From Iceland, I flew into Brussels. You couldn’t call it a city that I wanted to visit: it was the cheapest place to fly, and I thought I’d spend a few days because it’s the center of the EU, and so on, before moving on to Ghent.
This being Belgium, the first thing I wanted was to grab a beer. There’s a lot of unique styles of beer in Belgium, notable Gueuze(a really distinctive bitter lambic… I didn’t like it), Kriek (a cherry beer brewed with Belgian yeast, which I loved), and then the Trappist beers, like Chimay.
Finding my first stop, a famous brewery/restaurant, was difficult because it was hidden inside a little corridor off the main street, with no sign visible from the outside. And the streets in Brussels are just a mess to follow. Signs are all in French and Flemish, but they don’t post signs together. Each street has two names, one in each language. Flemish is somewhere between German and English, so I could get a rough feel for many of the street names. And a lot of French words are intelligible to English speakers when written down. It was like wandering through a Flemish-French dictionary, and trying not to get lost…
Luckily, I found the bar. All the bars I visited in central Brussels were really fancy. Either with a Victorian feel, or a more down-to-earth wooden charm. This place was called A La Becasse, they brewed their own beer. It was mostly empty when I visited and I just relaxed and planned my visit.
I walked through the main tourist district, which is relatively small, to see the Manneken Pis, a tiny statue of a boy urinating in a fountain. It’s supposed to convey how ‘cheeky’ the Belgians are. People from around the world send him costumes and he gets dressed up. Apparently there’s a museum that shows these costumes (no, I didn’t visit).
I kinda liked Brussels, but it’s a tough city to love. There’s a lot of government buildings, for both the EU and Belgium, and there’s no unified style like I’d see out in the smaller cities. Medieval cities next to huge classical-style ministries of Justice. You can’t get your hands on what the country means… just like it’s tough to get a grasp on Belgium as a whole, a country divided between two languages, a tiny peaceful little place that owned of the most horrific colonies in Africa, the Belgian Congo.
I visited the Palace of Justice, a huge imposing building that the Belgians I talked to intensely disliked. It’s huge and dour, like something out of 1984.
Located outside the city center, as you walk back, there are charming murals from the famous Belgian comic book artists (Hergé, author of Tintin, was Belgian, and culturally the country still appreciates comic books).
There’s a lot of random history in Brussels, as you might expect. It has the oldest shopping malls in the world.
As well as artisinal chocolate, crazy artwork, and a mishmash of cultures.
That night I stayed at an AirBnB spot – an enormous three-story building in a more diverse neighborhood outside the city center, surrounded by tons of halal vendors, cricket matches, and Pakistani food. It was their (a small family with a toddler) first time hosting someone from AirBnB; the ceilings in all the Belgian homes I stayed in were super-high, while the apartments were narrow and the walls rich mahogony.
My next stop was Ghent (then: Antwerp and Bruges), as I zig-zagged my way across the country.