In "The Geography of Bliss", Eric Weiner describes a conversation he listened to while traveling in Maldova, it was "two people having a conversation in two completely different languages, neither willing to back down." When I came across this phrase while reading on the flight out of Brussels, I realized this describes Brussels perfectly! Brussels, a Belgian city where
the Dutch and the French live together, but keep separate lives, separate conversations, and thus, oversized street signs that explain everything in both French and Dutch. It is the unofficial "capital of Europe", being the home of the busiest and perhaps most important European Union office (several city blocks long). But, more important to me, it's the home of chocolate, great beer, waffles, and frites!
Let's start off by congratulating me and Jake- we saved a ton of money on our food budget. That's probably because we couldn’t help ourselves and basically ate nothing but fresh frites with mayo and waffles for 4 straight days. Hey, when in Belgium! I never knew that I liked mayo, like real fresh mayo, as much as I do, especially when it's on top of twice-fried, perfectly golden, perfectly crispy-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside fries. And the waffles! Oh my God the waffles! For just one euro you could indulge in a sweet, dense, pressed piece of goodness, no toppings needed. While my favorite waffles were topping free, I did experiment with Nutella, whipped cream and strawberries, and chocolate just to be sure.
We decided to work off all of those delicious calories with a bike ride. Brussels, like SF, Paris, Munich, and a bunch of other big cities, has a bike share program where you can rent a bike for 1.50 and ride it to your next point and check the bike into the stalls there. If you're a quick pedaler, you can get around the whole city for very little! Since we like to take our road bikes out at home, we figured "how hard could it be?". Well, our road bikes are about 30 pounds lighter than these steel beasts, so our leisurely ride around Brussels turned into quite a workout!Along the way we went to see the 5th largest church in Europe, Koekelberg Basilica (why do we keep finding the 2nd and 5th largest things, and not the actual biggest….?). It was, indeed, huge! Soon after, we hopped back on our lead-laden bikes to go check out The Atomium, a giant atom that was constructed for the World's Fair in 1958. After capturing several snaps of this very odd structure (and watching hoards of tourists take pictures with their Ipads...hahahaha), we took a walk through town to the European Union building. Unfortunately we got there just as the Parliamentarium closed, so we couldn't go inside, but the building itself was pretty cool. For dinner that night we changed it up a bit….HA! No we didn’t- we got waffles. And of course we needed to wash it all down with Belgian beer at Delirium, the famous beer house that has over 2000 beers on their list (mostly in bottles of course). We enjoyed the local brews, Delirium Tremens and Delirium Blanche des Neiges as we watched locals shuffle in and out and the bartenders artfully cut the head off freshly poured beers with a machete. After dark we wandered around Grand Place to see City Hall, the museum, and the bank, all dressed in lights. Each building, ornately decorated with real gold, looked gorgeous under the white lights, each carving in the stone, each delicate spire showing in spectacular detail. And then, all of a sudden, the whole square turned red, and then green, purple, blue…we happened to catch a light show! The whole square erupted with "oooh" and "ahhh" as each color changed. And then, as quick as it started, it was gone.
Since we'd seen pretty much all there as to see in Brussels, we decided to take a day trip to Gent to "see how people really live", as our Airbnb host had said. We took a 30 minute train ride to this beautiful little town, complete with pedestrian-only streets and canals. I had been on the lookout for mussels in Brussels but hadn't gotten any yet, so I was determined to get mussels in Gent (it just doesn't have the same ring to it...). Jake and I decided to enjoy a big pot of mussels, fries, and a salad (a what?? what the heck is a salad??) at a restaurant along the water, and watched locals take in the afternoon sun as they dangled their feet over the side of the canal.
Having checked off 4 of the 5 things on my culinary must-haves (fries, beer, waffles, and mussels), we went off in search of the last one - chocolate! A little bit of research before arriving would have been helpful because we could barely find any internet and had no idea where to go. After wandering for what seemed like forever, we finally ended up at Chocolaterie Cedric Van Hoorebeke, where all the chocolates are made by a father/son team, and sold by the son's wife. They were delicious! My favorite, per the usual, was the marzipan. Yummmmmmmmm....
As we wandered back to the train station to return to Brussels, we realized we lost one of our return train tickets. It must have fallen out of a pocket on our walk earlier. In fact, I know it did - on our walk that morning into the town center, I noticed a small piece of paper that looked like a train ticket on the ground where we had stopped to take a picture. For some reason, I didn't think to pick it up and see if it were ours. Lesson learned - take 5 seconds to see if that paper on the ground, or whatever it might be, is important (and perhaps do your part to throw it away). So we had to spend an additional 10 euro to buy a new train ticket. Another lesson learned - don't buy return tickets ahead of time unless there's a reason to, like a significant deal, or the potential for the train to sell out. We didn't need to buy the return tickets and just took on more risk by having to hold them all day. And sure enough, we lost one. Even though it was only 10 euro, it's still annoying.
On our last morning we had a few hours to kill before catching our flight to Provence. Since we needed breakfast, we walked down to our favorite place near Mannekin Pis, the tiny statue of a little boy peeing, to get some waffles. (I have a feeling all Belgian waffles at home will now be ruined for me - "you call that a Belgian waffle?!") We ate our breakfast by the fountain, the little boy dressed in a new outfit for the day (apparently someone changes his clothes every week or so). All of a sudden we heard sounds of awkward screams from a large group of Asian women behind us - lots of "oooooohhh!" and pointing.
They giggled heartily as they took pictures with every device they had, cameras, phones, Ipads...I realized quickly that I was caught in the middle of all of them and just started laughing. What a perfectly funny way to end our short visit!
And with that, we grabbed our packs and headed off to the airport. Provence was waiting!