If it is the weekend, it must be Belgium

Posted June 10th, 2011 by Deepa and filed in Travel
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PHOTOS : BELGIUM, MONSCHAU

DSC_6914Earlier this year, Seejo and I essayed the roles of a jet setting couple who meet in Europe for a brief rendezvous and then part to go to the opposite corners of the globe.  Seejo was on a study tour to Israel and China as part of his coursework for his MBA. Between the schedules for the two trips he had four days to kill in Belgium (he was flying Belgian Air & Brussels was his transit city). I decided to fly out to meet him and we enjoyed exploring Belgium for an extra long weekend.

DSC_6857We spent our first day strolling in the town center of Brussels starting at the famous Markt Square :  a beautiful square with the majestic town hall on one side and the rather dull looking gothic styled gray Royal House on the other side.  The guild houses, with its gilded exterior gave the square  a rather regal appearance that made it memorable compared to town squares in other European cities. One of the guilded houses is a restaurant called La Maison du Cygne which was patronized once by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels and it was here that they collaborated to come up with the Communist Manifesto.   Narrow streets led away from the square in all four directions.   We followed the crowd from the Markt square along one of these side streets to see the statue that has now become symbol of Belgium—the famous Mannekin Pis.  A two and half feet bronze statue of a little boy peeing with great abandon and supposed to showcase Belgium’s irreverent attitude. The statue was rather small, something we would have definitely walked past if not for the modest crowd of tourists (not tourist season) gathered around it clicking photographs.  The outfit for the statue is changed periodically. The Gray House at the Markt square stores the wardrobe of the Mannekin Pis and it includes national dresses of many countries, costumes that represent various occupations and uniforms of several military and other organizations.  After our round of clicking photographs, we threaded our way back to the square passing several of the touristy lace shops, chocolate shops, waffle shops and other souvenir shops selling souvenirs of the Mannekin pis.

DSC_6937Brussels was indeed a city with the smell of chocolate in the air and it was making us rather hungry. The shops surrounding the Markt square were either  chocolate shop or one selling waffles or both!  For our introduction to Belgian food, we decided to do the touristy thing and as recommended by the guidebooks, stopped to have lunch at Chez Leon. Chez Leon has famously created a tourist friendly formula where they serve mussels and fries to hordes of tourists.  Since it was offseason, the Rue De Brouse (or the Belgian Khau Gully!) was not crowded and we easily managed to find seating in the restaurant of our choice. We did order

DSC_6932mussels and fries and I ordered the famous raspberry beer.—frambois. Normally I am not a major beer fan but I loved the sweet taste of frambois.  It was incredibly surprising to learn  that for a small country, Belgians had rather a large number of  iconic foods to its credit.  Beer, Moules and Frites (French Fries!), Waffles, Chocolates (Godiva/Neuhaus), Endives, and perhaps the (in)famous Brussel sprouts!.  At the Chez Leon, we also ordered another famous Belgian delicacy:  the waterzooi.  It was actually a creamy stew of either fish or chicken—very rich & creamy but extremely heavy and unfortunately rather bland for our palate.

DSC_6940We walked off our heavy lunch by walking across the city to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.  Parts of the  city had a gritty seedy side to it  with broken glass littered on the side of the road, gypsy beggars, litter but if you closed your eyes all you could smell was the rich warm smell of melting chocolate.   Old structures with their unique architecture stood cheek by jowl next to modern buildings. We strolled along slowly pausing to admire the Old England Building (classic example af art noveau architecture) and the beautiful view from the Mont de Arts or the Mountain of Arts.  By the time , we reached the museum we wereDSC_6959 rather tired. We had reached Brussels after our 10 hour flights that very morning and set off to explore the city without a rest. Not being major art connoisseurs, we did a short cut version of the museum tour, stopping only to see the major highlights.  Although I am not an expert in either recognizing or appreciating great art, the pictures were rather awe inspiring and I could have spent more time  looking through the different collections.

DSC_6965Our final stop of the day was the Atomium- a symbol of modern Brussels.  It is a strange, pyramid shaped structure consisting of 9 spherical “atoms”. The spheres are connected to each other by escalators and each one hosts some kind of exhibit.  From the top of the Atomium, you can get a panoramic view of the city of Brussels.  It seemed like a weird structure when we first saw it but by the time we finished viewing the exhibits and stepped out it was already dark. That’s when we wereDSC_7018 impressed by the Atomium.  It was lit up with lots of twinkling blue lights and looked almost magical & very space-age friendly!  We took the local train back to Brussels Centrale to collect our bags from the baggage storage and for a quick meal and then went on to take the evening train to Bruges.

We slept in late the next morning and took our time getting ready and out of the hotel to explore Bruges.  We had an excellent hotel (Hotel Martin’s Brugge), right across from the Bruges city square.  Unlike Brussels, Bruges was crowded, there were vendors all lined up, hordes of people eating, shopping, walking or simply sitting and watching others.  When we were told that this was low season traffic, I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortably crowded it would be  in the summer.  We stopped to have a quick brunch of the special Belgian waffles –although Belgians eat their waffles at tea time, my own opinion is  that there is neverreally  a bad time to have a waffle.

DSC_7080We had no fixed agenda or timeline for the day, very unusual for us  and very relaxing. We wandered around, stopping to admire views that could sell (and possibly did) a million post cards.  We stopped to marvel at the beautiful canal views where the still waters created a perfect reflection of the trees and buildings above, bought a few souvenirs from a wonderful little tapestry shop and wondered at the tons of people shopping at quite some high end stores. We passed some really beautiful old churches from the early 12th andDSC_711413th centuries and popped in to gaze at their exquisite interiors.  One particular church, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, was especially memorable because they claim to possess the actual blood of Christ. The story is that Joseph of Arimathea wiped the blood of Christ on a piece of cloth and it then somehow fell into the hands of the knight who travelled the holy land and then brought it home to Belgium.  It was displayed a little glass vial – a piece of cotton which was blood red in color.

DSC_7154We were not terribly hungry at lunch but we did stop at an innovative Chocolate shop called the Chocolate Line. The folks at Chocolate line specialize in creating gourmet chocolates that are one of a kind and those that have completely radical flavors compared to traditional chocolate. Amidst the standard vanilla, strawberry and hazelnut flavors, there were exotic ones such as passion fruit ,  lime or ginger, weird ones such as  earl grey tea, coriander and sake and some absurd ones such as curry, Cuban cigar or coca cola.

We ended the day back at the main square of Brussels, simply sittingDSC_7218 at one of the benches, eating fries and watching the ice-skaters till the darkness set in and the town square slowly lit up.  Bruges was a city with its own unique charm and one which I wouldn’t mind going back to.  The weather was bracing, just chilly enough to require a warm jacket but not biting cold that we were uncomfortable being outside.  Once the sun had set and the evening lights came on, we hopped on back to our hotel, picked up our bags and then returned to Brussels.

Our hotel for this night was a very modern trendy hotel called the Hotel Bloom, not too far from the Gare Du Nord.

DSC_7568The next morning we got up to find that the weather had turned unexpectedly chilly and it looked like it might snow. Fortunately, we had rented a car for our last day in Belgium, so we could drive to nearby Waterloo instead of having to brave the elements using public transport.   After reading several European historical novels, I was quite familiar with the history of Waterloo and the story of Wellington’s victory overDSC_7577 Napolean but it was quite a different feeling to see the bucolic farmlands that exist today and contrast that to what must have been quite a bloody battlefield.  It was also rather startling to realize that the history of Europe as we know today was decided on that very spot.  The Lions’s Mound, which we climbed,  rather huffing and puffing, gave us a birds eye view of the entire surrounding area.  There was also a 360 degree panorama painting of the entire battle, supposedly one of the largest of the kind, with realistic depiction and some unique sound effects that made you feel as though you were in the midst of the battle.

We stopped  to get some sandwiches for an early lunch at one of the local grocery stores. I always make it a point to shop at local grocery stores whenever I am in a foreign place. I always find it fascinating to see what the local people are eating  or what the daily specials are.  It is a remarkable peep into the ordinary lives of strangers and it has never failed to fascinate me.  Anyway after a brief grocery stop, we decided to make our way to the town of Monschau in the Aachen region in Germany giving Seejo an opportunity to drive his rental BMW on German roads.

DSC_7644Another one of our touristy must-dos, is to keep a day or so to visit a town that is not on the main tourist loop. This time around it was the quaint town of Monschau. It is settled in the foothills of Eifel Hills and the recent snow and mist combined to give the appearance of having steppedDSC_7712 out of a fairy tale.  The town was almost closed for winter , there were few people about so we almost had the entire place to ourselves.  The striking factor of Monschau were the wooden houses that line the central canal painted with thick black lines across the entire house, almost like a jigsaw puzzle.  With its almost empty surropunidngs, the mist and these jigsaw houses on the canals, we felt as though we were Hansel and Gretel in fairly tale land.

We reached Brussels late night and packed up , ready to leave for US (for me)  and Israel (Seejo) the next day.  It was a short trip—just three days (+1 for travel) but like I said…if it is the weekend, there is no place like Belgium!

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