Brussels: One night Only
Brussels: One night Only
One whole day and night in Brussels is all I was going to be afforded. My main intention was Amsterdam but seeing that none of the budget airlines had any good deals to there, a taste of the Belgian capital – only 2 hours away from Amsterdam seemed like a worthy stop over. Plus I’ve always loved the beer.
After bussing into Brussels Central station from the airport, I flagged a cab and headed towards my Hostel. At this stage I was hardly enthused; Brussels is largely grey, ugly and architecturally disjointed, while the drizzly February weather hardly cast any of this in a more appealing light. The Hostel didn’t seem terribly welcoming either, there were plenty of people mulling around the common room when I arrived – but they all seemed strangely forlorn and downcast. Sensing that my surrounding drudgery was dragging me down, I dumped my bags, set up my bed and headed out in the certainty that Brussels does have redeeming qualities. Despite it being a Thursday morning and the Hostel being centrally located, the streets were largely deserted. All those who I did pass by seemed weary. Had some disaster occurred locally that I was unaware of? Why was everyone so depressed? The sky still looked dismal but at least it had stopped raining. A good thing too considering I’d realized I was wandering in a small loop trying to figure out the most economical way to get to the Atomium on the outskirts of town. I’d seen pictures of this brilliantly Disney Worldish like structure before and knew immediately that I had to see it for myself, so after making a confusing mess of the connecting lines in the Belgain subway, I emerged to find it right there.
The 102 metre tall Atomium was originally built for the World Fair in 1958, and like the Eiffel Tower was intended to be a temporary exhibition, only to be kept on due to wide popularity. Its similarities almost ran closer. In the brain storming stage of the Expo, some bright spark almost successfully pushed for the Belgians to build their own Eiffel Tower – only upside down. Evidently inverted buildings were right up there with the other practical, impending solutions of the day, like moon real estate and robot butlers. But while the majority of the 50’s retro futuristic ideas have become a point of sniggering amusement for people today, the Atomium still looks impressively futuristic from the outside (The Fairs’ other self-explanatory contemporary attraction built alongside the Atomium – ‘Mini-Europe’ – is tragically dated). As its name suggests, it takes upon an Atomic Structure, or more technically speaking – nine, eighteen meter wide steel spheres connected to form the shape of an iron crystal, magnified 165 million times. Each sphere is connected by stairs and, or escalators, and centrally by a lift, with each housing a different exhibit from the Fair. The highest offers a great 360 degree view of the city while 3 of the spheres are indefinitely closed off. As a history and design student I found the original displays inside interesting, it’s endearingly quaint to see anything with plastic tacked onto the side of it presented as futuristic and forward thinking – much in the same way as aluminium was in the mid nineteenth century, and I guess an apple logo seems to be for today. That being said, the crossroads in style between the 50s and 60s is quite enthralling when you see it in context and after a while it drew me in so much that I felt right back in time, almost with a sense of empathy and excitement for things which anyone under 70 would consider archaic. Most of the exhibits covered home appliances and newly developed conveniences, as well as advances in commercial travel, but after a couple of hours I’d seen everything seemingly worthwhile and it was time to head back downtown.
The view from the top of the Atomium had confirmed that Brussels is indeed an ugly mishmash of a town but fortunately the historical centre is spectacular. The strange scale of my tourist map gave an inaccurate idea of just how close my Hostel was too the centre of town and after realizing its locality – I headed there immediately and found redemption. Although the place was jostling with a token supply of off-season tourists, there were plenty more locals here as well, looking slightly more happy than I’d seen before . The crown jewels of Brussels is without a doubt the Grand Palace, an elegant square comprising of scrupulously elegant guild houses rebuilt following a French bombardment in 1695, the centerpiece being the one structure to partially survive the assault – the Town Hall. I continued onwards through streets lined with endless waffle and chocolate vendors, something which the Belgians cannot get enough of and are a MUST try. After looping past the Manneken Pis, the inexplicably popular baroque statue of a small boy pissing into a fountain, I came back to a chocolate store to sample the goods.
Take a piece of nougat, cover it in white chocolate, add a thin layer of pralene, then two more layers of the best chocolate ever, and you have a typical bite sized Belgian chocolate. Trust me when I say it’s the best chocolate you’ll ever taste. After stocking up like crazy on a wide assortment of these it was time to sample the next of the Belgian master gastronomical crafts: beer, but one in particular. The rich Belgian Trapist beer, Chimày Blue with its whopping 9% alcohol content has long since been my favorite beer ever. So to sit down in a bar in Brussels with one alongside a huge vase of original Belgian French Fries was pure satisfaction. In reality they ought be called ‘Belgian’ fries, as earliest records show that they first appeared in Belgium in the late 1600s and only emerged in France a century later in the midst of French revolution. But if anyone is good at cheating someone out of what is rightfully theirs – it’s the French. As this was turning into an epicly unhealthy dinner it only seemed fitting to top it all off with a famous, freshly pressed Brussels waffle. Awesome.
By the time I’d finished I was a little unsure as to what to do. It was 7pm, I had a relatively early start in the morning and I hadn’t been back to my Hostel since the morning having deemed it dull. But I decided to go back the long way through theGrand Palace to see if there was any new, more interesting company there. The Palace looks amazing at night time so I had to stop and admire it for a bit. As a bonus, there were also 2 cute girls sitting on the steps to the Town Hall. After segwaying in with a request that they take my picture with the Grand Palace in the background , I found out they were locals and found myself invited to some drinks later on in the evening at a bar popular with students. But my heart sank when they pointed it out on my map and it was no where even remotely close to the town centre. I took their numbers, continued on and decided to think about it.
Gratefully, the Hostel had slightly livened up by the time I returned. I got talking to a couple of chilled out guys from Alaska (who was also in my bunk room) and Australia, and along with a timid Californian girl roused the group into checking out the legendry Delerium Café with me. Delerium is the beer drinkers nirvanah, while unassumingly tucked down an obscure cul-de-sac – the place itself is enormous, not to mention its world record making beer menu – which resembles something akin to a Nuremburg bible. As well as every variety of Belgian brew conceivable, there is beer stocked from literally every corner of the planet – including such traditional beer drinking nations as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The grand total is a ludicrous two, to two and a half thousand individual varieties of beer (depending on availability, there are periodic supply problems with third world war zones). On the downside everyone was smoking inside and despite the size – it was as crowded as a cattle car. None-the-less we managed to grab some seats as a group was leaving and attempted to make a tiny dent in the colossal menu. I stuck mostly to the assured quality of the Belgians brews, though none that I had tried before, and also downed some not-half-bad Mongolian and Namibian varieties, just because I could. My Australian compatriot on the other hand took it upon himself to drink a beer from every country in South America (12), while the Americans boringly opted for, what else, American beer.
Around midnight I was rearing to check out a club or possibly go find the Belgian girls I’d met earlier, but depressingly no one else was interested. Normally I would’ve romped off on my own to make my own fun, but in this case I lamely sided with going back to the Hostel. After a short walk back I said goodbye to the Aussie and Californian, then me and the Alaskan went to our bunk room to go to sleep. But I was in for a surprise. Not only was the ten person room full, but an obese Spaniard was sleeping in the bed I had made up. As it turned out there was a group of 8 Spanish guys there – none of whom had a command of English more advanced than a toddler. The Alaskan, Dave, had his bed free, as did another girl who was in there – but mine had been taken by fat-ass and I was pissed off. After exasperated attempts to explain the situation failed, everything deteriated. Fat-ass himself seemed oblivious to what was going on and simply rolled over and returned to sleep, but one of the Latins – a small, heavily pierced and tattooed skinhead, was getting fiercely agitated and insinuating he wanted to kill me and Dave. Despite the conveniently large Alaskan being 2 seconds away from knocking Shorty out, 8 on 2 were not great odds for a fight so I brokered a temporary peace and went to find a staff member to resolve the situation. As it had turned out they’d overbooked the room and there were no free bunks in the hostel. He also spoke some Spanish and was able to explain the situation to the Latins, though Shorty was still spitting mad and had a protruding vein on his forehead teetering on the edge of eruption . The hostelier then offered me a mattress on the floor of the room and shoved €20 into my jacket pocket not to leave a negative review on the hostel world website. But things hardly got better. The Latins were in and out of the room all night till 5am, talking loudly and smoking on the balcony, and I kept thinking Shorty was going to stab me in my sleep. I got virtually none in any case then rose early at 7am to get the hell out of there, catching the train to Amsterdam in a sour mood. Too bad, Brussels had otherwise been excellent.