08 April 2010

What we did on a weekend in Brussels

view down from Place-Royale

We arrived by train around 8pm, took a taxi to the hotel and then walked around the neighbourhood and found ourselves a little brasserie for dinner. We typically like to walk around cities when we're first visiting since it's the best way to get a sense of direction and you often see things you'd miss if you were taking the metro. This is pretty easy to do in places like Amsterdam and Brussels that have quite compact older centres (less so in London, but we did it there too).

La Bourse

On Saturday, we headed out to find a café for breakfast. We first went towards where we'd had dinner since there was a likely looking place nearby, but it turned out to be closed and it felt like we'd walked into the business district, so we went the other way instead. We had wisely declined the 10 euro per person per day breakfast at the hotel and we soon found Exki, a nice local chain. We sat at one of the sidewalk tables and had delicious coffee and decent croissants for 6,40 euros (total for the 2 of us). Feeling rather smug after this nice breakfast, we wandered towards some interesting looking buildings and found the Grand-Place, which is stunning. I recommend going first thing in the morning like we did, as it was much less crowded.

detail in the Grand-Place

After meandering through the streets and squares nearby, we stopped at a street stall and bought some belgian waffles to munch on. There were many shops filled with chocolates and sweets. La Cure Gourmande was especially pretty.

La Cure Gourmande

Then, we walked up towards the Place-Royale, in search of the Centre Belge de la B.D. (the Belgian Comic Strip museum). We thought we might have lunch there and then visit the museum. However, we got hungry before finding it, so we stopped at a place that served panini, and had this cute sign.

cute sign

After lunch, we renewed our search for the museum and after much walking, got ourselves to Smurf Street! It was a neat museum, with fun displays, including lots of original pages, where you could see the illustrators' corrections and process.

Smurf Street!

After the museum, we headed to a bookstore, so my sweetie could get a book in French (not so easily available in Amsterdam as English books). Naturally, we ate moules frites (mussels and fries) for supper. We went back through the Grand-Place to see it at night, and the Town Hall was very pretty at night.

Town Hall in the Grand-Place at night

On Sunday, we ventured into the metro to go out to the Atomium, a building constructed for the 1958 Expo.

The Atomium from a distance

I took about ten gazillion photos of this building, which is partly why it's taken me so long to get around to posting all our trip photos. Wow is it bizarre and wonderful. I especially loved the stairwells inside some of the tubes.

stairs in the Atomium

So much so, that I can't resist including another one. It's interesting how little our idea of "futuristic" has changed in half a century.

stairs in the Atomium

There's a lookout at the top of the Atomium, with a good view over the city and then there's exhibits in some of the other spheres.

a view from the Atomium lookout

I actually felt quite squicky when looking up at the building from below. It's not like I was literally afraid of it falling on me or of falling myself, but it's like some primitive part of myself felt fearfully uncomfortable. I forced myself to anyway since it was just so... neat.

looking up at the Atomium

After much furious picture taking and playing with forced perspective, we headed back into the city to have a late lunch. The weather was mostly cloudy while we were in Brussels, but it never quite got up the energy to rain on us. The sky did look very menacing and dramatic as we headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and head for the train.

pretty building in Brussels

A mere 2.5 hrs later, and we were home! To go to another country and see so much in a weekend sure made it feel longer than just two days! (The full set of pictures is here).

Photographs by Allison Gryski. © All rights reserved.

02 April 2010

Impressions from our Trip to Brussels

Guildhalls in the Grand-Place

Last weekend we went to Brussels. I'm still sort of in awe of the fact that I can do this sort of thing. Two and a half hours on the train and I'm in another country, with lots of interesting things to see.

Town Hall spire in the Grand-Place

Brussels was a strange mix of touristy and neglected. The Grand-Place is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is utterly beautiful. Really, my pictures don't convey it exactly because the stunning part was being completely surrounded by these old, ornate buildings.

in the Grand-Place

But then, walk down one of the winding streets that leads off of it and you almost immediately see very rundown, seedy buildings.

seedy sidestreet of Brussels

Another example is the formal garden next to the Bibliothèque Nationale, which had litter absolutely everywhere and bright pink tagging spray-painted on the statue of King Albert I.

formal park

We also found the tourist information and maps terribly lacking.
  • The train station had a completely useless information person who didn't even have a proper map, and didn't appear to be there at all on Saturday. We couldn't find any maps or tourist brochure stands in the station either.
  • The tourist information place in the Grand-Place is either seasonal or very well hidden.
  • The little business association tourist booklet that was available free in hotels and restaurants had maps that indicated tiny areas and one that showed the names of neighbourhoods, but nothing that was the least bit helpful for walking around the old city and finding anything.

We found the Grand-Place by going to find a bakery for breakfast and then saying "oh that looks neat over there!" and wandering over. Now, that's part of the fun to some extent, but when looking for the Belgian Comic Strip Museum we really did need a map with street names! We did try asking a couple shopkeepers but either they'd never heard of it, or they gave us dodgy directions that we later learned had a creative estimate of distance.

National Library in Brussels

In the end, we went to the main tourist information office, the BIP, which is not exactly obvious either. When you walk in the building with the big "i" on the planter out front, the first desk is NOT the tourist information desk. You go through a door at the side, through what currently looks like some sort of urban planning exhibit, and at the back of the room there is a desk. The ladies there were very friendly and helpful and had an excellent map for us, but seriously, this should not have been so complicated to get! I think some of our surprise at this is that it was in contrast to our experience in Amsterdam where the free map in the hotel was completely sufficient for walking around the city.

building in Brussels

Note that we do speak French, so I can only imagine how much more frustrating this would be for someone who didn't speak French or Dutch. In fact, visiting Belgium made me feel a lot better about my level of French. In Montreal, I always noticed how much I struggled since so many were completely bilingual. But as compared to my useless amount of Dutch which I experience daily in Amsterdam (luckily most people also speak English), I felt so competent speaking French. It was nice to feel like I could express (albeit not necessarily elegantly) pretty much anything I wanted to. The tourist environment is also so different here (in Europe) as almost everyone speaks at least a little of some other language(s). It is much less "special" to speak a second language here, but the standards are also lower. Speaking just a little bit is okay, whereas in Montreal I always felt like I really should be fluent. For more musings on the language experience in Brussels, my sweetie posted about it here.

I still have to upload more of our pictures, so I'll talk about what we actually DID as opposed to how the visit made us FEEL in my next post.

Art Nouveau architecture in Brussels

Photographs by Allison Gryski. © All rights reserved.