Myself and my partner anticipated our first ‘Chunnel’ ride as being one filled with excitement, yet the reality was actually quite boring – as most endless periods of darkness usually are (see also: British winters). It did, however, precipitate our journey to the place printed on our tickets and within a couple of hours we were rolling into the Gare de Midi, unsurprisingly located in the middle of Brussels.
Using a map, we concluded that our hotel was within walking distance and took the first street outside the station – the aptly named Rue d’ Angletaire. Here, we literally saw the blind leading the blind, when two old blind men, one apparently guiding the other, barged us into the street. Yards later we found out why this wasn’t such an unusual occurrence – the Rue d’ Angletaire is home to the Belgian Institute for the Blind.
In Belgium, as is the case in France and some parts of Switzerland, the difference between a ‘rue’ and a ‘boulevard’ is more than just spelling. Once we reached the Boulevard de Midi, we thought it would lead us to our hotel on the Rue de Midi. A half-hour later, finding ourselves back at the Gare de Midi, we transferred our fate into the capable hands of a taxi driver.
After dumping our bags we took to the streets, randomly navigating roughly towards the centre of town. Shortly afterwards we had the first opportunity to use our brand new digital camera as we bumped into a small naked boy urinating in front of a large crowd of photo-happy tourists. This was the Mannekin Pis, Belgium’s two-foot bronze peeing statue, famous for being regularly stolen and returned, and sole reason for several naff souvenir shops on every corner of the crossroads adjacent to his pool of pee.
Close-by, we stumbled upon the appropriately-named Grand Platz. Each of its buildings was fronted with highly intricate and ornate designs covering their entire height and breadth. After much ooh-ing and aah-ing, we moved on down a narrow pedestrian street that was home to two things (that were actually one in the same):
- Fantastic seafood restaurants (for which Brussels is famous)
- Criminal denizens charging tourists astronomical prices for gastronomical slices.
A lot of moo-la for their moules, if you will.
Refusing the temptation to buy, we walked into yet another square – the Place de la Monnaie – home to the opera house and the mouth to the city’s main shopping estuary.
Large, busy highways cage the city centre on all sides and cleverly force pedestrians into a constant right turn, taking them back toward the expensive shopping areas. We followed such a route passed the National Bank and into another platz, where we were lured into a pub by a roaring open fire. Within moments, I was on the Kwak (an evil 9% beer) whilst my partner tucked into a peach Bellevue Kriek (translated = beer for girls). Brimming with beer giggles we started to play an entertaining, yet slightly cruel, game called ‘Spot the Non-Minger’. Belgium’s population is unrivalled in being attractively-challenged. This is a fact and we successfully proved this by going almost an entire day without seeing a single person of either sex with any significant beauty at all (I ask you, has Miss Belgium ever won, or even been allowed to enter, the Miss World pageant?!).
It occurred to us, on our hazy route back to the hotel, that we’d been in Belgium a fair few hours without any mention of waffles. We therefore leapt at the first sweet-battered opportunity that came our way. We also passed an entire district devoted to comic book shops. As well as cheese, beer and waffles, the Belgians love comics. Herg? is probably one of the more famous instigators of the animated arts, with his creation Tin Tin. Almost every shop had figurines of the famous boy and his dog (as well as some more ‘explicit’ figurines). Some buildings in the area had entire walls painted with Tin Tin murals.
Once we had changed for dinner, we ambled through the seafood district again where we endured several unprovoked attacks from many red-faced, shrimp-Daddy chefs openly pushing their ‘trade’ in public. It’s a sad world we live in where 4-star chefs are forced out onto the streets to fight for their territories. One such desperate thug was called Derek. We knew this because his name tag said “Hello, my name is Derek”. He’d obviously just got back from his Chefs Anonymous meeting. I tried to diffuse the situation by talking quietly and moving slowly away. We managed to avoid a confrontation by ducking into the nearest empty restaurant where the non-threatening staff had obviously survived their rehab and in exchange for our safety we ordered the delicious seafood platter and more booze.
The remainder of the evening began at a student bar called Milk (which was well past its sell-by date, forcing us to leave after only one drink) and ended at the more exciting Caf? Centrale. Here, we sat and watched a real-life drama unfold before our very eyes. A young man had obviously been “playing the field”, in a very small field, as his seemingly-innocent chatter with one young lady incited the wrathful gaze of another young damsel. Disappointingly, it all ended without too much of a kerfuffle, but by then we were close to making the Caf? Centrale our home for the night, so we staggered back to the hotel.
Our objective next morning was to join a bus tour near the Palais Royale. Our trusty map gave the impression that the Place Royale was the best place to stand and wait. It seemed logical enough since it had a palace next to it and was called the Place Royale. Of course we forgot that nearly all buidlings in Brussels are considered grand enough for the title of Palace. Talk about being at the wrong palace at the wrong time! Our palace was just 100 yards around the corner, but by the time we realised this, the bus had long since left.
Not to be disheartened we took the obligatory photos of the decidedly boring Palace and strolled through the adjacent Parc de Bruxelles. My partner used her mythology knowledge to conduct a short lesson on the Gods and non-Gods immortalised as statues in the park’s gardens. She wasn’t able to explain, however, why each sculpture was bedecked with a red ribbon armband. Perhaps they were Communist Gods? The Parc itself replicated a scene from a forgotten Communist era with stark, bare trees, empty pools with rusting fountains, and a general state of disrepair. A lucky bunch of young boy scouts were gathered at one end of the park and were singing songs that, after translation, were probably entitled something along the lines of “we are all soldiers of the State” or “brothers of the Motherland, we unite”. Perhaps, like us, these poor children of the revolution had got confused about which stately building they should stand outside because, despite being right across the road from a parliamentary building (it said so on the plaque), nothing much was really happening despite their vocal attempts. But then, in a city filled with stately buildings, what chance did these nippers have?
Judging the Gare Centrale to be a better place to pick up the bus tour, we got our bearings and then, naturally, found the wrong Gare Centrale. Of course, every city in the world has more than one Central Station! Duh! After a few corrective turns we found the bus depot and instantly we were blitzed by bus tour reps. We bought a 24-hour ticket with the assurance that the bus would be leaving within 5 minutes.
Now, ‘Hop on, hop off’ – no, not the new Dr Seuss book, but rather the promise that was written on the side of the bus we boarded. Many cities around the world have them, and most of them are named accordingly because they allow tourists to ‘hop off’ at any destination along the route that they are particularly interested in, and ‘hop on’ again when they get bored of the destination they were particularly interested in. Our bus operated a ‘hop on, sit a while, sit a while longer waiting for the driver, hop off to find the bloke who sold you the ticket in the first place, and then hop on again when the Police turn up to tell the driver, who ironically appeared just as they did, to move the bus out of the middle of the road” type of promise. Eventually, after much shouting and gesticulation, we were herded onto a second bus and our tour began.
Frightened that we might never see another bus to ‘hop on’ to, we remained on board for as far as we thought was necessary (about halfway). Despite all the initial shenanigans, the tour was very good and took in plenty of interesting sites – the Palais Royale (again); the Palais de Justice (or lawcourts); the Musee d’art; the European Parliament; Belgium’s own Arc de Triomphe known as the Parc du Cinquentaire; the Colonne du Congr?s, which was built to commemorate the first national parliament and is accompanied by an eternal flame that burns for Belgian soldiers killed in battle; and finally, the Botanical Gardens.
Later that evening, en route to a restaurant recommended to us by a friend of a friend that once went to Belgium and…blah, blah, blah, we were forced to wander through some of the city’s shadier streets. Alive and in one piece, we managed to find the supposedly-happening Rue Blaes which had, along it’s length, not only the nightclub, Fuse, that we planned to visit later in the evening but also a great quantity of interior design shops. The district was also rife with ‘swinger’ bars according to our hotel entertainment city guide, but we chose not visit them on this occasion (for reason, see ‘Spot the Non-Minger’ game above).
We also didn’t visit the restaurant that had originally been recommended to us as we couldn’t actually find it. Instead we found a low-rent restaurant that served small carafes of wine and a good selection of beers. I chose the cheese steak which was, to be honest, steak-flavoured cheese and my partner had the mushroom steak which, to be honest….well, you get the picture. The restaurant also offered a selection of elderly gentleman who would, at no extra cost, hit on your girlfriend whilst you were in the men’s toilet.
After dinner we headed back to Fuse where, according to the schedule, the upstairs room was the place to go for ‘funky house’. The ‘funky house’ room in Belgium is obviously ‘the room where a small gathering of hardcore ravers dances to hardcore techno’. If you’re the kind of person who, when asked how you like your tunes, replies with a resounding “bangin’”, then I suggest you go to Belgium – there are people there who are just like you. We danced for a little while in the harder of the hardcore rooms, directly next to the guy who screamed “aaaarrrhhhhhh” in one continual, uninterrupted note. The kind of guy who would be first to take his shirt off during the night. Yeh, that guy!
Waking surprisingly early the next morning, we decided to rejoin our bus tour at Rogier. Unsurprisingly, the wait was considerable and made even more painful by the intense, chilling wind that swirled about our red-raw ears. Eventually, a bus arrived. Rejoice! But the joy subsided almost immediately when we saw that it was a topless bus. Now, at the right time and under the right circumstances the word ‘topless’ can be an awesome thing, but on that cold morning it didn’t excite me one bit. Obviously the cold had made us delusional because we both decided, in our shivering state, that the best vantage point to see the city was on the top deck. We had obviously become a danger to ourselves and it was noted by the kindly bus driver who, after waiting at a standstill for some time (I was beginning to think this was usual practice for this operation), told us to change to a second bus (again, usual practice for this operation). At last, we were on our way and the final part of the tour lay before us. Or so we thought….
Our cunning plan had been to see the remainder of the tour from the point where we had last got off. Our new bus driver, however, had other ideas. He was determined to show us only the last 500m of the tour. Within minutes we were right back where we had started the day before, begrudgingly getting off one coach and onto another. It was on this vehicle that we did the entire tour AGAIN – the Palais Royale (for a third time); the Palais de Justice (yep, the very same lawcourts); the Musee d’art; the European Parliament; the Parc du Cinquentaire (still Belgium’s own Arc de Triomphe); the Colonne du Congr?s (the eternal flame was still burning); and finally, the Botanical Gardens. This time, we didn’t get off, fearing we were the living embodiment of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Thankfully, the tour did continue onward and we were able to marvel at the delicate architecture of the Pavillon Chinois, the Tour Japonaise, and the famous 9-sphere, 102-metre tall Atomium structure.
Having grown accustomed to leaving the bus at Rogier we stuck with tradition when it came round again, quickly sheltering from the cold in a nearby Chinese Tea house. Jasmine seemed the appropriate tea of choice considering the surroundings. It was accompanied by the fromage platter which turned out to be nothing more than a plate loaded with one type of Kraft Cheddar, on toothpicks. But being that we were in Belgium we thought it rude not to eat it all anyway.
Back outside the weather forced us to make a swift traverse of the main road in order to find more shelter. Our path took us from freezing cold to extremely hot circumstances as the only stores open on a Sunday were sex shops. Well, when in Rome….
Once the smut had warmed our (*cough) cockles, we wandered back towards the centre of town, stopping at the Pancake Kitchen for another snack and some warmth. The combination of porn and pancakes on a Sunday are obviously quite popular because the restaurant was very busy. Having already exceeded the recommended daily allowance for any normal cheese-eating human being, we thought it best to order what we thought was pasta. It turned out to be cannelloni smothered in lashing and lashing of, yes you’ve guessed it, cheese sauce.
Back at the hotel we couldn’t get a taxi to the station because all the drivers seemed to be going to the airport. So we walked. A journey that took us only a few minutes and made us realise how incompetent we’d been when we’d first got to Brussels.