Bumming around Brussels (Belgium Day 1)

Posted by D on Friday, June 15, 2012

Still playing catch up with adventuring recaps; a little sad to realize today that I'm already starting to forget details about Brussels (which was only a couple weekends ago, really). Bumming around Belgium was fairly spontaneous (/oh boy, long weekend, last minute decision on where to go), considering I usually like to know some general details before heading somewhere new. Things being what they were, I bought my train ticket to Brussels Friday night after work (ran into A, one of the other interns, & her mom & boyfriend I in the city centre - oddly enough, I'd managed to run into A & I the previous weekend at the Flohmarkt too - seriously, what are the chances?), packed Saturday (May 26) morning, and by noon I was en route to Belgium. 

After being crammed into a corner for the first leg of the journey, meeting a German guy and taking in some sights of rural European country side, I made it in one piece. I arrived in Brussels wondering if I'd made a mistake and wondering how I'd last 3 days there, but by the end of it, I'd fallen in love with the city. Got off at Gare Nord, waited on the platform (which is about 2 storeys above ground level), train was delayed, figured I'd go explore the area. I exited the station to be immediately engulfed by a plume of smog and sand and industrial smells from the platform above (which itself looked completely vintage/ancient).
^ Platform is off to the right of the photo above. So I went back through the station and exited the other side, and found myself deposited in a lively (Turkish?) community. After wandering a bit (& not ending up in the Red Light District - this is relevant to day 3), finally zipped over to Central Station. I think the way I tried to tackle Brussels is different than what I've done with adventures since (although ironically, reversed strategies probably would've been better). Basically... I figured I would just walk around and see what I saw. I mean, I had a vague idea that there were a couple impressive cathedrals, the EU Parliament, Grand Place etc. that I should check out, and the Jazz Marathon was going on, so I figured if I started from the centre, I should be able to hit up a decent number of places. I hadn't even bothered to look up how to get to the hostel I'd booked. Very boho flow.  
I was pleasantly surprised that my French was passably adequate, comprehension-wise. I'd always thought that we'd learned 'Canadian French', but in retrospect, I suppose it makes more sense that with IB we'd actually learned international French. (Met some kids from Quebec at the hostel later, who spoke some 'Quebecker' and it basically all went over my head.) It was a bit humbling and unexpected to see the number of people cradling young children and asking for money. 
I actually managed to hit up a very decent number of places my first day, just by wandering down whatever street/alley looked like it had interesting stuff. So much walking. First place I wandered into was the Cathedral of St. Michael & St. Gudula (I believe this is the one most prominently known as simply the cathedral). I may or may not have entered through the wrong door on the side and accidentally snapped some contraband photos. Eh-hem. It was massive and grand and beautiful, and I think this is the one where a choir came in and sang (although it might've been another one). 
Wandered through lively alleys of restaurants and covered promenades of shops (Galeries Royales St. Hubert?). Sat on the steps of the Bourse/Beurs (location of the Brussels Stock Exchange) and listened to the jazz marathon for a bit, but the sun was blindingly hot and bright so I didn't stay long. (I'd meant to visit the Bourse & sit, since it's apparently a very Brussels-thing to do, but didn't realize I'd done it until after I'd wandered away and doubled around to the back of it. ha.)
Wandered around to some more cathedrals, saw the Manneken Pis, the pissing boy statue iconic of Brussels - he was dressed in football kit that day (in light of the Euro Cup). The Belgian police uniforms are kind of dashing. Was kinda beat by this point, but I really wanted to check out Grand Place/Grote Markt, the central square.
As I was searching for it, I was totally thinking, 'this better be worth it' (little did I know at the time, I would probably double the amount of walking I'd already done by the end of the night). I wandered down an alley and came up alongside one of the building's sides, and thought, 'okay, not bad, the statues on the wall are kind of cool.' Then I stepped out of the tunnel formed by the alley and into the square and just damn. Wow. It was breathtaking. None of the pictures I took do the place justice, so...you'll just have to visit and see for yourself :)

There was a huge stage set up for the Jazz Marathon, the buildings enclosing the square were all beautiful (in different ways), and the atmosphere was just really lively and chill. (Brussels in general seems to have a very chill, laid-back vibe.) Also checked out the old Stadhuis van Brussel (there was a wedding going on!), which was very nice and historic, much like everything else in Brussels. There are tons of artists too, and paintings of the city being sold in the square. If I weren't backpacking around, totally would've picked one up.
Wandered through the market (there were some really cool crafts, and another jazz band), checked out Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeline Magdalenakerk, went back to Grand Place, wandered up through Place de L'Abertine/Albertina-Plein, Mont des Arts Kunstberg...
The view was incredible, the sun was shining, people were out and about...was definitely starting to fall for the city. Brussels has so many gorgeous parks, and when the weather's nice, everyone's just outside chillaxing, tanning, etc. It was a really hot weekend, and there were lots of shirtless people too...European liberalness! 
Photo below was taken at Eglise St-Jacques sur Coudenberg. Wanted to explore more, but it was starting to get late so I dragged my weary self back to Central Station and began figuring out the ordeal of how exactly I was going to make it to the hostel. There was a nice guy at the bus stop with really dark hair, really pale skin, a kind smile and deep, soulful musician eyes. He didn't know how to get to the hostel either, but was helpful about Brussels public transit. Managed to decipher the map to figure out which bus to take and what stop to get off, yay!

On the bus, some cute Turkish guy from Paris ended up sitting beside me. We were talking, and I mentioned that I was going to Paris in July, and he was all like, "I'll show you around!" In North America, phrases like that get tossed around pretty casually, so I'm just kind of like, "haha, sure." And then he gave me contact info - guess he was actually serious. So then I get to the hostel finally, look in the mirror, and realize there's a squished bug on my face. Yeeaahh, haha.
I got into the hostel room and was a little freaked out that I'd have to take a top bunk. I've always slept on the bottom bunk, either at camp or back when I had a bunk bed (since I used to fall off the bed when I was little). So this was a slight panic moment, but on the bright side, less chance of theft if I'm on a top bunk, right?

Met some cool people at the hostel. There were two guys in the kitchen, one from Nepal and one from an island near Madgascar. Ended up hanging out in the backyard with a varied group of guys from different places - L.A./California, Montreal, Barcelona, Argentina, Russia... (The way he said 'Barcelona' with a Spanish trill - something like 'Bar-thay-lo-na'? - was definitively cooler than the regular English way.)

It's definitely be a fascinating experience, backpacking. There's kind of a level of being able to relate to other travelers and have really intriguing conversations with random strangers at a grass roots level. While traveling with family is comfortable, it's not quite the same - I mean, do I really need sharks in the lobby and full spread Western breakfasts every morning? Maybe when I'm older, I'll appreciate that sort of thing more - but at this age, maybe it's not so bad to push boundaries and seek out raw experiences by stepping out of comfort zones.

I had to climb up onto the top bunk in the dark. But I made it! :)


  1. Whoa it looks like you saw quite a different Brussels than I did, I don't remember seeing half that stuff. Or maybe it was just the really strong beer that distracted me. Is the pissing thing like not way tinier than you pictured?

    1. Alex - haha yes! I didn't even realize the pissing statue was a big deal/that was THE pissing statue until later!


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