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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Belgium trip - Brussels

For a capital city of 1.1 million people (certainly small by Chinese standards, where even "third-tier" cities often have populations of several million), Brussels punches above its weight: not only is it the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium and the seat of the Flemish Community, the bilingual city (Flemish and French) is also the de facto capital of the European Union and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Nevertheless, even though it's only a short train ride from Leuven, seeing Brussels was low on our sightseeing list. Still, it couldn't be avoided completely, so our host Jeff took us on a day trip to point out some of the sights of the capital city.

It was a short walk from Jeff and Barbara's apartment to the Leuven train station. In front of the station is a monument to those who died in the First World War. Such memorials to the carnage and slaughter that started 100 years ago can be found all over the country (all over the continent, in fact):

Once in Brussels,  Jeff first took us to see the EU quarter, where his wife works as a translator. Truth be told, it isn't one of the more gripping areas of the capital, as the architecture of many of the institutions is unassuming, to put it politely. Or to be rude but accurate, buildings such as that of the European Commission (the Berlaymont building seen below) are monstrosities. There were also surprisingly few people on the street, things being much quieter than compared to Washington, D.C.:

Time for a break at a nearby cafe. Coffee, no beer, a problem that would soon be rectified:

We passed by the European Union Parliament Building...:

...where the beer problem was quickly solved by stopping at a bar and relaxing outdoors with a Kriek. The uniquely-shaped glass can't remain vertical on its own and requires the wooden stand for support - the brewery must turn a tidy profit restocking bars with replacement glasses for the ones broken by those who had one too many Krieks (as any Belgian beer aficionado can tell you, each beer in Belgium is served in its own unique glass):

Leaving the EU quarter behind, we walked toward the heart of old Brussels, passing by the Palais Royal, official home to King Philippe (though apparently he doesn't spend much time there)...:

...and Eglise St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg...:

...on the way to the Grand Place:

Before entering the Grand Place, we stopped for lunch at the Galerie de la Reine, one of the world's first (if not the first) covered shopping arcades:

We also purchased some chocolates from the flagship store of Neuhaus, one of Belgium's best known chocolatiers:

If you weren't already aware of the fact, Belgium is the home of Tintin:

The Grand Place. A collection of late 17th-early 18th century guildhalls that surround a cobblestone square. Understated they're not, but the cafes that now inhabit them bring in the crowds and give the area its energy. We didn't spend much time in the Grand Place as much of the square had been taken over by a large stage for a music concert to be held later that evening, but it certainly was an impressive sight:

Sometimes,  even though you really know better, you have to do what everyone else does. Such was the case with the Manneken Pis, Brussels (and, for that matter, Belgium's) most overrated tourist attraction:

Walking the streets around the Grand Place, we did some window shopping:

A last look at the 15th-century city hall towering over the Grand Place:

Before catching the late afternoon train back to Leuven, we took a tea time break at the curiously named Drug Opera, where I had my first genuine Belgian waffle. Despite the waffles' fame, I found the local pancakes to be better tasting, much to my waistline's regret (to be honest, it wasn't just pancakes - beer and chocolate also bear much of the responsibility):

Back at Barbara and Jeff's place, we ended the day with some Westvleteren 12°, often cited as the best beer in Belgium. It isn't easy to get a supply, as it can supposedly only be purchased at the abbey where it's brewed, and by appointment only. Furthermore, you can only purchase a case, which can only be picked up on Wednesday afternoons, on a cash-only basis! The abbey itself is in an isolated village that can only be reached by car. We had planned to rent a car in order to visit it, but my wife and I both forgot to bring our driver's licenses. It didn't matter, though, as it turned out the abbey cafe (where the beer can be sampled and a case bought) was closed to visitors during the time we were in Belgium. Jeff was able to score a few bottles from a liquor store in central Leuven, where they were appropriately stored in the back of the shop. While I'm not  prepared to say it was the greatest beer I had in Belgium, it was pretty damn good and made for an excellent way to cap off an interesting day:

With more time, we could've done more in the Grand Place, or visited some of Brussels other sights, notably the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, one of the country's best art museums. However, Belgium was to prove there was a lot more to see and do in the country than just visit the capital city.


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