In direct contrast to my trip to Spain, my trip to Belgium was entirely relaxed. Rather than flying, I decided to take a bus just so I’d be able to say that I’d partook (partaken?) in that particular experience. (Never Again)
My trip to Belgium fell directly on the tail-end of my trip to Spain. Upon arrival at the airport from Madrid, I hopped on the bus and went straight to Kings Cross Theatre, determined to see if I could wisely conduct my 18 hours in London before departing for Brussels. As it turned out, I ended up with a ticket to see In the Heights (again) at 8:00pm that very night. With six hours to spare before the show, one would think I’d use my time wisely, go home, unpack, repack, relax a bit before traveling again.
One would be wrong.
I went to go see Rogue One.
I finally returned home at 11:00pm and got my life together. I was up at 5:00am the next morning to book it to my bus. (I very nearly missed the bus due to the confusing system of six different bus lines heading to the same place…but I made it!)
I slept through roughly the first two hours of the trip but was wide awake by the time we reached Dover. (You know…the one with the cliffs? I couldn’t get a great photo from the bus, but here you go anyway.)
After waiting quite a while to get through passport control at the docks, our bus drove onto a ferry where we were told the crossing would take about an hour and a half. We were allowed off the bus, so I went to explore the ferry a bit. Found a seat by a dirty window and proceeded to be impressed and intimidated by the vastness of the Dover Strait.
Once we hit Dunkirk, we hung a right and traveled Southeast towards Lille, then Northeast towards Brussels. I arrived at Gare de Bruxelles-Nord (the Northern train station) at about 6:00pm (it was a looong day on the bus…) and took the metro to get to my hostel (that was an adventure all on its own).
Brussels was the very first place where I opted into a mixed dorm rather than a female dorm (simply due to cost) so of course, when I went to drop my stuff, I discovered that I was more than likely rooming with three guys (they weren’t there…but I could tell by the general state of disarray of the room.)
Anxious to be out and walking around (you would be too, had you spent that long on a bus,) I bundled up and went for a walk.
From here, I wandered back to the hostel and relaxed for the rest of the evening. Read a book. Hung out in the common room (literally hugging the radiator) and talked to a lovely guy from Australia who was traveling Europe for a year.
By the time I went upstairs, the three guys I was sharing a room with were already asleep so I tiptoed around, getting ready for bed, and called it a night before midnight (unlike me, I assure you.)
The following morning, I realized I wanted to go on a walking tour, so I made my way to the center of the city to find the highly-touted 10:30 tour. As it happens, I got to the plaza early (10:10) and latched onto a 10:00am tour instead. Hindsight tells me this was a great decision because I got to experience Brussels through the eyes of Adrien Deslandes with Sandemans New Brussels and it was a wonderful experience.
I truly didn’t realize how much a tour guide makes or breaks your trip until my poor experience in Cambridge, so I’m quite glad that I found a fun and energetic tour guide with a propensity for bad jokes that no one but me laughed at.
A brief history of Brussels largely paraphrased from Wikipedia (history included only because Adrien made it so fascinating. Feel free to skip this if you don’t care about historical relevance. 😉
Brussels was founded sometime around 979 when it was determined to be an optimal position of trade between Bruges, Ghent, and Cologne. The surrounding marshes were eventually drained and by the 13th century, the city got its first walls.
By the 15th century, became the Princely Capital of the prosperous Low Countries, and flourished. In 1516 Charles V, heir of the Low Countries, was declared King of Spain and in 1519, became the new ruler of the Habsburg Empire and was subsequently elected the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1695, King Louis XIV of France sent troops to bombard Brussels with artillery. It was the most destructive event in the entire history of Brussels. A third of the city, including 4000 buildings and The Grand Place, was destroyed. However, the subsequent reconstruction of the city profoundly changed the appearance and left numerous traces still visible today.
Captured by France in 1746 during the War of the Austrian Succession, the city was handed back to Austria only three years later. Brussels remained with Austria until 1795, when the Southern Netherlands was captured and annexed by France. It remained a part of France until 1815, when it joined the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This was all well and good for 15 years until there was a revolution in 1830 that began at the opera house (a proper rage…at the opera house…)
Brussels became the capital and seat of government of a new nation.
Because of its convenient location, during World War I, Brussels was an occupied city, but German troops did not cause much damage. It was once again occupied during World War II and was spared major damage during its occupation by German forces before it was liberated by the British.
Because of its history, the people of Belgium speak two different languages; Dutch and French.
Wandering out of Grand Place, we crossed a few streets and headed for the second stop on the tour.
Right around the corner from the first art piece, we happened upon Brussels most famous statue, Manneken Pis.
Though he wasn’t when we visited, throughout the year, Mannekin Pis gets dressed up for a variety of holidays and has even been stolen quite a few times.
From there, we walked straight through the city:
Our next stop was the Operahouse where we were told of the 1830 revolution. This is great.
Catholic partisans watched the unfolding of the July Revolution in France, details of which were being reported in the newspapers. On 25 August 1830, at the opera house, an uprising followed a special performance of Daniel Auber’s The Mute Girl of Portici, a patriotic opera telling the story of an uprising against the Spanish masters of Naples in the 17th century. After the duet, Sacred love of Fatherland, many audience members left the theater and started riots. The crowd poured into the streets shouting patriotic slogans. The rioters swiftly took possession of government buildings.
Never let it be said that the Belgians aren’t passionate about art.
We stopped at a restaurant/bar for a bit of a break, whereupon I went out to scour for some frites (french fries) because that’s a thing that happens in Belgium.
We trekked up a large hill and found ourselves at the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, the national church of Belgium.
Although St. Michael is the patron of Brussels, St. Gudula is the most venerated patroness. She is depicted on a seal of the church holding a candle in her right hand and a lamp in her left, which a demon is trying to extinguish. This refers to the legend that she went to church before daybreak and a demon, wishing to stray her off the right way, extinguished the candle, but the saint obtained from God that her lantern should be rekindled. She was interred in this Cathedral. However, in 1579 the church was pillaged and wrecked by beggars, and the relics of the saint disinterred and scattered. (Womp wah…)
From here, we continued our walk through the outer rim of the city and stopped at the Royal Palace of Brussels.
First built in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Royal Palace has been renovated and updated several times, even being destroyed in a fire in the mid-1700’s. The most notable changes, however, were developed under the reign of King Leopold II.
After the Belgian revolution the palace was offered to Leopold I when he ascended the throne as the first King of the Belgians. Just like his predecessor, he used the palace mainly for official receptions and other representational purposes and lived elsewhere. During his reign little was changed. It was his son, Leopold II, who judged the building to be too modest for a king of his stature, and who kept on enlarging and embellishing the palace until his death in 1909. During his reign the palace nearly doubled in surface.
How’d he afford this, you might ask? Well…
Leopold laid claim to the Congo, (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo,) and at the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, the colonial nations of Europe authorized his claim by committing the Congo Free State to improving the lives of the native inhabitants. From the beginning, however, Leopold ignored these conditions (like a dick…). He used great sums of the money from exploitation of a mercenary force in the region for public and private construction projects in Belgium.
Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, by the collection of ivory and eventually by forced labor from the natives to harvest and process rubber. Under his regime anywhere from 2-15 million of the Congolese people died; a consensus growing among historians that the total was around 10 million. Human rights abuses under Leopold’s regime contributed significantly to these deaths. Reports of deaths and abuse led to a major international scandal in the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced by the Belgian government to relinquish control of the colony to the civil administration in 1908, just one year before his death.
So all in all, he was kinda an asshole. Good times.
We finished out tour at Mont des Arts Garden.
At this point, our tour ended, so another girl from the tour and I set off on our own to find food and wander a bit more. On the recommendation of a friend, we returned to the Opera area and visited a restaurant called Drug Opera, known for their waffles.
We wandered a bit more and, determined to try all the foods, we stopped in at a Tex-Mex place to sample their wares. God, I miss Tex-Mex.
We meandered the Christmas Markets a bit before going our separate ways.
That night at the hostel, I finally met my roommates, three delightful guys from Malaysia who were studying architecture in Germany. They had spent the day in Bruges, a pilgrimage I was making the following day, so I discussed the sights with them for a bit. (A good decision, as they kindly informed me that Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child was in Bruges…this statue being the inspiration behind the historically semi-accurate film/book The Monuments Men.)
I went to bed, thinking happy thoughts of the following day when I’d get to visit small-town Bruges and spend the entirety of the trip quoting a film I hadn’t seen in years.
But more on that in my next post.
All in all, I went to Brussels without a plan. I spent the majority of the time wandering around both with and without a tour guide. I scoured several Christmas Markets (as one does when in Europe during Christmastime.) I made friends with Malaysians, Australians, and Canadians. I enjoyed the simplicity of visiting the city–the fact that I didn’t have to stick to a plan aside from traveling to/from each city.
I don’t necessarily think I’ll be able to handle traveling without an itinerary every time I travel, but for the first time I could definitely see the merits. (For example, I’m doing three nights in Latvia later this week. No plans. Just…three nights in Riga. More to follow.)
Next blog: Bruges!