June 29, 2012

Brussels, Belgium: Impressions and Surprises

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Jun 22-24, 2012: Brussels, Belgium

Impressions and Surprises

There's a hill in Brussels! After reading how flat the region is we quickly discovered that "Upper town" is higher than "Lower town", hence the names. Brussel's Central Train Station is conveniently located right in the middle. The upper class traditionally lived in upper town. We stayed in lower town (go figure). Not much of the city predates 1690 - wars, fires, etc. destroyed the city a few times. Fortunately a lot does remain from the 1690s, including the buildings that line Grand Place.

Our last stop before we left town included a rainy walk by the royal palace and a trip to the BELvue Museum - which provided an objective view of Belgium's relatively short history. "Belgium" is a young country, formed after revolts in 1830 spurred by the desire for more autonomy - they succeeded from The Netherlands (this blog can be educational!)

With roots from The Netherlands, I was surprised that French was the dominate language. My impression of whole city was very French, I expected it to be more "Belgian" - whatever that is.

On this trip across Belgium and The Netherlands we are making 5 overnight stops, 3 in AirBnB rentals, including Brussels. This apartment was located above a French restaurant (Chat Noir), unit was nice and we had a cool view of soccer fans gathered after their teams victory at "The Bourse" building/plaza across the intersection below (people have been gathering at this spot for about 200 years). Our view included a large blinking sign for Chat Noir. Fortunately bedroom was in the back- with only a noisy pigeon outside.

Other random impressions:
Graffiti - like our travels through other European cities (Zurich, Milan, Rome), I was surprised by more graffiti, but in Brussels some was done in comic style (e.g. Smurfs & Titin).
Beer - Ahhh Belgian beer! But there is only 1 brewery in Brussels, Cantillion. We took a beer tour Saturday afternoon (lead by Cesar, the Anthony Bourdain of Beer). He lead us down some alleys to a cool old bar with several Trappists on tap before we hit Cantillion. Interesting brewery - they are purists - and the beer (at least the 2 we sampled: 1 was "Gueuze 100% Lambic", the other pink!) is definitely an acquired taste (e.g. we didn't like it, too vinegary). Oh, each beer has a unique glass & it is always served in that glass, never from the bottle. More American bars could pick up that habit.
Waffles - USA has ice cream trucks, Belgium has waffle trucks (same music).

Final thoughts on Brussels - definitely a party town (hey- they even have a Chi-Chi's), lots of night life, lots of history, lots of characters, lots of everything! We could have always enjoyed another day, but 2 nights was enough.

Next stop: Bruges.

UPDATE: Jul 30, 2012
I have several colleagues around the world & have been working with one from the Brussels area recently. She provides some insider commentary:
I went to Brasserie Cantillon myself a few weeks ago -  what you called the ‘pink is actually made with red fruits ;) As you said they’re purist, even for us !
And about being Belgian, it’s a whole concept (e.g. I’m native French speaking, my children’s father is native Flemish speaking, my kids are in school in Flemish and at home we speak both our native languages. Great way to raise bilingual kids.
But as you might not know is Brussels in situated in Flemish territory but the majority is French speaking..You can imagine what political situation we live in.
In the other part of the country like Bruges, it’s easier: Flemish territory with a majority of Flemish native speaker => no confusion.

A few photos. Many more in this blog post.
View of soccer fans gathering at The Brouse outside our apartment.

The famous Grand Place.

In front of Chat Noir's blinking black cat sign outside our 2nd story apartment balcony.

June 20, 2012

Time to jump the pond again

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It's been exactly 3 years since Tee and I found ourselves in Europe. Since our final dinner in Schaffhausen, Switzerland (July 2009) we've vacationed in Boston (saw the Red Sox win a pair of games), Cape Cod (where we were engaged and I introduced Tee to the original 15 Short Beach Road), planned and pulled off a really fun wedding weekend in Raleigh then honeymooned on the west coast (San Francisco & Yosemite). We traveled virtually, vicariously, and financially to Ireland via Tee's daughter after she graduated from nursing school last year (she brought me back a nice authentic Irish wool cable sweater - always wanted one of those) .

This time we are destined for the northwestern flatlands of Europe - Belgium and The Netherlands. Why BE and NL?
  • it is on the bucket list
  • can get there via frequent flier miles (I've been saving them for 20 years!)
  • waffles, beer & chocolate along side picturesque canals and windmills - what more do we need?

View Belgium/Netherlands 2012 in a larger map

We always plan our own trips, no travel agencies, no tour buses; but planning this trip seemed harder. Not knowing the area at all, even w/ travel books & the www, it took a lot of time to find non-touristy areas to stay in. With suggestions from locals, friends that have been and Rick Steves, we settled on Brussels (2 nights), Bruges (3 nights), the middle of no-where in eastern Netherlands (3 nights), historic little Delft in Holland (2 nights) and finally Amsterdam (4 nights). And I think I've figured out how to get from one point to the next. (I don't think anything will ever top our last trip which in one day entailed - breakfast in Ruette, Autria, followed by a drive through the Alps to Friedrichshafen, Germany, hitching a ride down to the lake, a ferry across Lake Constance, mexican for lunch in Konstanz, Germany, train to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, hike up a hill with luggage and finally, after avoiding a naked guy walking around the Rhein falls, a bus to dinner - we ate Italian - couldn't find a German restaurant!! quite a memorable day). Nothing that crazy this time - we'll take trains most of the time; a rental car in the middle to get out to the countryside. But I'm really looking forward to some day trips on bikes and drinking beers along the canals. We'll post a few blogs from the road via my new iPad, but the good photos will have to wait until I'm home to upload 'em.

Time to pack!

A few photos from our final day in Austria and epic one day trek in 2009 through Austria, Germany & Switzerland...
July 3, 2009: In the alps (Ruette, AU) - surreal, there were even cows with bells.
Must return someday!
July 4, 2009: View of Friedrichshafen, Germany (from Lake Constance ferry)
July 4, 2009: On the ferry - the clarity of the water was amazing!

July 4, 2009: Almost to our destination
July 4, 2009: Tee's version of blogging -
on the train from Konstanz,Germany to Schaffhausen, Switzerland