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A Trip to Belgium – Part II (Brussels)

A Trip to Belgium – Part II (Brussels)

Before embarking on the 4-day visit to Ghent, I had made a brief stop at Brussels, where I had to switch my train from Zaventem (Brussels Airport) at the Brussels Central Railway Station (Bruxelles-Central) to proceed onwards. I left Ghent on Sunday evening around 6pm, to spend the next half of the Belgium trip at Brussels, where I was to represent DERI as one of the project partners for the European FP7-funded Granatum Project to present our report on the Linked Biomedical Dataspace implementation. I boarded down at the Brussels North Railway Station (Bruxelles-Nord) this time, as it was somewhat near to the marvelous Hotel Bloom, located on Rue Royale, where I was accommodated for the next 3 nights. As usual, language was a bit problematic – Belgium has three official languages Dutch, French and German, and it might get a little difficult to find someone, who spoke English on the railway station, for the directions. By far, Hotel Bloom was the best hotel that I ever stayed throughout my European travels of early 2013. Each room was adorned with a unique mural art (being a fan of Mural arts, this was a bit exhilarating) right on the wall behind the king-sized bed (upper-top-right). The large windows (almost a gallery) opened out on the road outside, which led to the Botanical Garden of Brussels.

I reached the hotel around 8pm, and I was pretty tired (albeit hungry) to travel a bit outside for dinner, adding to the fact that the hotel itself was a bit away from the main city center. Owing to the fact that it was so difficult to find a decent vegetarian outlet near my hotel (and as I find out later, everywhere in Brussels), I decided to find a store where I could purchase some chips for dinner. However, it was a bit late on that front, and I found the nearest supermarket closed. I had a brief look from outside at the Botanical Garden, and turned round the corner to come across a Falafel restaurant. Now, I have always enjoyed the Middle Eastern food in Galway, but the preparation there was very different, which made it far more delicious. It seemed they had wrapped the Falafel in a cheesy-southwest sauce layered bread, but I was too tired to analyze it further.

The review preparation meeting was scheduled on Tuesday the 7th of May, so I had the Monday for myself. After a brief glance at my slides, and checking if the servers were working fine, I left my hotel to travel around a bit. My first stop was the Botanical Garden of Brussels (Le Botanique), situated at a walking distance from my hotel. The main architecture has been converted to a multi-purpose cultural center (and a place for hosting concerts as well), but there were some really magnificent statues around (upper-top-left). And also Tulips ! So many beautiful Tulips of all the other flowers that shone on that sunny day. As it was still a bit early in the morning (~10am), there were the late joggers and the occasional dew on the flowers. The entire environment around was very tranquil, cool and soothing, especially since it had started to get more warm and busy. After sitting at almost 3 different places in the garden, I decided to move on ahead at around half past 11.

I was really getting hungry around the time, as I just had a Falafel meal for dinner the previous night, and I started walking down the Bld du Jardin Botanique/Kruidtuinlaan highway and turned left at the Rogier Metro Station for the darker Rue Neuve street (with showrooms and galleries hovering on both sides). I stopped midway down the street for a cappuccino, where they also served tempting Waffles. You could possibly see various shops and vendors on that street selling different colored waffles (probably due to the flavors), with toppings, but I had made up my mind before visiting Belgium to grab a chance to visit the Dandoy Tea Room, which were reputed to sell the best Belgian Waffles (like every other debate, there are two sides to this coin on TripAdvisor). Also, I was not in the mood to eat something sweet at that time. Walking straight down the street, I came to the intersection with the road Rue du Fosse aux Loups Road, with the Theatre Royal De La Monnaie standing magnificently in the top-left corner from Rue Neuve (middle-left). Underneath the theatre, you could see people seating on both sides of a long bench, some probably enjoying their midday lunch, others just sitting there to breathe in the view, and the occasional old man feeding the pigeons. I could see the intersection with Bld Anspach Road on the right, and I decided to proceed there, as there were some restaurants on the road. Just round the corner was the Brussels Grill where you could smell the delicious ‘Barbeque’ aroma coming out during lunch hours. However, from the outside everything looked primarily non-vegetarian, which apparently was also the case for all the restaurants down on the side. I crossed the Bld Anspach Road and finally found a Pizza Hut on the opposite side. When you are hungry in Europe (and a vegetarian), its always best to spot a pizza place as they always do have a vegetarian option (which I would keep in mind for the future adventures).

After feasting on an extra large vegetarian pizza with two cokes (I was that hungry !), I moved back towards the Theatre Royal De La Monnaie, and after basking under its glory and catching a whiff of the latest attractions, I turned left on the Rue De l’Ecuyer road and then right down the Rue De La Fourche street. The street was surrounded on both sides by restaurants and cafes, and a couple of shops selling Belgian gifts, mementos and mini-scale models. I stopped for a while to purchase a mini-scale model of the Atomium, and a ceramic plate depicting the various places of Brussels. It had been a while since I had Indian food, and the Bombay Inn down the street looked tempting. I made a mental note to visit the place if time permitted after the review. Moving ahead down the Petite rue au Beurre lane, I came to the lane opening on the Rue aur Beurre street. After a brief outside glimpse of the Brussels Stock Exchange from the outside (which had construction going on), I caught sight of the Maison Dandoy (Dandoy Tea Room), but I was disappointed to find it closed. Looking around and then back into the large-scale map booklet provided by my hotel reception, it seemed I had lost my way. I was actually in search of the Bruxelles Grand Place (which was right down the corner !), and I had decided to culminate my Monday journey there. I had forgotten to check the ‘Places to Visit’ for Brussels as I had done for Athens or Ghent. As a result, I knew that this was a must-see (based on the map), I just was not able to anticipate the best way, or know what the neighboring areas looked. However, looking up from that particular street, one could see the gothic-style tower of Brussels Town Hall.

Down the Rue aur Beurre street, one could find all kinds of eateries and restaurants catering to the different tourists visiting the Grand Place. Turning right from the El Greco restaurant down at the very end of the street, I entered the vast arena of the Grand Place. The Bruxelles Grand Place is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall, and the Museum of the city (Maison du Roi). The square is central to the city of Brussles, and could be seen to be the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark. Apparently, it is also one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. On a normal day, you could see children playing around the center, with their parents basking in the afternoon sun having lunch at the surrounding restaurants. There are the occasional painters and professional photographers with their shops situated right smack in the middle of the Grand Place selling pictures (with prices starting from 10 EUR to 400 EUR!) dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. It was pretty sunny during that time, and there was this golden glow reflected from the building which was difficult to ignore – it seemed something rich and ripe with so much historical significance. There was a moment during the couple hours which I spent there when the sun was right over the gilt-metal statue on the spire of the Town Hall (which depicted Saint Michaels slaying a dragon). As it was Monday, I was left wondering how busy the Grand Place would be during the weekends. It is also said that the entire Grand Place is covered by an enormous flower carpet during August, though that view was only left for the imagination and the pictures. I captured a few pictures myself of the various buildings from different angles, and attempted my best to capture the entire view.

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I exited the Grand Place from the opposite side from where I entered, and proceeded down the Rue de la Colline street. There are various shops serving Belgian waffles, chocolates, Nutella and different flavors of ice cream and Gelato down this street, which you can even enjoy further down at the benches (and even under the tree) of the Marché De l’Agora Bruxelles intersection. However, it was getting really tiresome for me by this point, as it was almost 3pm in the extremely hot Belgian summer. I had decided to give up my wish for devouring Belgian waffles for the time being. Luckily, I had an opportunity to visit this part back for the party after the review. It was a strange choice of road albeit for me, considering I did not trace my footsteps back. It was my inherent curiosity and a thirst for exploration, but it might have very well led me astray. After waiting for around 5 minutes in the Marché De l’Agora, I decided to walk down straight ahead on the Rue de la Montagne street and then down on the Bergstraat road. During that moment, I was half-heartedly dragging my feet down the road, not sure where I was headed to. It seemed I had lost my sense of direction (once again!), after I had left Grand Place, but I was sure as excited to know where the road did eventually lead to. Also, one could see tourists (having the conventional fashion of a camera, a map and a book on Brussels) moving down, having brief glimpses of the jewellery exhibition right beside Hotel Ibis Bruxelles on this road.

After a 15 minutes walk, I could see the final destination in the form of the looming twin towers of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, across a picturesque garden based on the Treurenberg Hill. Due to continuous renovations across the decades, the design of the cathedral is inspired from Romanesque Baroque, various Gothic and Renaissance styles. The main (western) facade consists of two towers, whose architecture was similar to the St. Bavo’s Cathedral, that I had visited a couple of days back in Ghent. There is a very large staircase, leading to the main door of the church situated in the middle of these two towers (read, sandwiched), and it is usual to find people sitting on the stairs having their midday lunch or discussing their day. There are statues of St. Micheal (slaying a dragon) and St. Gudula, and a large Gothic style window on the facade. After standing (and sitting) beneath the glow of the cathedral for around 15 minutes, I finally decided to enter it. The interior of the cathedral is somewhat more reminiscent to its Gothic origins, and extremely similar to St. Bavo’s Cathedral. There are Roman columns that support the roof and in front of each column there is the statue representing each one of the twelve apostles. There is a huge musical organ (supposed with 4300 pipes) established in the main center of the area, before the altar. Stained glass windows adorn the northern and southern sides, and a marble and alabaster altarpiece depicting the Passion of Christ is built behind the choir.

After sitting in the garden in front of the cathedral for almost thirty minutes, I once again got ready to move ahead. The clock was ticking away now and it was already half past three in the noon. Dark clouds had also started to hover above the Brussels sky, providing an indication also as to how unpredictable the weather was going to get in the next three days. Once I was able to find the location of the cathedral on my paper map, it was pretty easy to determine the shortest (and a less busy) path to reach back to the Botanical Garden and the Hotel Bloom. I could just have hitched a ride on the connecting trams, but I was still uncomfortable with the mode of payment. In Ghent, they had the ticket counter right next to the tram stand, but the way seemed different in Brussels, where it was more likely for the local inhabitants to just have a service card which could be swiped, and there were no visible ticket counters. They are sparsely located on the routes as I found out later, or you could risk jumping on the tram without a ticket (which I actually did once in a rush for the review!). I proceeded ahead on the Rue de la Banque road behind the National Bank of Belgium (Banque nationale de Belgique). A 5 minutes walk down this road would lead to the Gaston Lagaffe statue, a lesser known attraction of Brussels. Gaston Lagaffe is the hero of a series of Belgian cartoon strips designed by Andre Franquin. The statue is situated right in front of the entrance to the Brussels Comic Book museum, which however I was too lazy to visit. What is notable however, was that in the roundabout ahead of this statue, is another monument, which I later was not able to find on the list of attractions of Brussels (or on the Google Street View !). A shipment container (of Caru Containers) was fixed at such an angle that it looked like a stunt from Smallville, when Superman stops a speeding truck in the air (bottom-right). It somehow overshadows the Lagaffe statue albeit, and seemed to be established quite recently.

By the time I reached back to Hotel Bloom, it was already 4pm in the noon, and in just around an hour it started raining heavily, dampening all my plans for the dinner. I decided to drop by back to the Falafel place and prepare for the review preparation meeting the next day. The preparation meeting was set to be around Rue Montoyer street, and after jumping on a tram straight through Rue Royale road early in the morning next day, I still had some time to kill. Luckily, my travel route to the meeting was across the Parc De Bruxelles (Brussels Park), the largest urban park right in the center of the city. It was around 7:30am in the morning and it is really calm and tranquil sitting right in the midst of the garden (which I would come to enjoy in all the major cities I visit next). Unlike the Le Botanique, this has several tall trees and jogging lanes which might give the impression of a forest (considering the park was created in the 18th century). Brussels Park is the home to the Théâtre Royal du Parc (which was obviously close at that time), two ponds and several structures (similar to Le Botanique) and fountains. The park is surrounded by several key buildings namely Palais des Beaux-arts (Centre for fine arts), Palais Royal des Bruxelles (Royal Palace of Brussels), Palais des Académies (Academy Palace) on the south, and the La Chambre des représentants de Belgique (Belgian Parliament) on the north. After sitting for almost an hour, spotting the occasional joggers and the early morning businessmen wading through the park (as the park is surrounded by all sorts of offices – government and private), I moved on for my meeting on Rue Montoyer. In the evening, post-meeting, I had dinner with the other project partners at the Brussels Grill restaurant which I had eyed down on the day before, opposite to the Pizza Hut. Although being a typical steak restaurant, they did serve Greek Salad and Spaghetti in Red Sauce for the typical vegetarian like me (and I ordered both as I just had a dry sandwich for lunch). Belgium is well known for its beers, and the list could get very confusing for foreigners, and asking ‘Which is your best beer?’ could probably start a revolt (I should have done my homework!). I tried a couple of different Belgian pale ales – I remember huge glasses of amber ales (probably Pauwel Kwaks?) down the table and a couple of ‘fruity’ beers.

After a successful review meeting the next day, some of us decided to meet out for dinner at a restaurant near the Grand Place. By the time I reached Grand Place from my hotel, following the same path that I had taken on Monday, it had already begun to rain cats and dogs. Moreover, to shelter themselves from the rain most of the tourists (and locals) had taken refuge in the restaurants. And standing outside beneath the cape of the restaurants was frowned upon by their waiters (some would occasionally come out to shoo us away). We finally found some place to sit in a restaurant located behind the Grand Place (probably the La Moule Sacree, but my memory is a bit hazed out from the time). It is a bit hard to find vegetarian in Brussels (compared to Ghent), and I had to settle for yet another Spaghetti in Red Sauce. The food there was quite varied (and delicious) however with some having their share of a lapin gueuze (rabbit with gueuze), carbonades boeuf (beef stew), pavé de boeuf (beef pad?), lotte aux poireaux (monkfish with leeks) and sole grillée (grilled sole), along with two bottles of Sauvignon Blanc white wine. After the extremely long dinner, and some photo shoots later, I still was afflicted with the desire to taste the famous Belgian waffles at least once before leaving Brussels. I convinced some of the partners to make a trip to the Dandoy Tea room which was right round the corner, but unfortunately it was closed yet again (weird!). Returning back to the Grand Place we then moved in the opposite Rue de la Colline street, as I remembered there were a couple of shops serving Belgian Waffles there. We finally decided to have them at the Leonidas shop on the street (apparently they are based everywhere in Brussels), as the shop was a lot crowded compared to the others in the adjacent areas. They serve freshly grilled waffles with any three toppings you request – usually a type of molten chocolate (dark, milk, nutella or custom), any fruit (strawberries, bananas, kiwis, raspberries etc.) and whipped cream (flavored or simple with iced sugar) or ice-cream. After purchasing our custom waffles, we moved out to sit under the tree at Marché De l’Agora Bruxelles (as the benches were occupied) and savour the hard-earned desert. And I soon forgot about Dandoy Tea Room, as the waffle in hand was the first and probably the best satisfactory waffle I would ever have. After sitting there for around 30 minutes, we decided to join the rest of the partners back for one last parting session of beers at a traditional Belgian Pub. The waitress there lifted around 45 glasses in one shot, which was pretty remarkable!

On my final day in Brussels, I had plans to visit the famous Atomium (Wiki), the key-chain for which I had already purchased as a memento. I had a small hangover from the previous night, as we were out there for around 2 am in the morning, and had walked all the way back to my Hotel (and getting wayward at a couple of intersections). Checking out from my hotel at around 10 am and taking an early morning metro from there, it seemed I was way ahead of my time considering my flight was around 6 pm in the evening. Getting down on the Heysel metro station, and walking a bit, one could see the spheres of the Atomium glistening in the sun. The Atomium was opened as a part of the Brussels 1958 World’s Fair, and is the only remaining symbol of the time. According to CNN, the Atomium was termed as the most bizarre building of Europe in 2013. In lieu with my past travels, the architecture is a stark Modern futuristic reflection against Medieval Ghent and Ancient Athens. The Atomium is a magnified representation of an Iron Crystal, with nine spheres connected with twenty tubes. Unfortunately, it can be really crowded even if you are the one to arrive early in the morning. There are various stands in the nearby area serving corndogs, though most would be closed till 12 noon. Three spheres host exhibition, whereas you could even move to the topmost sphere to enjoy a panoramic view of the city, and hosts a restaurant also (reminded me of the drinks at Hilton!). Tourist lines however can go on all the way from the Atomium down to these stands, inevitably making you stand for around 2 hours in the sun. The view was tempting, but I was very tired from the past night, and I decided to skip that out. It would be most prudent if the tickets are pre-booked online, making you skip the long queues altogether, a lesson which I learned when I was traveling Rome later in July. There is also a small cafe, called Snack and Terrace, right next to the ticket center which serve paninis, sandwiches, cold drinks etc., and chairs scattered around to sit and eat beneath the Atomium. I sat there for around an hour nibbling on my vegetarian panini and sipping a coke, whilst enjoying the view. There was an occasion when I caught a glimpse of a plane flying right through one of the topmost spheres. On both the sides of Atomium are gardens, which are reputed to bear beautiful flowers down in the Spring producing quite a majestic view.

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Situated right next to the ticket center is also the Mini-Europe theme park of Brussels (Wiki). Mini-Europe has reproductions of monuments in the European Union on display, laid out in regional clusters across the huge garden. The ticketing system however is grouped at the same center, and the huge queue outside was quite disconcerting for me. It had been 9 days since I was on foot traveling through Ghent previously, and I finally reached my decision to skip this. I had my luggage dragged around with me, and estimating the speed of intake, it would have required me to stand for two hours under the sun. It would probably not be my last time in Brussels, and it would great to try  pre-booking for this the next time. Moving my fingers on the ceramic plate which I had purchased a couple of days back, I realized that I had also missed out on the Manneken Pis statue during this trip. Leaving the Atomium at around 1 pm, I started my journey back to the airport, pulling the curtains on my first trip to Belgium.

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