For our 2-day trip to Brussels, Leigh and I woke up early in the morning on July 30th and caught our train from Paris. We arrived at Brussels Midi around 11AM and endured a long, inefficient wait in the train station involving a closed tourism information office (wtf?), long, unmoving metro ticket lines, and temperamental automatic ticket machines. On our way through the station, Leigh pointed out a huge statue of a horse wearing a zebra suit that was seated at a table outside one of the restaurants. No one seemed to be paying it much attention despite its size and inexplicable reason for being there, and this seemed to be a fittingly ridiculous start to our day. I also noted how awesome Leigh looked wearing the bright pink, 4€ backpack she had bought the day before to hold all of the extra stuff we couldn’t seem to fit back into our backpacks. Resorting to the totally ridiculous act of carrying around two backpacks simultaneously (one in front and one in back) finally made us feel like real backpackers!
After a good hour or so in the Brussels train station we finally bought our expensive 1-day metro passes and headed towards our hostel. As it turns out, we didn’t even really need to buy metro passes, since the Brussels metro system doesn’t have any sort of ticket barriers – you can literally just walk in and out of the stations and on and off trains without once needing to swipe a ticket. No wonder their metro system looks like it’s from the Cold War period – they’re not making any money!
The most surprising thing about Brussels was the contrast between the other two cities we’d just seen. Brussels is actually a pretty ugly city, or at least not as pretty as Paris or Barcelona (the guide map we followed quoted a resident as saying, “We know Brussels is ugly. We love it anyway!”). Of course, we were comparing Brussels to what has been called the most beautiful city on Earth (Paris), so we did cut it some slack. There are areas of the city which are extraordinarily beautiful, such as the developed areas around the EU Parliament building, the metropolitan downtown business sector, and the neighborhoods of historical buildings/parks. However, there is a very distinct difference between these areas and the run-down, Eastern European-looking industrial areas right outside of them. Walking around the city I was constantly asking myself why Brussels had been chosen as the capital of the EU, since its neighborhoods and transportation system(s) certainly don’t give the impression of a very prosperous or even friendly capital city.
Our metro journey from the central train station took us to Botanique, a metro stop located right outside of a lovely terraced garden leading up to a huge glassed greenhouse. We explored this area later, but at the time we spent close to an hour wandering around the nearby neighborhoods trying to find our hostel. After several frustrated phone calls we finally made it and were relieved to put down our backpacks and decompress.
We were surprised to find that our hostel was split between two buildings, with the reception office on one side of the street and our sleeping quarters on the other. This was probably our most “hostel-ish” experience, since our rooms were secure but very bare-bones and unwelcoming. Immediately after putting down our bags we wandered out in search of food, since by that point both Leigh and I were hungry and grumpy. At first we walked several blocks south of our hostel, but found ourselves in an area of town where nearly all of the restaurants were closed for afternoon prayers, and large groups of men stood outside of mosques staring at us as we wandered around the streets. We eventually got frustrated enough that we just walked back to Botanique, grabbed the metro and went back to the train station, where we drowned our annoyance in huge lunches of disgusting American comfort food (Sbarro, hamburgers, fries, and chocolate). I still guilty about this.
By this point in the day it was around 5PM, so we decided to try and salvage our day by going to see the European Parliament building. We got there and immediately felt better, since it was a gorgeous structure and we finally felt like we were in a city worth exploring. I was really disappointed not to be able to visit the Information Center, since the building closed at 5:30 and wasn’t open the next day (Saturday), but at least I got to see the outside! On our way back from the Parliament Building we decided to explore a nearby park and found ourselves in Parc de Bruxelles (Warandepark in Dutch), with a gorgeous view of the Royal Palace on one end and the Federal Building on the other.
Back at our hostel later that evening we met Carrie, an American girl who had arrived in our room while we were gone. She was on the last week of a 6-week backpacking excursion through Europe and was the first person we’d actually talked to at a hostel. (That is, apart from the girls we roomed with on the train from Barcelona to Paris.) This was only partially our fault – at our other hostels we had basically only been in the room while our roommates were sleeping! Carrie was very extroverted and friendly, and we allowed ourselves to be talked into going out to dinner with her later that evening even though we were feeling tired and generally deflated. In the end this turned out to be one of the best decisions we made that day, since it resulted in a lot of laughter and an unexpected walking tour of the city.
Leigh, Carrie and I left our hostel around 9PM and headed towards the downtown business area, which was actually only about a 5 or 10 minute walk from our hostel. It was strange to see the distinct differences between the tourist-friendly and not-so-tourist-friendly areas located equidistantly from our neighborhood. Carrie wanted to try the food at a restaurant our map called “Fin de Siecle,” so we decided to walk with her as she said it was only 15-minutes away. As we walked Carrie entertained us by bragging about being a super-proficient map reader, regaling us with brief anecdotes of how she had been asked numerous times to escort random people on the street. Holding the map and walking with great purpose Carrie then proceeded to walk us in a massive square which resulted in us ending up almost exactly back where we started. When we looked at the map and informed her of this, her response was “NO!” Proficient map reader my arse!
At this point about an hour had passed and we were pretty freakin’ hungry, so we glanced at a couple of menus before deciding to have dinner at a restaurant closer to home. This worked out remarkably well – Carrie and I split a couple of excellently-fatty Belgian dishes involving a lot of meat and cheese, and I finally got to taste my first lambic beer (more specifically Kriek, a cherry-flavored heavenly concoction). Leigh tried Framboise, which was raspberry-flavored and equally as exciting. Mort Subite (the brand we had) lived up to its name and we finished the night with lots of laughter and a much-improved outlook on the next day.