On Saturday morning, we woke up fairly early to take the train to the main Paris train station. We thought it would be a good idea to grab a baguette and some coffee for the ride, so I headed to the local bakery, which supposedly opened at 8 am, at a little after 8. Apparently in France, opening times are more of a guideline than a guarantee to the consumer, because that bakery and several others that were listed as opening at 7:30 or 8:00 on Saturday were not, in fact, open. Finally, I found a place that was actually open and got two baguettes and regular sized French coffees.
The high speed train then took us to Brussels, and that was a piece of cake. Even our oversized American luggage fit great.
We arrived at the midi train station at Brussels, which is notorious for its cab drivers that circumnavigate the city center rather than drive straight to a hotel, and that’s exactly the type of driver we seemed to get. It would have been one thing had the driver chosen to take us all over town if the driver had actually bathed in the recent past; he had not, so as he sweat more under me and Laura’s questioning about where we were going, the cab took on more of that “ninth grade boy’s locker room” smell.
Tour guide books describe Brussels as a place with a cool ambience that lacks the big name sights of other cities, and that assessment seemed accurate to me. Brussels is, though, the “capital” of the European Union as well as the capital of Belgium, a country divided into two distinct linguistic zones – Flemish (sort of like Dutch) in the north and French in the south.
We could not schedule the trip to Brussels at a time when the European Union’s museum in the city was open (Brussels houses the EU Parliament, but the museum at the parliament is closed on the weekend), so we spent most of our time in and around the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels.
Trying Belgian beers was absolutely on the agenda, and that started with lunch. Wine and beer consumption starts early in Belgium (and in France), early enough that if you drank at that time in the U.S. people would get all judgy and throw around labels like “alcoholic.” Not in Belgium. The beer was good, but it attracted something bad – bees. I would later learn that Belgian beer drinking pros often put a napkin or some other barrier over the beer glass to keep the bees out.
To make up for the bee in the beer tragedy, Laura and I decided to sample some Belgian chocolate.
My friend Jerry told me that one time some friends of his had him come along to sample food for their wedding reception to help them decide which foods to serve, and he ended up being a poor choice because the food was all awesome to him. That’s how I felt sampling chocolates. The Belgian chocolate all seemed terrific because…
- it was chocolate
- the Belgians know how to make chocolate even better by putting things like hazelnut or another type of chocolate in the chocolate.
By an act of will that left us drained for the rest of the day, we left the chocolate shop for healthier endeavors.
We were in the vicinity of Manneken Pis, so we stopped by for a look.
Oddly enough, I have actually seen men peeing that way at the AP Reading, perhaps because they didn’t want to put their hands near a urinal used by hundreds of coffee consuming men a day. Or maybe they are the people who I inevitably follow into toilet stalls who are clearly and unfortunately totally overconfident in their handless aiming. Time to go to a bar for more research into this matter.
A while later, we were a bit dizzy from Brussels’ “ambience” and we decided to walk around the city center. Of the European cities I have seen, the city center in Brussels seems to be the most dedicated to shopping and only shopping, without as many distractions , like “museums” and “cathedrals.” There are tourist trap establishments to be sure, but there are also genuine restaurants and specialty shops. It’s like a much bigger and more comprehensive version of Paris’ Latin Quarter or a cleaner, safer version of the shopping district in Athens.
European restaurants often have people out front who try to get diners into the restaurant, especially in touristy areas. As we walked through the city center, Laura kept asking these restaurant criers what kind of deals they were going to give her. When she got the deal she wanted, we ate.
We had initially planned on going back to the hotel after turn, but we took a wrong turn and accidentally found the most famous cathedral in Brussels.
We decided that there might be other cool things to see, so we took a longer walk.
Laura and I were surprised by how multicultural the city was, with East Asian and Muslim neighborhoods. We expected to see that kind of cultural mixing in places like France, which had many more former colonies for people to move from than Belgium did.
So the lessons from Brussels:
- Chocolate is good
- Waffles are good
- Belgian beer is good
- Peeing statues are good
- Brussels cabbies are not good