All right. It’s 11:15, Saturday, October 29th. I have just slept for 10 hours, gone grocery shopping, eaten some bread and made myself a cup of tea. Clearly it’s time to start blogging about my trip to Brussels. (There are no songs that I could come up with about Belgium or Brussels, but the title, a quote from the 1996 film version of Persuasion just about sums up my trip!)
I’ve heard that the very beginning is a very good place to start, so…I got up at what felt like the middle of the night but was actually 6:30 AM on Wednesday morning in order to get on the train to Gare du Nord at 7. As it turns out, it only takes about twenty minutes to get from Cité Universitaire to Gare du Nord, so I had way too much time to kill (“Madame, what else is new?”). So I lugged my bags (why on earth did I decide to buy a bag without wheels? Silly, silly Anne!) up to the Thalys departure platform, and Angry Bird and I settled down at a café with a brioche and the crossword puzzle.
Maybe it’s the lighting, but he almost looks happy. I think he’s proud that I finished the puzzle and didn’t need his help (I tried to explain that it was a Wednesday and I could do it by myself, to no avail).
Anyway, I boarded the train, sat down in my seat, and just like that, I was on my way to Brussels. It really was easy. I always expect these things to be a lot more stressful than they are. I envisioned some kind of elaborate customs system on the other end, with Belgian officials asking to see my passport and visa and then turning me right around and sending me back to Paris with my tail between my legs. But as it turns out, Belgium and France are both in the European Union, so nobody cares who’s on the Thalys between Paris and Brussels, as long as they’ve paid for their tickets. (NB: The Thalys is the name of the train that goes between Paris and Brussels and I believe Amsterdam as well. I’ve never watched Dr. Who, but every time I see the name on the train, I think of the Tardis and hope we’re going back in time.)
Brussels is, actually, the capital of the European Union–a fact I completely forgot until I got there. Whenever I’ve told people that I was going to Brussels over school vacation, they said, “Waffles! French fries! Coffee! Beer! Chocolate!” But in fact, it’s quite an important city in the scheme of things.
The reason that I remembered that about Brussels when I arrived is that everything is translated into several languages, which makes things both simpler and more complicated.
Anyway, I did finally manage to get myself out of Bruxelles Midi and onto the metro. People say that Paris is a big city for walking, but I walked more in the last few days that I have in two months in Paris–at least, that’s what it felt like. First of all, there are only four metro lines, and the stops are simultaneously close together and far apart. That is, you can access almost any Brussels landmark from almost any train stop (though some are closer than others), but then when you need to get back on the train to go home, the nearest metro stop is nowhere to be found. Oh, and there was not a single working up-escalator in the entire city. All of the down-escalators worked. Good grief.
(Wow, I’m really making it sound like I didn’t like Brussels. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Brussels–I’m just getting all of my complaints out of my system!)
I dropped my bags off at my hostel around 11:30, then wandered about until 2, when I could get into my room. The hostel, by the way, is famous because Vincent Van Gogh worked there–it’s called Centre Van Gogh, and I didn’t sleep a wink. But we waive that point. We do not press it, we look over it.
A few pictures from my wanderings: (NB: I have uploaded all 200 or so photos from this trip to my Flickr photostream. I can’t, obviously, post all of them to my blog, but if you click on one of the pictures in this entry, it will take you directly to Flickr so you can peruse the entire catalogue at your leisure!)
(Dyarrrr! Also, I’m pretty sure that this is one of the famous comic book walls in Brussels–I took pictures of several of them.)
This cathedral is THE cathedral in Brussels, the one that is labeled “Cathédrale” on all of the signs (Brussels is, by the way, very well marked. I rarely had to use my map to find major landmarks, because at every intersection there were signs pointing in every direction telling you how to get there. Paris could learn something from Brussels…but that said, I had to pay for public restrooms in Brussels, something Paris has very wisely abolished. Step it up, Brussels!). And it was surrounded by modern art and expositions on making Brussels a greener, more eco-friendly city.
I thought that was very cool. Having spent two months in Paris, going to Brussels felt almost like being in a small city in the States. There were take-away restaurants where one could buy pre-made sandwiches with vegetables on them, soup and nice salads; a lot of signs were in English, and a lot of the names of restaurants and stores too, but not as much for tourists as for all of the international travelers, diplomats and businesspeople who have to come through Brussels as the capital of the EU. It didn’t feel quite as shameful in Brussels as it might in Paris to buy my tomato soup and bread from a restaurant whose menu was in English (not that I could find a place to buy a bowl of tomato soup for lunch in Paris–that’s what soup in a box is for!). The city feels both more quaint than Paris and more modern than Paris–both smaller and more international. Brussels has the Parliament of the European Union, so I guess they reserve the right to make the rest of the city a paradise of waffles, comic strips and modern art.
A couple more pictures from my wanderings, before 2 PM on that first day:
And then I went to my hostel and gratefully accepted the key from the concierge. I checked my e-mail, made the bed, and put my sneakers on to walk around some more. I found the opera house, La Monnaie, but it was hugely under construction and I was put off taking the tour. It’s on a street called Rue Neuve that contains Zara, Celio, Promod and every other European chain store you can imagine–it was kind of an unpleasant scene. Once I extricated myself from that madness, I bought some hot chestnuts from a vendor near the train station (I always want to buy them in Paris too, but in Paris they roast chestnuts and corn on the cob on makeshift grills on metal shopping carts, so I’m wary. At least this guy had a kiosk!) and started walking north, where I had seen an enormous church in the distance. And I walked, and walked, and walked. It was a very long walk.
We took a breather on a bench by the canal.
And then kept walking. At one point I turned around:
And walked a little more.
After I took this picture I stood still for a few minutes and decided that I didn’t really need to walk all the way up to the church–that’s what the zoom function on my camera is for. So I turned around and walked back to the nearest metro stop (Simonis-Leopold II–the orange line! The color thing actually works in Brussels because there aren’t that many lines), hopped on and and went back to my hostel at Botanique, where I promptly fell asleep for an hour. When I woke up, all I could think about was moules frites–mussels and fries. But after walking around the Grand Place for a while trying to find a restaurant with reasonably priced moules frites, I stopped at a take-out window and bought a cornet of Belgian-style french fries and mayonnaise. Mussels not included.
Those Belgians know what they’re doing. After my very nutritious dinner, I went to Haagen-Dazs, which might not be a Belgian thing, but where they make their chocolate ice cream with hard-core Belgian chocolate. It was perfect. The guy behind the counter asked me if I was French, and when I told him American, he said that he couldn’t believe it, since I had no accent. I said that was sweet of him.
I made myself walk around a little while longer after “dinner.” I took some pictures of the Grand Place and Manneken Pis (more on that phenomenon in the next post!), but they didn’t come out because my camera, like myself, has an early bedtime.
And that was about it for day one. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, so I’m going to take a short break, practice, maybe unpack my bag, and watch some more Lark Rise to Candleford (which isn’t quite as good as my other series, but the cast is an eclectic mix of Pride and Prejudice, Cranford, Downton Abbey and Coupling).