Being on the road again after our short visit back to Franca’s home has been fantastic, and whilst last week we had some fun with our vegan travel challenge in Italy and then Brussels, it’s only since this past Monday where our vegan diet experience has really got going.
Waking Monday morning we made the most of our breakfast buffet at the hotel we were staying at to fill up on fruit, salad, cereal, and a huge cup of coffee; whilst also doing the smart budget travel tactic of preparing a sandwich or two for our lunch later in the day. We’d be taking the midday train to Ghent so without wanting to arrive and then hunt around for something to eat with our backpacks on, it just made sense to grab something for later to go with the few snacks we’d already picked up over the proceeding few days.
Snacking away on the train, we began to really realise just how far a little food preparation will get us whilst continuing to travel on a vegan diet. Nothing too complicated, but just a few snacks can really have big benefits by keeping us full of energy whilst we’re commuting or on the hunt for somewhere that sells something fit for a vegan to have for lunch. Thankfully, the next location we were staying at would be a stand alone apartment with its own kitchen that we could use and – more than happily – abuse.
Back In Time
We’d be spending just the one night at Sleepstreet in Ghent, but though it was to be a short stay we were so glad to have had the chance to stay at this vintage-style apartment where we could rustle up something hot and fresh for the first time since the previous week.
For lunch we tucked into our packed sandwiches so that we could make the most of the day and see what we could of the city, but in the evening we had more time to make a simple stir fry rice dish that ticked all of the right buttons. It made for a nice break from the bowls of cereal, sandwiches, snacks and falafel we’d had over the weekend, and it really enforced for us how much we value having a kitchen to cater for our vegan diet; not that we don’t like to eat out, but more that it gives us more options that we really appreciate given our budget.
What Does That Mean For Travellers?
One thought we’ve had between us and half expect other potential travellers to have is,”well, if you need to cook for yourself, are you really experiencing local cuisine?” and the vague answer we’ve come to is that it really depends on so many aspects and contributing factors.
For instance, being closer to the sea there is of course plenty of focus on fish in the diet in Ghent, so when you look at the traditional meals they almost always contain fish or some other meat leaving not many classic dishes for vegans to try. Sure, you can have veganized variations of the classics (as we’d have the good fortune to try later in the week), but are you really experiencing true local life? We’re still very much undecided as travel isn’t just about the food you eat, but the things you do and see, but considering how much we’ve learnt about many cultures due to either the amount of times they eat in a day which governs the hours they work – like our experiences with food in Madrid – to the street food culture of Asia where food is often highly community based, or perhaps like the south of Italy where still entire families will meet together for the couple of hours lunch break to eat; it does make us question if perhaps we’re cutting ourselves out of the particular path to integrating with local life.
As we’re still learning there may of course be a pathway to still interacting on the food sharing level that we’ve yet to consider or be recommended to try, but our first chance at tackling the situation and finding a remedy is to again use Couchsurfing for the great community of locals it is.
Couchsurfing In Ghent
We’d contacted, requested and were fortunate enough to have been accepted to stay with two Couchsurfing hosts in Ghent so we’d have the chance to not only stay and meet a local, but also tap into their local knowledge about the things we are into, and also about the local food we’d love to know more about – especially from our second host who we knew to be vegan.
Our first host was a lovely guy called Henri whose profile we loved from the start. He’s a traveller at heart and has done some incredible journeys in his few years as an adult. Unfortunately we’d only be spending the one night with him, but later that night we’d get at least a short amount of time in which to question him. During the day however, we made the last minute decision to visit Bruges for the day and set off on the train, but not before making a delicious banana, kiwi and peanut butter smoothie for breakfast.
A Day In Bruges
Bruges is like walking through a perfect postcard picture. It almost feels like you’re walking through the set of a film where things almost feel too perfect so it’s certainly not the kind of local living town in which we love to spend our time, add on to that the utterly insane amount of tourists and you’ve a recipe for the exact opposite kind of place we like to travel to; but you can’t not go, right? It’s so close, so we can stomach it for a few hours at the least.
In terms of filling our stomach, we hadn’t the time to check handy vegetarian and vegan resources such as HappyCow so we just wandered around and hoped for the best, at one point thinking we’d hit the jackpot only to realise that it, and many other places were closed as so many locals take the summer to escape anywhere else, just to escape the crowd.
In the end we settle for a quick bench picnic in the central square with the town hall as our view and having picked up some delicious rye bread, a tub of hummus and a juicy red pepper from the supermarket; we snacked away quite happily and remembered in the back of our minds that when we returned to Ghent we’d have much more choice.
Unknowingly to us, we’d arrived in Ghent during the annual ten day festival called Gentse Feesten which has been running for over 150 years and is comprised of nothing but free entrance music events that occupy every bar and every public space imaginable.
It’s an incredibly unique experience just wandering around a city just as we would at a field festival such as Glastonbury in the UK. It’s full of smiling people, open air bars and tonnes of food options, not forgetting the cafe street culture that is very popular in this part of Europe.
Returning to the city after our day trip to Bruges, we had some time to kill before meeting our host to watch some music later in the day and decided to make the most of the veggie options and stopped at one veggie food stand where all of the food on offer was vegan.
From Just Like Your Mom we chose a chili burger and hazelnut burger to split and share. Of the two the hazelnut burger was best due to how different the flavour was compared to so many vegetarian burgers we’ve tried over the past year, but the chili burger certainly was nice too. Packed in a large bread roll and with a little salad, at €6 each they weren’t exactly expensive, but certainly more than we’ve paid for vegan burgers in the past. Being at a festival, however, we completely understand that you’re always going to be paying more than you would normally so tucked in and finished it all more than happily.
Eventually reuniting with our host we watched two bands completely for free in one of the larger former market squares before making our way back to his incredible place so that we all could catch some much needed sleep. In the morning we all gathered in the kitchen to share a breakfast of coffee, several slices of bread with Lotus biscuit spread (which is ‘accidentally’ vegan!), some fresh tomato from the garden, and a glass of almond milk to drink.
Unfortunately thorough our discussion over breakfast with Henri and his brother we came to the conclusion that our hunt for ‘accidentally‘ vegan traditional meals was going to be troublesome as neither of them could think of any that we should keep an eye out for, but as we that morning would be meeting with our next host who happened to be vegan, we waited to see if there was maybe something we could try.
Vegetarians Of Ghent
Our next host Andi has been vegan for two years and spent a lot of time living in Ghent so our opportunity to learn about vegan food in Belgium was about to appear. He had some really great knowledge about the vegan lifestyle and the success for vegans in the country, that Ghent is really a special place and almost an anomaly in Belgium due to a local community project that appealed to the local government to turn each Thursday into a veggie day, where all schools and institutions serve only vegetarian food, and all restaurants adapt their menu for the day to offer something that a vegan might be able to have, but at the very least a vegetarian.
With him we also learned some interesting facts about fruit and how they’re treated with a chemical produced with some part of a particular Indian insect that returns the shine to fruits – such as oranges, lemons and apples – after they’ve been cleaned of all the pesticides by chemical washing which takes that tasty-looking shine away.
It raised for us some thoughts and discussions we’d yet to have, of just how much did we know about the food and products around us and what they’ve been treated with, and how much of those products were entering our system without our knowledge. By far the biggest discussion was how deep into cutting out these things in our lives can we go? How much can we really trust everything around us to be free of animal substances, but also; how can we be sure that what we’re buying is ethically produced?
Midway through our second week of vegan travel and we’re beginning to hit that stage of realisation that with a vegan lifestyle comes many restrictions. Maybe restrictions isn’t quite the right word, perhaps challenges works best as each thing you do and item you want to buy brings with it many questions about where it came from and what happened to it along the way; but is that how we want to carry on with our life? Do we want to be thinking about it with every meal, every purchase? Do we want it to then govern everything we do? It’s an interesting dilemma and train of thought that we’re still thinking about and trying to come to a decision on and will most likely continue to think about for the remaining two weeks of our vegan travel challenge; how perfect a vegan couple can we be?
Eating In Ghent
With Andi we offered to make use of his kitchen and to cook up some lunch, which he was happy to agree with. Returning from a local Indian grocery store with the ingredients we needed and some delicious vegetable samosas – that lasted only a few seconds before we devoured them – we made one of our favourite pasta dishes which we like to call courgette ‘pesto‘ pasta, though it’s resemblance to actually pesto isn’t so strong, it’s essentially a pasta sauce dish that I absolutely love and insist on making at every opportunity.
Unfortunately for us though, whilst eating our freshly made lunch we discussed just what parts of the typical Belgian menu we were safe to eat, but the answer wasn’t the one we’d have hoped for. As expected, most dishes come with fish or some meat so our best bet was to check in with the local vegetarian community to grab one of their specialised maps that only show the vegetarian-ready restaurants.
Pairing those up with the better reviews on HappyCow we picked out a couple of places and made our way into town where we spent our time exploring what we could of the city and the music, whilst keeping one eye out to scan the restaurant menus around and, as it got later in the day, we chose to take to our combined list and map to pick out one location that we knew we’d finally get a chance to try something local, and completely Belgian.
At de Frietketel we found a large menu of both omnivore and vegan food to choose from, with frites obviously making up a considerable percentage of the menu, there were other specialities such as burgers to choose from also, each marked with a sticker to indicate whether it was vegan, homemade, or both!.
Having only a few hours before stuffed ourselves with pasta we figured that it was best to just share a small frites (twice fried fries) as there was little room for anything else, plus we’d also have the following day in which to come back and try something else.
The small was enormous.
Good job that we didn’t order one each as there would have been no chance that we’d have finished them, and though we had a pot of vegenaise to try for the very first time, we simply wouldn’t have been able to force it all down.
The frites were interesting to try and fried in vegetable oil don’t perhaps have the same crunchiness that the more typical beef fat-fried variation does, but they were enjoyable and gone before too long had passed.
Five Years of Veggieday
That night we met with Andi, saw some music and made our way back to his place to get some much needed rest as on the next day we’d high hopes to see what Ghent had in stall for the five year anniversary of their weekly vegetarian day held every Thursday. There were to be extra stands out for that day and to see out the weekend, but most interesting to us was the chance to pop by one of the larger tents in a park near the river where the vegetarian society EVA would be handing out 200 free bowls of vegan soup for vegetarians, vegans and meat eaters to try.
Eating fruit for breakfast, we set off early enough to stroll into town to see everything still setting up at the tent so, rather than just sitting around watching them work, I helped out a little to set up the seating outside and talk a little with some of the volunteers.
Through discussion we learned that the soup was vegan and was actually a vegan variation on a local classic called Gentse Veggiezooi, full of root vegetables and faux chicken meat sourced from a popular vegetarian/vegan eatery called Greenway.
After an introduction over the PA system by one of the members of EVA welcoming everyone to the special occasion, a rush of people leapt from their chairs and organised into a queue to collect their free bowl of soup, and neither of us were far behind.
It was absolutely delicious and we were both itching to return for another plate, but thinking that we’d rather not take the food out of someone else’s mouth we finished ours and just sat watching everyone as they either devoured their bowls, or poked around it with their spoons deciding whether or not they too could drop meat from their own diet. Eventually though the queue of people began to disappear and with plenty of soup left over people were invited to help to finish it all off which we happily did.
Vegan Choices In Ghent
Leaving the tent and the park as they prepared for the rest of the days’ festivities, we made our way towards a few other parts of the city that our Couchsurfing host had marked down as nice spots for graffiti fans to check out, but with that once walked to, viewed and photographed we still had a few hours left to kill so dropped by at Greenway Foods to sample one of their vegan brownies that we once read about on the once full-time vegan traveller of Vegan Backpacker.
Using some of the money that my grandparents had given via our Buy Us Lunch donation page, we bought one of the vegan brownies and a small pot of vegan ice cream that we were so happy to see as it’d been on our minds for a few days past that it was something we were really keen to find. The ice cream was called ‘Indian Winter‘ and had coconut, cloves and ginger amongst its few ingredients and it was delicious. Soft, sweet, but with a tangy taste; we’d recommend everyone to try it whether you’re vegan or not. As for the brownie; it was possibly one of the best brownies I’ve ever tasted, if not the best. You could honestly barely tell it wasn’t a regular brownie such was the sweet and stickiness that it had.
Being a little mindful of the pennies we didn’t go too crazy for dinner but instead had the great pleasure of sitting in the park eating a lentil soup that Andi had made a day previously whilst Andi and his vegan friends tucked into some food from a travelling Loving Hut van that not only had great vegan food, but finally our first encounter with a vegan Belgian waffle!
Since we first arrived in Belgium we’d been asking for vegan traditional meals, so to find something so highly recognised as classically Belgian made us both so happy as up until that point we’d not been able to find a vegan one to enjoy, no matter how much we searched. We’d even spoken to someone at EVA to ask if they’d any idea where we could find one and they had no idea either, in fact, they were really surprised that they hadn’t even thought of it before.
We’ve no idea what was in our waffle, but it had a nice simple taste and a delicate crunch that we really enjoyed. Was it as good as the classic waffle? Well that’s up for debate still, but Franca was more than happy with the flavour it had.
The Hunt For Vegan Shoes
With our being on a vegan travel challenge we’ve been applying it not just to food but also to everything else we’ve considered buying, and this past week it’s been a hunt for vegan shoes that has been our main focus.
As we mentioned in last weeks first update, so many shoes that we love use animal glue to seal them together, so even when you find a pair free of animal materials such as leather and suede, you can still not be sure that some parts of your shoes aren’t being held together with glue made from horses, so trying to find a shop that sells vegetarian or vegan shoes has been difficult.
There are some companies such as Asics that have some ‘accidentally‘ vegan shoes, and a few that have a specific vegan range like my personal favourite Macbeth, but they’ve proved hard to find in Belgium; so when Andi showed us his pair of vegetarian shoes that he picked up in town we were both over the moon.
We dropped by at Vedge, a unique online estore for vegans and vegetarians of Ghent where people can buy either a pair of shoes or a synthentic leather accessory before coming to its ‘bike through‘ experience of stopping by its former-house front room window and grabbing their delivery. Not content with an already fantastic and unique experience, Vedge have just this week moved into the vegan food products line and were (just as we were leaving) about to release a brand new line of exclusive vegan cheeses.
Unfortunately for me and my exposed toes they had just the right kind of shoes I was look for, just not my enormous clown size so if I wanted a pair, I’d have to put in an order, something a travelling couple like us just can’t do right now which begs the question; why aren’t there more vegan shoe shops in the world? So, with no shoes forthcoming and the holes increasing in size by the day, we’re going to have to see if our upcoming travel through Holland or Germany are going to provide a better selection.
Heading To Antwerp
After forgetting to grab something for breakfast, the following morning and our travel to our next location and future Couchsurfing hosts in Antwerp started off by snacking from the last of our Taralli that we’d brought with us from Italy. Not the best of breakfasts, but enough to get us going.
We decided that seeing as Antwerp isn’t much more than a thirty minute drive from Ghent that giving hitchhiking a try wasn’t the worst option available, plus, we were no more than a twenty minute walk away from the train station anyway so we could always give that a go if the worst came to worst which, in the end, never happened as after twenty minutes of standing with our sign we got picked up by a lovely guy who was commuting to Antwerp for work.
Arriving in Antwerp before midday we made our way to meet with one half of our Couchsurfing hosts who were great enough to host us for a few days. We were so lucky for there having chosen to accept us as they were in our really short list of hopefuls that we’d really like to meet with due to their experience on a vegetarian and vegan diet, plus over twenty years spent as expats in the city.
Meeting Eileen was an absolute dream. She’s a fantastic woman that we wish we had the chance to meet with sooner, the type of lady that you’d love to have in your life as she’s full of smiles and incredible stories of a life lived in so many fantastic countries; and to top it all off, when we arrived she sat us down for oatcakes and hummus – our favourite!
Giving us a short walk around town we learned a little about her life and got to know a little about the city in which we’d be spending the weekend. She pointed out where the market would be, the nicer museums to go to if we had the time, and which walks were worth taking; and when the day came to an end we sat with her for a delicious vegan dish of rice and vegetables paired with a aubergine dish that makes my mouth water even now, which both of us wish we knew how to make.
Feeling a little travel exhausted after a few days of irregular sleep patterns and nights spent sleeping on sofas, sofabeds and the floor, we made off to sleep but not before meeting with Colin, Eileen’s fantastic Scottish partner who is great fun to talk and discuss so many parts of life with.
In the morning we woke to a delicious breakfast of coffee, cereal with almond milk, fresh juice, hummus, oatcakes and almonds. Light and utterly delicious, we almost forgot completely to have lunch later that day as we had plenty of energy to walk and talk around some of Antwerps nicer architectural-rich residential areas. All we really had to eat during the middle of the day was our dry noodle snack that we’d picked up the week before, and some dark chocolate soya puddings that we’d found from a small selection at a local supermarket.
For dinner we had the fantastic chance to use and abuse our access to the kitchen, and having walked around the Saturday food market with Eileen earlier in the day feasting on all of the samples of fresh mushrooms, mango, olives and beautifully rich sundried tomatoes, we made a pasta dish with butternut squash that, again, I really love. Typically it comes with a smoked ham that you add to the dish just before it’s finished cooking to give it a slightly smoky taste, but we have been skipping this part for the past year ever since we turned vegetarian. Talking this over with Eileen and Colin we figured out between the four of us that a small pinch of smoked paprika could be just the ingredient that were missing, and having given it a try I just wish we had tried it earlier. It added that little missing kick that – whilst it was delicious without it – adds something special to this dish. Now we just need to decide if we want to start turning our backpacks into mobile spice racks.
How Are We Doing?
This morning we’re heading to Rotterdam where we’ve already arranged to meet and stay with another pair of Couchsurfing hosts for a few days. We’re not entirely sure how we’ll be getting there as Blablacar only had one lift option which had the wrong information so the driver wouldn’t take us, and the train is €29.20 per person for the one hour train journey so right this second as you read this we’re probably standing at the edge of the motorway on the outskirts of Antwerp looking for our second successful hitchhiking trip of the week.
Tip – If you’re looking for the best places to stand and catch a lift whilst hitchhiking, then don’t look any further than the personal recommendations of HitchWiki.
In terms of fun had, we’re still really loving the adventure and different experience to our travel that this vegan challenge with Veganuary has presented us and we’re still really proud to have been a part of it so far. In terms of finding vegetarian shoes, well, I get the feeling I’ll be walking on the floor before I find a suitable pair so things could still be going better on that front.As for our health, we must admit that the past week has found us slightly more tired than usual, but given the amount of moving around we’ve done with a maximum of three nights in one location, it’s not surprising; but our health certainly isn’t in question. We’re eating all the time and have been eating pretty well, especially when we get the chance to cook.
We’re still excited to see how the last two weeks are going to go and now as we enter Holland we’re keen to see if we can keep it up, and just what kind of new thoughts and facts we’re going to learn about what we can and can’t eat or buy along the way as everyone we learn adds onto the question which looms over us – could we travel vegan after the challenge ends?
Do you have any vegan tips for Holland?