I took a fast train from Paris to Brussels late Friday morning on 5 January. It took less than an hour and a half and nobody checked my passport. I got a bed in a four person room in Centre Vincent Van Gogh hostel for 500 Belgian francs, about $12.50. The bed wasn't expensive but a late lunch of mussels and chips with one beer, the set menu, cost $20. Brussels is not a cheap place.
Some cities give the impression of being all business, and Brussels is one of them. There's nothing wrong with this kind of city if you are on an expense account, but they aren't the best places for someone on a budget. On Saturday I made a quick pass of the main sights, basically the Grand Place and Manneken Pis, sampled some Belgian beers and chocolates, and went on a tour of Cantillon Brewery, a lambic brewery. The brewery was interesting; lambic is brewed with wild yeast, which means that the hot wort is poured into large shallow pans in the attic. The wort cools, and sits there in a drafty attic, open to bugs, birds, and dust, until the dominant local yeast drifts in and starts fermenting. It is then transferred to barrels for the rest of the fermentation. As a former home brewer who took great pains to avoid contamination, I found such deliberate neglect in order to encourage contamination by "wild" yeast a strange concept. It works though. Lambics are different but good.
Not too many pictures. The first two are different views of the Hotel de Ville, followed by some of the Guild Houses around Grand Place Square. The last one is of the Manneken Pis, sort of the Brussels trademark. Let's see, Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union, and the city's symbol is of a boy urinating. Does that say something about the EU or Belgium's attitude to the EU?
Next time I'm in Belgium I'll by-pass Brussels and go straight to Bruges. Bruges is a a beautiful little medieval city where everyone is much friendlier and things operate at a much slower pace than in Brussels. Bruges is a short train ride from Brussels. It rained most of the way over but slowed down to a drizzle when I was leaving the train station. I immediately saw this encouraging sign.
I got a single room in the Bauhaus for about $21. It was a nice place near the center with a small restaurant and bar. Not bad. I did a short tour of the center of town and climbed to the top of the Belfort (Belfry) on Market Square. Back at the hostel I ate and went sampling Belgium beers. Nothing fantastic, but I liked it enough to follow a similar routine the next three days. Only I varied the walks; I didn't go to the top of the Belfort every day.
Below is the Belfort and the views from the top. In the second picture you can see the North Sea in the background. Bruges was a merchant city in the twelfth through fifteenth century, dependent upon a canal for access to the sea. When the canal silted up, the city was virtually abandoned for 400 years, leaving it run down but in adequate shape for restoration.
Guild houses on Market Square, and what may be the Stadhuis-- I don't recall and my notes are unclear.
Windmills, canals, old streets and parks.
The 19th century St Salvatorskathedraal, in two shots.
I did make it to two museums. The most important one was the De Halve Man brewery, where they make a conventional Belgium beer. Conventional compared to Lambic. I also went to the Groeningemuseum. I don't know what that translates into, but it had an impressive collection of Dutch Primitives, and an unimpressive collection of modern art. Being the low brow that I am, I thought the Primitives were reasonably sophisticated and the moderns were dumb. The first picture is an example of one of the Dutch Primitives. I must admit the theme is primitive. The little plaque said this was done to a corrupt judge. His skin was hung behind the seat of the new judge. Extreme measures, but I bet the replacement judge was honest.
I didn't note the name or artist of this painting, but it is another artist's depiction of Judgment Day. Interesting.
On Thursday, 11 January, I took the train to Amsterdam. Less than one week in Belgium, most of it in Bruges. I didn't know much about Belgium when I arrived, I was just there for the beer and the chocolate. I enjoyed both. You have to be careful with those Belgium chocolates; you buy a small bag to last you the week and they are all gone by the end of the afternoon. I ran into similar problems with the beer.