isla Holbox I managed to nab a room at quiet, pretty little Che B&B a mile down the road. Away from the madness and with some decent sleep and a few days trips I managed to salvage the final few days, but Playa del Carmen won’t be on my list of towns to return to.
I wrote about my experience of Paris in much more detail here, if you have the time and inclination to give it a read. Sometimes, a destination isn’t bad in itself, but because of our state of mind when we visit, the whole trip becomes discoloured by our negative emotions. With the benefit of hindsight I can say that’s what happened to me with Paris.
Beyond the limitations I imposed on myself in Paris, and speaking as objectively as possible given the circumstances of my visit, I will say it’s one of my least favourites among the big cities of Europe. I found it too big, its sprawl dispiriting. I travelled on the Metro as much as I walked, and viewing a city from under its streets is never a surefire way to fall for it. Jokes of Parisian snobbery and rudeness aside there were no impromptu chats or even smiles from the locals. Street vendors hawking flashing Eiffel Towers became increasingly irritating and occasionally a little frightening. And the romance. Ugh. Finally, Paris just didn’t capture my imagination in the same head-dizzying, ‘I need to bottle this place up and drink it’ way Dubrovnik, Bruges or Mostar did.
Certainly, in the future I’d reconsider booking a trip when my head was so clouded with sadness and anger, at least to a city renowned for its romance.
Brussels. The capital of Belgium. The centre of European politics. The shittest city I’ve ever been to in Europe.
I never intended to go to Brussels. In fact, I’ve never possessed any desire to see it at all, and would’ve been perfectly content to have confined my visit to a simple walk from the Eurostar terminal to the fast train to Bruges. But Belgian railway strikes driven by anti-austerity sentiments do happen. Especially when I’m in town.
So stuck between the choices of getting stranded in Bruges when the country’s rail network shut down completely at 11pm for a full twenty-four hours of strikes, or fleeing to Brussels a day earlier than planned in order to catch my non-transferable Eurostar service back to London, I very reluctantly tore myself away from Bruges’ postcard prettiness and caught the intercity service to the capital.
Homeless people. My first glimpse of Brussels was of a long line of the homeless snaking along the tramlines outside of Zuid-Central station. Alcoholics shambled around with beer in hand, and more than a few individuals were clearly on drugs, with one woman rocking back and forth fervently in her tattered sleeping bag.
Bruges it wasn’t.
Such was my scary first impression of Brussels. An impression made considerably worse by travelling solo with only a faint knowledge of where my hostel was. And my first encounter with a local only added to that unease. A dishevelled, drunk looking man noticed my ‘Fuck! I’m totally lost in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language’ face and began asking where I needed to go. I’ve learnt to trust my instincts, and the guy sent a shiver up my spine. I lied to him, naming a station along the same tram line. As I walked in the dark to the correct tram stop, I noticed him following behind at a distance. I’ve never felt the need to take active safety measures anywhere I’ve travelled before, but I found myself nipping into a loo to spread my money and cards between different pockets, and zipping my coat up over my handbag. Something just felt really wrong with the situation. When I came out the toilet the man was still there, asking me again and again the name and street of where I was staying, saying he could take me there. I managed to lose him, but saw him again when I went down to my platform. Fortunately I managed to lose him by waiting until he got on that tram, and then getting off again. I’m not a paranoid person, but my instincts really said that the guy was dangerous.
After a tram journey spent fretting and a nervy walk down a dingy, unlit street I arrived at my hostel, which was located in a dodgy area about thirty minutes from the centre of the city. I’d never been so certain that I was going to get mugged. The next day I decided to let bygones be bygones and planned to make the most of my time in the city. It was a capital city in Europe right? It was bound to have some redeeming features.
Well there was this.
And that was about it.
The city’s tourism industry seems to be built around a half-metre high statue of a young boy pissing into a fountain: the Manneken Pis. Hordes of tourists stopped outside the painfully underwhelming figure, jostling for the best shot of the irreverent face of the city. When I was there it was swaddled in some sort of bizarre sack onesie. Your guess is as good as mine. There’s even a shop next to it featuring a much larger replica clutching a waffle in one hand, penis in the other. Because sometimes you just need a golden shower with your waffle I guess. Apparently there’s a squatting female version called the Jeanneke Pis, but visiting the original didn’t leave me overly keen to check her out.
Less than an hour later and just four photographs later and I’d exhausted my already scant list of must-do’s in Brussels.
Unhelpfully, on Mondays most museums and visitor attractions such as galleries and museums are closed to the public. As chance would have it, I was in town on a Monday. A day spent out in the drizzly December weather seemed my only option. No wonder Belgians drink so much beer. A last ditch attempt to catch a bus to Leuven for a day trip failed when it became painfully clear that trains are essentially the only method of transport in Belgium.
So I did the only thing a girl with over eleven hours until their Eurostar train to London stranded in a cold, miserable and boring city in Belgium could do. I rang Eurostar and begged and pleaded with them to switch my non-refundable and strictly non-transferable ticket. Against all expectations, they kindly obliged. “A train is leaving in one hour and twenty-minutes, if you can get to the station in time, you can use your ticket on that service.” I didn’t need telling twice. Three hours later, I was back at St Pancras International. Thank you Eurostar, you absolute babes.