Part IV: Brussels, Brussels & Brussels.
While the title seems to indicate that I spent quite a bit of time touring Brussels — that is unfortunately not true. While I did get a chance to go around town and explore all that it had to offer, I had to cut back quite a bit since I spent most of my time at the conference I was in Belgium for. Given that the conference was the main purpose in going to Belgium, I am not cribbing at all! For this leg of the journey and the next one in Amsterdam, I was joined by my friend and lab-mate MS. We timed our entry to Brussels such that the two of us were at the Hotel at about the same time. Our first impressions about the Hotel were not to flattering, and given the amazing rate I had found for it, I thought that we were getting what we paid for. While the hotel was in an Arab-African neighborhood and the people down the street looked intimidating, what we soon realized was that the hotel was actually in the heart of the city and we were perfectly safe! I even managed a quick 3 euro falafel the first night, since MS was fighting with jet lag and stuff, from a small shop around the corner from the hotel. My foolishness of putting too much of the green ‘chutney’ (read chilli sauce) made me rush to the town center, where I had spotted a Haagen Das earlier in the day to grab a quick ice-cream. The rum in the rum-n-raisin did not really hit me (although the lady at the counter claimed it would) — maybe due to the fact that the mirchi sauce had already numbed my tongue and brain cells! But I am jumping ahead of myself. First, we reached the hotel, and leaving the luggage, ran to the town center.
As with all Belgian towns which were built around a large cathedral in the center of the town — its tower large enough to be viewed from a long distance away (from the train while passing through the town for example), Brussels too housed a large cathedral tower, which sat majestically in the middle of a large square where people sat in sheltered coffee shops watching the day pass them by, without a worry on their brow. We reached at a time when for some reason (we did not ask, we did not care) a band was playing in the town center and some senior citizens were possibly being honored. It made for a great welcome and for a nice little photoshoot. We passed through alleyways, smelling the wonderful chocolates and ogling at the brown liquid nectar that the shops had so aesthetically presented. The smells of warm waffles made their way through the air and the place was rent with avid tourists sporting SLRs and munching on waffles and fries. The occasional tour group passed us by and we were enveloped in a cloud of german, dutch, french and occasionally english. We took it all in — the small cobbled streets named after famous comic strip characters who originated in Belgium (Tintin, Lucky Luke etc.), the series of small coffee shops with the tables overflowing on to the pedestrian walk, the large glass displays arranged with the best produce trying to entice the already hooked viewer to come in and buy something, the heaps of intricately designed lace that covered mannequins, the pushy waiters who stood outside empty restaurants inducing passer-bys to come in and enjoy their cuisine and over all else, the patient Belgians who put up with the chaotic, idiotic and sometimes unnerving, but always well-intentioned tourists. Ah, the joys of travel.
We spotted the cafe where Karl Marx wrote the communist manifesto — apparently he was banned from Belgium once the document became popular! We also managed to find our way to the Manneken-Piss — the official mascot of Brussels – a Boy peeing! True story. Apparently, the King knighted the statue (which is about a foot tall) and hence the soldiers had to salute this pissing boy everytime they passed by! The statue is supposed to be a testament to the Belgian way of life — don’t worry too much and take life lightly, things will go on as they should.
We passed by walls painted with characters from popular Belgian comics and managed to visit the Museum of art. Unfortunately, a majority of the museum was closed and under renovation, but we managed to see the Magritte (a Belgian Surrelaist painter) exhibits, and I managed to expand my horizons a bit!
Over the next couple of days we took some time out in the evening to visit a huge park that houses a Romanesque monument and the Atomium — a super weird structure that is supposed to look like an atom and was built in the 1950s!
The best part about Brussels was the food — I had loads of it! The Belge are known for waffles and their fries (not French fries, Belgian fries — the French did not invent the fires, the Belge did!!) as well as their chocolates and I binged quite a bit on these.
One story: We spotted a small petite bakery amidst all the touristy crap around the town center and MS asked for a waffle with Nutella on it — the lady at the counter looked at us with slight contempt before telling us that her waffles did not need any toppings. We ended up having waffles with nutella at a neighboring store — which was ok-ok. I got a cup of coffee from that small store and it was excellent for a very reasonable price. So we stopped by the place in the evening and unfortunately the woman had thrown all the stuff into a large plastic bag — she was closing up for the day. We asked for a waffle and she suggested we pull one out from the bag. Sensing our hesitation, she assured us that it was just a plastic bag and she had just put the stuff in. We got a waffle out and did not have to pay anything for it — since it was from the ‘poubelle’ (dustbin). And it was thus taht MS and I ate the BEST waffle of our life from a dustbin for free! It was seriously too good and did not require any toppings as the lady said. I stopped by the next day and packed a waffle for our trip to Amsterdam — and ate the squashed, cold version late in the evening — delicious as before.
Another: A place in the famous (because it is one of the oldest shopping galleries) Royal Galleries in Brussels called Arcadi was recommended to us by the guidebook that MS had brought — one of my favs, Rick Steves was the author — and the reviews online were good as well. So we stopped by Arcadi one evening for dinner pretty late and ended up having a couple of quiches — spinach & broccoli and aubergine & courgette. A brilliant quiche that! We also split a chocolate crepe and that was fantastic as well — I was in love with Arcadi and quickly managed to come back in the next day for lunch, ordering a quiche and a pistacho cake for dessert (mindblowingly delicious that, my mouth waters as I write). Arcadi is a MUST visit if you stop by Brussels!
There was also the time of a below average service + dinner at a Moroccon place — but let us talk only about good things here!
Having reduced the soles of our shoes by about a foot, we decided that we had had enough of Brussels and decided to catch the next train to Amsterdam!