I have just returned from a trip to Brussels, a city I had not visited before. My colleagues from the Ministry of Finance invited me to come along and go out there, and it also enabled me to meet former classmates from the LSE again, most of whom now work for the European Commission, which explains why they are in Brussels. It was nice as well, because normally I like to explore cities with my girlfriend, but she happened to have gone to Brussels already a few weeks ago, so I had some catching up to do.
Around 4pm my colleagues and I left the Hague, and got on the train to Brussels. Arriving in Brussels, we first dropped off our stuff, so that we did not have to carry it around. My first impression of Brussels was not entirely positive. Despite the shelter the buildings offered, a cold, wet wind lashed in my face. With two bags over my shoulders, I found my way to the Boulevard d’Ypres, being stared at by tall guys with hoods in every other porch. The streets were filled with trash, which was being plundered by (I suppose) homeless people.
After having dropped off my stuff, I ventured into the city centre, meeting up with my colleagues for dinner. Through the lively and cosy Rue des Bouchers, I found my way to Brasserie Scheltema, where we would enjoy some gastronomic pleasures. While having a ‘gezellige‘ time, I had a platter of San Daniele ham with mango chutney as a starter, then filet mignon, and finally (yes, I sinned) a chocolate mousse – delicious! The whole thing took pretty long; we arrived around 8.30pm, and left around 11.30pm. I must admit that, as seems to happen to me more often when I visit a restaurant that is a little fancy, I left the place more hungry than I entered it!
I then went to the Halles Saint-Géry, where some of my best friends from my year in London were. We sat down on an indoor but grassy (or turf) surface. We ordered a massive, well, tube of beer that was a metre tall, and which we could use to fill our glasses, as we would do several times. It was great to hear from all of them how they were doing in Brussels and at their jobs or internships, but it made me realise how much I miss London and the time we spent there.
Before moving to the next place, we got ourselves some snacks. Having talked in Dutch for some time with my Flemish friends, I guess I may have thought I was still in the Netherlands when I ordered a ‘broodje frikandel‘. Normally, I then get a sandwich with some (what should be) meat in it. This time, I got something I never had before. There was bread, salad, a massive portion of fries (!) and mayonnaise, and, if you would look really carefully, something that might at some point have been a frikandel. It was nevertheless delicious, and exactly what I needed.
Afterwards, we went to a club with the disturbing name Madame Moustache, where we partied until deep in the night. Remarkably, when I entered the club I was pleasantly surprised to meet a friend I know from my board year at AIESEC in Tilburg, and whom I had not seen in at least a year.
What struck me as being, well, greedy, is that clubs and bars in Brussels apparently require you to pay for using their bathrooms; even if you already paid an entrance fee and had a couple of drinks! A hideous monster, that was determined not to speak a word of Dutch or English (or probably anything else than French) and that scattered around fluids abundantly while she spoke (or that is what I think she tried to do), required me to pay 30 eurocent for using the bathroom at Halles Saint-Géry. Secretly, I was a little amused that the smallest bill I had in my wallet was a 10 euro bill, which made that she had to give me all her change, which she did not appreciate. This change came in handy, for instance when I had to pay 1 euro (!) to visit the bathroom at Madame Moustache. Sometimes Belgians seem to be more Dutch than we are ourselves.
I spent the night at a friend’s place. It was a quite cold night, because I did not want to bother bringing a proper blanket with me, as it would annoy me when strolling through Brussels. I slept underneath my jacket, but luckily I could get up relatively early given how late we returned from the club. In the morning I noticed that a complete crew of construction workers had settled themselves in my head, hammering in that drinking does not always goes unpunished.
I, however, did not let them discourage me, because this afternoon I would get to do one of the things I like the most in life: sauntering through an interesting city that I do not (yet) fully know, by myself and without a clear plan. I started off heading across Sainte-Catherine square, towards the Église du-Béguinage.
I bought a big baguette, and walked towards the Place de la Monnaie and the adjacent Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, where supposedly in 1830 a riot broke out which would eventually lead to Belgian independence. At the square I ate my bread, and let weak sunbeams warm me a bit on this brisk but clear, autumn day. On this square I saw one of the very few trees one can find in the centre of Brussels.
Proceeding through the Rue des Fripiers, stopping by the Église Saint-Nicolas, a nice sight with the little houses pressed against its side, I advanced to one of the main sights of Brussels: the Grand Place. Having dawdled on and across the main square for a while, I set for ‘the’ symbol of Brussels: Manneken Pis. I found
the guy with the little… the little guy, and at least I did not have to take a boat tour to have a good look at this tiny statue.
I strolled closer to the central train station, and bought a ticket back to the Netherlands. In the morning the friend I stayed with offered to look up the times at which the trains would depart. I told him that I followed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advice and that I thus did not want to be rushed to get on a certain train. Having bought the ticket, however, I found out that the train had left 30 seconds earlier, and that the next one would leave in an hour. So much for Nassim’s advice.
With hindsight, missing the train was not too bad. It allowed me to wander around a bit in the part of Brussels to the east of the central train station. Firstly, I paid a visit to the Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule, a beautiful cathedral looking out over the city and with a history stretching 12 centuries. It is nice that the churches and cathedrals in Brussels are, as far as I am aware, open to the public for free.
Finally, I walked past the Belgian parliament, and sauntered through the Parc de Bruxelles towards the Royal Palace. Few hours of sleep and many hours of walking began to take its toll. I decided to walk to the train station, and make sure that I would not miss the train again. The trip to Brussels was lovely and a big success. I will remember the city as having beautiful, historic sights, amidst roadworks, homeless people, and trash. As much as I enjoyed the trip, it does not rank among my favourite cities.