The title is a half truth - we're covering my trip to Bruges in spring of 2016 and my trip to Brussels in the spring of 2015. Seeing as it's the end of the summer of 2017, we'll see how this goes.
First up, Brussels. Brussels was my third weekend in Europe (after Amsterdam and Versailles). I was saving a few places for long weekends and visitors but I still have no idea why Brussels was so high on my to-see list. The EU? I mention this because I was still mostly a travel novice when I went to Brussels. Basically, I didn't know what the hell I was doing or what I would really enjoy yet.
I think I might have stayed in the European-est of hotels, still too scared to try a hostel at this point in my expat life. I arrived on a Friday night, quickly giving up on finding the hotel on my own and taking a cab. And good thing because even the cab driver struggled to find the place. The hotel was a very narrow building, the front desk something jammed in the corner of a crowded entryway, every still surface covered in traveler's brochures. The hotel clerk gave me my key - an ancient brass contraption that was not allowed to leave the building - and pointed me towards my room. I then crawled up a very steep and very narrow twisting staircase. At one point I went through a door and I believe changed buildings. Everything was dark carpet and faded wallpaper. Finally I made my way to my room, a twin bed shoved against a radiator in the corner and a very confusing bathroom against the door. The thing was in the attic, so the ceiling sloped and I had to be careful not to bang my head.
And this was my view! Taken Saturday morning, the angled window in the roof looked out over a square that had some type of flea market starting very early on Saturday.
And here is the Peter Pan statue in Egmont Park. I didn't realize this at the time but this is actually a replica of the original in Kensington Gardens in London. Unfortunately, I just discovered this while putting together this entry. I'll add it to my list of things to check out next time I'm in London. Until then!
This statue was donated in 1924 to recognize the two countries' friendship during WWI. It became a Belgian historical monument in 1975
Palais Royal. Today, it is the office of the king - the royals no longer live there. The palace is beautiful but I was more taken with the park across the street, Brussels Park, a lovely, green open space festooned with scultpures.
More pretty green spaces - Parc du Cinquantenaire. The place is expansive, overtaken by a massive U-shaped complex. It was built in 1880 by King Leopold II to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian Independence. Today, in addition to eye balling some interesting architecture and gardens, the complex also offers an art museum and a military museums. I didn't have time to check out either but I did enjoy walking through the park itself.
EU parliament building. The EU buildings were not physically far from the two parks listed above but I don't know that they could be any further apartment artistically. Brussels is the capital of the EU. Walking around the cold, glassy buildings, I was surprised to see lots of guys with big guns. After traveling around Europe, it's not so surprising any more. To be honest, guys with big guns were all over Europe. When I visited anything related to the EU or United Nations (Geneva, Strasbourg, Brussels), there were guns. When I visited anything remotely touristy after a terrorist attack, there were guns. Basically a Wal-Mart in Alabama.
And now maybe the prettiest view in the city - Jardin du moat des arts. After gutting the neighborhood, one of the Leopolds ordered the landscape architect Pierre Vacherot to design a garden to class up the place during the Universal Exposition in 1910. Intended to be temporary, the green area was popular and was recreated in its current form between 1956 and 1958 by Rene Pechere.
When visiting the area, I saw this place marked in my guidebooks but didn't think much of it. Coming from the concrete and sculpture square just behind the gardens to this view was dramatic. It's a lovely space and I took a stupid number of pictures from various angles.
And for some reason, Brussels most famous naked kid - Manneken Pis. The statue is in a corner of a crowded area, between restaurants and shops. I was worried I wasn't going to be able to find the thing. It turned out to be not a problem at all - just look for the crowd. My initial reaction - wow, that's a really tiny statue. And so many people!
Though officially naked, the little guy is usually clothed in some fun outfit to commemorate an event or occasion. There is a museum nearby to let you check out his extensive closet.
And now my favorite part of Brussels - the Grand Place. The city's central square is incomparable, with elaborate visages and beautiful guildhalls. I was there on a Saturday. In the pictured building, a bridge and groom came out onto a balcony and waved and everyone cheered. I thought it was a royal wedding or at least a celebrity. That is, until another couple came out twenty minutes later. Apparently this is a wedding option in Brussels - go wave on the balcony in Grand Place. All you need is a flexible time table and a lot of cash.
But really, the Grand Place is a great place for people watching and taking in some beautiful architecture.
In Brussels, I had my best fellow tourist story and my worst. First, my best. I sat and ordered Belgian Waffles for breakfast/lunch in the beautiful square. I sat there for a long time, looking at beautiful buildings and people watching. There were two women next to me, maybe ten years older than me, American. They were both living somewhere in Europe (I think the Amsterdam area) and chatting about work and shared colleagues. I wanted to be them. They helped me order a mimosa (some occasions just require a mimosa) and were everything I thought I wanted to be. Two single ladies, having a casual weekend in some European capital, like they do all the time.
Waffles! Okay, I had to. I was in Belgium! And they were delicious.
Galeries Saint Hubert. First mall and birthplace of consumerism. The place was built in 1847 and is still selling tourists cheaply made, over-priced goods.
If there's not an elaborate cathedral, is it really a European city? I actually didn't get a chance to go into this one, just grabbed a pic on my way through with a tour.
And now for my worst tourist experience. I wasn't sure what to see in Brussels and was overwhelmed with chocolate options, so I booked my very first European viator tour. On the tour were a group of American college students. There were maybe six of them. And find a foreigner and ask them their worst opinion of Americans and I'm pretty sure these kids are what they would describe. Loud, obnoxious, complaining about everything. They yelled at each other from one end of the bus to the other and bragged about how late they were out the night before and how drunk they got and all the other cool places in Europe they were going to go that summer. They bitched about everything. It was exhausting. I tried to hide from them and prevent them realizing I was also an American while making sure everyone else on the tour knew I wasn't with them.
But the tour, annoying Americans aside, was worth it for two reasons - chocolate and Atonium. Atonium is the most out of the way spot in Brussels and I wouldn't have been able to get there on my own, I just didn't have time. If you want to check out the site, plan ahead. The structure is a leftover from the 1958 World Fair. It represents an iron crystal lattice, enlarged 165 billion times. You can go into the structure and, according to my tour guide, it offers great views and excellent exhibits.
Chocolate Manneken Pis! As I said, I also did the tour for the chocolate. I had Belgian waffles, now Belgian chocolate. Our tour took us to Zaabar, where we watched them make a batch of chocolate and tasted as many flavors as we could manage. I spent an obscene amount of money on various flavors under the guise of 'souvenirs.'
After a long day around Brussels, I went back to my hotel, thinking I would just grab dinner somewhere near the hotel.
There were no restaurants. The two places recommended to me by the guy behind the crowded hotel desk were closed. After an increasingly-desperate search, I ended up at this bar a few blocks away. There was food advertised but they had stopped serving. So after a lovely brunch earlier in the day, I ended my trip with a beer and a bag of potato chips. But this guy was my dinner companion so it certainly wasn't the worst.
The Brussels train station. You'll know you're here when you see this piece of work just outside the station.
And now, Brugge! When I visited here in 2016, it was one of my first weekend-long trips after returning to Germany. It had been a city on my 'almost' list in 2015, a city everyone talked about as beautiful and picturesque, like you stepped into a different time period. So sure, let's check it out. I left early Saturday morning. In 2016, unlike 2015, I had a tablet. And guess what movie I had bought and downloaded via Amazon Prime? In Bruges! I'm nothing if not thematic.
And quick aside here - that was a lovely film. It reminded me of something like Pulp Fiction, but with more heart and Collin Farrell. Very violent and heartbreaking. I recommend the film in general but absolutely see it before you go to Bruges.
And my next aside. Bruges was honestly a really lovely town. It wasn't crowded when I went but I also went in February. I've heard from other people, and my own guide, that it can be quite touristy at times (blame the movie), so be prepared in case that happens.
Pictured above is the Markt, city center. I had lunch at the restaurant with the Italian flags! The food was just okay but the people watching was A+. The square was busy with people, street performers, and horse-drawn carriages. Near the square were several shops, selling whatever a good tourist might need.
I have no idea why people want to come here. Like Amsterdam, I have hundreds of these. Every turn, another beautiful canal with interesting buildings.
Ah! My eyes!
This canal and beautiful stone bridge could be anywhere in Amsterdam, Hamburg, or Bruges. Luckily, the architecture is unique in each city. This is definitely Bruges.
This building near my hostel was my favorite. The purple let me know I was almost to my home for the evening.
Hostel break! I stayed at a hostel somewhat removed from the touristy spots (but still walkable). It was a great hostel. Somewhat confusing, another building within a building type of a thing, but the vibe was homey and I skipped dinner in Bruges to go back to my hostel and hang out and eavesdrop on fellow travelers. Everyone was friendly and helpful.
Windmill near my hostel.
This hotel is close to the touristy center of the city. I took a boat tour and the tour guide happily pointed this place out as the location of Collin Farrell's big jump scene from In Bruges. I appreciate cities that have a sense of humor about their place in pop culture.
Swans. Here is where I note that swans were everywhere. No, really, they were everywhere. And they were assholes. Watch out for the swans.
I took a boat tour and I recommend giving it a try. It's a great way to see the city. Also, there were some canals that don't have any pedestrian vantage point and the only way to see them is from a boat. This horrible shot is the lowest bridge in the city. And it's no joke - everyone had to duck, including our driver/tour guide.
Beer and chocolate, because why not. This is near the Markt center, at a bar that had hundreds of beers available. A nice place to sit and enjoy the canal while doing the most touristy thing you can in the city.
A lace map of Bruges. A friend visited Bruges a few months after me. In preparation, she looked through my pictures with me. When we stumbled upon this map, she become obsessed. I showed here where it was on a map and she added it to her list of things to see. And then, after three days in Bruges, never found it.
Honestly, I have no idea how this is possible. The map is something I practically tripped over when walking from the train station to the main tourist square. And then I passed it at least three more times during my two days in Bruges. So, it's there. And should be easy to fine. It is exactly as described - a map of the city and it's major spots, made of lace. Go check it out, why not.
I went to two museums while I was in Bruges, an art museum and a chocolate museum. The art museum was interesting and had a special exhibit on witch art. This terrifying black and white piece was at the entrance to the exhibit. Not pictured is the chocolate museum. Because it was terrible. The place seemed hastily thrown together, an obvious cash grab to lure in tourists. But hey, it was cheap and gave me something to do while I waited for my boat tour.
Finally, more beer. One of the local breweries offers a tour. The tour itself was fun, getting a behind the scenes peak at the process. Even better was the view from the top of the brewery, an excellent vantage point for all of Bruges, and the free beer afterwards.