Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Day (and a Night) in Bruxelles

Hope you all had a nice weekend. I know I did! After a somewhat accidental three-hour run/bike to Belgium and back with Todd on Saturday (he biked/navigated, I ran) and a lovely dinner of tapas and gelato afterward, on Sunday we took a train to Brussels for a day of sightseeing, culminating in a concert that night by a band Todd is a fan of and has turned me on to as well (more on them later. And on a side note: is Sunday a weird night for a concert, or is that just my inexperience with these types of things showing?)

The day began auspiciously when we (possibly illegally) managed to catch the high-speed, fancy Thallys train instead of the regular one at our change in Liege. The Thallys showed up at the same platform but 10 minutes earlier than our train and was going to Brussels also, so we figured we’d just take a chance and see if we could pay a supplement onboard. Lucky us, no one even checked our tickets, so we ended up at the Brussels-Midi station about half an hour earlier than expected. Upon leaving the station we found ourselves practically smack in the middle of a large street market selling all kinds of goods: clothes, shoes, appliances, you name it, as well as a few stalls selling food and produce.

Not a great pic, but you can get a sense of the crowds. Todd and I shared a warm Belgian waffle for breakfast, my first since arriving here. Waffle-sharing tip: though the middle is delicious, warm and fluffy, the part you want to hoard for yourself is the crispy-soft, caramelized edges.

After shoving our way through the browsers, we made our way to our hotel, located conveniently a few hundred meters from the concert venue and just steps from the Grand Place, where the gorgeous spire of the town hall towers over the city (and makes a convenient landmark for finding your way around, as it is visible from pretty much everywhere). Our hotel was called Hotel Mozart, located on a little medieval street packed with colorful ethnic restaurants catering to a mix of tourists and locals. Walking into the hotel was a bit of a shock, to say the least. An appropriate descriptor I think would be “ostentatious.”

 Almost every inch of wall space is covered in Arabic-style plaster carvings and patterns and tiles, painted in bright blues and reds and greens - like the Alhambra in Grenada, if you’ve ever seen it, only in color. The floors are carpeted in red, chandeliers dangle everywhere, and besides the Arabic decorations, the walls are populated by paintings that seem to have been picked to try and correspond with the hotel’s name, even though they have nothing to do with the wall decorations and clash completely. I don’t know who decorated the place, but I will never allow them near my home, ever. Also, our room had a tiny TV mounted on the wall, but when you laid on the bed to watch it, the little chandelier hanging from the ceiling blocked your view of it. That was ok, though, because we were eager to drop our stuff and explore the city.

The first order of the day was chocolate. This being Belgium, the old city, which is where we were staying and where the tourists all flock, is packed with chocolate shops. I bought a small bag of various truffles, chocolate-covered nuts and fruit, etc, which was gone by the end of the day. Very expensive and not exactly artisanal since it’s mass-produced, but still excellent in my opinion (not that I’m a chocolate connoisseur - I’ve just started to like dark chocolate in the past couple years and I am a die-hard Hershey’s fan - but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognized and appreciate the good European stuff).

After the required chocolate buying, we marched off to take a look around. We saw a gorgeous cathedral modeled after Notre Dame in Paris, where the Sunday mass was just wrapping up and we were treated to some ominous and beautiful organ music. Then we hiked across the city to the Gare du Nord train station on a quest for a three-cheese panini Todd has been obsessed with for a while now. The place is closed on Sundays, unfortunately, so we had to find lunch elsewhere. We went back toward the old city and, since we (read: me) were starving, we just picked the first place we happened upon, which was very tourist-friendly. This made me a bit worried we would pay an exorbitant price for sub-par food, and indeed Todd’s vegetarian spaghetti was lackluster, but my meal was excellent (and that’s what counts, right?). I had moules frites, a Belgian specialty – a big bowl of steamed mussels with a side of fries, very fresh and cooked very well, washed down with Belgian beer.

An aside: Todd and I agreed it was refreshing to be in a place where the principal language you here on the street is French. Belgium, as you may know, is divided between Flemish-speaking Flanders (almost identical to Dutch) in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, but Brussels is the capital and so all signs are written in both languages. We heard a lot of French around us though, and let me tell you French is ten times more attractive to listen to than Dutch. Dutch is actually quite close in some ways to English, in pronunciation and even grammar, but French is definitely prettier. So in the feud between Flanders and Wallonia (the two sides apparently can't stand each other), Todd and I know where we stand. Sorry, Flanders.

After a brief nap at the hotel, we set off again since the concert wasn’t til 8 and we had several hours to kill. We wandered through a large park, where the first buds and leaves of spring were starting to appear. The park was designed very much in the French style, all manicured lawns and sandy paths, with trees strategically planted to provide just the right amount of shade in summer. Along the paths the trees and been manicured and manipulated in such a way that their branches grew together in a kind of netted pattern. I'm not describing it very well and forgot to ask Todd to take a picture, so sorry if it's hard to visualize. The trees looked kind of alien and strange with the branches bare, though I’m sure it’s very pretty when the leaves are out, creating a wall of green along the avenues. I’m personally partial to the more “wild” style of park maintenance, like New York’s Central Park, which is my favorite in the world, but this was lovely all the same. We cut through the park and made our way to the European Quarter, where the EU Parliament buildings are, with another waffle stop on the way, this time from a cart that both made waffles and sold ice cream, and had Smurfs painted on the side:

The Belgians and Dutch are both fans of the Smurfs: the gelato place near our apartment in Maastricht has a flavor that is blue and white swirled and decorated with candy Smurfs. I can only hope that isn’t what it is flavored with.

The part of Brussels where we found the Smurf truck and where the EU is located is a more sleek, modern section of the city, which some people might find unattractive. Quite a few people I’ve talked to about Brussels have called it ugly and industrial, but the parts Todd and I saw weren’t industrial at all, just newer, like an American city, and we agreed it was still quite beautiful, just in a different way. It was also much less crowded in this part of the city as it was a weekend and the tourists don’t tend to flock there as much, so we chose to sit down for a coffee (me) and Fanta (Todd) there rather than closer to the hotel.

Finally, we ended our day with the performance by Bell & Sebastien, an indie pop band from Glasgow (though they had several guest performers from all over the UK playing with them that night), in a venue right near the hotel. The place was packed, and I normally don’t enjoy situations with a lot of people drinking and loud music combined, but this was a lot of fun: it was very low-key because of the indie status of the band, the music was loud but easy to listen to and different in a nice way, and the band members interacted well with the audience, at one point calling several people up on stage to dance with them. They also made use of some unusual instruments – violins, flutes, tambourines, a harmonica – which I am a big fan of in pop and rock music. And since it was just minutes from our hotel we had time to grab some falafel from a little Middle Eastern takeaway place while the opening acts were going and slipped in just after Bell & Sebastien started, so were only standing there for about an hour and a half rather than two or three hours.

The one downside to the day was that we figured out why our hotel was such a good deal. The building is quite old and labyrinthine, with creaky, winding corridors and staircases. The sounds of people tramping up and down the halls late into the night (probably trying to find their rooms; it took us a while when we first got there) carried easily, all the garish carpeting and decorations doing nothing to muffle them. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. But breakfast the next morning was generous (croissant, multi-grain baguette, cheese, jam, butter, coffee/tea and juice all included) and we got a pretty leisurely start off and still made it home by noon (I love train travel in Europe!). All in all, a good time was had, and I’m looking forward to the next trip. Maybe I’ll try not to eat all my chocolate at once next time so I have some to take home and share. Probably not though.

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