On the evening of Wednesday, October 10, my plane landed in Charleroi airport. That’s Brussels’ version of the out of town airport that the budget airlines fly to; London, Rome, Stockholm, and Paris have similar airports. I walked past customs and out into the arrivals area and began searching for my ride, an internet friend named Brian. After about three minutes of walking up and down the very small area outside a cafe, I saw Brian entering the doors. We shook hands and headed to his car, which had been parked for such a small amount of time that the parking machine didn’t charge him a euro dime.
After about a fifty minute drive, we arrived to the Brussels suburb where I would be staying with my blog friend, Simon. Brian is an American working for NATO who drives a Subaru Outback he brought with him from the US. The Outback‘s overly-marketed high ground clearance feature came in handy in a moment of disorientation in which we were driving down some grassy tram tracks. Once safely on asphalt again, I glanced at my phone to check Simon’s address, only to find a tongue-in-cheek SMS from him saying, “Keep an eye on [Brian]. He drives crazy.” Eventually we found Simon’s house, and I rang the doorbell. That was when I met someone I’d been friends with for six years for the first time.
It was a bit surreal to be in someone’s house for the first time, the layout of which I knew nothing about, that was covered in art and books that I knew the backstory to.
I briefly got to meet Simon and Paola’s three beautiful pajama-clad children, whom I have been reading about for years (their British accents are even more adorable than I’d imagined), before they were sent off to bed. Simon, Paola and I had a lovely dinner of pasta and white wine and discussed our careers, a topic that rarely comes up in internet friendships. Afterwards, Brian’s wife, Cloe came over to help us sample Paola’s mother’s homemade Italian liqueurs. Between the sweet alcohol and the good company, it was a marvelously relaxing evening.
Now that’s a liqueur selection!
The following morning, October 11, I was given a brief sketch of how to get to the closest Metro station, a house key (from someone who’d just met me in person the night before, mind you), a tourist booklet for Brussels, and left home alone while Simon and Paola went off to work. I served myself a bowl of Cheerios – I miss General Mills products in Spain! – and headed out into the brisk Belgian morning in search for a pedestrian adventure!
Their neighborhood is full of three story townhouses, and is only blocks from a town center full of shops and restaurants. It seems like a pretty lovely place to live.
Golden hour was quickly passing, and I wanted to hurry into the city to get photographs with oblique sunlight.
The metro was clean and uncrowded enough and after twenty minutes or so, I was at the Parc exit where I planned to get off.
The only humans in the park were either a few bench dwellers wrapped in blankets who had spent the night there, or hurried commuters who had decided to walk through the park on their way to work.
These benches seemed very interested in what this gazebo had to say.
At the end of the park, I turned, somewhat intentionally, southwest.
I would soon discover that the town is full of gorgeous churches and stately buildings. This one is Our Lady at the Zavel, which I am told by Wikipedia is an example of Brabantine Gothic architecture.
There were many rental bicycles available. I wasn’t tempted.
Eventually I made it all the way to the Palace of Justice, from which I had a great panoramic view across the city. Here you see a monument to fallen soldiers with the iconic Atomium in the background.
At this point, I reoriented myself to head towards the Grand Place, but intentionally took small side streets and alleys to get there. My efforts were rewarded.
I seemed to be in the art district, as there were many art shops and museums around. The street art was beautiful.
Every Brussels tourist is told of the two main things that must not be missed. The first is the Grand Place, a square in the center of town with ornate buildings. The second is the Mannekin Pis, a tiny fountain statue with little intrinsic value of its own. Tourists are told to first find the Grand Place, and then follow the side street a hundred or so meters to find the statue.
As I was meandering through the narrow streets, I began to smell chocolate, and the up ahead, I saw a swarm of Japanese tourists. Somehow I had come across the most famous statue in all of Belgium by complete luck.
The statue is rarely undecorated, and the day I was there he had a sticker over his face reading “Light for the world” in French. Okay, whatever. He was an uninteresting little pisser.
I was much more interested in the elaborate shop displays.
Call me biased as the father of a little girl, but Jeanneke Pis was much cooler than Mannekin Pis.
Would you like some waffle with your whipped cream?
Finally I reached the Grand Place. It was a lot smaller than I’d expected, nothing like Madrid’s Plaza Mayor or London’s Trafalgar Square. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the ornate buildings also did little for me. I’d still recommend it to anyone who can get a late deal to Brussels to check it out, but I certainly wasn’t wowed.
Eleven o’clock and still more exploring to do! I continued to walk around aimlessly, without consulting any maps.
Somehow I discovered the Galeries Royales St. Hubert, one of the sites I remembered from watching The Expatriate, an action movie set in Antwerp and Brussels, a few days before. It was full of school children.
By 11:30, I decided it was time for a beer. This place looked reasonable.
The view was pleasant as well. I had a Keizer Karel / Charles Quint Ruby Red. Even the beer names are in both French and Dutch.
Continuing my ambulatory adventure, I came across the main restaurant street. It was pretty clearly a tourist trap, but I decided it would make an okay place to find my first Belgian meal. Each restaurant had a waiter standing outside trying to woo passersby. It was fun to watch them try different languages on me, like cold readers fishing for a non-verbal response.
Eventually I settled upon this place, called Le Bourgeois. My Brussels tourism iPhone app dictated that I must eat mussels and Belgian fries, and this place had a deal that included those two items with a small beer for 10€, so I took a seat.
My plate of steamed mussels. They were nothing special, but acceptable molluscan nourishment.
Fried potatoes are pretty common everywhere, but I must say that the Belgians do them right. They were so good that the idea of dipping them in sauce never crossed my mind.
This rather unforgettable corner plays a role in the opening scene of The Expatriate.
Creepy statues in front of the European Commission.
Just like the bicycles, apparently you can pay a fee and drive this electric car away. Neat! Surely this has got to be the future of urban driving…
Some bloke named Schuman.
This might be my favorite photo of the day, which is strange, since it’s not unique to Brussels in particular. Just lucky lighting.
This dude was climbing the side of this museum. I thought it was pretty strange, but there’s another guy visible doing the same thing in Google Street View, so perhaps it’s a popular climber workout spot. Either that, or he’s a cat burglar with diamonds in that belt bag.
Rainbow in the Jubel Park fountain.
I had briefly considered walking all the way back to Simon’s suburb, following the line of metro stations, but this is where it got to be too much in the time I had, so I hopped on the metro and headed home. I had to take a shower to go out for dinner and drinks that night with the lads.