Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Weekend in Brussels

After attending the the Seminar on Self-Repairing Programs at Schloss Dagstuhl in Germany, I spent Valentine's Day weekend in Brussels with my friend Kate. (Photo album here.)

Three nights is intense for seeing a city, but Brussels was well-suited for our style of whirlwind tourism. Not only did Brussels live up to Belgium's reputation of having the best chocolate, mussels, fries, and beer in the world, but it proved to be an amazing destination both for seeing old buildings and for dancing. The trip was also linguistically fascinating: there is a mix of French and Flemish spoken in Belgium*. Our Brussels trip was made more great by two accidental brilliant decisions we made.

The first brilliant decision we made was booking the first two nights at the Hostel Grand Place, a charming (read: tiny) hostel just 20 meters away from Grand Place, Belgium's historic city center. Though it was difficult to find at first, it was impossible to fail at tourism after walking out the door. After a confusing 30 minutes of getting completely lost trying to arrive there from the Central Station (nobody in Brussels knows how to get anywhere, including a cab driver who charge me 10 Euros and dropped me off after two blocks because I was "almost there"), I finally reunited with Kate at the hostel. We had a lovely dinner at the Roi d'Espagne**, where I enjoyed a heavy meal of endives covered with ham covered with cheese and we both enjoyed Jupiler beer and cassis wine. Grand Place turned out to be close to most things our guide book said was good, including the famous Delirium Cafe, which is in an obscure "impasse" (alley) with several other bars. En route to Delirium we again got extremely lost and encountered many geographically clueless Belgians, but we did accidentally see many key Brussels sights (such as the Brussels icon Manneken Pis) along the way. We ended the night by consuming frites with hot chili and aioli sauce. Apparently three-quarters the way through I exclaimed, "It just hit me how amazing these are."

Kate and I spent most of Saturday in Bruges, which is an hour by train and which our guide book told us is the "Venice of the north." It may be more like the "Disneyland of the north" given how touristy and insanely picturesque it is: at every corner there is a medieval monastery or some canal with random beautiful buildings. Apparently Bruges is so well-preserved because there was an economic downturn after the Middle Ages that caused it to be abandoned until fairly recently. We spent the day walking the streets of Bruges, taking breaks only to eat waffles and enjoy mussels (though we had 3-5 failed dinner attempts due to it being Valentine's Day weekend and Bruges being the most romantic destination in the world). At some point we even randomly stumbled upon the windmills of Bruges and clutched each other with joy and wonder. (We also wandered into the English convent and met a nun.) We ended our Bruges adventure by purchasing chocolate (Leonidas, which turned out to only be fourth best) and lace (for which Bruges is known). Despite the fact that there are so many tourists, Bruges seems authentic and thus worth visiting.

Saturday night we ventured into the Marolles neighborhood to Fuse, a happening two-story nightclub with excellent electronic and house music. Brussels is quite the place to party: people seem to have good taste in music, men dance (and groups of men will go dancing just to enjoy the music, it seems), and people stay out late. Kate and I felt like we were ending the night early at 3am. Indeed, we later learned that when Fuse closes at 7am people continue dancing the morning away at an after-hours club until 2pm.

Sunday we learned of the brilliance of our second accidental decision of booking the hostel too late to extend it a third night. The consequence of this was that on Sunday we stayed with Julien, a charming (read: fun and hospitable) Belgian friend-of-a-friend. Julien took it upon himself to give us a "real" tour of Brussels and taught us that Delirium is touristy and that Marcolini (not Leonidas, as the guide book tells us) is actually the best Belgian chocolate. We learned that the real way to consume waffles is while walking on the street and that Brussels is a city of people who mean serious business. Julien also introduced me to cherry beer, which is one of humankind's more impressive inventions.

Valentine's Day morning we said goodbye over a decadent breakfast of speculoos biscuits and parted ways. What a weekend.

* Flemish is mostly spoken in the north (Flanders) and French is mostly spoken in the south. Street signs in Brussels have two names, which can become rather confusing if you are not French/Flemish bilingual. Something really interesting is that some advertisements are solely in Flemish. Julien tells us this is because Flemish is the language associated with more wealth.
** The guide book said this was the best place to have a beer in Grand Place and that it would be difficult to get a table. Both of these statements did not seem entirely accurate. This trip showed me how little guide books are to be trusted.

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