Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brussels and closing thoughts

Brussels is in many ways a very different city from the rest of the Low Countries' cities I've visited. For one thing it's a lot more French. For another it's quite a lot busier (about as busy as Antwerpen I would say). It also lacks canals and has a much steeper terrain, so expects the walks around Brussels to be a bit tougher. It is a wonderful destination in many ways, whether for culture and museums, shopping, sightseeing, or cuisine. It is a dream location for anyone with a sweet tooth as Brussels is known for its waffles and gourmet chocolates. It is also a comic book fan's dream, but only if you read French.

A quick note about Brussels is that there is an inner Brussels (called the Pentagon) which is the downtown and the historical centre, and the outer Brussels - which despite being more residential and modern also has quite a lot to see. Brussels is also a sprawling city, although it may not be immediately obvious, and some locations might require the use of public transportation to be reached. In the outer Brussels, a couple of interesting locations to see is the Horta Museum and the Atomium and Mini-Europe. The Horta Museum is dedicated to the talented architect Victor Horta who launched the Art Nouveau movement, built some of Brussels' most recognizable landmarks, and without whom Art Deco probably would not have occurred. His restored house is an interesting design museum and an opportunity to see how late 19th century well-off people lived. It is located on 25 rue Americaine, Saint-Gilles (one of Brussels' 19 municipalities), but is only open from 2 to 5. Just a couple of steps away from it is a terrific eatery called Comptoir des Ogres. The food and the service are terrific and the prices are amazing. I highly recommend it. The Atomium is a huge iron molecule with a museum inside, and adjoining it is the Mini-Europe which has models of Europe's most famous buildings. It's pretty neat overall.

The boy who urinates in public is behind me!
In downtown there are way too many interesting sights to list, so I'll just mention a few worth seeing. Definitely check out the Grand Place - you can't miss it, and it's quite striking. Also the Ommegang (more on that in a bit) and the flower carpet events take place here. A really interesting and beautiful church is the Notre-Dame de Sablon, and the district of Sablon around it is also great for fancy antique shops, good brasseries (A La Mort Subite - "Sudden Death" - is supposed to be particularly good), and sightseeing in general. In the Notre-Dame de Chapelle church, which is also quite beautiful (and is free to enter), is the resting place of Pieter Brueghel (the elder). Another church that's easy to miss, but is definitely worth a visit is the Notre-Dame de Bon Secours - it's a smaller but wonderful ecumenical church, with a marvellous organ and very interesting interior. While walking around inner Brussels check out the Manneken Pis - the pissing boy. Some very good waffle places nearby too. Also worth visiting is the Galerie Saint-Hubert - one of Europe's first grand shopping arcades. It's really beautiful, a convenient shortcut, and has very fancy (but pricy) stores. It also has an exit on the famous Rue des Bouchers - a famous restaurant street. Even if you're not hungry go visit it! It's quite an experience!

For museums there's the afore-mentioned Horta museum, but there are others as well. The biggest one - and the absolutely-positively-not-to-be-missed on - is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (the one W. H. Auden wrote about). It's a huge museum, marvellous and very eclectic collection, and is also adjoined by museum dedicated to surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Both are free on the first Wednesday of every month (from 1 PM onward). Another really interesting museum is the archeological dig beneath the royal square which can be accessed at the tourist information centre. The MIM (Museum of musical instruments) is amazingly beautiful - built by Victor Horta - but I didn't go inside. I hear it's very interesting though and you can hear how the instruments actually sound, it's supposed to have the largest collection of medieval musical instruments. Another museum I have to mention is the CBBD - the museum of comic books. Also located in a building designed by Horta and amazingly beautiful inside, it's a really interesting museum, has an excellent cafe and a comic book shop inside as well. It's a bit of a walk from the centre of the city but totally worth it. Speaking of comic book shops, Brussels has a bevy of comic book shops! Two of the best ones (I tried to check out each one I came across) is the BD-World shop and cafe (yeah, you can get comic books, eat dessert and drink beer all in one place!) located at 8 Place du Grand Sablon. Another very good one (better selection, but a lot more chaotic and no beer or desserts) is Le Depot BD located on 120 Chee D'Ixelles, and almost across the street from it is a huge manga shop (I forgot the name though).

The Ommegang
Brussels is best visited during the first week of July. For most of the first week the city becomes a huge Ren Faire as it gears up for the Ommegang! The Ommegang (literally Walk Around) is a huge celebration and historical parade (about 1400 participants - all volunteers) that takes place in historical spots throughout inner Brussels, culminating with two processions and spectacles in the Grand Place on Wednesday and Friday (they start letting people in at 8, but it doesn't start until 9). Good seats (they erect big stands for the public) go fast, so get tickets in advance. It's an amazing event celebrating the visit of Emperor Charles V to Brussels about 500 years ago, and it is not to be missed! Other events that happen during the week of Ommegang include jousting, historical dinner, various Ren Faire style events, and food and souvenirs stalls (if swords and chainmail and heraldic shields can be considered souvenirs). Definitely do not miss it if travelling to Brussels in the summer!

Okay, some final thoughts on the trip and what I would advise any traveller visiting the same locations:
- reserve rooms in advance, otherwise you end up paying nearly double for the roomss
- splurge on hotels in the centres of the cities (except for Bruges) and save on public transportation and the time needed for transportation, that way you have more time to actually enjoy the destination rather than enjoy the tramways, subways, and buses. In Bruges on the other hand, try to go for a hotel that's further away from the centre. You'll save a lot of money and you can bike or walk around the town more that way
- Wear very comfortable shoes. Ladies, avoid heels - all of these cities are stone-paved and are not heel-friendly at all!
- Watch your step. While Dutch cities tend to be quite clean, Antwerpen, Bruges and especially Brussels share an unfortunate trait with Paris - there's dog shit everywhere. Be careful near corners and near trees especially.
- In Ghent be aware that finding a place to sit down and eat that is not a fast food place is difficult between noon and 6-7 PM
- One thing I noticed is that ATMs are harder to find than in North America, and more places are cash only than here. Carry cash but do it safely - I've heard one or two pickpocket tales, but muggings are rare.
- In the summer plan for mild weather, with frequent showers. Umbrellas are quite cheap there so you don't have to bring your own, and some hotels will even lend you an umbrella.
- Brasserie (essentially a pub) will serve food and alcohol, but in Belgium brasseries will serve food only for lunch and dinner, most of the day they are only watering holes. So while it may LOOK like there are a ton of  places to eat, in reality it may not be so easy to find a spot to sit down and eat. That's mostly a problem in Belgium though, in Amsterdam we never had a problem finding a spot to eat. There are plenty of fast-food places and shawarma joints around if you need a quick bite though. Also for some reason the Dutch are obsessed with Burger King - they're everywhere!
- Tap water is perfectly safe to drink just about everywhere in Holland and Belgium. Skip buying water bottles, bring or buy a container and fill it up at the hotel instead.
- Tipping is customary - this is not UK. However, it is typically done not by percentage the way it's common in North America, but is usually a 1 to 5 euro tip regardless of the establishment. Oh and prices in restaurants and shops already include taxes, so what you see on the price tag is what you pay. In Belgium, however, there is some kind of curious tax that visitors must pay at hotels - it's a very small amount but it is NOT listed in the room price. So if you see it added on, don't panic and don't accuse the hotel of trying to scam you - it's 100% legit.

OK, that's it for now! It is good to be home, but I'm already considering some future destinations to visit. I'm thinking London, northern Italy or Barcelona!

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