So this is my not-especially hyped travel blog I've been promising not-especially large numbers of people I would do. Credit where credit's due, I was inspired to set up this blog by my friends Kat and Ian's ace one - http://katian.travellerspoint.com - documenting their passage back from Australia to Manchester after a year living Down Under. Hopefully in time I can work out how to use this properly and make it look and sound as good as theirs. While we all wait for that to happen I will plug on; as anyone who knows me will testify my record of replying to texts, emails etc. is patchy at best, so at least this way if there's words it can only be a good thing, and if there's not then I've let everyone down collectively (which I will then attempt to blame on heavy-handed internet censorship).
Right now I'm not on my travels. I've more or less overcome a bout of food poisoning that has taken the best part of two weeks to shake (I'll spare you the details). I got this food poisoning in Belgium.
My original intention had been to depart on 18th August for three weeks of Interrailing before entering Russia and boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, a combination of my fabled ability to not sort things out sufficiently far in advance and my equally-fabled conscientiousness when it comes to my work (ha ha) meant that the date grew increasingly unlikely, and so it proved. Well, kind of, since I'd bought a one-way Eurostar ticket to Brussels donkeys back thinking it could be amended if things didn't go according to plan, only to find out about four days before that it wasn't anything of the sort. Now while most people would take this on the chin and write it off as a salutary lesson in pulling your finger out and getting stuff done, being my father's son I resolved that the best course of action was instead to plan a last minute, two-day trip to the city in order to get my travelling eye in and see the Atomium, which as far as I was concerned at the time was the only thing worth seeing in Brussels.
A few days ago my friend Alex, in a reply to a text I had sent him earlier, chided me for making my messages so long, so I'm pretty certain he's going to crucify me when he sees this essay. Anyway, enough waffle, more about Brussels (there's a joke to be made about waffles, but my stomach still isn't sanctioning any food-based humour so I'll have to leave that an open goal for others). Here's a few things I noticed about the Belgian capital:
(1) They have two sorts of tram. This is confusing enough for the first-time visitor, but especially so when there's the mother of all festival-destroying thunderstorms going on outside, the instructions on how to get to your hostel have clearly been Babelfished, and the Brussels public transport map hasn't been designed for the likes of me. Cue having to jump off the tram five minutes later and run for cover, then pick my way through central Brussels all the while rueing my decision to print of a map where neither the tram routes or street names were legible. I didn't come by a decent map until almost a day later. Compounded by my refusal to buy a guidebook (who's going to buy it off Amazon Marketplace once I'm done with it?), this compromised my trip somewhat.
(2) The beer's all that and more. You even warm to the one all the locals drink that tastes like its a beer-wine mix by the end of the bottle. Mussels and chips is a harder sell. I think I trebled my lifetime's consumption of shellfish in one meal. And boy do they love their lobsters. As for waffles, they say you should eat them like the locals do with a dusting of sugar and nothing else, but given their not exactly a pinnacle of cuisine I went for the OTT tourist version coated in cream and sauce, and feel pretty vindicated by that decision.
Moules et frites
(3) The Grand Place is surprisingly hard to find given its name and its billing as the largest Gothic square in Europe or some such (admittedly my ongoing lack of a map may have had a hand in my difficulties here). Truth be told, it's a teensy bit of a letdown (see also: Manneken Pis). Sure, it tears strips of the likes of Piccadilly Gardens - not least in terms of the amount of gilding - but it's not all that grand in scale and the buildings are much of a Gothic muchness. Felt a tad like a Harry Potter set. All this coming from a medievalist.
(4) The Atomium, by contrast, was hands down the best thing about my trip there. These days top-end architecture may be dominated by "iconic" buildings, but the Belgians more or less had the whole thing wrapped up back in '58 when they put the finishing touches to a giant shiny model of an iron atom. It's not for us to ask why someone thought this was the best use of the country's money - they were most definitely in the right. The Atomium looks amazing from the outside (I think they re-clad it a few years ago, or else gave it a thorough polishing), not quite as exciting on the inside, although this may be because I fell into the trap of taking the escalators rather than queuing for the lift (the fastest in the world in its day) and thus only making it halfway up to a pod with no windows to look out of. Which, aside from familiarising yourself with the sub-atomic structure of iron, is the main reason why most people visit the Atomium.
(5) Decent-enough views over the city centre (which I'm told any local will happily concede is not among the most beautiful in the world) can be obtained from a terrace outside the Palais de Justice, once the largest building in the world. Having been to Ceausescu's monster parliament building in Bucharest not so long ago I'm on a bit of a roll when it comes to gigantic edifices. Strangely, it doesn't look all that huge from the street, and it's not until you walk around the vast, pigeon shit-covered entrance portico that you realise what a vast structure it is. The impression of scale is reinforced by taking the lift down to the neighbourhood below (past the best accordionist I'd heard busking in a long time), a proper slice of old-time Brussels that is dwarfed by the legal leviathan on the hill. This area also happened to have the largest number of murals featuring the cartoon characters (none of which I recognised) that are one of Brussels' motifs.
Seat of justice
(6) Speaking of cartoon-ish civic motifs, the Manneken Pis is rubbish and should be avoided so as to give yourself 15 minutes to do something more interesting and edifying elsewhere. In effect, it's a bronze doll pissing into a trough. Tastefully done, but there's no escaping its, er, piss awfulness. Or for that matter the crowds who block the streets to gawp at it while ignoring the city's dozens of other fountains, each with their own probably just as interesting story to tell. That said, the rows and rows of Manneken Pis souvenir corkscrews (which could more accurately be described as cockscrews) in the adjacent tourist tat shops are quite something to behold. Kinda wish I'd taken a photo, although these two largely make up for it.
This is great for so many reasons
(7) Having reached the conclusion that Brussels is actually a thoroughly awesome place that merits a longer and more organised visit, I thought I'd save myself some money by booking a coach home. Sure, the Eurostar was hassle-free, but I've just spent the best part of a year commuting to and from work by coach, what could possibly go wrong? Only having a wonky-toothed driver whose traffic jam-dodging detours through the Belgian countryside made us first fall behind schedule to the extent that we missed our Channel crossing and then wait 45 minutes in a petrol station on the outskirts of Dunkerque as he'd been timed out by his tacograph. I think it took a total of ten hours to get back to London, but I was in no mood to factor in the time change just in case it added a further miserable hour. It was on this hot coach that I ingested the dodgy ham that has provided me with what unfortunately may prove to be my abiding memory of an otherwise great couple of days in Belgium.
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So in little over a day from now I'll be on my way. The Mongolian and Chinese embassies turned around my visa applications as quick as their Russian counterparts, and I have pretty much every ticket and form paid for and printed. Today is about getting the inevitable last minute, why-didn't-I-think-about-that-before items, and packing. That, and hanging out with our Soph.