I’m so sorry to leave Luxembourg behind, I had a comfy bed in the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in (Luxembourg City Hostel in case you’re interested), but moving on is the whole point of these next three weeks until I arrive in the middle of a far flung part of the Orient and say to myself.. well what do I do now?
This morning I am off to Brussels, capital city of Belgium, and rather important in the whole European Union thing. I’m actually coming back to Brussels for a day before I leave Europe so I don’t have any heavy sight seeing plans today because, well.. Wales are playing Fiji and I’ve already scoped out a pub near my hostel where I can watch the match this afternoon. Priorities!
It’s now several hours later, and my goodness gracious me, Brussels is a secret gastronomique paradise! I swear I’m not trying to be poncy by using the French word, it was just when I typed in gastronomic with a C, it looked really surgical like I was banging on about intestinal disease, far from delicious.
I’ve visited so many different cities that are world renowned for their cuisine but I think Brussels wins the prize for the both the volume and variety of restaurants on offer in their city centre (although New York is elbowing Brussels in the ribs for variety). Bistros, pubs, cafes, brasseries, and fine dining establishments from every corner of the globe are lined up one after another, lighting up the, already very pretty, streets. Even the fast food joints smell good and look clean.
There are so many places to eat that you would expect some of them to be completely empty, but they all seem to be doing a comfortable trade, and with good reason. Al fresco dining is very popular – with lots of powerful overhead heaters in place – so as I was walking past I had plenty of opportunity to unnerve miscellaneous diners by drooling over their plates. Pasta swimming in aromatic sauces; joyfully colourful salads (how often does a salad instil joy? That’s right, never); shrimp so large they are less jumbo king size, more goliath ruler of the universe size; mouth watering steaks tender as an Elvis Presley love song; and one lobster so artfully arranged on the plate I had to go back and take a second look because it seemed to be sitting up singing opera to me from a cast iron hot-tub. (Truthfully, very glad I don’t like lobster because that one had personality, and there’s only so much guilt a body can take.)
Belgium is famous for its chocolate, its beer and its fries – French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and the Belgians do all sort of creative things with them – and rightly so. These things are marvellous! But you never hear about the rest of it – that is doing Belgium a mighty disservice. I managed to have a bit of a chat in Franglais about this with a lovely lady in a chocolatier (should it be chocolatierie? Is she the chocolatier? Oh whatever, there was chocolate.) who served me a chocolate butter truffle. I am enjoying employing my horrendous French very much –apparently I speak French with a German accent, unexpected since I have about 20 words of German under my belt – it’s been really fun, mostly because everywhere I’ve been the people have been so nice and indulgent with me. It must be either painful or hilarious for them. Let us hope it is the latter.
On a practical note, the streets of Brussels are a little more difficult to navigate than some other cities because it does not have the generic grid system, preferring the windy, twisty-turny, double back on itself, loop-de-loop, whoopsie dead-end method of town planning. This adds greatly to the charm of the city, and offers plenty of opportunity for discovering hidden gems, but take a map. Take a good map.
Also useful to note that street names can either be in French or in Dutch (Dutch apparently is the official language of Belgium but French is a more commonly used. I didn’t hear anybody speaking Flemish … not that I would have recognised that), but your map or guide book may only have them in one language. So for example Rue de Gretry might be the address you’ve gotten off the internet, but the street sign might read Gretrystraast. Ahhhh, different.
The buildings are, as I expect them to be in every European city now: gorgeous, ornate, lovely. But a special mention must be made for the Grande Place/ Gross Markt. Now I thought, I had found this square earlier in the day when I came out of the station, through a tunnel, down a street and suddenly the road diverged around a bustling piazza filled with tourists and buskers and old world charm. Very nice, but not standing out as particularly special.
Fast forward a few hours later, and I take a few quaint side streets and suddenly find myself in what looks like the courtyard of a palace, if the palace courtyard was the size of a football field. Ohhhhh, this is the Grande Place. It is magnificent. On all four side majestic buildings tower above you, dripping in gilt (could be real gold, it’s all quite high up and difficult to steal I imagine) and fairy tale architecture. Hundreds of tourists stand in the middle of it and stare upwards overwhelmed by the splendour. Last night they also stared at interesting group of people costumed in rags, masks, and lab coat style jackets, who were doing a lot of chanting and coordinated movement. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a political demonstration, a live art installation, or a university initiation rite. It did have a somewhat sinister cult feel to it…
What else? The subway’s nice and easy to use in Brussels, the Compte Flandre station has an interesting art piece consisting of life size models of men swooping suspended from the ceiling in swooping motions. It could have been celebrating aviation, or WWII parachute corps, or human kind’s ability to soar .. but to me it said jolly mass suicide; group of business men optimistically rushing forward like lemmings off the edge of a cliff.
And on that happy note, it’s time to head off to Amsterdam.
Ooh, Wales won by the way. It was not a comfortable victory, far too close for comfort, the Fijians were fast, strong and had hands like velcro… we won though.