The plan of “one different city per weekend” is working out so far, and only so because Brussels is such a convenient hub of transportation with easy access to many cities. To get to Brussels from Louvain-la-Neuve only takes about 45 minutes by train, and once you get there, the entire Europe is yours to discover.
Before going any further, I decided I should explore Brussels itself, the capital city of the country I currently reside in, and the capital of the European Union, by default. It was rather long overdue. Brussels has been calling for me ever since I stepped into Belgium, as if saying, “Hey, I’m right here.” So on Saturday, I set out for a first day trip in Brussels. It’s a big city, alright, but I figured I can always make short trips back if I feel like getting to know the place better.
Moreover, the weather this weekend couldn’t be any more perfect. It was raining on Friday and it was predicted to rain again on Sunday (and it did), but on Saturday, it was a glorious 21 degrees Celsius, with a gentle breeze that hinted the presence of spring. There was almost no reason NOT to go somewhere.
A weekend return ticket bought on the internet costs 5.60 Euros. With the Louvain-la-Neuve train station situated 7 minutes from my house by walking, I set out at 9:45 in the morning for the 10 o’clock train, arriving at Bruxelles-Midi station at around 11:50. I would start my itinerary there, after picking up my Eurostar tickets for London in May.
The first point of interest is, of course, the number one destination in Brussels, the Grand Place. I promptly purchased a metro day pass for 4.50 Euros and found my way to Central Station, where the Grand Place is located, and my search began.
This is the first thing I saw when I exited Central Station, a gigantic purple bunny. I doubt this has anything explicitly to do with Brussels, but at least it reminds us, Easter is coming in three weeks!
Here we have the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a long corridor with stores on both sides for the shopping addict. I was looking for the Grand Place as I unintentionally made a right turn somewhere along the way and stepped into this arcade, and instantly I felt like I had entered some sort of high-class, royal dwelling. It certainly did not seem like a shopping district at first, but there was indeed a variety of stores, especially those selling chocolate. Mmm chocolate. I was tempted to get some authentic Belgian chocolate but on second thought, that would require me declaring bankruptcy for the day, so I held back the urge.
Apparently lace is one of the things that Belgium is famous for, and here is a shop in St. Hubert that specializes in lace. I would only be window shopping though…
I passed by this area on my way to the Grand Place (or so I thought, because I got lost time and time again). It was crowded and filled with tourists, so I had to be extra careful about my backpack and my pockets, though for some reason in Brussels, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I was in Paris with regards to pickpockets and crime…
After about 15 minutes of wandering through alleys and taking random turns here and there, I arrive at the famous Grote Markt, or the Grand Place of Brussels, where we find the town hall and some museums and historical buildings. No tour guide this time around, so I won’t embarrass myself by trying to act like a history teacher, although if you’re interested, Wikipedia is always here for you.
I had high expectations for the Grand Place, and fortunately, I was not disappointed. Named “the most beautiful public square in Europe”, the Grand Place indeed lives up to its title (although I certainly haven’t been to every single public square in Europe). If I only have one word to describe the Grand Place, it would be “grandiose”. The actual area of the square itself was smaller than I had expected, but that doesn’t change the grandeur you feel as you walk through the square. If you look at the individual buildings, they may all look the same and have similar styles, but when you stand in the middle of the square, you are surrounded on all four sides by these magnificent structures, and a completely different feeling devours you than if you only look at pictures of the place.
This is the Brussels Town Hall, and only the top half of it. The building was so tall that I had to tilt my neck a significant amount to see the entire thing, and the tower became a guide for me when I was lost, as its height enabled it to be seen from the surrounding areas. Follow the white tower, and you’d end up back at the Grand Place, guaranteed.
The French part says, “Le temps pass, pas le SIDA. Je m’informe, je me protège, je suis solidaire.” That translates roughly to, “Time goes by, not AIDS. I keep myself informed, I protect myself, and I am supportive.” Not sure about the “solidaire” part meaning “supportive”, but it sorta makes sense…?
Grimbergen beer, 33cl.
Moules à l’escargot and some good ol’ French (Belgian?) fries.
And you just can’t leave without having a waffle.
ATTENTION LS-san!! Yep, it’s that part of the entry again, FOOD!
Say Belgium, and five things automatically pop up into my mind: beer, chocolate, waffles, mussels, and fries. Well, out of the five, I had four during this mini-trip to Brussels. For lunch, I found a little place with outdoor seating and took advantage of the gorgeous sunshine – it would be a waste of the blessing of weather to sit inside for the meal. The order: moules à l’escargot avec les frites, et une bière Grimbergen – that would be mussels with snail (literal translation, not what it sounds like) with fries, and a Grimbergen beer.
Let’s start with the main course, the mussels and fries. Now, I failed to research beforehand and understand that moules à l’escargot does NOT mean that you get snails with the mussels, which was what I had assumed. It in fact means mussels with butter, garlic, and herbs, which are what you usually get with snails. Boo, I was anticipating the snails so much =( No wonder it was on the cheaper mussels menu. Anyhow, mussels are mussels, and even without snails, any seafood is pleasing to my taste. Yum yum, especially with the side of fries, which supposedly was invented by a Belgian, so it couldn’t get more authentic than this!
Now, the beer. I have never, and I mean, never ordered beer before, so I literally had no idea what I was doing, but something deep inside told me that I HAD to try Belgian beer with this meal. I mean, you got your mussels and fries, it only makes sense to add beer to the whole package. I asked the waiter for a recommendation and ended up taking the “Grimbergen Blonde”. I am not going to judge the beer, because I can’t tell a good beer from a bad one, but at least it didn’t taste…bitter? The task of beer-assessment will have to be left up to my more alcohol-inclined friends 😛
For dessert…well, I didn’t intend to get dessert, since lunch filled me up quite a bit, but I just couldn’t say no to getting a waffle in one of the shops down the street. They looked so delicious, so irresistible. So there we go, waffle with strawberries and Nutella. I’m going to skip the Nutella next time – too sweet for my taste!
Hungry yet? I sure was.
These signs are all over the city and saved me so much time when I got lost.
“Street performer(s)…I think the one on the right standing up isn’t really a person…
See what I mean by the waffle temptation? How could you NOT get one? As I walked through the streets near the Grand Place, I was glad to see signs everywhere that guided me to my next destinations. I also saw a rather “aggressive” street performer, who tapped his cup and yelled “HEY” when I took a picture of him, as if demanding that I dropped some coins. I quickly slipped away, but I saw that it wasn’t just me, and that he did the same to others watching him. Guess he was the proactive type, huh.
Next thing to see: Manneken Pis. Thanks to the signs it wasn’t too hard to find.
The Manneken Pis, otherwise known as the sculpture of the peeing little boy, is one of those things that you just have to SEE to say that you’ve been to Brussels. Apparently there are a few versions of the story that tells of the origin of the boy. The story that I have heard of since my childhood was that the boy peed in order to extinguish the fuse of a bomb, planted in a conspiracy, that was about to blow up in some fancy mansion. It doesn’t matter what the real tale is; the bomb story is the version that is stuck with me.
The landmark itself, to be honest, is nothing too impressive, and the sculpture is in fact much smaller than you’d imagine it to be if you just look at a picture of it. I think the entire sculpture is just slightly bigger than the size of a newborn baby.
Here is another landmark of Brussels, the Atomium. Chemists and physicists would like this place because it is designed in the shape of an iron crystal unit cell magnified 165 billion times. Body centered cubic, YEAH! I went to the Atomium just to see how gigantic it is. Of course, the scientist within me wouldn’t let me miss it, even if it were just viewing it from the outside.
I sat under the Atomium for awhile to rest. Indeed, it would probably have been cool to pay the fee and go up. It’d feel like traversing the inner matrix of the Fe crystal…gotta be pretty neat!
The Sacré-Coeur, or Basilica of the Sacred Heart, was next on the agenda. This would be the second Sacré-Coeur I’ve seen, after the one in Montmartre, Paris. I wonder how many more of these are out there…
Outside the EU Commission, so proud and majestic.
All your Euros are belong to us, okay?
Where’s the English?
And of course, you can’t leave Brussels without visiting the EU Commission! Yes, it’s just a building, but imagine all the important decisions regarding the European Union being made in there! There’s probably someone who works in this building that decides how my program gets funded and how much I get paid…hmph! Anyway, the row of EU flags seems to flaunt themselves. Fair enough, Brussels is proudly the capital of the EU, after all!
After visiting the EU Commision, I wandered a bit and I spotted an arch in the distance. Hmm. That was not in the plan, and I had absolutely no idea what the place was. So whatever it was, it became the next stop.
It turns out that the place I would be visiting was the Royal Museum of the Army and of Military History. Definitely not something I would be interested in, but a beautiful structure, nevertheless. At the entrance, I saw a sculpture of the head of Robert Schuman, a founding father of the European Union. No wonder the metro station near the EU Commission is named Schuman.
And here is the actual museum itself. Now, my camera does not have panorama mode (one of the things I regret not verifying before the purchase) but luckily, my cell phone does. The quality is certainly not the best, and it did turn out slightly slanted, but it is a sufficient representation of what the place looks like. Perhaps this museum is like the Louvre of Brussels? I don’t know, don’t quote me on that.
Anyone wanna go on a picnic here?
Street and tramway in Brussels.
I spy with my little eyes something that I had been looking for for awhile – a Metro sign.
Everyday life in Brussels. Thanks to the weather, many people spent the day outdoors by the fountain, quite relaxing and leisurely for a weekend.
Finally, I stumbled upon this musical sextet as I was waiting for my train outside Central Station. They were quite the energetic group, each playing an instrument and singing in a language that I didn’t understand. If I had to guess, I would think it was Flemish, which makes sense in Belgium. Quite the charming young men they were, too. I gotta admit, their music was pretty catchy and I liked it a lot, so I stayed a bit longer observing them and watching their performance. Great end to the trip!
After all this, I gotta say, I liked Brussels more than Paris, even if it’s only a day trip. Precisely because of the time restriction, I rushed a bit, knowing that there are many more places to be seen and so many varieties of mussels and beer and waffles to try.
I also realized that although travelling alone is extremely fun and rewarding, I kind of miss having a companion sometimes. It’d be nice to just discuss some travelling tidbits while having someone as a company, such as the unexpected discoveries, the fabulous sites, and the delicious food (I am getting used to eating alone). Of course, I miss having someone to take pictures of ME whenever I want. Paris (second time), Berlin, and London will be different, as I will have company. Anticipation!
Last words about Brussels? Well, first of all, I’m pretty sure this isn’t the last time I go to this great city. I’d definitely love to revisit during Christmas and see the Grand Place then, and certainly if I am in Belgium in August 2012, I would be in time for the Flower Carpet. Also, I have yet to see Brussels in the night. That’s one thing about going at this time of the year. It gets dark super late, and by the time it gets dark, it’s probably too late for me to return to Louvain-la-Neuve. So, Brussels, I will see you again. Cheers.