Buying a map seemed necessary. My little, Alayna and I had just gotten in a cab to be told only minutes later that we didn’t need to be in said cab; our hotel was “just around the other side of the train station.” But the other side of Brussels-Zuid and Brussels-Midi, two names for conceivably the same train station, wasn’t as easily navigated as our cab driver would have led us to believe. Rue De Hollande or Rue De Modenstraat? Was that French or Dutch? So, after walking around the train station more than once we decided that finding the information desk back inside would most likely be the best move. It was there, listening to a woman try and explain directions that were surely a cab-ride away, that we bought the 1 Euro map that would usher us around Brussels, Belgium for the next three days.
Palais De Justice
Its serendipitous that our hotel’s location in the city ensured that we had to reach Palais De Justice before ascending Brussel’s hills to get to the touristy spots in the city (read: french fries, 1 Euro waffles, moules frites). Our first glance of the city’s reaches came from the lookout set in front of the golden-domed court as the clouds hung low and grey over the tops of houses and apartments that married eastern Europe to the west- dark concrete with light roof tiles. The wind was whipping up and around our acceptable London attire (we would soon learn that Brussels was pants and sweaters only) and a guy in a leather jacket, holding a beer and smoking a cigarette placed his hand on the railing and gracefully swung himself over and landed in a portrait of urban freedom, swinging his legs over Brussels beneath him.
I can’t say we ever looked as edgy as him in the hours and days that followed, but as we got lost in the cobbled streets that sat underneath the lookout, I felt pretty damn cool.
On the first day we left Palais de Justice and descended past Mont de Arts, where we got a bit of a cultural education from the large hordes of Bavarian dancers warming up to the choral accompaniments of a middle-aged, co-ed choir. So,we hovered for a bit, taking in the six foot tall men prancing around with much smaller female counterparts and the manicured gardens that flanked them.
We didn’t stay long though; we had gotten in from London only a few hours before and we were hungry, a little cold and on the search for sustenance. We found said sustenance (I ordered a Croque Monsieur but I ate a ham and cheese sandwich) and then found our way to the center of tourist Brussels- Grande Place.
It was less the square itself, ordained with guildhalls from the 17th century, and more the network of streets by which we got lost and turned around and somehow deposited back into its center for the next three hours that left the Grande Place feeling so magical to me. We walked down streets, narrow from their centuries old origins, and stacked now with awnings and outdoor seating of restaurants called Chez (insert name here) and Place de (insert name here) promising the cheapest, no the best (!) moules frites in all of Brussels! It was a tourist trap; Alayna and I acknowledged this to each other out loud and yet we didn’t mind. It was the first night. We would eat moules frites and split a bottle of wine at Chez Louis- the best moules frites in Bruxelles!
And then it was night and the cobble stone streets led us back to the center once more, where at 10:30 pm the sky had just gone a milky dark blue. The tower of Brussels Town Hall glowed white above the square where teenagers and 20-somethings sat in circles on the cobble stones with bottles of wine and guitars, making noise and making Brussels feel less touristy and more like there was a fabric of life below the 1 Euro waffles and Belgian Frites.
We went and ate a waffle and promised to be less touristy the next day.
The next morning at a balmy 55 degrees we got up to make the trek to another Brussels landmark (read: you’ve seen this on Instagram 100 times): The Atomium. So, the story goes that this 335 foot tall structure made to look like the unit cell of an iron crystal went up in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair, and has been a Belgian landmark ever since. My little, whom seemed to be the only one of us to do actual research before getting to this fair Belgian city, explained this to me ever so eloquently on our Metro ride from Louiza-Plein to Heysel, the home of the Atomium, Mini Europe and the greenhouses Alayna had read about on the Internet.
The Atomium couldn’t be missed. It was the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, commissioned by King Leopold II in the 1870’s that proved to be far more elusive. They weren’t on our trusty map. Although our trusty map did say that we were in Parc de Laeken- that meant something positive, right? For your reference, Parc de Laeken is very large. So, we learned (much later) that while, yes, being in the park that shared the name of the greenhouses was surely an indicator that we were in the right place, the right place was about 3 miles away from where we were flailing about. This information came to us in the form of a middle-aged lawyer and his seven year old son who’s face was painted to look like batman. When we finally got to the right place we found out the greenhouses were closed, and no, you could not see anything other than the tops just peeking over the wall of the palace.
Marche Aux Poissons
When we got back to the city center after Heysel (and a quick pit stop at the Palais Royal, the Gardens and a serendipitous meeting with the Mannekin Pis and some french fries for lunch) we somehow found ourselves past Place Ste. Katherine and into Marche Aux Poissons. This is a place that I can only accurately describe as the Belgian SOHO. It had the same fabric of Brussels-life that we had gotten a peek of at the Grand Place late the night before. Cafe tables spilled onto the sidewalk and the street, as people all different ages alternately speaking in Dutch and French, filled them with noise and beer and charcuterie boards. Alayna and I placed ourselves on one side of a small cafe table and ordered a bottle of red wine, some bread, Dutch cheese and meat and launched into another two hour walking reprieve that we had taken so often over the course of the weekend. We settled into Brussels here, talking of people and things back in the US, but somehow melting into the background of a place that felt so truly Belgian. Well, perhaps we didn’t melt, the 18 year old boys pounding mojitos next to us were pretty fascinated by our being American, but they were harmless in the end.
And then after a bottle of red and some subsequent raspberry beers we ran home though the rain, stopping only for a waffle with Nutella and banana.
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