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Published: August 24th 2014
Hopped on Eurostar for an overnight trip to Brussels - which after a somewhat inauspicious start turned into a very enjoyable weekend taking in elements of Belgian culture (beer) and history (also beer).
Brussels is famous (apparently) for many things - it has the highest number of comic artists per capita in the world - this is the place that gave rise to Tintin, Asterix and the Smurfs) as well as being the country that invented the stock exchange - but we had to get there first.
London St Pancras international is a grand terminus from which to commence any rail trip in the UK and did not disappoint. In particular there are some fantastic sculptures, including my favourite piece of artwork of the trip so far, located on the upper level. An imposing 9m tall, 'The Lovers' features a couple greeting or farewelling each other (up to the viewer to decide, I presume) and adorning its base is a series of bronze studies of people travelling on the Tube and other forms of rail transport in incredible detail. Amazing art.
On the down side, we had the misfortune to time our
temporary departure from London with the Saturday morning of a bank holiday (long) weekend and the crush at Eurostar check-in, passport control (perfunctory but slow) and security was worse than anything we experienced at an airport.
Once on board however, an impressively fast way to travel. While the rolling stock is looking a little worn on the inside (and filthy on the outside) it's a great way to see several countries as once and get to where you're going quickly. Low level flying comes to mind. The train is so ridiculously fast - 186mph or dead on 300km/hr - you really feel you should be wearing seatbelts. It takes less than three seconds to pass a train going the other way. The countryside close to the train is a blur and you can forget about even trying to read station signs as you pass.
The Chunnel transit took around 25 minutes, diving to 195 metres beneath sea level. Once on the continent, the view out the window gave no clue of the transition from France to Belgium - lots of farms, villages with old churches and country lanes, inviting to be cycled along. One
guy did get off with a folding bike and a set of panniers in Calais.
2hrs 11 mins to Brussels and we found ourselves trying to work out how to get to our hotel and navigate a metro system with signs in French and Dutch, but not English. A helpful tourist info man (when we found him - very average signage, a bit like Sydney Airport really 😉 - directed us to a nearby brewery instead so we gave up on the Metro for a while. The Castillon family brewery is one of the oldest still operating in the city and making a Lambric brew using spontaneous fermentation instead of the more modern mass-produced top or bottom fermentation methods.
After a a tour of the brewery and sampling a 'few' of their products (including the flat Lambric and some cherry flavoured beers which are an acquired taste) we braved the metro again and discovered the ticket machines can communicate in five languages. No doubt the kids could have cracked the touch screen/trackball interface in about three seconds, but it took us a bit longer..
Our initial impressions of Brussels were of
a worn, deserted and down at heel place, lots of graffiti and rubbish everywhere - including along every inch of the metro tunnels (not sure when they get down there to do it). It was also pretty grubby, a noticeable contrast with the City (square mile) of London which had been spotless, with not so much as a ciggie butt or piece of paper on the ground.
Our groovy hotel was on the outskirts of the CBD, with the street in front ripped up for renovations, a closed and graffiti-adorned Church across the road. The hotel itself was great - the luxury of space after a week in a London shoebox, and bespoke artwork on the walls complete with a profile of the artist responsible.
We hopped on "the original sight seeing tour" on an open-top bus for an intro to the city. While mildly interesting, the pre-recorded commentary was positively anodyne and added little to no value. Would avoid in future - metro gets you there faster and cheaper. After escaping the bus we navigated to one of the highlights of Brussels - the Grand Place, surrounded by the town hall, guild halls
One of dozens of murals across Brussels
and other historic buildings. After a good wander we found our way to the restaurant quarter and indulged in a dish featuring half the country's livestock, a couple of plates of mussels and just a couple more local beers.
Next morning we joined a free waking tour put on by an outfit called Sandemans. Highly recommended and made the trip for us. Packed with info, took in all the mid-city sights and packed with interesting anecdotes over about three hours. It covered the history, politics, lifestyle, architecture and lifestyle of the locals, all delivered by a very enthusiastic Irish guide.
We discovered French fries are not really French - American servicemen were introduced to the dish in Southern Belgium during WWII, but as they were served to them by French speaking locals in a French city in the southern part of the country, they wrongly assumed they were French. Apparently, the Belgians are still cheesed off about it.
Given the divide between the Flemish, Dutch and French, Protestant and Catholic heritage, there are a multitude of political parties and Belgium holds the world record for being unable to form a government
following a free election - more than 500 days in around 2010 - longer than even Iraq, which is saying something. The country was able to keep functioning because of a strong system of regional government which actually delivers all the services (such as health and education). Makes you wonder if we could get by without a Federal Govt...)
Also saw the homes of Karl Marx where he reputedly did most of the work on Das Kapital and Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame, the world's first stock market (somewhat ironically, it failed three times and all trading in Belgian stocks is now done on the New York exchange. There is a plan to renovate the grand bourse building as the Brussels beer museum).
The tour also took in the historic back streets away from the tourist areas before finishing at a great vantage point above the city. From there we took another bus ride around the European Parliament and parks section in the upper part of the city before checking out some 1000 year old tapestries, spectacular altar pieces (the match of the Ghent altar pieces as saved by Clooney's men in The Monuments Men) and various sculptures. Back to Bruxelles Midi station for our speedy train back to London, sampling a final Belgian Beer on board!
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