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Backpacking-through-Europe Part II: Brussels and Brugge

Sent Sunday, March 22, 2009 9:28 AM

Brussels: A city that, to be honest, has never been high on my list of places to visit. The administrative center of the European Union, I imagine her sporting blocks of bad, 1970’s architecture, crawling with pompous diplomats…all under a perpetually grey and dreary sky. (Non, merci!) Although my first day in Brussels IS cold, grey and rainy (is she daring me to stay?), I stick with her; and she rewards me with sunny weather for the rest of my visit. The locals tell me I’m fortunate to be enjoying such weather; and I agree, toasting Mother Nature by holding my glass of Jupiler beer high. As I do, the bright sun shines through the glass of golden, bubbly liquid.

When I was a kid (ask my parents), I loved to lay out in the bright, Hawaiian sun and place glass marbles against my eyes, entranced by the sun coming through them, getting lost in the colors and air bubbles in the glass…my little, 6-year-old, psychedelic fantasyland. (Yeah, I was just as weird then as now.) I still return to that psychedelic fantasyland, but the portal now is candlelight dancing in my glass of Cabernet or, as today, sunrays gleaming through my Jupiler. I lose myself for a few seconds; and I want to dive right in. So, I do!

The hostel at which I’m staying is nearest the city’s north rail station; and like Paris’ Gare du Nord, Brussels’ Noord Station is located in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. (I stayed in Paris’ charming 17th Arrondisement area for years because it was near the flat of my best friend, Cindy…that is, until I discovered I could get a room around the Gare du Nord for about $37 a night, nevermind the neighborhood…or the toilets and showers being down the hall!)

My first day in Brussels, upon stepping out of the station, I’m shocked to discover I’m right in the middle of Brussels’ red-light district! I didn’t even know that Brussels HAD an Amsterdam-esque red-light district, where the ladies-of-the-night sit or stand in shop-front windows like live mannequins, advertising their goods. (Though THESE goods appear less-than-shiny-and-new! No Neiman-Marcus, this…Joe’s-Everything’s-a-Bargain-99-Cents-Emporium seems more the genre here!)

Brussels hasn’t quite put the “classy” spin on their prostitution industry the way Amsterdam has. Their lighting isn’t the mysterious, inviting, soft red lighting and candlelight preferred by Amsterdammers; nor is the setting in quaint, 17th-century Dutch canal houses with windows draped in rich velvets, silks and lace. In Brussels, it’s mostly shockingly bright, hot pink neon, silver mylar ribbon-curtains, and ear-blasting Eurodisco. All of this gives the women a tacky, carnival-freak-show-like aura…kinda frightening, actually…like a really bad drag show on acid!!

Seriously, though, I don’t mean to disrespect these women. I actually admire the sensibility of Europeans in the way they deal with difficult social issues like prostitution, drug use, abortion…all the issues that seem to make us Americans squirm. “Women-of-the-profession” like the aforementioned pay taxes, get good healthcare (including regular testing and treatment for STDs) and are important, contributing members of the society they live in. I think that’s a good thing! And come on…they provide a service that is, always has been and always will be in high demand. At least this way, they (and their customers) remain in good health, without being stigmatized by the rest of the (usually hypocritical) community. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox, before I tick someone off! (What’s new?) Haha!

Over the next few days, I find Brussels to be quite a beautiful city! There are many things that make a city great and enticing: natural beauty, historical sights, cultural events, culinary fame, reknowned shopping, etc. For me, it’s architecture that captures my heart and makes me swoon. Give me old, worn and crumbling, or old and restored to greatness. Just don’t give me new…unless its more sculpture than building, designed by the likes of Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid (some of my favorite architects). Despite my love…no, obsession…with architecture, I never had the desire to be an architect. It’s not so much the structural engineering that piques my interest; it’s purely the decorative aspect. I guess that’s why I love older buildings so much…they are a riot of design motifs! Luckily, Brussels is all too happy to oblige. The grand, gorgeous buildings with their orgies of statuary and bas-relief have me in their grasp; and my camera goes wild! Former palaces of the royalty and nobility, grand boulevards and geometrically symmetrical, highly-manicured parks remind me much of Paris.

One such greenspace is the Parc de Bruxelles, facing the Palais Royale mentioned above. The day I walked through the park, enjoying the trees beginning to bud in vivid lime green and the early bulbs pushing through the soil after a winter nap, I came upon a sobering exhibit: billboard after billboard displaying portrait photos of Belgian Jews who were transfered to the concentration camps during WWII. It’s so shocking to see their faces, from toddlers to the elderly, gorgeous young men and women in their prime, youth in the midst of their studies, preparing for what were supposed to be bright futures.

We’ve seen all the horrific photos and film footage of emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire; and at some self-protective, psychological level, we filter out the idea that these are human beings like us. But these headshots, taken at the very beginning, at the time they were “registered” as Jews, show everyday people with talents, families, dreams. You can see in their faces that they have no idea of the horrors to come.

I walked slowly along the billboards, taking time to honor those portrayed by glancing at every single face looking back at me from the past. Traveling in this part of the world, I realize how far and removed the Holocaust is today for most Americans. For the people in this part of Europe, the memory is still strong, however; and the many memorials dedicated to the lost, including the Anne Frank Huis (Anne Frank House) in Amsterdam, the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, and the Stary Zidovsky Hrbitov (Old Jewish Cemetery) in Prague, are incredibly moving. By the time I reached the last photograph, tears were running down my face. I’m so glad I had the experience. After sitting down in the park in silence for a few minutes to let it all sink in, I realize I’m hungry…for food, and for more wonderful experiences.

I quickly master the Brussels metro system in my quest for more of the city’s sensory delights. My friend, Anna, told me before I left to make sure to eat a waffle. I did…again and again! Once you eat a “gaufre” here, you’ll never again want to eat what we, back home, call a “Belgian waffle”. Get your gaufre from one of the little gaufre vans parked on the street. It’s sweeter, softer on the inside and crunchier on the outside, than what we’re used to. You eat it in your hands like a cookie, drizzled with chocolate sauce or topped with a dollop of whipped cream (my preference!)…and hot off the grill! The sugar in the batter caramelizes at the corners of the square-shaped waffle; so your first and last bite are sweet, crunchy, sticky, slightly-burnt, yummy delights!

Now, I need salt to balance the sweet. On my first trip to Montreal years ago, I was introduced to the famous Belgian “frîtes”. That was the day I started to prefer mayonnaise to ketchup on my fries; and I’ve never turned back! The reunion of hot, golden, crispy-salty frîtes and my tastebuds was a torrid, passionate affair, leaving me a voyeuristic third-wheel. After devouring the last, greasy, crunchy bits deep at the bottom of the paper cone, I’m satiated and smiling…and I imagine my tastebuds having an après-l’amour cigarette!

Europe definitely has a strong snacking culture, with snack stands and snack shops everywhere. The variety of street food is great compared to the hotdog-pretzel-halal-meat snack carts we have on the streets of NYC. Here, everything from sausages to fried fish to beer to hot, mulled wine are on offer for you to take away. Everyone here walks (or bicycles) everywhere; and snacking is a necessity for refueling and reenergizing! The food is hot, delicious…and cheap!

Since I’ll be returning to Brussels for 3 days at the end of my trip, I’ll hit the museums then. This time around, I’m just enjoying eating, drinking, enjoying the architecture, practicing my French and walking. I didn’t realize Brussels was so hilly…it doesn’t appear so; but believe me, your calves and thighs will tell you the truth! This creates the perfect excuse to cop a seat at a cafe, have a coffee or a beer, use the WC, write in my journal and take photos of the beautiful architecture, which is a unique and wonderful hybrid of Dutch and French styling.

The people, by the way, also display this unique mix. There’s a distinct border between French-speaking and Flemish-speaking Belgium. Look at a map of Belgium and notice the towns with French names or Flemish names; and the border will appear quite distinct. In Brussels, you’ll hear French spoken the most. Take the train to the beautiful towns of Gent, Brugge or Antwerpen, and the language immediately switches to Flemish. (Note: English is commonly spoken in Brussels, Brugge, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, making these cities ideal destinations for us monolingual Americans!)

My favorite place of all in Brussels is the Grand’Place. All European cities and towns have a main square; and Grand’Place is it for Brussels. And wow…is it ever aptly named! It’s not a particularly large, open square compared to those of many European capitals…but it’s small enclosure is what makes it so special, boxing you in and ravishing you with it’s beauty. The stonework on the surrounding buildings is as fine and delicate as Belgian lace; and the gilding on the buildings captivates with its hypnotic glimmering of gold on a sunny day! At night, all these architectural masterpieces are floodlit in more golden lighting…pure magic! Standing in the middle of Grand’Place feels like being in a treasure chest amongst jewels, a very special feeling. I have to peel myself away; because tomorrow is an early train ride…a day-trip to the Belgian canal-town of Brugge.

– – – – – – – – –

The following day, after a stop in the town of Gent and an hour-long train ride, I arrive in Brugge. A quick bus ride from the rail station to the Grôte Markt, Brugge’s main square, and I have to pick my jaw up off the floor of the bus. Brugge is astonishingly beautiful. Every building’s Dutch-like facade is gorgeous and charming. Stocky, black horses and carriages are lined up, awaiting the tourists’ arrival. (Fortunately, I’m traveling before Easter, when the floodgates open in Europe for the masses…and, because I took the early train from Brussels, I practically have the city to myself for the first few hours!)

Narrow, cobblestone lanes and sparkling-clean, mirror-surfaced canals winding through the town make me feel like I’ve stepped into a storybook. I’m thinking this has become my favorite place in Europe! The size of the town is small and manageable; everything to see is within walking distance. The townspeople are extremely friendly and helpful. They seem to really enjoy you visiting their city (I would want to show it off, as well!), rather than just being interested in you dropping your Euros here.

A climb up the town’s belfry (bell tower) affords a breathtaking view of what was once the most important shipping town in Europe (and second only in size to London), before their river silted up several hundred years ago, severing their connection to the North Sea as well as their fortunes. For us visitors, this turned out to be a good thing, for it was this misfortune that froze Brugge in time and created such a unique place. I happened to be at the top of the belfry, standing right next to the gigantic, ancient bells when they began to ring. I can still feel the vibration in my bones; and I’m surprised I walked away with my hearing intact!

Before heading back to the big city, I try to soak up as much of this amazing city as I can, enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine at a bustling cafe, drinking a kriek, a delicious, Belgian cherry beer. It’s slightly sweet and very refreshing, with a gorgeous color, topped by a light-pink foam. Of course, I can’t resist holding it up to the sunlight and peering into it, 6 years old again, “dancing” with the bubbles rising in the sparkling, magenta liquid.

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