I never intended to travel to Belgium at this time of year, but due to some uncharacteristic disorganisation on my part, it became much more affordable for me to detour to Brussels and fly from there to Spain than it was to fly direct from Amsterdam. I decided that I should make the most of the detour and consequently spent two nights in the capital of Europe, which was enough to “tick off” the city.
I arrived in Brussels in the late evening and found that although I was marginally further south than Amsterdam, it was still bloody cold. The bus trip to Brussels was not such a pleasant experience as it featured several annoying encounters with rude French staff. Thus far on this trip, the French have lived up to the reputation that the rest of Europe seems to give them! After eventually arriving at my hostel and despite being exceptionally fatigued for no particular reason, I braved the cold weather to find an appropriate restaurant for dinner and immediately fell into a tourist trap; the very trap my guide warned me against! Fortunately though, I doubt its possible for any eatery to serve less than delicious food in Belgium; and who am I to complain about three courses plus a drink for 15 euro? I don’t particularly enjoy mussels, but I don’t loathe them, so I thought I should try one of Belgian cuisine’s signature dishes, moules and frites (they are quite proud that hot chips originate from Belgium). It was quite an experience being served a massive bowl (or tank) of mussels that were cooked in a delicious broth; overall a quality meal and solid introduction to Belgium.
Since I had only had one full day in Brussels, I was determined to maximise that day and see the city by waking up early and hitting the streets. I did manage to wake up early and hit the streets, but the cruel coldness compelled me to dash to the only open café and hibernate until the sun was clearly above the buildings. This was where I ate another Belgian classic, waffles! I was intrigued to observe that the standard Belgian breakfast appeared to be a croissant, a roll of bread, butter, juice and coffee; there were many (I assume locals) ordering the same thing.
Once the weather was almost bearable, I ventured to (apparently) the nicest square in all of Europe, Grand Place. It was indeed a very nice square, lined with elaborately decorated buildings with gold ornamentation. I’m not sure what makes it the nicest though as it strike me as being particularly remarkable in comparison with the other great squares of Europe. Along with many other sites in Europe, I can’t quite identify the justification for its inclusion on the World Heritage list; what non-trivial universal qualities does it represent or exemplify? This relates to one of my pet peeves, the inequality and compromised nature of the list. Its completely ludicrous that half the list is composed of sites from Europe while many extraordinary natural sites (such as the Okavango Delta, South Luangwa National Park, Namib-Naukluft National Park) are not recognised and as usual, it comes done to which countries have the money to get their sites included.
I spent most of my day just walking around Brussels. Its remarkable how close European cities are to each other (Brussels is only three hours from Amsterdam by car) and yet be so different. The architecture prevalent in Brussels and the cityscape showed little resemblance to that seen in Amsterdam. The city features many Beaux-Arts buildings and generally appears more regal and capital-like then their Dutch counterpart. Intermingled among the older buildings within the central area are modern structures, which I think is an obscurity for a European city. Brussels was one of the primary centres of the art-nouveau movement in the early 20th century and consequently there are many apartment buildings throughout the suburbs that have been constructed in this style. Art-nouveau was one of the forerunning styles to modern architecture, as it rejected the conventional practice of recreating previous architectural styles. Rather than using architectural precedence, it looked particularly to nature for inspiration and is characterised by the liberal application of ornamentation (often just two-dimension) and sinuous structures or components. I visited the Victor Horta museum which is an art-nouveau apartment designed by the movement’s most acclaimed architect and (critically for my visitation) a World-Heritage listed site. Unfortunately for some ridiculous reason, patrons are not permitted to take photos inside and so I cannot provide any imagery of the extraordinary interior. I can’t understand why such a policy would exist since its not like the photography would deteriorate the interior (unlike paintings) and google has already hindered any desires to prevent imitations.
One of my highlights of the entire trip in Europe thus far was my lunch in Brussels. For only 19 euros, I enjoyed an entrée, main meal and a dessert at a restaurant which clearly wasn’t a tourist trap as there was no English menu and was frequented by French-speaking locals. After randomly selecting my dishes from the French menu, I ate a delicious slice of pate with a variety of interesting garnishes, a fantastic beef stew with mash and chocolate mousse. Another thing I liked about the restaurant was that they provided a basket of fresh, crusty bread and constantly filled it up.
My departure from Brussels thankfully ended my experience with cold, dreary weather. While I only spent one day essentially in Brussels, I felt that it was enough to see the city.