Friday: 22 May 2009
I arrived in Charleroi at about 23.00pm and took a bus to Bruxelles Zuid. On the ride there I ended up meeting two people; a Finnish guy about my age and a girl living in Bruxelles who is originally from Chicago. His name is Jan and hers is Jane; the J is pronounced as a Y in their respective languages. Jane’s family moved to Chicago from Lithuania and she attended school there in Vilnius but moved to Bruxelles to work for the European Commission. She was kind enough to help me navigate the metro and helped me get to the stop just north of central where I can easily walk to my destination.
As I made my way in the direction that the hostel was located on the map in my travel book I noticed everyone was out and having a good time on this Friday night. I met a couple people from Iowa who attempted to help me locate the exact point where the hostel was positioned on the map but for some reason there was no hostel in sight. So I decided to walk in a local pub and ask if they were aware of where I could find the hostel that was in my travel book; a girl that was sitting at the bar was unaware of the hostel I was in search of but happened to work at another hostel. Damn Lonely Planet…this is the first time you have failed me! I guess it was bound to happen at some point in time but why now when I have a 20 kg ruck-pack on my back and my feet are killing me? She called up to the hostel to make sure there was a bed available for me and gave me basic directions to where I was going. I was doing just fine until I got about two blocks and then was lost again…I guess I should say just unsure in the direction I was heading.
So I was fortunate to meet two guys from South Africa who asked if I needed help locating where I was going and we continued to chat as we walked along until we went our separate ways. I told then a little about my travels and they explained to me how they were in Bruxelles for work. Michael is working out of Bratislava, Slovakia and told him how I was fortunate enough to visit this Eastern European city. They were amazingly nice and I thanked them as we went our separate ways.
I then continued up the hill where an older man stopped next to me in his car and asked if I wanted to go get a drink; why I would be interested to get in a car with some stranger who is older then my parents and have a drink with them is beyond me. I am obviously trying to get somewhere and it is not going to be with you!!!
Further on past the botanical gardens, down a small road where I unfortunately pasted it up the first time around. When I finally reached the Vincent Van Gogh Youth Hostel ( http://www.chab.be/IndexUK.html ) I waited about 45 minutes until someone came and opened the door. Finally, it is 1.30am and I have a place to sleep. I checked in, got ready for bed, drank a cold Coca Cola and passed out. Not the usually Friday night drink of choice but after such a long day and walking for the past two hours around Bruxelles I was ready to call it a night.
Saturday: 23 May 2009
The next morning I woke at 8.45am to make it for the complimentary breakfast of cereal and old bread…but I would have to say the hot chocolate was magnificent. This is when I met Maria from Philadelphia who is also traveling solo through Bruxelles and will be traveling for the next three months around Europe. I was planning on just passing through and heading to Da Haag before my arrival to Amsterdam but after Maria twisted my arm a little I decided to stay and explore Bruxelles with her. We first walked down to central station to drop off my bag so I would not have to worry about getting it later. Then we continued down through the park to the Royal Palace, down to the Palais de Justice and into a marvelous church. The Royal Palais was grand and beautiful; right in front of the main gate to the beautiful Parc de Bruxelles. But what I would have to say was one of the most stunning structures I have laid eyes on would have to be the Palais de Justice. Despite the scaffolding that outlines the outer walls of this architectural masterpiece I can only imagine laying eyes upon this structure when it was first erected. King Leopold II was an ambitious man and desired to turn his capital city into the most impressive in the world by instructing Joseph Poelaert to build the Palais of Justice on Galgenveld. Galgenveld being the Gallows Field where criminals used to be hung after found guilty of various crimes. This Neo-gothic building was constructed from 1866 to 1883 and for the longest time it was the world’s largest building. The location of this structure places this building above the rest of the city and centrally located with spectacular views that should not be missed by anyone visiting this Belgian city. We walked down numerous narrow streets lined with petite cafés, chocolatiers and Tin Tin murals along building walls. We made our way to one of Bruxelles main attractions the Manneken Pis which is the statue of the boy peeing into a fountain. Each day a man comes and dresses this statue in various different outfits. The first time we saw him he was dressed in red leg warmers, armor across his crest armed with a cross bow and sword. But later on that evening when be passed him again his costume was removed and his true appearance revealed; surrounded by tourists from all over the world in hopes to capture a picture with this image of Bruxelles.
We then tasted a few samples of Belgian chocolates which were more amazing than any chocolate I had ever experienced and I found myself lingering around to snag a few more samples and take in the incredible aroma of this chocolate shop. Stopping at convenient store to buy a couple Belgian beers after we discovered it was permitted to walk around with open containers was nothing shy from the unexpected. I got my favorite Framboise Lambic and a Kriek as well to try for the first time. We opened one up and enjoyed as we walked along the old Belgian bricks that make up the old town streets. We sat in the Market Square to take in all the sights, watch tourists and determine our next move. Art on canvases, fresh flowers for sale, cafés with outside tables and a beautiful bride smiling as she walks out of the marvelous church in this spectacular square. As we sat on the curve outside a busy café talk of previous travels, our love life and life experiences were exchanged as if we were long lost friends catching up after years apart.
The map and guide of the city that we followed suggested Mr. Falafel as a reasonably priced and delicious choice for lunch; for 3.50 euro we loaded our pita with cucumbers, onions, tomatoes with feta cheese, baba ghanoush and kalamata olives; peppers, tahini, potato salad topped with a delightful hot sauce and of course those amazing chick pea cakes. It was perfect and I did not want it to end; Wow…I would have to say that was the best falafel I had ever had. We then continued on to another café where we indulged in coffee and Belgian hot chocolate with a small chocolate cinnamon piece on the side. It was so nice to relax and enjoy the day with company such as Maria. She was an amazing person to explore the city with and chat about random things. We then moved on and passed a pub with Holland fanatics cheering their team on as they drank beer and numerous cops stood guard around the sports bar to ensure no hostility would occur or just in case things took a turn for the worst. A few guys approached us telling me how beautiful I was and if they could buy me a drink; I found it quit flattering and was baffled at how intoxicated they were so early in the day. The Belgian police force was ready for action and the boys antagonized them with chants of pride for their futbol team. We continued on stopping on the stairs overlooking a church and small park to chat and drink our second beer for the day. Two young men playing music on the corner and various people walk the streets, church bells ring on the hour and locals walk their dogs as the weather is so delightful. A blue smurf walked by and we could not help but stop him and ask why the interesting costume as well as take a picture with him. Of course it was the work of a British stag party and we asked more questions about this cultural tradition, their travels and life in the UK. One guy actually gave me his Stella ping pong paddles that each of them received after touring the brewery…awesome!
We saw galleries, small alley ways with restaurants serving three course meals, bars and tourist shops, comics painted on walls and many internationals from numerous different countries; not unexpected since Bruxelles is the capital of the European Union. As the sun began to set we found a popular destination to view the city from the rooftop of a parking garage that displayed stunning panoramic views of the city. Enjoying yet another Belgian beer, I sat back and took the pressure off my feet that have endured thousands of steps across Europe this past month. We are now taking off to find the bar that holds the record for the most number of beers on tap in Guinness book of world records; at 2,004 different varieties of beer. Delirium Tremens here we come!
Lost and finishing our beers on the steps of a closed store we had a drunken American boy with an Irish accent who claimed to be once part of the German Army stop to sing, chat and start on a quest to find this famous bar for us. We followed as he asked random people if they knew where the bar was including two guys sitting in a hotel lobby. They ended up being the same two South African guys that I met the night before. What is the chance of running into the same guys two nights in a row in such a big city? We ended up sitting and chatting with them for a while in the lobby of this nice hotel. Michael is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that works to get medicine to remote areas of Africa which based on our conversation I learned about difficulties in the distribution of these items before they expire and insuring that these supplies reach those who need it in a timely manner. I told him about my studies and he asked me to contact him when I got back to the states. After a good long chat we said our good byes and set off again for the bar; we met three guys who are originally from Morocco, Algeria and Italy at the bar. Maria had been acquainted with then previously when she first arrived in Bruxelles. I began to get really tired and we headed back to the hostel where I snuck into Maria’s room and luckily enough there was a spare bed that was unoccupied. Free board…Yes! What a break, especially with my budget decreasing ever so fast.
The next morning we walked down to the train station together and headed our separate ways; me to Amsterdam and Maria to Bruges.