Thursday, May 3, 2012


Day 1: Will the waffles live up to their hype?
 We woke up earlier than usual to pack and get breakfast downstairs. When that was over my wife and i collected our gear, checked out, and took the tube to St Pancras International. It didn't take long to to turn our Oyster cards in for a refund. After reading horror stories on the web i was quite pleased with how easy this was. Next, the only thing to do was wait for our ride on the Eurostar. St Pancras was a work of art from the outside.

the gorgeous St Pancras International
 I saw buildings in London with similar striped patterns but this was the mother ship! With a stylish interior and hard wood floors it wasn't shabby from the inside either. St Pancras was the only station in London with a high speed rail to Belgium and France. Originally, the plan was to cross the English Channel to Paris after our visit here.
     Belgium just seemed to have so much old world charm to offer. Despite it's reputation as Europe's most boring capital, i was gonna give it a chance. Besides, even if it did stink, it would serve as a convenient base to either Leuven, Bruges, or Ghent. Business travelers say a waffle in the Grand Place is worth the trip alone. (which was fine because our hotel was close by!) I had my doubts, but then again, Parliament never wowed me until i saw it up close. London raised the bar pretty high so my expectations for Belgium were high as well: Beer, waffles, scenic churches, alluring parks, charming pedestrian areas etc. 

         Our 10:57 AM train to Brussels was on time so we boarded and were off within minutes. We were in the wrong coach at first but the director pointed us to the next one. The ride itself was peaceful and relaxing. I took pleasure in gazing at the countryside while Sarah read her book. I tried to shut my eyes for a little bit...that lasted maybe 3 minutes tops.

 I had no reason to look at my travel planner because i knew it by heart. At your destination, the tendency is to stray from the itinerary anyway when new places pop up. Announcements were made in English, French, and Dutch which we found amusing. Dutch is spoken in Flanders (upper half) while French is spoken in Wallonia (lower half). To make things even more interesting Brussels is bilingual with a bias towards French. After a little over two hours we arrived. Our surroundings turned to industrial buildings and graffiti covered walls as we entered the capital of Europe. It has a reputation for being cold and gray so we took a huge risk by coming at all. As it would turn out we were rewarded with sunshine.
      After coming into Bruxelles Gare du Midi (Brussels South station) we would need to take another train to get us to Bruxelles Gare Central (Brussels Central station). This "connection" was free and only took 4 minutes.

     Finding our hotel was a piece of cake from Brussels Central. The Novotel is situated in a lively area called the Grasmarkt. It's a small place lined with chocolate boutiques, waffles, outdoor cafes, and shops. At the desk we were greeted with a friendly "bonjour!" I then stated our business in French. After detecting my accent she switched over to English. This would be the going rate in both Belgium and France. Although speaking French is both polite and encouraged, employees in service find English saves time. The Novotel had more of a futuristic vibe to it.

 It was great, don't get me wrong.... it just seemed a little out of place here. Maybe closer to the UN buildings and away from the old guildhouses of the Grand Place? Our room was larger than the Leonard but had little character save for the bathroom doors. They resembled Japanese paper windows. I couldn't help noticing that everything from our soap dispenser to the restaurant was very ultramodern.

     After dropping our stuff off we withdrew some euros at an ATM nearby. Outside of the UK, our pounds were now useless. We explored the Grasmarkt a little bit. The unmistakable smell of Belgian waffles lingered and i knew it was a matter of time before we got ours. 

This area was just outside the Grand Place, which is why i picked it. We saw an indoor shopping arcade called the St Huberts Galleries. It looked like a fancier, yet less colorful version of Leadenhall market. Chocopolis, a large chocolatier i read about, was right outside our hotel. There were other chocolate stores nearby but this one makes their own on site. Plenty of stuff to get into for later.
     We located the Central metro stop near the train station and purchased our 1 day travel passes. The funny guy that helped us thought i was Italian. Yesterday someone thought i was from Spain. Kinda funny we thought. My first impression upon walking into the metro station was that it looked very generic and dated. It was actually here that i noticed that nobody was speaking English. It wasn't a bad thing.... just a "you're not in Kansas anymore Toto" moment. The tiles on the floor reminded me of the dorm shower when i was in college.

     Cathédrale St Michel et Gudule was the first, and most accomplished, of several elegant churches on our planner. Unlike the two in London admission was free and photography was permitted. (except during mass) Nearly every European capital has a flagship cathedral and this is Brussels'. It sits perched on a hill offering unobstructed views from street level.

Looking down the aisle you can see statues of the apostles on both sides. Large churches can be gloomy and dark inside but not this one. Sunlight found it's way inside just as easily as we did. Just to the right is a large wooden pulpit that tells the story of Adam and Eve. These carvings were magnificent. My wife and i separated briefly to explore at our own pace. The organ was exceptional but was added as recently as 2000.


 While not nearly as grand or over the top as St Peter's, St Michel et Gudule more than held it's own. I wish i could tell you we stopped here to relax but the downfall of a busy itinerary is that you're always on the go!
     We walked uphill a short distance to the Parc de Bruxelles just outside the Palace. I assumed that because St James Park in London was in full bloom this place would be too. I was severely mistaken. The trees here were completely void of leaves. No birds singing. By the looks of it we were still deep into winter. 

We kicked up dust as we walked towards the Palais Royal at the end of the park. Sarah looked unimpressed and I was somewhat embarrassed as i did 99.9% of the travel planning. Timing is everything sometimes. The Palace itself was a gem from the outside. The main façade was refurbished in Neoclassical style. The complex as a whole, however has been around since the middle ages. It is mistakenly thought that this is the royal residence but the king actually lives on the city outskirts. I admired the manicured hedges facing the palace. Sarah really liked the gates and made sure i took a good photo for her.

      Our feet weren't terribly happy with the hills so we walked toward Place Royale looking for tram 92. I loved the idea of trams because it's a middle ground between buses and the metro. No going underground which meant no escalators or stairs....No having to deal with traffic....No confusing routes or bus maps. We caught it in front of a royal white building and statue just out front. It felt nice to have a seat, a feeling that wouldn't last long.

 After 3 stops we got off at Poelaert. Here we were dropped off beneath the enormous Palais de Justice. This structure was actually the largest man made building constructed in the 18th century. It was so big that i couldn't fit more than half of it into my camera's viewfinder at one time.

Much of it was being refurbished. The lower dome alone was encased in scaffolding and has been for over 10 years. I know because i wanted to see what it looked like without it. The only thing i could find were very old post cards.
     Just out front was the gorgeous Belgian infantry memorial. It was built to commemorate the foot soldiers who perished in World War I and II. "To the infantrymen that died for their country" was inscribed at the base.

 Like St Michel et Gudule, it was built on a hill and overlooked much of Brussels' city center. The view from here was pretty impressive. There was an elevator that led straight down to the bottom of the hill. Our plan was to get a late lunch down there somewhere. We got off and hooked a left.

What i read online was that this was a particularly seedy part of town but it appeared plenty safe to us. There was absolutely NOTHING open. After a few minutes we turned around to go back the other way. Fortunately, alot of restaurants post their menus on the outside so we can review them. My French is novice at best but I could make out roughly 60% of the words. We moved on 3 times before choosing a quiet brasserie.

found a spot down this street
The owner was very nice but only knew a few words in English. I spoke enough to get by so it wasn't an issue. As we browsed over the menu a couple had sat at the front of the bar. They were obviously friends with the owner and carried on together in French. I enjoyed this simple act of watching friends enjoy each others' company. When he came to get our order i told him that it was our first day in Belgium and we didn't want to leave his bar disappointed. He made a recommendation that i took him up on and went to put it in. Once again, my expectations were high. Back home Belgian beer is widely believed to be the world's best. Meanwhile, the couple at the bar were making out like teenagers.

love is in the air
This was a little foreign to me as Americans are a bit more reserved in public. Of course you'll see a peck on the lips, maybe 2, but deep tongue kissing? haha great! This is why we came to Europe! Our beer came and we were in for a treat.
I ordered a Ramée blonde for myself and a Kriek (cherry beer) for my wife. After her first sip she commented "Oooh! That's good!!" It's exactly what i was hoping she'd say.

Mine was a very crisp amber colored ale. It had a large frothy head you could smell from across the table. It was sweet, almost fruity for the most part with a little bitterness on the back end. Superb!  Just what i expected from a Belgian beer. Our food wasn't very adventurous however. We took the cowards way out and opted for a burger and chicken sandwich.
     As we made our way back to Poelaert some teens had ridden the elevator up with us. Two of them walked past a trash can but garbage on the ground. I don't know why that bothered me so much as to me remembering it. We reunited with tram 92 and got off to at Petit Sablon to check out the Notre Dame. (Brussels version)
     There was a small park just outside called Place du Petit Sablon. Unfortunately, it was completely locked and not open to visitors. You could see flowers planted in the ground that hadn't budded yet and construction efforts in the center.

church from the park
  Statues surrounded the entire park which was very cool. The centerpiece was a fountain with two men on top. I can't remember who they were but i do know they were beheaded.
Place du Petit Sablon

Once again, i wish we had arrived later in the season but ultimately it was my decision to visit in mid March. The reasoning for this was i had snowballed vacation time that had to be used up by March.
     Notre Dame du Sablon was next just opposite the park. Admission, again, was free and there weren't many people.

Notre Dame du Sablon with tram 92 approaching
superb detail
It was a very nice church but competition is stiff versus others in Europe or even Brussels. I remember looking up at this and thinking "how beautiful....but having St Michel et Gudule just down the road? Not fair." It resembled St Michel a little on the inside.

The stained glass windows were definitely the highlight to me. They were large, vibrant, and very detailed. It was dark and very peaceful inside. Before this trip my wife and i decided on a "2 churches max" rule. That meant we would try to limit ourselves to one church per day, two maximum.  We had a short but satisfying look around and then moved on.
Our daylight was running out. I'd already decided that we would visit Ghent tomorrow so i thought about any must sees here before nightfall. The Atomium was too far out and the Port de Hal was only a "walkby". The Parc du Cinquantenaire was the only sight i wanted to squeeze in so we jumped on the metro.
I was a graphic design major in college so it's one thing you'll never hear me shut up about. With that said, the decor in Brussels' subway stations was downright puzzling to me. It was almost like funding was cut drastically in the middle of construction.

 The corridors were painfully bland, like something out of the 70's. Floor tiling changed depending on which station you were at, but one thing remained the same: It looked generic. Efforts were made to beautify but I've seen indoor swimming pools that looked more ornate.
     We jumped off at Schuman and walked through the park. Once again, Spring had not sprung in Brussels and it was evident here. I really should have spent more time looking at photos of this place in December to get a feel for what to expect. Photos of this area in May were simply gorgeous. Early March? Not so much..

 There were joggers and folks walking their dogs in the jubelpark. Belgium's triumphal arch waited for us in the distance. Cinquantenaire is French for 50th anniversary. This huge complex was built to glorify Belgium's 50th anniversary of independence from foreign rule. It was gorgeous in photos and it was even more so in person.


A colonnade wrapped around the park and was home to several museums. I had originally planned to go inside to get a good view of the chariot but forgot all about it. This was probably my favorite triumphal arch in all of Europe. Absolutely Spectacular. We passed underneath it and got a glimpse of a large fountain and some neat looking buildings behind it. My wife really liked these.

Merode was our subway exit so we used it to get back to Bruxelles Central. One thing i noted was that the metro completely dies out around this time. Brussels plays host to NATO's headquarters as well as various other EU institutions. Politicians and business travelers do what they need to do, and then leave.
ghost town

 As night approaches, the EU area descends into an after work pall, completely void of life. Watching empty subway cars pull up was kinda eerie. Those in the know have the skinny on where the nightlife is.
     We went back to the hotel to freshen up a little bit and think about what we'd do for dinner. I specifically picked out a place on Le Quai aux Briques; a small square famous for it's seafood restaurants. It featured a pedestrian area along man made canals. By now the sun had set and the Grasmarkt was throbbing with locals and tourists alike.

 I really enjoyed this little area. We decided that it was time to formally acquaint ourselves with the lovely Grand Place. Most European capitals have one signature attraction; the kind that defines it. London, of course, has Big Ben. Rome has it's Colosseum. Brussels is home to arguably the most beautiful square in the world. Here, awestruck tourists pour in to soak up the atmosphere.

The open square is surrounded by ornate guildhouses and dominated by the towering Town Hall. The architecture of the buildings are visually stunning; each with a story to tell. Like most scenic squares in Europe it was lined with overpriced cafes that charge for the view. Every two years in August a huge carpet bed fills the square. This would have been fantastic but the view here at night was mesmerizing. Looking up at Town Hall with an icy, starlit sky behind it was an image that was burned into my memory.
Our sights were now set on the nearby Manneken Pis.

CityMaps2Go: my GPS app
It's basically a small statue of a boy pissing into a fountain. Thought not nearly as grand as the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus, he's every bit as iconic. Stories about how he originated vary but it personifies Belgium's free spirited, easygoing culture. As we got closer you could see his stunt doubles in chocolate shops, waffle stands, and souvenir stores.

 When we arrived there were at least twenty people snapping pictures. Within minutes it was just two. It's one of those "seen it, check it off, and move on" type deals. He's not far from the Grand Place so it's not like you're going out of your way to see him.

In all Honesty, it's an underwhelming experience but there's a huge benefit: the BEST waffles in Brussels are just around the corner.
You couldn't miss it because there's a giant chocolate piss boy standing out front. Understand there are MANY places to buy Belgian waffles from. This place puts distance between itself and it's competitors with pristine reviews.

very happy
After scarfing down our waffles they can add two more to their satisfied customer list. WOW is all i have to say!! Mine was topped with strawberries, fresh cream, and drizzled with melted chocolate. (No spray-whip or Hershey's syrup) Sarah's had a caramelized sugar coating. It was pure Belgian bliss. I have no idea why we didn't wait til after dinner for this but hell......when you're on vacation anything goes right?
     I intended on impressing Sarah with another scenic area so we headed towards Le Quai aux Briques. The Bourse was along the way, which is Belgium's stock exchange: A magnificent building in classic  Neo Renaissance style 
Bourse building

Brussels is synonymous with comics
When we arrived my heart was broken. This charming outdoor-friendly area was undergoing massive construction efforts. Both canals were completely drained and orange tape marked off a large section of it. 

Quai aux Briques

Building materials and tools scattered around. Nonetheless, we walked towards Le Quai, a seafood place near others. Lobsters were depicted in red neon signs which i thought was neat. Unfortunately, it was closed. "Man, this is deflating!" i thought. I picked this place based on customer feedback plus the fact it was a fraction of the cost of it's neighbors.

 We then walked around shopping outdoor menus, a task complicated by dim lighting. There simply wasn't anything for us here. We walked past St Catherine's church which flanks Le Quai aux Briques. It looked massive but could've definitely benefited from a good scrubbing. Black stains streaking down the exterior added to it's antiquated character.

St Catherine's
     Walking away from St Catherine's we stumbled upon a busy restaurant called Le Grand Café. Prices looked reasonable from outside so we gave it a shot. Just like the brasserie from earlier this joint had an extensive beer list.

Le Grand Café
      With only 2 days here i needed to hop on the trappist bus so we ordered a Chimay blanche tripel for myself and a Ciney blonde for my lady. When these arrived we went ahead and placed our dinner orders.
Trappist isn't a beer style, but merely a nickname for beer that originated in the Trappist monastery. Only 6 Belgian beers can claim this distinction with a small logo on the bottle.

Mine was golden with a fine head. The aroma of yeast and fresh hops was pleasant. It was medium bodied and finished with a slight bitterness that melts in your mouth. I don't normally frequent the triple ales but this one was quite good! At 8% ABV it packed a little punch and ensured that I'd have a goofy grin throughout dinner. My wife's Ciney was decent as well. It was a smooth, light bodied ale with no noticable hops; typical for a Belgian blonde.
 Speaking of Belgian blondes, there was a group of girls behind us and one was arguing with the waiter. (who happened to be ours too)

Sarah overheard most of the commentary. Basically she didn't want to be charged for an appetizer that came out well after her friends'. She also called him out for being rude.
It was shocking to observe the two in such a heated bickering. In America this guy would be canned and the customer would've been spoiled. A gift card and apology from management would've probably followed but not here. The supervisor came out and appeared to have defended her employee.
     Our food came out shortly after the pre-dinner sideshow. Sarah ordered a sandwich of some kind while i had the Waterzooi. The latter is a Flemish chicken dish that hails from Ghent. Of all the dishes i had hoped to try in Europe, this was the one i was the most excited about.

Let me tell you, my curiosity was richly rewarded. This stew is made up of boiled chicken,  onions, egg yolks, cream, butter, and garnished with carrots and potatoes. Fabulous. I was going to try it in Ghent but didn't want to risk not seeing it on the menu. 
     Dinner was fantastic. We had a very full day and decided to go back to the room. Sarah would stay behind in the safety of the hotel while I'd go back out. My plan was to go back out to the Grand Place with my tripod and then to a different church called St Marie's. Tonight i would learn another harsh lesson in public transit.
     I revisited the Grand Place and setup shop near some stairs. I quickly learned that tripods make you look "official". Nobody talks to you. Nobody asks for their picture to be taken. Nobody asks you for money. It was kind of nice to be left alone because the sooner i got done, the sooner i could move on. Of all the different pictures photographers take, panoramas are the most time consuming.
     A panoramic photo is a high resolution image that's made up of several different ones. This is something that i had been practicing for months with my Nikon and have come to enjoy. I import the images into a program that solves the alignment, stitches them together, and then produces something i can edit in Photoshop. For each country we visited there was at least one attraction where i planned this.

click here for hi-res file stitched from 20 images

I was very happy with the results. Walking around the Grand Place was something i never got tired of. It was here that Brussels would try to convince me that it was the makeout capital of the world. A young couple kissed in the shadows of a stairwell. Another couldn't keep their lips off each other trying to take self shots with their iPhone.

I offered to take one for them and they politely refused. It was all over the place! After some great shots i went back to Captain Piss and then wandered the surrounding area. One pedestrian road in particular was especially attractive. It had Greek, Italian, and other ethnic cafes with Christmas lights everywhere.  

I thought this might be a good place to bring my wife tomorrow night. Next it was on to St Marie's church. The Congress column was along the way but there wasn't any illumination on it. I'd need the services of tram 92 so i walked my way up to Parc station and boarded. Traffic along this road was non existent by now. I got off at Botanique and set up for some distant photos of the church.

this was the last tram going back the way i came

St Marie's

To me it resembled a giant squid that had swallowed up all the cars. It didn't take very long. After about 10 minutes i was ready to head back home. I sat and patiently waited for a tram to come towards me (and away from the church). After a few minutes one showed up but going towards the church. So i continued to wait.........and wait..... 10 minutes went by. Nothing. Even the cars began to disappear. I checked my metro app and saw there was a subway entrance, also named Botanique, that was very close by. Of course, i was the only living soul here. Big damn surprise!

at least this station had a little decor
I made my way to the platform and saw a man sitting on the opposite end, also waiting. Within seconds a subway car appeared, took him away, and left me alone. After a little while it dawned on me that he was on the correct side of the platform so i took a motion detection escalator to change sides. That was pretty neat. Well, i sat here for 10 minutes looking up at the marquee. This was the most aggravating part because the little dot that represented the subway car moved slow as molasses.

To add insult to injury, once the dot got close it then moved in the opposite direction! Son of a bitch!! Was there a hidden camera with an audience laughing at me? I wasted 20 minutes of my life so i exited the station and walked back to where the tram stop was. By now it was a ghost town.

 No signs of life. It was then that i said screw it and began to walk along Koningsstraat back towards the hotel. I texted my sleeping wife first. I don't know why in the world i didn't do this in the first place.  Looking back it was actually less than a mile. Live and learn i suppose? It was interesting for me to observe a city as large as Brussels completely asleep like this.

 Every now and then I'd pass waiters smoking in front of their empty restaurants. A single car would pass by occasionally. Two very drunk women walked by, one trying in vain to ride a bike. It was dark in some parts but i never felt unsafe. I caught St Michel et Gudule on the way which looked even better at night. Just about everything here did.

Day 2: Medieval times- Daytrip to Ghent
     It was fabulous outside. Sunny and not a cloud in the sky. I wish i could tell you we got a peaceful night's rest but some drunk fool was yelling right outside our window at 4AM. I wanted to show him a trick i learned from Manneken Pis. Heh heh. Your American friend and world traveler suffered one other unfortunate setback: I left my black dress shoes behind in London. DAMN!! I mean, i could probably get away with my black Adidas here but not Paris. Another problem for another time i suppose. On this morning i tried on my first pair of disposable boxers. My thought process was to have an odor free carry-on. A funny advice thread came out of this on Fodor's. My wife thought i was nutball but these things were fairly comfortable. At any rate, we needed our coffee to get this party started.

good morning

The breakfast buffet at the Novotel was pretty decent. I'm a big fan of assorted meats, cheeses, and breads. Since London is nearby, it wasn't a shock for me to see baked beans, mushrooms, rashers, and bangers on the buffet. The coffee was quite good as well.

My wife, as usual, liked the fruits, croissants, and yogurt. We wrapped up and headed to Central for a quick ride to Midi station.
     When i first began looking at Belgium i came across Ghent, Bruges, Leuven, and Antwerp as half day trips. I narrowed it down to medieval Ghent and the cosmo vibe of Antwerp. I initially picked Ghent and then switched to Antwerp. I reverted once more because it's middle age character brought something new to the table. Antwerp just seemed to be a hybrid of Brussels and Paris.
     The ride from Bruxelles Midi to Ghent took about 45 minutes. There was a bit of confusion as to which platform to use but we figured it out. It was a relaxing and quiet trip. 

Of all the languages i practiced in anticipation of this trip, Dutch was the least focused. I guess i counted on lots of French or English, especially with the number of college students. I poked around on my translator nonetheless brushing up on the few phrases i did know.

 We arrived at Sint-Pietersstation and took a quick bathroom break before orienting ourselves. Belgium was famous for pay per use toilets and St Pieters was no different. Equally as interesting to me were the beer vending machines.

We each bought a dagpass (day pass) from the station and made our way to the front. St Pieters is visually impressive from the outside but had nothing in common with the sights we were about to see. Tram 1 was just to the right of the front entrance and that's the one we needed.

These low floor trams could hold twice the people as the ones in Brussels and were newer. After a few minutes we got off at Korenmarkt. The first thing we did was walk over the St Michael's bridge. From here you could see both the statue of St Michael slaying a dragon and the canal.

If you left your camera at home here, you might as well jump right in because you'll be mad you did. It was still fairly early in the day but i knew that as it wore on college students would line the waterway. From this bridge you also got a great view of the other surrounding towers.

Our first stop was St. Nicholas' Church. This along with St Bavo's Cathedral and the Belfry make up the medieval "skyline" of Ghent. Tourists try to fit this trio into their cameras' viewfinders.
     Anyway, this Gothic beauty housed lots of Flemish paintings and had free admission. It looked really old too. In fact, it's been around since 1100. Like St Michel et Gudule it's stained glass windows were vibrant.


They let in plenty of light through the side chapels. Once again, i prefer these to the dusty, dark relics. The altar was impressive as well with statues on top of it. Just to the left of this was the pipe organ but it's location was puzzling to me.

Normally they're much higher up and out of the way. Sarah and i looked all over for a famous multi panel painting called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan Van Eyck. It wasn't there because i mistakenly thought we were inside St Bavo's Cathedral.
      After finishing here we walked straight over to the Belfry. Sarah wanted no part of climbing to the top so we agreed that i'd fly solo. She checked out some shops nearby while i went inside.

Admission was only a few euros. The climb to the top wasn't quite as bad as the Monument in London. You at least had windows to step into if you needed a break but i pretty much had it to myself. There were a few rooms you could view on the way to the top that doubled as a breather as well.

One such room had a full scale model of the Belfry as well as various other exhibits.
      The views from the top were excellent! Unfortunately this excellence fizzled once i detected the unmistakable sound of children. Lots of children. Lots of children coming up the stairs. I tried to take in as much as i could before the troops arrived. The views of St Nicholas from this vantage were unrivaled.

this alone was worth the price of admission

You could see the castle from the other side. I imagined what it would be like to be a watchman guarding the city from up here...back in the middle ages. That thought didn't last long and i went back down to meet my wife. She bought a fridge magnet while i was on watch duty. It ended up being our only souvenir in all of Europe.   
     St Bavo's Cathedral was literally within a few yards with it's front door wide open. I chose to skip it to avoid being too "churched out."
missed opportunity....oh well
The real St Bavo's Cathedral
 If i woulda just peaked in, i would see the famous Ghent altarpiece and realize it was St Nicholas we were at earlier and not St Bavo's. Bummer. No Mystic Lamb for us! I wouldn't find this out, however, until we had already come back to the US.
     We slowed the pace down a bit and strolled around this historic core. The weather warmed up and invited you to roll up your sleeves. I through our jackets into the day pack. We came across the colorful Royal Theater and Van Eyck monument close by.

Royal Dutch Theater

Van Eyck monument: a clue that the Mystic Lamb was close
 Around the corner was a lesser known castle called the Duivelsteen. We took our time here pausing to soak in the scenery instead of tearing right through it. (Sarah's idea) The canals always popped up just when you thought a picture couldn't be any better as was the case with the Duivelsteen.

Geraard de Duivelsteen
 We made our way back towards the center of the city as college girls zipped by on bikes. It was about time for lunch and we were heading in the right direction for this. Along the way we caught a glimpse of Ghent's amazing Stadhuis (Town Hall). You could only appreciate it fully from one angle but man was this a work of art. I'm a huge fan of Belgium's over-the-top architecture.

Another thing I'm a big fan of is Belgium's reputation for picturesque market squares. In Dutch it's called a Grote Markt, or Large Market. We were dazzled by Brussels' and now it was time to see what Ghent had in store for us. The Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market) is a short walk from the city center. It's a large open square surrounded with bars, cafes, and flanked by the old union building.

 A triumphant statue of Jacob van Artevelde, a national hero, graces the center. He led a revolution against the French but was murdered by the same people whose rights he tried to protect. Most of this square is a panorama of medieval structures that resemble gingerbread houses.

click for panorama stitched from 12 images

 The socialist trade union building, however, was built in the 20th century in Art Nouveau style. I think it was my favorite.
Just about every outdoor cafe we walked by was at maximum capacity. Outdoor menus were in Dutch so i could read very little. We picked a place close to the union building called 't Helse Stoofke.

     Just about every restaurant we'd been to seemed to have Leffe on draft. I wasn't complaining by any means, i just tried to get used to having it so readily available. Back in the states i could get a bottle at a specialty shop like Total Wine or World Market. In Belgium, however, i could have a cold chalice full straight from the tap! Option 2 definitely sounds sexier. If you've never had an "Abbey Ale" i highly suggest it. Leffe clings to this status, similar to trappists. We both had the blonde which was perfect on a sunny afternoon.

 Full bodied with a substantial head that followed down the sweaty chalice. We were tempted to chug it but wanted to save some for our meal. At 6.2% ABV we might have payed the price for this with our American alcohol tolerances. haha. The our waiter showed up with our food.

     We both had a hearty Flemish beef stew. Damn this was delicious! It tasted almost like a rich, saltier version Salisbury steak. We took our sweet time enjoying the unusually gorgeous weather. Next to us two girls gossiped over refreshments and a cigarette. I don't know what they were talking about but it was a treat to listen.

We traced the water on our way to the Gravensteen castle. This part resembled pictures i'd seen of Amsterdam... with the canal and all. We had talked about a boat tour in London but the weather wasn't quite ideal. Watching guided tours slowly stream down the Lei River in this weather looked super enticing.

     Kasteel Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts) is a reconstructed fortress partially surrounded by a moat. At the end of the 19th century it fell into decay and was slated for demolition. Fortunately the city of Ghent purchased it and restored much of it to it's former glory.

 It's free to look outside but we paid 8 to go inside. We opted out of the audio guide which was OK because the displays were also in English. Like the Tower of London, it featured a torture chamber, weapons room, and suits of armor. The torture chamber actually had a guillotine on display! How cool was that? My wife was less than thrilled by this.

hmmm...urine, hot oil, or warm Bud Light?

 It was just a little on the touristy side with the maintained hardwood floors but there were rooms and an overlook that appeared untouched. There were lots of nooks and crannies to explore inside. A lot of narrow stairs as well. I looked out the small archer's windows and visualized the French infantry storming the castle. "My Lord!! Get some archers on the tower!" I did the same thing from the top of the keep.

Wow, did you get amazing views over Ghent. They differed from the Belfry's because you could actually see the 3 main towers plus the Leie. There was a small, cafe-lined square just outside of the castle. Tram 1 dropped us off there but our eyeballs were squarely fixed on the Gravensteen. I'm glad i caught it from this vantage point though.

click for panorama stitched from 3 images
     After a fascinating visit we began to make our way back towards the Korenmarkt. By this time swarms of people were relaxing by the water's edge. The Korenmarkt was our exit back to Brussels but we just weren't quite ready to leave yet. After some hesitation we decided to take the boat tour i had contemplated earlier.

      It was only 6 euros each. Looking back I'm so glad we did this... i mean we could have left right now with a smile on our face but this was the cherry on top of our visit. College kids were basking in the first warm days of Spring. It wasn't quite warm enough for tank tops but i saw lots of shoes off. I observed numerous girls with their heads in the laps of their girlfriends. "Pretty affectionate country" i thought. 

 Our guide weaved us in and out along the canals exploring the history of various buildings and even the castle. He circled us along the moat giving us excellent views of it.

 The tour was both in English and in Dutch. Fortunately, these were the only two languages spoken. He was very informative and funny. When it comes to tourism I've always considered myself a do-it-yourselfer. I'm not a big fan of guided tours but this was definitely an exception. Once we reached an old medieval gate we turned around and made the journey back.

this marked the turn-around point
From start to finish it lasted roughly an hour or so. We hooked up with tram 1 and took it back to Sint-Pietersstation. Others had the same idea because we were squashed like sardines the whole way.

     Before the trip planning i had never heard of Ghent Belgium. It surprised me that it's been able to keep such a low profile this entire time. It had to be one of the best kept secrets in Europe....right? Well, yes actually.... It was actually featured in a Lonely Planet article outlining Europe's top 10 hidden gems. Ghent is often brutally overlooked by it's more popular neighbor to the north; Bruges. On the way back to Brussels however, i felt very satisfied about my decision to NOT overlook it.
     My wife had little interest in the Atomium so we agreed that I'd check it out solo while she hung out in the room. This attraction is further afield than most everything else we saw. I took the metro and needed a change to get to the Heysel station. At Beekant my directional choices were Simonis-Leopold II or Simonis-Elisabeth. There dual island platforms, which i was completely unprepared for. This meant there were a total of 4 directions i could have chosen.

This confused me and I chose the wrong one, wasting another few minutes. It gets better. After choosing the right one everyone got off at the next stop except me. And i do mean EVERYONE. I had erroneously thought that line 2 would continue so i stayed put. I didn't realize that i reached the terminus (endpoint). My Metro app didn't say a thing about having to change lines, platforms, or directions. 

metro lines snapped apart like bread sticks?
"No problem" i thought, "I'll just take it one stop in the other direction". After pulling in to the end station the doors open then closed.....and stayed closed. I sat there waiting for the car to start moving but it didn't. All the doors were locked, even between cars. After a few minutes the train started moving very slowly and came to a halt.

I was trapped like a rat in a cage. I then crept along a few yards before stopping again; this time for 10 full minutes. Dammit this was testing my patience!! By this time i wanted to bust a window out. With the luck i was having however, the next car I'd see would be a police car.
     I finally made it to Heysel and walked towards the Atomium. To the left i saw a complex of mid-rise buildings topped with statues. It then dawned on me that along with the Atomium, this area was the site for Brussels' World Expo. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris it was erected as a temporary structure and subsequently spared after the Exposition. Like the Eiffel Tower, it would come to symbolize the capital as well.

     The Expo's centerpiece is a cluster of 9 spheres all connected by escalators. Most of the spheres had an exhibit of some kind and there's a small restaurant too. It resembled a molecular atom, clearly the intent of it's architect.

There were views from up there but the photos i saw online didn't look that enticing. Maybe if it were much closer to the city center or perched up on a hill like the Palais de Justice. No... i just wanted to love it from afar. 
     The sun was beginning to set and created a blanket of color i was happy to capture. I was initially going to just leave but i wanted to check out the Expo buildings with  the statues.

 It looked a little like a small airplane hangar. There wasn't much to see here but i poked around and headed back to the Heysel station. I got stuck again by taking the right train in the wrong direction but it wasn't for that long. It's safe to say that i was NOT going to miss Brussels' public transit. At least Heysel's station had a little color.

Upon returning and sharing my "guess WTF happened to me" story we went back out. Neither one of us felt like venturing too far out for dinner so i took her to the place with the lights. We picked a restaurant and sat down. Our waiter never showed up and the menu didn't impress us so we went back to the Grasmarkt. We spotted an outdoor cafe called The Magic Rubens that was busting at the seams with cheer, beer, and smiles. 

Waiters were funny and friendly. Friends drank from tall glasses of beer in between bites of food and merriment. We started off with a couple ourselves. My wife ordered a Tongerlo double brown while i had a Primus.

 Hers had a sexy tan head with toasted malt flavors. It finished a little bit more bitter then i would have liked but she loves the hops. My Primus was a smooth ale that reminded me of a less sweet version of Stella. Not a lot of carbonation with a rather muted barley flavor. It seemed like a Belgian native's "go to" beer for hosting a party or watching the game at home. Soon after our food arrived. I had the steak with creamy peppercorn sauce and my wife had the baked chicken. We both had crispy frites that were served in little paper cones.

 Everything was fantastic! Understand that American men love their steak. Back home any city with a movie theater will have at least 6 establishments billing themselves as steak houses. On summer days we'll marinate and then toss em on our grills, beer in hand. Since arriving in Europe i shied away from it because i was worried I'd be disappointed. I'm so glad i decided otherwise. Sarahs' chicken was tender and very tasty as well. (I always steal the skin and a few bites from her) We were both full and very happy. Save for tomorrow's breakfast it was our last Belgian meal and I can summarize it in 4 words: French quality, German portions.
     We walked over to Chocopolis afterward. The nice lady there switched over to English after some conversation in French. She explained that they were one of the only chocolatiers in Brussels that produce their own stash on sight.

 We were both given one sample each. I tried a milk chocolate praline that was smooth as silk. Oh my word. The filling was so fresh, similar to that of a Krispy Kreme donut. It's difficult to describe the comparison between it and the drug store chocolates you can buy for Valentine's day.

They're both similar, yet worlds apart. The Swiss are also known for excellence but Belgium uses a superior grade of ingredients made in traditional old world style. You can just "taste" the difference. I grabbed some to share and some for myself.
     The rest of our time was spent just wandering around one last time. We poked into the galleries to see if there was a shoe store.

This was one of the more relaxing parts of our time here. The heaving lifting was out of the way and now a little downtime. I gotta give it to Brussels... eating outdoors was never more attractive. 

There wasn't but there were lots of little shops and chocolate boutiques. We took a last look at the Grand Place before Sarah decided one waffle in Belgium wasn't enough. She ordered one at the restaurant in front of our hotel but it wasn't as good at the place near Monsieur Piss.

Gaufres= Waffles
     Ghent was a slam dunk but i had mixed feelings about Brussels. I just felt like June would've been a better time to give it a fair chance. As a whole, it just left me wanting. Wanting to see what the Palais de Justice looked like after a decade of refurbing....Wanting to see what those gardens and parks looked like in full bloom....Wanting to taste more trappists and abbeys....Wanting to see the huge flower carpet at Grand Place. If anything, I'm grateful this came before the city of lights much like a small band opening for a headliner. We pre-packed and winded down for our train to Paris in the morning.

What i liked:
- The Grand Place
- Belgian cuisine 
- Scenic pedestrian zones and squares
- Ghent!!!
- Over the top architecture

What i didn't like:
- Infrequency of trams and the frustrating Simonis station
- Barren winter-like landscape
- Everyone smokes
- Scaffolding and construction
- Graffiti all over the place

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