Where else could we be, but Belgium?
Well, my computer’s finally fixed (thank you, Pete. Please don’t break it again!), and, after much procrastinating, I have decided it’s high time I caught up with my blog entries.
After Amsterdam we decided to spend a bit of time trudging through the Siberian Wastelands. Actually, that’s a lie: we decided to go to Brussels, which comes a close second to Siberia in terms of temperature. We had howling winds, rainstorms... I’m amazed it didn’t snow!
We went to Belgium on a bizarre whim: Pete and I both really liked the comedy series The New Statesman, the final series of which was set in Brussels. (I wish we could say we had deep and meaningful reasons for travelling to these places, really I do! Maybe I can think of some for my next entry.)
Actually, we were a bit disappointed with the place at first. We expected that the centre of the European Community would have a certain vibrancy about it; in reality the city was dingy and run down, graffiti was everywhere, and many of the buildings needed a good clean. Not what we were expecting, at all!
Of course, one of the wonderful things about new places is their ability to surprise you, just when you least expect it. We were on our way to nowhere in particular, when we turned into the Grote Markt, the central market square in the city. After a morning spent walking down boring, shabby streets, this place was a feast for the eyes! All four sides of the square were surrounded by beautiful medieval buildings. I wish these photos could show just how impressive it all was:
It is commonly described as one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe, if not the world (although Pete overheard another tourist remark to his companion, “This is my second favourite square in Europe.” I’d love to know what his first favourite one is!)
As I’ve mentioned previously, having seen many typical tourist attractions in the last five months or so, we are now on the lookout for places to visit that are can be considered unusual in some way. Brussels had a few of these, enough to keep us busy for the two days we were there.
The Comic Strip Museum
I have to confess that a large part of the appeal of this place was that it was indoors. It was blooming cold outside that day, and I think we would have happily gone into The Museum of Watching Paint Dry to escape the weather. As for comic books, the only Belgian cartoon character either of us knew was Tintin. (Incidentally neither of us liked Tintin when we were kids. After comparing notes, we discovered that, in both our households, when Tintin came on, the TV went off!) Happily there was a lot more to it than that. The first part of the display covered the A-Z of comic-book production, which was interesting, and we got to spend a happy half hour watching really old Smurfs cartoons in black and white.
I have only one thing to say about the Atomium: balls. Big metal ones. This weird-looking monument was built for the 1958 Brussels World Fair:
Once the expo was over, the Belgians decided they liked it and decided to keep it, and now it is one of those tourist attractions like the Eifel Tower, where you get to queue for a silly amount of time so you can get a lift to the top and get a bird’s-eye view of the city. (Though, to be fair, the queue at the Atomium was nowhere near as bad as the one for the Eifel Tower. In Paris we waited for 3½ hours; here it was a little over 30 minutes!)
Next door to the Atomium, they’ve built a model village containing replicas of some of the major monuments and landmarks in the EU. Given the lousy weather, we didn’t know if we’d get to see this or not, but, on the day we were due to leave, the weather decided to clear up for about ten minutes; shocked and amazed, the entire city went outside to gawp at the strange round yellow thing in the sky. Having been to Asia and places where sunlight is not a novelty, we passed on the sun worshipping and went to look at some diddy buildings instead:
The models are actually very detailed (and some of them cost a fortune to make. The Brussels’ Grand Palace model cost 350,000 Euros!) Pete walks around for a while then says, “Well, that’s saved me the bother of going to any of those places, then.”
Honestly, I can't take him anywhere!
We only had a few days in Brussels, and I think that was more than enough to see the main attractions and get a feel for the place. We aren’t especially keen to return, but we both agree that the Grote Markt will be one of the memorable highlights of our trip.
Leaving Belgium, however, presented another problem. We had only 2.5 days in which to decide on our next destination and book transport and hotels. Quite frankly, this process is more of a pain in the backside than I’d anticipated. Pete and I generally agree on where we want to go next, but sometimes arranging to go there is an effort. (I see now why some people pre-plan their trips and buy round-the-world tickets!)
We needed to head south through Europe towards Spain, and decide that the best way to do this would be via France. Okay, then. I get on the Internet, and after two hours of Google-ing, fail to find information on a single flight or train to Paris, or any other major destination in the country. Pete says, “You’re doing it wrong!” and takes over. He also gets zip (at which point I gleefully tell him he must be doing it wrong, too. Immature? Me? Yup, ‘fraid so.) We come up with a Plan B, and brave the gale-force winds to get to the train station, where the nice man behind the counter also draws a blank. (Note: I resisted the urge to tell him he was doing it wrong as well!) Finally his colleague solves the mystery: France is on strike! Airlines, baggage handlers, air traffic controllers, train drivers and taxi drivers are all striking; the only way we could get there would be to hire a car and drive ourselves.
We decided to bypass the entire country and booked direct flights to Spain, glad that we hadn’t already pre-booked flights to France. (Could you imagine how annoying it would be to have tickets that you couldn’t use?)
The moral of this story: Spur-of-the-moment travel, although tedious, sometimes has its advantages!
Sorry about the delay; I'll try and post again very soon.
Julie & Pete