This is a multi-part series. See the other pieces here: Part 1 and Part 3.
I knew next to nothing about Brussels, apart from the fact that is the capital of Belgium, where a friend of mine is from. Upon arrival I discovered that most public signage is in Dutch, which is much harder to muddle through than French. But I was able to eventually make a connection to the local streetcar system and get to my next hostel. Along the way I noted the mix of architectural styles and seemingly random building heights.
By this point in the trip, I was developing a pretty good routine. I’d drop off my backpack at the lodgings, find something to eat, then search for postcards to mail home. I found European souvenir shops also sell stamps, which is definitely not the case in the U.S. In Copenhagen I once tried to buy a stamp alone, but I was required by law to purchase something else with it (so I got an extra postcard). Later I’d freshen up and go out to dinner, and usually have a drink at a local watering hole to get a feel for the different restaurant and bar scenes. Sometimes the hostel staff (who all spoke English) made helpful recommendations.
I found a cafe name Jat, which had a sign out front claiming “caffeine makes you sexy”. I couldn’t pass that up, of course. Recharged, I started my recon and discovered a heavily-guarded United Nations conference facility nearby. I also ventured uphill and discovered a massive commercial street called Avenue de la Toison d’Or, which has separate lanes for parking on both sides of it, along with a tram line in places. The main traffic lanes dive underground at several points. So Europe is not immune to inner-city highway-type roads, but certainly this one fit in well with its trees, stoplights, tunnels, and frequent pedestrian crossings.
The grand waffle-with-a-view over Brussels.
Curiosity satisfied, I made my way back downhill, but not before stopping for a chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffle served out of a yellow van parked next to a Ferris wheel, perched at a stunning viewpoint looking over the city. Looking out over this vista, and realizing the city was huge, I had sudden bit of homesickness. My spirits were dampened from earlier in the walk when I accidentally walked through a massive puddle in a pedestrian tunnel – resulting in the second day in a row for soggy shoes. The waffle, thankfully, introduced itself to my life at just the right moment, and reinforced me greatly.
Pedestrian zone in Brussels.
I circled back to my hostel, and while changing socks I decided to go for a jog to see more sights. It was early afternoon and chilly, but the sidewalks were mostly clear. I stuck to the wider streets with smooth paving, and wound my way through the central business district and the royal Brussels Park. I stopped at the edge of Old Town, which is a delightful maze of pedestrian streets. I was drawn in with the intense amount of shops, eateries, and people. The place is an amazing example of medieval design, and I’m sure the amount of economic activity and tax dollars is something American town leaders can only dream of. There’s also chocolate and waffle shops in seemingly every other storefront, advertised with spectacular and colorful window displays. I picked up two bags of genuine Belgian chocolates, one of the only souvenirs I bought on the whole trip due to my tight backpack space.
The Grand Place
Anyway, I finally made it to the center of the neighborhood, a grand plaza known as…the Grand Place. It is surrounded by ancient, towering guild houses decorated with all manner of architectural ornaments and golden-colored metalwork. I late learned its origins date back some 900 years, and today the plaza is surrounded by a mix of private residences, the town hall, and guildhouses (some of which are now museums). Some of the guilds with headquarters here included the greasers, carpenters, boat builders, haberdashers, bankers, butchers, brewers, tailors, painters, and some surrounding streets are named after sellers of butter, cheese, herring, and coal. Clearly, commerce is celebrated here. The plaza also has excellent acoustical qualities, as I learned when people across the plaza turned to watch a man and woman arguing about something. Aside from the human wildlife, the space might benefit from some trees to soften its acres of pavers, but nonetheless it was once rated the most beautiful plaza in Europe.
I also investigated the Little Pissing Man, a centuries old fountain that apparently embodies Belgians’ sense of humor and independence. One may recognize it as a garden ornament used across the world.
After happening upon a local restaurant that served lasagna and amber beer, and a night cap at a gothic-themed basement pub, my day in Brussels came to a close. It was a surprisingly pleasant city and I wouldn’t mind visiting again, although I’m told next time I’m in Belgium I must visit the even more beautiful cities of Bruges and Ghent.
With a quick trip on another red Thalys train, on March 7 I emerged onto the Centraal Station plaza on a beautiful blue sky day. From the station architecture and my vantage of the city skyline, I was instantly struck by the amount of red brick and colorful facade details. I was going to be checking out the famous bike paths here, of course, but I would soon see how much quality urban design Amsterdam has to offer as well.