A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry called Egypt, I Love You, which chronicled a 17 day tour I took of the incredible Middle Eastern country in 2009. Earlier today, my friend Nils, who lives in Belgium, tweeted the following:
Funny, when @danschaumann wrote “Egypt, I love you” a revolution broke loose. Think you can write “Belgium, I love you” anytime soon, Dan?
Absolutely!! As it happens, I do love Belgium! This won’t be quite as detailed, as it’s been over two years now since I was there, and I didn’t keep a travel journal like I did in Egypt, but I’ll try my best to remember as much as I can.
I travelled to Brussels, the Belgian capital, on the first weekend of January in 2009. I was living in London at the time and was fairly down in the dumps and heartbroken after a bad end to 2008, so I thought that a trip on the Eurostar across to the continent would be a great way to bring in the new year with a fresh start. I sure wasn’t left disappointed 🙂
My first impression of Brussels, after checking into my hotel, was one of grandeur and majesty. After a short stroll through some inner-city residential rue’s (excuse my terrible French), my first destination was the very impressive Grand Place in the centre of town. The architecture was second-to-none, and I was especially blown away by the nearly 100 metre tall spire of the nearly 600 year old Town Hall on the south-western end of the square.
I walked through and around the Grand Place for about an hour. It was the middle of winter and the district still had a real European Christmassy charm to it, which is not something I was used to, after having spent my last 24 Christmasses in the hot summer of Australia. Eventually I moved onto the markets and streets to the north-east of the square, and came across the beautiful Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert – one of the oldest and most magnificent shopping arcades in all of Europe.
It was about time for lunch by now, and I discovered that there was a main strip through the centre of town where all the tourist restaurants were located. I was skeptical of such tourist restaurants, as all my guidebooks in the past had warned me that most European restaurants with an English menu at the entrance will not be famous for its authenticity. But due to my budget constraints and my complete lack of knowledge in German, French or Dutch, I opted for said tourist restaurant, and unsurprisingly, wasn’t very impressed with the food. However – what they lacked in food, they made up for with fire!
A leisurely post-lunch promenade through the city streets saw me head towards the inner south-eastern district, through the Albertina Square Gardens:
I ended up at the Musical Instrument Museum, which I managed to get into without paying. I’m pretty sure there was an entrance fee, but there was a lack of English translation in the foyer area, so I smiled politely at the staff and they let me through the gate. The Musical Instrument Museum houses thousands of instruments ranging from glass harmonicas to hajhoujes to modekus (don’t ask me what they are), but I was particularly taken by this piano kinda thing:
After my very thorough education in all things musical, I took to the streets again for an afternoon walk, where I discovered some of the more humorous aspects of Belgian life:
I discovered the local winter wonderland was still in operation, which had such a lovely atmosphere. I adored watching the families on the ice skating rink, and I regret not giving it a go myself, although it had been about 15 years since I last went ice skating so I wasn’t keen on embarrassing myself. Beyond the ice skating rink, the paths were lines with dozens of little food stalls, bars and fashion shops. I drank mulled wine, ate Belgian chocolate, and from the top of the Brussels wheel, marvelled at the skyline of this gorgeous city, wishing that I had brought somebody with me to share these precious few moments with.
On the way back to my hotel, I happened to pass a protest taking place on the steps of an inner-city building. It may well have been a governmental establishment, I’m not entirely sure, but the people were loud, angry and demanding action of some kind. I stood and watched the protest for a few minutes without understanding what was occurring, and thought it best to vacate the premises sooner rather than later in case things took a turn for the worse. As I was leaving the area, the group of enraged citizens suddenly disbanded and took to the streets in all directions, stopping traffic on the nearby road and continuing their protest, chanting at the tops of their voices. Luckily there was no violence, just anger in the form of words. I’d never seen anything like it before.
The following day I got up early and braved the 1°C chill as I ventured toward this piece of architecture I’d heard so much about, called the Atomium. The city map I had in my guidebook didn’t stretch far enough to the area where the Atomium was located, so I had to guess which Metro stop to disembark at. I knew it was towards the end of the line, but unfortunately I’d managed to get on the wrong line, and unbeknownst to me, I was heading in the complete opposite direction. I cottoned onto this as the scenery outside the window grew more suburban and I noticed the distinct lack of tourists on my carriage. After finally deciphering the Metro map, I got off at a random station in one of the outer suburbs and thought I’d have a quick look around before heading back towards my desired destination.
I didn’t see anything too interesting here, except for Santa Claus hanging onto a window for dear life:
Finally I made it to the Atomium! I went inside and took the escalators right to the top. It was indeed an incredible piece of architecture.
I will borrow a few paragraphs from a past blog entry of mine, Why I Love The Winter, to describe the epiphany I had in this district of Brussels.
I had just finished wandering through the Atomium, a popular tourist attraction built in 1958 that resembles the cell of an iron crystal (albeit 165 billion times bigger than the real thing). I’d walked past a chemist earlier in the day whose digital thermometer told me it was 1.5 degrees, so I’d made sure I was well-layered, with two t-shirts, a jacket, and gloves. The sky was overcast as well, so I had an umbrella handy in case it decided to rain.
Departing the warm comfort of the Atomium’s enclosures, I made my way to Mini Europe, another nearby attraction, featuring downsized scale models of famous landmarks from all around Europe. Within 5 minutes of me entering the premises it started to drizzle, so I took my umbrella out of my bag, ready in case I was to be attacked by a downpour. Strangely, however, I quickly noticed that the falling droplets were not like normal raindrops at all. Instead of being sponged up by the surface of my jacket upon landing, the droplets stayed as they were, gradually melting their way into absorption. This was not rain at all, I realised – this was snow, falling from the sky!
Oh, what a joyous occasion it was. To the average Belgian citizen, the flakes were so few and far between that they would have been fobbed off as a feeble and unnoteworthy. But to me, it was magic. Here I was, with a scale model of the Eiffel Tower in front of me and an enormous monument dedicated to the iron crystal behind it, and I was witnessing my first ever snowfall. I will never forget the day.
My next Brussels adventure took me to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. Now, I normally cannot stand comic books, but the one exception I have to this rule is that of Hergé’s famous comic book character Tintin, and his trusty sidekicks Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson, and other such friends. Many hours of my youth were spent reading Tintin books borrowed from the school library and watching the cartoon on TV, so I simply had to relive my childhood fantasies and visit the many Tintin-related exhibits housed within the walls of this museum.
Aside from my mediocre experience at the tourist restaurant on day 1, one of the things I could not get over in Brussels was the delicious food and drink, the likes & vaiety of which I hadn’t seen available in other European cities. There were chocolatiers galore lining the streets, Belgian Beer cafes, more chocolate, waffle shops, chocolate again, frites for sale at street markets, and for a change, some more chocolate. One of my favourite stalls I’ve ever been to was a take-away hot chocolate cafe just off to the side of the Grand Place. For four Euros, you could purchase a decent-sized block of chocolate stuck onto the bottom of a paddle-pop stick, with a small plastic tube protruding from the chocolate, the reservoir of which was filled with whatever type of alcohol you desired, from rum to whiskey to Cointreau. As you stirred your stick through the provided cup of hot milk, the chocolate melted away causing the alcohol to drip through the plastic tube, and before too long you were left with the perfect cup of hot liqueur chocolate. I wish they would open a stall like this in Australia.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it, but I did get a few other food & drink-related snaps:
I scoffed down my waffle and frites, and explored some more inner-city streets and shops. I found myself at the same location I was in the night before, with exactly the same event taking place:
My final destination before the Eurostar back to London was the very popular yet completely bizarre tourist icon, Manneken Pis (translate: Little Boy Pee). He’s stood here for nearly 400 years, pissing into the basin of the fountain. Every couple of days a member of City staff changes his costume, and I happened to catch him on the day that he took his dog out for a walk:
Despite the very short time I spent here I can honestly say that Belgium is one of my favourite countries, and that of all the European cities I visited, Brussels was the most authentic. You go to Paris, and as incredible as it is there, you can see they’re trying to prove themselves to be the romantic capital of the world. Rome is the pizza capital, Vienna is the classical music capital, Munich is the beer capital, Zurich is the capital of clean waterways and offshore bank accounts. But Brussels? Brussels is just Brussels. From a tourist’s perspective, I didn’t feel that the people of the city were trying to prove or be anything in particular – they were just being themselves. That, as well as the great attractions, sights, humour and food, is what I love about a city.
And that’s not to mention that since my brief visit to Belgium, I have made some awesome Belgian friends through the internet, namely Nils who inspired this blog post, Vincent and Frauke. You guys rock! (those links are to their blog sites, and if you’ve read this far, please do yourself a favour and check them out)
I can’t wait to return one day to these fine Flemish shores and explore more of this country outside its capital.
Belgium, I love you!
Now that I’ve said it, can you please form a government? 😉