First off, yes I am home in the US safe and sound, though already “homesick” for Oxford. I had no idea how attached I was to the place until I stepped off the plane and was immediately having trouble breathing from the thick blanket of exhaust fumes characteristic of Los Angeles. Of course, my parents picked me up at the airport with my handsome puppy, easily making up for any sadness I would have felt from re-entering the world of Southern California. Can you blame me? You’ve probably all seen a billion pictures of my boy so everyone should understand. And thankfully, he remembers me, something I was actually really worried about having been out of his world for 7 long months.
But you all really want to hear about the trip to Brussels, don’t you? I can’t blame you; it was a pretty great trip and was so jam-packed that I had to write down everything in my little moleskin notebook so that I could remember it to blog about now. I’m kind of impressed that I made it through the weekend to be honest. The night before we were leaving I ended up not sleeping at all, choosing instead to join some of the other visiting students in a massive goodbye hangout. And then I had to “wake up” at 4:45 am to meet Dan at the bus stop into London anyway (can you wake up if you don’t fall asleep?), so sleeping somehow just didn’t happen. It’s a good thing that Dan was around to keep me awake when I was fading.
One of the biggest reasons we chose to go to Brussels was because of the direct Eurostar train to Gare-Midi. Dan and I feel like old pros at getting to the Eurostar at St Pancras by this point, and everything went as smooth as could be imagined between getting on the bus to London and arriving in Brussels. Did you know that it takes less time to get to Brussels than it does to get to Paris? Why haven’t I gone to Brussels before?!
The area around the train station in Brussels is not the most savory of locations. It is in the poorer part of the town, and on every block was about 10-15 run down Moroccan restaurants. We actually nicknamed the area Little Morocco, so I guess I don’t need to go to Marrakech?
Well that’s not true. I’m totally going to Marrakech one day! I don’t think that Little Morocco in Brussels is really the best model for what Morocco would be like. At least I hope not, as Little Morocco felt really dangerous, definitely a place where I clutched my Coach bag a little bit tighter to my side and was grateful that my jacket’s hood covered the Oxford embroidery. We found our way to our hotel on the other end of Anspach from the train station (that walk felt like it took forever!), dropped off our bags, and headed out into the city.
Brussels is the home of the European Union so we made a visit to the EU Quarter the first stop on our three day exploration. Dan had been to Brussels for all of three hours a few years back, but somehow his sense of direction was still impeccable, and he led us around the edge of the city up to the EU without hesitation. We did get a little sidetracked by a statue of a mussel (moules in French, a Belgium specialty) and the subsequent opportunities for pictures of our muscles with a mussel.
I love how Dan is so willing to do random stuff that potentially makes complete fools out of us. Makes vacations more fun!
We were also distracted by some big orange wooden canopy thingy…and yeah that’s about the most accurate way to describe it. I have no idea why it was there, who made it, or what the purpose was, but Dan went a little giddy over the engineering aspects of it. I’d be a little concerned if he didn’t marvel at it considering his DPhil is in Civil Engineering. Otherwise he might want to be considering a career change!
The EU buildings themselves were really nothing to write home about: giant testaments to steel and glass and rather nondescript. A cool thing though was to learn from Dan and the guidebook about why certain buildings were designed the way they were, such as how they used glass slats over the windows to make the building’s heating more energy efficient. That kind of info was pretty cool, but also pretty short, and we spent no more than ten minutes in the area before heading out to the Natural Science Museum.
Dinosaurs! Shiny rocks! Animal skeletons! I was really excited and eager to find the museum, so naturally we ended up lost in Parc Leopold, unable to find the entrance to the place. It was a really nice park and we saw the craziest looking ducks I’ve ever seen in my life, but I really wanted to see the Iguanodon exhibit at the museum! If only we could find the entrance! Signage in Brussels doesn’t really seem to be the most user-friendly, but we did finally find the doors and after a quick spot of lunch and a thorough examination of the mineral exhibit on the bottom floor (some incredible pyrites and calcites!), skipped up to the dinosaur room and closer to the ultimate moment of my stupidity.
I was never obsessed with dinosaurs growing up; in our house that was Kevin’s area of expertise so I’m not really the most well-knowledged person about the creatures that walked this earth before we did. I know about the geology and the extinction theories, as well as some of the archaeology techniques, but relatively little about the dinosaurs themselves. But an exhibit of 600 perfectly intact iguanodon fossils was a guaranteed fun for the whole family situation. So there Dan and I were, marveling at these huge dinosaur bones, a whole herd of them preserved behind glass, when I looked down at the placard and read: Iguanodon somethingorother. Confused for about half a minute, something dawned on me and I turned to Dan in shock: “Wait, these are the iguanodons? Uh iguanodons aren’t a type of iguana are they?”
Yeah, this is a true story. I was really picturing iguanas every time something said iguanodon.
Dan must have laughed for a solid ten minutes, and I can’t really blame him. I can sometimes be really intelligent, but more often than not I am dumb as wood and quite the ditz. I don’t think I ever recovered from that moment of stupidity once further into the museum, so I decided to embrace it and completely unleash the inner child and start mimicking dinosaurs, playing with the hands-on exhibits, measuring my height compared to a brachyosaurus’s leg, etc. Dan joined in the fun as well. We went down a level to another iguanodon exhibit that talked about how they found the iguanodons and preserved them on the trip from their site to the museum. That room was quite creepy, dead silent, and full of the reminders that there were 600 of these gigantic creatures found in a single location, layered on top of one another in a mine.
So bizarre! And also a great source of evidence for the asteroid theory of mass extinction in my opinion. We also saw an intact skeleton of a blue whale, the largest animal ever found. And it definitely deserved that distinction; the thing was HUGE!
We then meandered our way, drifting off along numerous side streets and through the Parc de Bruxelles (there are a lot of Parc de’s here), to the Place de Palais. This area, part of the Upper Town, could not be any more different from the comparative slums of the quarter around Gare-Midi. The buildings were all palatial, white, Roman inspired mansions surrounding an open cobblestone square. From gaps in between the intricately designed buildings you could see expansive views of the rest of Brussels emanating into the distance. Lower Town, the outlying suburbs, the grassy fields beyond…in Upper Town you were really on top of the city. We did have a purpose in going to the Place de Palais other than gawking at the architecture that was so different from any of the other cities I’ve been to: the Museum of Musical Instruments. Dan plays the cello so it was only natural that we make a stop into this small museum of the various types of instruments and variations on them. Otherwise it would have been like me refusing tickets to a ballet, just unacceptable. We only had an hour to explore the four floors as the museum was near closing, so we did a pretty cursory tour. Which ended up being perfectly fine. The cool thing about the museum is that they give you headphones and some of the instruments have boxes with jacks next to them where you plug in your headphones and can listen to the music that features the surrounding instruments. That part was pretty awesome and rather a brilliant idea in my opinion. Unfortunately the captions and explanations were not in English at all, so I was stuck looking at the cool and sometimes bizarre instruments while listening to their sounds, and nothing else. We made it through easily in an hour and headed back out into the Place de Palais.
Our next destination was the Place de Grand Sablon, with detours into the Eglise St. Jacques sur Coudenburg and Notre Dame du Grand Sablon churches to compare the more austere Protestant decor with the opulence of the Catholic/Anglican churches you see in Paris and England. Once we made it to the Grand Sablon, however, the real fun began, with the commencement of our chocolate quest! What would Belgium be without a chocolate quest, after all? Grand Sablon was the perfect place too since it seemed like every shop lining the street was a chocolate shop or patisserie with window displays just beckoning you in to drop a fortune on their confectionary. Dan and I made an agreement to exercise self control, for the sake of our waistlines as well as our wallets.
We would alternate who paid for the chocolates, and were limited to four truffles from any one shop, each picking two. Then of course we would share all four, because that’s what dance partners are for. This way we could try a larger variety of chocolates with really cool flavors. I’ll post a list of them later so that you can all drool in jealousy 😉 Each chocolate place tried to offer a unique spin on things, whether in products or atmosphere. Wittamer was decked out in candy cane bright colors; Patrick Roger had two chocolate hippo sculptures. The Belgians take their national industry very seriously!
Continuing our wanderings led us to Easy Tempo for a pizza dinner. The pizza was delicious, but oddly gigantic. I mean, yeah it was an extremely thin crust, but it was easily double the size the pizzas at Fire and Stone! As soon as we ordered a pizza each (we didn’t know the size and that we could have easily shared one), they traded our normal knives for steak knives, eliciting strange looks from the two of us. But we definitely needed those knives! The pizzas were so hard to cut (and you must cut a pizza in order to eat it like a European) that I actually had a projectile piece, which we agreed to ignore its flinging off our table when the waitress walked by. And then as we were leaving we got stuck in this absolutely torrential rainstorm. Buckets were literally dropping from the sky (ok yeah that’s really figuratively, but still) and we cowered under random awning and doorways as we made our way towards the Grande Place in search of waffles–what? It’s Belgium people!
I can’t even begin to explain how magical the Guildhouses that enclose the Grand Place were in the sun after the rain. The sculptures and gothic-esque architecture are so intricate and detailed that they don’t even seem possible. I mean how could someone actually design and build these?!
Tonight the Grand Place was the busiest we would see it for the whole vacation. Tourists and groups were everywhere, all eating waffles and carrying bags from Godiva and Leonidas. They were also heading in the same direction, which it turns out was down the side street to Brussels’ most famous and stupidest statue: Mannekin Pis. With all seriousness, it is a teeny statue of a toddler boy peeing. And tourists and any shop catering to tourists are obsessed with it. Chocolate sculptures of the kid, t-shirts, magnets, golf balls, corkscrews…you name it, they made it and stamped it with the peeing baby.
We only saw it because it’s like the Belgian Mona Lisa, but I even preferred the Mona Lisa. The only upside was that it brought us closer to waffles (Speculoos for me
It was heading towards 10:00 pm and the sun didn’t seem anywhere near close to setting so we continued to walk around the Grand Place, just in the interest of exploring. We walked down this street called Ilot (I think) that was wall to wall seafood restaurants all serving the same food and all with “maitre d’s” attempting to usher unsuspecting passersby into their restaurant that is identical to the one next to it. We came across a small theater that shows a marionette puppet show; unfortunately we were an hour late and they had no more shows for the weekend. Such a shame. From there, the search for a loo sent us back to our hotel and an instant pass out on my part. This is what happens when you don’t sleep the night before a vacation!