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.

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