Belgian Windsprint

Trip Start Nov 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 21, 2006

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Flag of Belgium  ,
Thursday, September 21, 2006

As far as first impressions go, Brussels didn't do much to rank high. I was in a less than stellar mood as it was by the time I arrived. After two days of Oktoberfest, seven hours stuffed in two different trains wasn't the most appealing prospect, particularly when I got stuck in the smoking car for the significantly longer Munich to Koln run. I got to Koln with about eight minutes to spare and learned that the train from there to Brussels required a reservation even with my Eurail pass. Since I didn't have a reservation, I had a choice -- get on the train and pay €50 or get a ticket, wait two hours and only pay €11. Since €40 happens to be roughly my daily working budget, I had two hours on my hand, more than enough time to step outside, look at the massive cathedral (Koln has it right, put your biggest tourist attraction right next to the train station -- flash tourism) eat an early dinner and finally get on the train. Finally in Brussels at 9, the first thing I saw, while waiting to buy a Metro ticket, was some guy getting his luggage robbed. Hooray Brussels. I have a feeling this blog isn't going to make it into the next Belgian tourism brochure. After getting significantly lost, I finally found my hostel (thanks to the help of a few really nice locals -- proving that speaking French doesn't immediately make you an asshole) and was informed that they had no free beds the following night. As I found out a couple phone calls later, no hostels had beds for what I was hoping to be my second and final night in Brussels. It might have been silly for me to show up in Budapest with no bookings on the last night of the Grand Prix and days before a massive music festival, but never did I imagine that Brussels, in September, in the middle of the week would give me issues.

What this all meant was I had about 18 hours to eat chocolate, eat waffles and drink beer. Since I had just come off three showerless, tent-sleeping days in a camping ground, my only goal for that first night was a shower and a marathon sleeping session. The shower was cold and on a 20-second timer and the mattresses were made of plastic. All of a sudden the prospect of only spending one night at Hostel Van Gogh wasn't seeming like such a bad thing. But what the early night meant was I really only had about 5 hours to fit in all my indulgences.

I woke up in the morning, confirmed that I had no place to sleep anywhere in Brussels and made my move to Grand Place, Brussels' main square. As Brussels' a-number one attraction, it does quite nicely -- a huge airy plaza where people go to chill out, bring some lunch, meet up with friends, etc. -- surrounded by regal important-looking buildings. My first order of business was to track down the Chocolate Museum. At €4, the place is a ripoff. I never thought I'd be disappointed by something chocolate-related in Belgium, but the Museum shook my confidence in everything I can believe to be good in this world. It was while I was in search of indulgence number two -- the waffle -- that I inadvertently stumbled upon the Mannekin-Pis. Indulge me while I go on another extended rant against Lonely Planet.

There should have been nothing inadvertent about me finding the Mannekin-Pis. If I were writing the entry on Brussels, my graf on the fountain would've looked something along the lines of, 'If you visit Brussels and don't set aside some time to gaze upon the Mannekin-Pis, you might as well come to Belgium as a Mormon with a chocolate allergy. And get there early when you can enjoy it in contemplative peace before the throngs of peace-signing Japanese converge.' Instead, what you get is a sentence in the last paragraph, buried underneath all the churches and museums, that reads something along the lines of 'You might consider seeing the Mannekin-Pis.' By the time I get to paragraphs like that, the only thing I consider normally is whether I'm actually going to read it or not. Now, most backpackers who have decided to buy a book that stuffs a whole continent into one book have probably been to numerous places before hitting Brussels. This means they've seen hundreds of churches, perused dozens of museums, and it's all starting to blur together. Unless it's going to really stand out, this average backpacker isn't going to be all that fussed about the full array of cathedrals and museums Brussels has to offer. But, I imagine, your average backpacker would be very interested to learn of a fountain that features a statue of a small boy holding his willy and pissing into the pool below. These are the things we have to know about. You go to Rome to see cathedrals, you go to Florence to go to museums, but when you go to Brussels you need to know about the crazy, quirky shit like pissing statues. Had I gone to Brussels, spent a day in museums and gawking at cathedrals and had been alerted once I left the country that I missed out on a urinating fountain, I would've been devastated. Might have even considered these last 10 months of travel a sham and a failure.

After the Mannekin-Pis I found my waffle and I was a very happy boy. Then my emotions shifted rapidly. As I walked to the Grand Place to sit down and dig in, things took a turn. For one thing, my white t-shirt was chocolate stained courtesy of a windblown banana. I now had the whole day in front of me looking like a four-year old who doesn't know how to feed himself. More importantly though, it started raining. Rain never makes it fun to walk around in. Combine it with my flip-flops (or what an Aussie calls 'thongs') and walking in a city like Brussels becomes a sort of extreme sport where death lurks behind every footstep. A little background story. It's April 27. I've had one of my best 24 hour stretches of the whole trip and I now I have to say goodbye to Koh Pha Ngan. I had gotten back to my bungalow from the night before only an hour before I was due to check out and take a taxi to the port. I was barefoot after losing my flip-flops the night before and had no time to replace them. So there I am in the port, frantically running around barefooted, hungover and sleep-deprived, trying to find a new pair of flip-flops before my boat left in 20 minutes. Money was also an issue, I was leaving the country in two days and there was only so much currency remaining in my wallet. I finally tracked down a pair, a nice Habiana ripoff that set me back a whole 70 bahts, or one dollar and seventy-five cents. You get exactly what you pay for. Those things have served me very nicely, they're still in my bag and were all I had on my feet more or less between May and mid-September. Not only has the tread been rubbed off, spots where the tread used to be has rubbed off as well. Basically it means that I'm walking on two blocks of styrofoam. Styrofoam and wet stones don't get along. So I ice-skated to the Metro for indulgence number three -- beer -- ready to get out of Brussels as soon as the glass had been emptied. In the Metro station I received a text from the lovely Mandy Los, my friend in Rotterdam (more on her later) that said it would be no problem for me to come a day early, and Brussels was officially on the clock.

After a solid half hour of searching, I finally found the Chantillon Brewery. Chantillon is maybe the best brewery tour I've done. It's a homemade brew in a small building on a small street. The tour is self-guided and comes with a very helpful pamphlet that not only outlines how Chantillon makes their unique beer (called Lambic, it's more acidic that your average beer and is aged three years, they're the only brewery that makes Lambic properly in the world -- not my favorite beer after the sampling was done, but it wins points for being different) but how other normal beers are made. Very cool, very informative and comes with a sample of the Lambic and of their fruit beer, in which you can actually taste the fruit. And with an admission price of €4 as well, it blows the chocolate museum out of the water. When I emerged from the brewery the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day all over again. Beer really does make the world a better place. Back in the city center, I ticked beer off the list properly, sitting in a bar with a beer menu longer than a Stephen King novel, getting handed glasses of dark Belgian beer. Life was good. I was no longer in such a rush to leave, so I took my buzz to a frites stand (that's Belgian, too) and ate a sandwich in the Grand Place, watching the world go by, enjoying the sunshine. Then I went to the hostel, boxes of Belgian chocolate in hand (I was going to be staying with three different girls in Holland, what else would you buy as a thank you gift?) got my stuff and made a beeline for the train station and Rotterdam. Belgium in 20 hours, my shortest stint in a country yet.
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