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10 days in Belgium

a travel blog by martin_b

All the old cities, plus a bit of Waterloo and World War 1.

Contrary to legend, there are famous people from Belgium, honestly. James Ensor is a very fine painter. Jacques Brel comes from Belgium, although everyone thinks he is French. And Mr Sax, who invented the Saxophone. And Tintin, of course.

I'm not sure about the Belgians being famous for eating mussels, either. I reckon the list is something like this (this is foods Belgians seem to like, not foods I like, by the way)

1) Frites (chips).
2) Waffles (on every street corner almost)
3) Beer (nuff said)
4) Tea (the Belgians like tea more than the English. And they have better taste in tea than the English as well. They even have shops, lots of shops, where you can just buy tea.)
5) Fish Soup (not inspiring but in every restaurant)
6) Lobster (didn't get up the courage to try!)
7) Chocolate (my Mum assures me Belgian chocolate is great)
8) Mussels (supposedly the best known Belgian food, they are about, but not overwhelmingly)
9) Any other fish (they just like seafood!)
10) Paprika flavour crisps (no salt and vinegar)

1) Anything with fruit in. I don't know how Belgians stay regular.
2) Risotto. Even Italian restaurants don't serve it.
3) Sprouts. I had imagined that in Brussels at least, you might get the odd sprout, but I didn't see a single one on menus. Has the world gone mad?
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Stockport, United Kingdom

Well, a well-planned trip this time, unlike Ireland. All accomodation booked, mainly in hostels, Eurostar booked, only the train to London not in place. What could possibly go wrong?

permalink written by  martin_b on June 23, 2007 from Stockport, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Rushing around London...this trips cockup

London, United Kingdom

Getting to London from Stockport was easy enough, with Wendy's help for a lift to Wilmslow. It was an odd route though...I won't put it on the map, but we went Wilmslow-Crewe-Birmingham-Coventry-Rugby-Watford-London. Draw than on a map and see how straight it isn't!

Anyway, I had some time to kill, so I went to the British Library, which is very near the stations, has free lockers for luggage, and a nice cafe.

I had lunch and looked around their exhibition called Sacred, which is really good and shows sacred texts from Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

My locker key had an unusual choice of numbers...was this an omen???

Whether it was or not, it was just after leaving the library and getting to St Pancras station that I realised that my Eurostar train actually left from Waterloo International, which is on the other side of London. AAArgh!

2 tube trains later, I did make the train on time.

Eurostar trains are very very long, and very very empty as far as I can see. No wonder they are broke. They are clean, but feel a bit sterile, all beige and grey, and weird headrests which restrict your view while not being very comfortable.

They are fast however. The channel takes no time at all, and it wasn't long before we reached Lille.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 23, 2007 from London, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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A quick dash through France

Lille, France

We only stopped momentarily in Lille, but I'm still counting it as France! The French countryside up from the channel seemed pretty bland and flat. Lots of well-orchestrated greenery, and no hedges. Not really my cup of tea.

Lille itself, we couldn't see very well from the train, but it didn't look any great shakes.

As we got towards Belgium the scenery did get a bit livelier, but still not exactly dramatic. Anyway, we were soon in Brussels.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 23, 2007 from Lille, France
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Brussels, home of the crappest railway stations in the world, and sprouts.

Brussels, Belgium

Wouldn't you think that if you were building a gateway station, to welcome people from across Europe into your capital city, you'd make it quite nice...well, you'd be wrong.

Brussels Midi station...it's dark, it's concrete, it has a maze of shops and no architectural value whatsoever. Of all stations, this is the one I most wanted to get out of...and yet, it's so badly designed that even trying to leave is difficult, and trying to leave in a particular direction almost impossible. The signs to whatever you want point (if you are lucky) in a vague direction, and then peter out. If you're lucky, and find your way through the confused foreigners, you might find a map on the wall. Even then it's not simple.

This was also my first encounter with Belgian toilets. I found the map, found a toilet...it was closed: there was an arrow pointing vaguely off to one side, but no real clue as to where the other toilet was. eventually I found one way at the other end of the station...and then like almost every toilet in Belgium, you have to pay. If the staff spent as much time keeping the toilets pristine as they do getting money out of people, I wouldn't mind so much.

Eventually I got out, and started walking to the hostel. It was a dirty, run down boulevard, that had obviously been important once. By this point I was thinking Brussels had as much charm as Salford. If you don't know Salford, it's well worth a visit: the locals are very friendly and it's very much unspoiled by tourists.

As I was walking along, there was some sort of impromptu celebration on the other side of the road: 4 or 5 carloads of young Asian kids (Moroccan?) stopped their cars, started beeping their horns, shouting, dancing, and generally holding up the traffic. The traffic generally wasn't pleased, but they didn't seem to care. I was tempted to take pictures, but then I didn't know what they were celebrating. If it was some sort of terrorist attack on London, say, then it might not have been appreciated. On the other hand, maybe someone had just blown up the station- that cheered me up.

By this time I was beginning to think that Belgium was quite different to what Lonely Planet told me! Maybe the train had gone to Beirut instead? It kind of got worse as I went close to the canal (I guess I should have guessed when it was called the Boulevard d'Abattoir that it might not be the best bit.)

The canal, while not scenic, is at least interesting, and has lots of little wind turbine things on the other bank. I don't know if they were just decorative.

The hostel, "Generation Europe" was just beyond that. It's quite pleasant, clean and up to date, and while the room was quiet the whole place does have a lively atmosphere. My room had 4 bunks, but I was the only one there: an american guy came in later. He seemed to be on some sort of whistle-stop tour, had just arrived in Belgium and was leaving for Amsterdam the day after. I'm not convinced that sort of speed really helps you see much of a country!

Having got settled in, I went for a walk, and some food, in the early evening. The area I was in was part of a suburb called Molenbeek, I think. It was extremely, vibrantly Asian, filled with general shops, takeaways, and lots of clothes shops: from fabrics to asian tailors to sari sellers. Rusholme looks tame by comparison.

Leaving this vibrancy behind for now, I found myself back at the Canal de Charleroi, and crossed over...and at last found the historic Brussels I'd been expecting. I wandered randomly, enjoying the views, and eventually ate in a restaraunt with tables in this square, the Place St Catherine.

That's the church of St. Catherine. I ate in a place called Jacques, which specialised in seafood (I had Wing of Skate and fish soup: not bad, but quite French presentation.) It was run by an odd waiter who I ended up feeling a bit sorry for. He was continually almost running between the restaurant itself and the square, where everyone was sat, across the little road in between. When he got there, he was then trying to deal with about 10 tables, speaking about 4 languages seemingly fluently, and dealing with idiot Brits who didn't even seem to like fish. He gave me sparking water rather than non-sparkling, but it seemed churlish to complain when he was doing all that!

permalink written by  martin_b on June 23, 2007 from Brussels, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Grand places and more crap stations

Brussels, Belgium

Well, I got up late, but this hostel understands the need for a good nights sleep, so breakfast goes on until 10 or so. So I did get some muesli and a pastry.

When I was ready, I walked across the city to the Grand Place. It was a nice scenic walk, via some churches (all with services on, so I didn't get to visit), and other places. This little statue was in a square tucked away behind the beguinage. It was accompanied by a man calling the staff of an old people's home "fascists". I'm not entirely sure why but it did spoil the mood a bit. As I got closer Grand Place itself, it started to get way more touristy.

Grand Place is the sort of place that makes your jaw drop just a little bit. It was the medieval centre of the town, and it's where the town and all its guilds tried to make the most impressive show possible. They succeeded, and it's been there ever since, as I understand it. Unlike some, it didn't get damaged much in the wars, although it did burn down in the 17th Century: they just built it even better.

Pictures are probably best.

It's even better in the flesh. I popped into the tourist information office, and got a taste of the rich depth of Belgian humour. "Hi, do you speak English?" "Yes, do you?"
He did give me directions to Waterloo as well, although with hindsight it might have been better if he hadn't.

Anyway, shrugging off the attentions of a guy trying to sell me a leather jacket, I left the square to head for the central station. On the way, I passed the Galeries St Hubert, which contain lots of tourists and some very posh shops. Oh, and a small cinema that shows 8 different films every day. It's actually twice as big as the picture shows, and very impressive.

The whole route to the station is quite impressive, lots of ornate buildings. It is all a bit touristy though, but you can see why. The Central Station is almost as bad as Brussels Midi: it actually has a brilliant main hall that reminds me of New York's Central Station, but most of the station is actually underneath that. Let's just say that if I wanted to shoot a horror film, the basement floors of Central would do very nicely. Dark corners, shattered concrete, it's the sort of place that makes you feel very alone even in a crowd of people.

My aim was to get to Waterloo, or more exactly Braine L'Alleud. To kill time before the train came, I took a look up the hill. As you go up, towards the royal palace and all the museums, there start to be some great views across the city.
Near the top of the hill, is this restored art deco building, which now houses the music museum (more later). It was the first in a store chain called Old England (which was neither). It's not quite Gaudi but it is pretty.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 24, 2007 from Brussels, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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BA here

Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium

The train was fantastic: a two-storey jobby, very flash and modern. Great views from the top floor.

BA is just a small town. On balance, it would have been better not to ask tourist information. Then I would have got off at Waterloo station like the all the other tourists, and it probably would have been obvious where I needed to go. As it was, I was theoretically nearer, but there were no signs or anything.

I asked the station bloke. He looked like nobody had every asked how to get to the nearby most famous battlefield in Europe before. In fairness though, he was really helpful, and I eventually found the right bus stop. The bus driver was actually a man that didn't speak English: I'd kind of got used to absolutely everyone doing so by now. Anyway, eventually, after I'd started to realise just how bad my French was, we came to a mutual understanding that yes, this was the right bus, and yes, he would shout at me when we were there. It worked.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 24, 2007 from Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium

OK, so after a walk-train-bus-walk, I actually reached Waterloo. You can't really miss it, because the victors (which wasn't the French, in case your history isn't good) built a bloody great conical hill in the middle of the Battlefield.

As you walk up, you pass the pub where Napoleon stayed. It does cost to see everything, but the museum is good, and it is worth paying to go up the hill (the Butte de Lion).

Some days, they say you can see the ghosts of the French army, still surveying the Battlefield...

If I went again, I think I'd try to hire a bike, as it would make it easier to get there from the station, and cycling round the Battlefield would probably be good: it's not possible to get to all the memorials on foot.

Looking at the memorials I did see, it was interesting that while the English and Prussians built monoliths commemorating some officers, only the Belgians actually commemorated all their troops.

I came away with a far greater understanding of the Battle...definitely a worthwhile trip.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 24, 2007 from Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Slightly lost in Belgium

Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium

Then it got interesting. I got rather cocky and decided to walk back to the train station. It seemed a good idea in theory, I'd noticed all the junctions were signposted on the way to the Field. What I hadn't thought of it that they weren't going to be signposted on the way back. It went fine for a while...but then I got to a junction where I just didn't know.

This was a bit worrying. I formulated a sentence in French and asked an old wrinkly woman which way I needed to go. My confidence took another shake when she said she couldn't understand me! As usual, eventually we figured it out.

So it worked out well really: I even found a big Belgian deli on the way back. All the signs outside were in English, presumably to look up market. In England, we'd probably be putting deli signs in French for the same reason, funny old world. Nice cakes anyway, and peach flavoured Lipton's ice tea, which qualifies as deli food in Belgium. They do like their tea.

I took a wander round BA before my train left. Quite a lot of shops for such a small place, and no chain stores either: lots of independent fashion and the like. No toilets of course, this is Belgium after all. The station toilets were firmly locked.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 24, 2007 from Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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back to Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

When I got back, it was late afternoon/early evening. I wanted to find the puppet theatre, which is supposed to be good, so I went down the Galeries St Hubert and down the backstreets behind it. It's an astonishing area: it makes Las Ramblas look like a quiet cul de sac. Literally every building is a restaurant, all bustling with lights, signs and waiters looking for custom, and I was able to walk along in the rain down this narrow street, sheltering under one awning after another. The alley leading to the puppet theatre is so small that I walked right past it. Eventually I found it: the latest production was Faust, which sounded just right, but sadly it wasn't on the nights I was in Brussels. One of those places to remember to book in advance next time!

I ate in one of the restaurants, which was as adequate as restaurants trying to catch tourists always are, and cheap so I can't complain.

Back at the hostel, I got to have a chat to a new roommate, a guy called Cyber, probably the only Algerian in a wheelchair in Brussels at that particular time. He'd come over for the free music festival that had just finished. It did seem a long way to come for a not exceptionally big music festival, but maybe he was a dj or something, I dunno. He asked whether I was going to go to Algeria: I asked "is it safe?" He went quiet for a second, then started smiling and said "for you, probably not right now!". Ok, I'll give that one a miss then.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 24, 2007 from Brussels, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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Brussels is a bit closed

Brussels, Belgium

Monday is not an entirely good day to be in Belgium...Belgium closes on Mondays. I'll skip all the places I tried to go to which weren't open.

This was the day I was due to move to a B & B (cos the hostel was full up). I decided to go out to the Atomium, and then walk across to the B & B. I got to Heysel, via the Metro, fairly easily. When I got there though, it was raining about as heavily as it can rain, so I hid in the station for a bit. The famous/tragic stadium was just across the way.

When it stopped a bit, I headed down to the Atomium. It has the quality that it's almost impossible to take a bad picture of it.

As you get closer, it's even possible to do some arty abstract pictures, and the sheer scale of it does get quite impressive. It was refurbished a couple of years back, so it looks especially bright and shiny now.

Inside, it's still fairly space age, and full of...small children, and cute cars! Well, only these few cars. If you can choose your moment to get in the lift to the top when the queue is less than 30 people, go for it! The stairs and escalators inside are atmospheric, and you get snatches of other spheres going up.

The views from the top are pretty good as well: the whole of Brussels is in view. This is the avenue leading down past the royal gardens (Belgium is obsessed with royalty, you'd think they weren't really a democracy yet), where I was going to walk, but it was wet and the queues made me late as well.

So, I took the metro to Rogier, nearer the area I was staying, and walked North for a mile or so to the B & B. The area turned out to be very Moroccan/Arabic, and it must be an excellent place to buy cheap clothes: prices start at 1 Euro, and 10 Euros is a fair way up the scale. I kind of wished I'd left everything at home and just bought on the spot.

The B & B was more a room in someone's house. It belonged to a lady called Nadine, who used to be in advertising or something but now made up market wedding videos. It was certainly an unusual place to stay: the house itself looked narrow and shabby form the outside, and dark and gloomy at first inside, but it soon became clear that it was at one time really high class. Massively high ceilings, (higher ceilings by far than the victorian house I live in) lovely stained glass windows downstairs, ornate plasterwork, lots of light and a sort of salon feel.

Also, a collection of cats and one lively dog. The whole place had a sort of run down/comfortably arty/alternative lifestyle feel. My bedroom had a low bed, a tv which only worked in black and white, huge piles of books, and decor consisting solely of female nudes, both prints of famous works and a large hand drawn piece. There was a very large bathroom, which suffered from a lack of light, ie they weren't any, apart from one little one over the mirror. It also suffered from a lack of soap, although on the other hand there were half a dozen bottles of perfume, so nobody left smelling bad.

On the whole, I liked it.

Anyway, it was early afternoon and the weather cleared, so I walked back to the centre, through a small botanical garden. It used to be a big garden, but the planners of Brussels kept chopping bits off, and chopped it in half with a road as well. You could tell from some of the signs that the park head was pretty pissed off. It was a bit sad: even the botanic collection had been moved somewhere else. It's a shame, because with a little work, it could be something astonishing.

Brussells' planners are not brilliant: the old bits of the city are great, but there are are too many concrete monoliths elsewhere.

The cathedral looks very impressive from the outside: very classic looking. On the inside though, it's just boring and very sterile, I was expecting better.
It does have this cool reliquary though, whcih still has a saints hand in. It's really unusually for even fake relics to survive these days, and I thought this was fascinating.

Back down the hill, near the Grand Place, I went into the clothing and lace museum. It's very quiet and calm, tucked away in a little back street, a nice change from the rest of Brussels.

Blimey, I didn't realise how much I stuffed into this day until I wrote it down...it's like a holiday all to itself.

Next, I did the thing that every visitor to brussels has to do (it's the law)- see the Mannekin Pis. The peeing guy. The comment everyone makes, is "is that it?". The only outstanding thing about it that it is peeing. It's tiny and not attractive otherwise, and a lot of people walk right past it (one of the museums has a video of people walking past it without noticing or saying "no, that can't be it").

It does wonders for the tourist shops, mind! You can't move for lace, chocolate and waffles.

I bought some lace edging for Wendy, then wandered sort of South-West from there.

Every other corner seems to have a stunning church, all of them better than the cathedral, but relatively ignored by tourists. Lots of shops as well; in the area I was in lots of comic shops, record shops and stuff. I ended up eating in a noodle bar close to Place St Catherine, and then wandered towards the Galeries St Hubert so I could see a film.

I found a huge shopping street (Nieuwstraat) on the way, and then an extremely mellow square hidden away, the Place De Martyrs. You can probably figure that name out! A great place just to sit and pass time, all grand but not overbearing white buildings, with a big memorial in the middle. I sat there until it started raining, then hurried to the cinema.

The cinema was excellent: very arthouse. I saw "A guide to recognising your saints", which I don't think has really hit the uk yet. It's very gritty in a lowlife American way, very gripping and in parts very sad. So engrossing and believable I wanted to shout at the screen at one point...I'd recommend it.

And that just leaves the bath episode. Got back to my room, filled the bath. no soap but luckily I had some liquid soap for the hostels. Little light but I moved the table lamps and sort of made do. So, I'm relaxing in the bath...I hear the bedroom door come open. Hmmmm. Burglars? Wind? Neither seemed likely. I got out, dripping wet, put a towel round my waist, carefully didn't electrocute myself on the lamp on the floor, and saw...a cat! A big fluffy tabby cat, which was more startled than I was, and ran under the bed.

I don't know what the best thing to do is in this situation. I jammed the door a couple of inches back open so the cat could get out, and got back in the bath.

When I got out, the cat had gone. It did come back later, introduced itself and marked me as its property. It seemed happy enough after that.

permalink written by  martin_b on June 25, 2007 from Brussels, Belgium
from the travel blog: 10 days in Belgium
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