What’s wrong with me?!?

This morning we decided to take a day trip, and where better to day trip to than Belgium! Yes, we loaded ourselves onto the train and 3 hours later arrived in Bruges. For mor information on this adorable town consult the post titled “We did enough dark halls at the last place!” or any of the 3 posts after. The trip was not overly exciting, just a shop & wander day, but that was exactly what we were looking for. We walked around the various tourist & non-tourist shops until we found the market squares. This central square had a raised platform in it’s center and little market stalls all around it. The stalls were mainly food & treat vendors, but some also had crafts, jewelry & toques. The platform held a small skating rink. The degree for which everything had been Christmas-a-fied was magnificent!
20111205-191932.jpg 20111205-191942.jpg

As a break for our feet and to warm up a little we sat down for waffle and tea/coffee. We couldn’t come to Belgium and not have one last Belgian waffle…and by now the thought of eating them doesn’t even make Justine want to throw up anymore! It was a waffle with just powdered sugar on it…simple & sweet 🙂

By this point we couldn’t believe we were yet to visit a chocolate shop! You may recall that the place is teeming with them! We popped into Dumont, the Rick Steves recommended place, and noticed they had a Christmas card from the Steves Family…Kris was super jealous! We picked up a box to munch on…yum! yum! yum! We visited a few other chocolatiers on our way back to the center. Here we parked ourselves at the boards of the skating rink and analyzed everyone’s abilities. We wanted to be out there soooooo badly, but didn’t want to go out in rental skates. They were crappy, molded plastic…not cool to skate snobs like us! Instead we laughed when people fell and rejoiced when someone who had any skill took to the ice.

Our plan was to recreate the wonderous supper we had not once but twice during our previous visit to Bruges…but the gods of spaghetti seemed to be against us. The restaurant where we had chowed down on super cheap, super delicious pasta had closed the kitchen until 6 o’clock, and seeing as we had to be on a train at 6:58 this didn’t give us enough time to eat….especially since we anticipated we’d get lost finding the station. Instead we found another restaurant on the same side street and ate an early dinner there. Justine still had spaghetti, while Kristin opted for the ham & cheese omlette. The food was yummy enough to make up for the dinner disappointment.
20111205-192018.jpg 20111205-192011.jpg

After supper we went back to the market square to see it all lit up. We have this whole thing down: you need to eat supper early enough that you are inside while it gets dark, then when you go back out it’s into a Christmas wonderland! The important buildings were floodlit (as all important buildings in Europe always are at night) but the rest of the square was colorfully decorated with festive cheer. Around the skating rink were magical white lights to match the white tree in it’s center. We watched a bit more skating until we were too cold and headed towards the rail station.
20111205-192033.jpg 20111205-192040.jpg
On the way we munched on caramel popcorn (for Justine) and sugared nuts (for Kristin). As expected, we got a little lost, but the historic center is a circle with a ring road so once you get to the edge it’s easy enough to get anywhere. When we boarded the train we realized this was the last time we would be using our Eurail passes…they have done us well! We have taken 89 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat and several metros thanks to those passes…money well spent!

What We Missed:
Skating…or more specifically, our skates.

Love, Luck & Lipton Teas,

Mussels in Brussels…Doug from Belgium & Such

Dear Journal,

I’m afraid this entry may not have the usual pizaz to it. My travels as of late have not had the dramatic story lines that I was becoming accustomed to. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been having a good time!

From Paris I caught a train to Belgium. It seemed like a pretty cool country from what I’ve read about it. I decided Belgium stop #1 would be Bruges. The touristy part of town looks like a perfectly preserved medieval city. It’s so cute! The unfortunate truth though is that for a city to look old like this there had to be a period of severe economic downturn in it’s past. This era of suffering means the town is too poor to modernize and therefore remains stuck in the past. Not so good for the ancestors, but great for the people of the present! Tourism booms in a place like Bruges. The center of town is the Market Square. This was normal for a town in the middle ages. It is always a big open square (where the market is held…who would have guessed…) with the town hall and clock tower on one side. Here’s me at the Bruges Belfry, or Bell Tower in English.
I think one of the things Belgians might be most famous for is their chocolate. Everyone knows Belgian chocolate is hard to top. I knew that while I was in this country I had to try some, and Bruges is definately the place to do it! There are chocolate shops on every block here! I love it…although my waistline is not such a big fan. I stopped in the most adorable shop to browse the selection and noticed the ladies whipping up a fresh batch. My habit of asking an annoying amount of questions paid off again as the offered to let me join them. It was an interesting experience, learning to make chocolates, and I think I will bring my newly acquired knowledge home with me. Anyone want me to make them a treat?

I was loving the Belgian culture so I decided to stop in on Brussels. This Belgiums larest and capital city. It isn’t the quaint little tourist village stuck in the past, but a urban mix of old & new with a cool “real working city” feel to it. I made sure to stop in and see the major sights, like the Atomion. This big metal structure was built for a World’s Fair in 1958. It is a model of a atomic structure magnified by 165 billion times! Now the structure is rather vast (big enough that you can actually travel through the tubes and visit multiple floor exhibits in each ball) but the atom must be really really tiny for it to be magnified that many times!
20111006-200903.jpg 20111006-200856.jpg
I also saw the Manneken Pis. This is a statue of little boy peeing and has been adopted by not only Brussels, but all of Belgium, as a unofficial mascot/symbol. It is a little odd, but I like quirky, so I’m cool with it. You could hear a lot of tourists commenting on how small he is, but I didn’t see it. Sure he wasn’t life-sized for a regular boy, but he was still bigger than me!

Being Brussels has taught me there is more to Belgian cuisine than just chocolates. Have you ever heard of a Belgian waffle? They started right here. Although the people here find us North Americans rather odd for eating waffles for breakfast. They eat them as an afternoon snack with tea or coffee and they usually just eat them with sugar, no syrup, and no crazy toppings…but I couldn’t resist:
Now I know you’ve all heard of the French Fry, but what I just learned is that the only thing French about them is the way they are cut. To French something means to make it into thin slices, like a fry. So technically you could have French carrots or radishes, even if they don’t sound as yummy. So, you ask, if the French is how the fries are cut, where were they invented? The answer: Belgium of course! Why else would I be talking about them now?! The other note I’d like to make about fries is that here they eat them with mayo…odd for a ketchup-lover but quite delicious.
20111006-200850.jpg 20111006-200916.jpg
They was one more edible delight I had to try: Mussels in Brussels! Not only delicious, but also fun to say! They make mussels every way you could possibly want them…but I went with au natural so that I could experience the real strong flavor of the mussels 🙂

When I disembarked from my next train I found myself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city built around an area of man-made canals that for a concentric U-shape around and through the oldest part of the city. They are extremely scenic and offer opportunities for superb photos. They also appeared to be a great place for both locals and tourists to spend a lazy day when the heat gets too much.
Amsterdam has another side to it though. In an attempt to combat hard drug use the cities police force has decriminalized majiuana use in the city. This means that although it is not technically legal, no one has been arrested for use or possession in over 30 years. What is legal is prostitution. And there is a whole area of town called the Red Light District that is the center of this industry. I was naive enough to believe this would be far enough from the city center that I would not stumble across it while riding my bike through town (everyone rides bikes here!). Silly Doug, you couldn’t have been more wrong! The Red Light Dostrict is actually only a couple of blocks from both the central rail station and main tourist/shopping strip. When I accidentally rode into the area I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so shocked I rode my bike straight into the canal! The police laughed as they helped me out but comforted me by stating that they pull about 20,000 bikes out of the canal each year. I felt a bit better, but I assume most of those were stolen and tossed in and didn’t still have a rider on them! But at least I wasn’t one of the fools who drove their car into the water…that happens at least once a week here!

After the craziness of Amsterdam I needed a break, and where would I get a better one than in fairy-tale Luxembourg. This place looks like it’s straight from a storybook, with it’s old style houses, quaint roads of shops and beautiful valley views.
20111006-201324.jpg 20111006-201330.jpg
Here I made a few new friends. I was taking a look at the Royal Palace when it happened. A car pulled up and two young men got out. They were well dressed & good looking and I immediately knew they were someone important. You might be thinking, “Doug you’re in front of the ROYAL Palace, how are you not putting this together?” but my guide book had said the place was rarely inhabited by the royal family so i didn’t jump to conclusions. I could have though because they were in fact the 2 eldest sons of th Grand Duke. The Grand Duke is like the King of Luxembourg, it just has a different name here (because Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy instead of a Kingdom). We got to chatting about the house and then the country in general. They were really great guys and I hope ot see them again. Maybe at the Queen’s garden party? And maybe by them I’ll be able to find a couple of nice girls to fix them up with…

Until next time…
Keep Smiling,

*Gasp* Don’t worry, it’s ok!

Today we got up & packed our bags to move out. This is beginning to feel like a normal part of our lives, packing our bags. It’s odd though, how one day everything fits in perfectly with space to spare and then the next time you pack up you can barely shove everything in & squeeze the zipper closed. We have decided on 2 main factors that contribute to this: (1) How far we are from our next laundry day. Our clean underwears are stored in pockets in the top of our bags, while our dirty clothes bag gets zipped into the bottom pouch. Therefore, clean clothes = can’t close the main part of the bag & dirty clothes = the bottom is being squeezed shut. (2) The amount of light in the room. Packing when all of your roommates are up & the light is on is so much easier than quietly fumbling in the dark.

We walked through town one last time in search of some breakfast eats. We ended up at a bakery purchasing some pre-made waffles. We complimented this with a hot beverage from the coffee shop at the train station. Justine liked this place as it gave her a good sized coffee…not “minature sized” as she called the one she got yesterday.

The train ride to Brussels was only an hour so we were emerging at the South station in no time. This is where the hostel directions had told us to get off. We were then supposed to get onto the subway. This took a little searching, but we found the metro entrance eventually. Being subway pros we were easily able to navigate the 4 line system! We popped out right beside our hostel: the Brussels Hello Hostel. The area looks a little sketch, but we’re only here one night and the metro exit is literally a couple meters from the hostel entrance. We won’t be walking around outside once it’s late. Plus, we’re next to the Godiva chocolate factory…how could anythign bad happen next to somewhere so wonderful?! Inside the hostel is quite nice! We’re in a 8 bed room which is really large…there is tons of room to move around and put your stuff. There’s also a lot of bathrooms and a hairdryer for Justine to use in the morning. Perfect 😉

We took the metro into the center of town after we fixed ourselves up & Justine had a little laydown. We purchased a day ticket for the subway so we can ride as many times as we’d like. Our destination was Central Station because this is where the City Sightseeing Bus Tour leaves from. Yes we are back to being our favorite kind of crazy tourist! Brussels is one of those spread out cities without a lot of major tourist sights so it is the perfect candidate for bus riding. And, in addition, bus riding sounded far more appealing to our recovering-from-illness selves than walking aimlessly all over town. We rode the loop the whole way around, taking in the city sights & informative commentary. We learned a lot about Belgium as a country. We also decided we like Brussels. We had been expecting it to be just kinda “oh, ok…this place is alright” but it’s way better than that 🙂

The tour started in the city center (obviously as we were at the Central Station). This is the historic core. There are all sorts of old, and very pretty, buildings. The most exciting of these was the Royal Palace of Brussels. This is the official residence of the Belgian Royal Family. Albert II is the current king and unlike the other countries we’ve been to, this monarchy is only 180 years old. It wasn’t the most grand of palaces we have seen, but we still wouldn’t pass up living in it!
20110923-091318.jpg 20110923-091325.jpg

As you move away from the middle of Brussels the buildings change. There are still signs of classic architecture, but it becomes diluted by more modern buildings. The resulting combination seems to work. You still feel like you are in Europe (with it’s centuries of history that predate our country) but there is that grittiness that makes it feel like a real, working city. This is not your picture perfect, tourist town…this is a real modern city.

Eventually you get out of old Brussels and you reach the “European” section of the city. The buildings in this area are tall and glassy. They are sleek and modern. They have more windows than you could count. Brussels is the “heart of Europe.” What does this mean? Glad you asked…the European Union holds their parliament buildings in Brussels. The EU has no official capital, and no plans to declare one, but Brussels hosts the official seats of the European Comission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, as well as second seat of the European Parliaments (the first being in Strasbourg, France). What all of these groups are, who knows?! But they all meet here! The EU Buildings fit into this area extremely well. We guess it is well suited that a more modern organization would have more modern buildings. It also keeps them from begin too representative of one particular country’s architecture. Glass & steel can encompass everyone.
We found the EU headquarters very nice, but nothing special. As a result of encompassing everyone they don’t have a distinct look. They could have been any skyscraper downtown…but a really nice, shiny one!

When we’d completed the loop we hopped off for a snack. There was a fries place just around the corner so we stopped for another traditional Belgian dish. Luckily we are getting out of this country tomorrow, before all of the fries, chocolates & waffles can make us too obese. At least we didn’t get the giant sandwich everyone else at the restaurant was getting…it was a giant chunk of baguette with a couple burger patties, a heathly dose of mayo & a large handful of French fries shoved in it. Yikes!

We then started a walk back to the tour bus starting point (we’d gotten off at the last stop, not the restart point). Yes we were going to ride it again…this time we were ready to take advantage of the hop-off offer. We took the long way though so we could pass the Manneken Pis. This statue was put in place in 1619 but there may have been earlier versions. We had heard one story of the reason for this statue but Wikipedia informed us there are many theories. The one told to tourists is that a merchant man had lost his son and told the people of the city if they helped him find his son he would have a statue built of what his son was doing when found. Naturally he was found peeing on a wall. Another theory, dating back to the 1300’s, claim a young boy saved the city by overhearing plans of attacking the city walls with explosives. He saved the day by peeing on the fuse before it could fully ignite.
He has become a symbol of not only Brussels but the whole country of Belgium. To be honest we find it very odd… The statue was smaller than we expected. We had been picturing a life sized boy, but he is in fact only about a foot tall. He was also dressed as an old-timey soldier. Apparently a local man changes his outfit a couple times a month. The used costumes then go into the city museum. Like we said: odd. To just add to the absurdity, this little guy is on every souvenir you see. He’s on your glasses, your fridge magnets, your corkscrews, your bottle openers…we’ve even seen him molded out of chocolate.

Our second loop was on a nice new bus. The commentary sounded much better than the first time around, when it was rather fizzy & had no classical music to serenade us between commentaries. The driver was also better. Did we mention how awful our first driver was? He would slam on the brakes and slam on the gas, and sometime he would do both within a span of about 3 seconds. You constantly felt like you were being throwing into your seat, then the seat in front of you! This guy knew about constant acceleration & deceleration. It made for a much more enjoyable ride.

We hopped off at the Atomion. We purposely skipped this one on the loop one sights description so we could wow you with it now! Brussels was the host of the 1958 World’s Fair. This was the 11th World’s Fair hosted by Belgium and the 5th in Brussels. Being the first after the war and in a time when atomic energy was expected to save the planet, Brussels constructed a large monument for the fair. The Atomion is a 165 billion times magnified model of a unit cell of an iron crystal. And check out how cool it looks!
The Atomion is to Brussels, what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Both very large monuments built for World’s Fairs. They were both to quickly be destroyed following the Fair’s but have since become the international symbol of their cities.

We started with an elevator ride up to the top sphere. This is Europes fastest elevator and pops you right up there. From the top we got an awesome view of Brussels…
And of all of Europe…
That is a photo of Mini Europe, an attraction right next to the Atomion that featured miniatures of all of Europes greatest landmarks. We unfortunately did not have time to visit it. Kristin was sad 😦

You were then able to navigate through the other balls and their connecting tubes. It’s crazy to think we were actually traveling through that structure. Each sphere had an exhibit in it. Some were about immigration and urban education projects (these seemed out of place & we hard to follow) and some were about Expo ’58. Justine had learned lots about the World’s Fairs in Paris in her history of Paris class 🙂 But for Kristin it was nice to hear things about an Expo Fair other than that in 1986 Kelsey tried to push her stroller and pretended to drive the motorhome. One tube trip was via escalator and looked similar to the start of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. It also had music playing so we had an escalator dance party.

After our crazy atomic trip we went for supper. Our “Tourist Map made by Locals for Poor Young Backpackers” map (yes there is one for Brussels too) pointed us towards a great deal. There is a quaint type Chinese restaurant a few blocks out of the central city area. I had a great “Plate of the Day” deal where you get one of two Chinese dishes for €5.80. We got one of each and split it.
Those dishes are Chicken Chow Mein and Sweet & Sour Fish, for those of you without Chinese food recognizing super powers.

With our bellies full we hit the streets. It was time for a grounds eye view of the town, down where you could actually get a feel for it. We wandered through the tourist area and onto some main side streets until we reached the central square. This just made us appreciate Brussels more. The place has an awesome vibe. In the Grand Place they were setting up for a concert that’s tomorrow night. It created a clash of eras that mirrored the city. There was this modern stage with camera & lighting equipment set in the center of amazing architecture from eras long passed. And somehow it just worked. Love it!
20110923-091012.jpg 20110923-091019.jpg

We continued throughout the middle of town to a large set of stairs. They go up and up and up, with streets at all of the levels and the palace at the top. Eventually we found a piece of wall we liked and sat to write this post. Here’s our view when we started:
And when we finished:
Just to set things straight, we don’t write that slowly. The sun set fast.

Love, Luck & Little Boys Peeing,