I'd gone to Brussels with my friend Ramya and her friend Anjali. We had very cheap tickets on Ryanair to Brussels, but by god the Ryanair plane was about as cheap as the tickets, almost! Kinda rickety, sort of like a Chennai bus that can fly.. but of course they had to provide the basic minimum safety facilities because after all we were going to be in the air!!! The best thing that can be said for the flight is that it's about 40 minutes to Brussels Charleroi airport from London Stansted airport.
It wasnt quite an auspicious beginning to our holiday because the Information counter at Charleroi was empty. And when the lady did come by, her spoken English (as well as her enthusiasm to help) left a lot to be desired. This proved to be the case 9 times out of 10, as we found out. And Ramya was the only one who knew a few words of French. Since we were all three of us budget travellers, we had to get to the city by train and bus and tram, not a taxi - that would've been very expensive.
Anyway, the first leg of it was by bus to the nearest metro station. The Information lady had said a bus would be outside at the kerb, and so there was. But the driver insisted it was not the one we should take because it was going to Brussels Zuid south). So we let it go and what do you know, that WAS the one we should've taken! We had to wait another hour - and Charleroi airport isn’t exactly a treat for the eyes... like most of Brussels, it's being renovated. And very likely with EU money meant for other things! :)
It was a slow train journey to Brussels Centraal. From there we had to take a bus to two stops away, and then a tram down to a stop called Botanique in French and Kruidtuin in Flemish. One thing we discovered is that we couldnt read maps... that, or the maps showing "you are here" were deliberately made impossible to follow! There certainly were enough people that we saw clustered around them at various points, trying to make sense of it!
We made it finally to the Youth Hostel, exasperated and irritable and fed-up (already) with how difficult things were without French - or at least, I was all of the above, probably because of the heat. It was really uncomfortable at about 28degC the first day and 30degC the next day... I know, I've lived through 30-odd years of much greater heat and humidity in Chennai so I shouldnt be complaining about something like this - but it's easy to get used to being comfortably cool and not so easy in reverse! Plus, the Belgians seem determined to overheat all their buildings... it's most uncomfortable, especially when the temperature outside is about the same.
The Youth Hostel was another surprise - and not really a pleasant one. For starters, the people at the reception were not particularly friendly... they never responded to greetings and they hardly ever smiled either. They were also rather stingy with information about the nearest ATM or currency exchange. Apart from that, the damn hostel was ALSO being renovated (scaffolding is a part of the skyline and architecture in Brussels, it would seem) and there were workmen and dust and planks and things lying around. (Well ok, the workmen werent lying around). Not very attractive!
Our room was an 8-bed dorm, with practically no ventilation - the windows could barely be opened... and anyway, they would only let in cigarette smoke from outside, thanks to the other residents puffing away from morn till night. There was only one toilet on the ground floor for 5 rooms and their 40-odd residents AND all the flotsam and jetsam from the other floors who happened by. NOT very nice! In fact, I think this would've been probably the least attractive hostel in Europe!
Still, we got used to it... going for our showers and ablutions early in the morning before anybody could mess up the place :) And really, once I'd kinda adjusted mentally to the circumstances, the plus points showed up - friendly roomies from different countries every night... Spain, USA, Canada, Japan, China - that was fun, talking to ‘em all. They usually stayed about 2 nights, max - and since we were staying 4 nights, began to feel like a veteran after the second night! :)
The first two days the three of us wandered around Brussels - or tried to, anyway. Technically we werent lost because we knew exactly where we were... usually about a half-hour's walk from our hostel! But the annoying part was how we couldn’t seem to find ANYTHING we went to look for! :) Streets were marked on the maps, but not apparently on the street itself - no signs. We had to go to the Free University because Ramya needed to meet a couple of people... after asking a few people how to get there (no satisfactory reply, or misdirections) and listening for 5 minutes to a completely incomprehensible Metro employee - I couldnt decide if it was Flemish or French he was speaking- we decided to take a taxi - and a good thing too, or we might never have reached the damn university!
Oh, the traffic in Brussels... it's horrendous! Not the amount of it, but the attitude - people dont bother to stop for pedestrians even if the little green man glows - it's a bit like Madras in that you have to stick your hand out in a "stop" gesture and run across, hoping the car wont run you down anyway! The two most common sounds in Brussels are tyres screeching as the drivers accelerate, and - no surprise this - ambulance/police sirens!
The city centre is quite nice (though I could appreciate it only after the weather improved!)... lovely buildings. Unfortunately, acres of very unlovely concrete as well. There were hardly any flowers to be seen - and when you think of England or Amsterdam, which have flowers everywhere, it's a bit depressing. There are lots of eateries, mostly Italian or Greek, in and around the city centre. The Turkish ones all seemed to be concentrated in the Botanique area - specifically, in the streets behind and around our hostel. I think the hostel was right on the edge of a not-quite-savoury area... and we found it rather unnerving to be stared at unblinkingly by dark-eyed, rather thuggish looking Turks, and hardly any women in sight - and those that were wore Muslim clothes, voluminous and all-covering.Did I mention that you get really good sandwiches in Brussels? The choice is unlimited if you're a non-veggie; they just stare at you disbelievingly when you insist on "vegetarian only" :) And man, the sandwiches are huge! After the first couple of times, Ramya and I would order one and have it cut in half - that was more than enough, really.
Toilets were quite a rarity, really... no public toilets that we ever found, nor even any signs for them. And in most places, you had to pay 30 cents to use the toilet. Anjali pointed out only a zillion times that in Chicago and most places in America, toilets are free and there are water fountains every 10 feet and nobody charges you for it! I was almost ready to pay for her ticket back, if only to shut her up :) In any case, if you were to believe all she said, Chicago must be Paradise on earth, and its inhabitants angels. Not fallen ones, either! ha!
The guildhouses (buildings that housed various merchants' guilds, with very elaborately decorated outer facades - almost royal) were impressive - but that most famous of Brussells' statues, the Mannekin Pis (pissing boy), was really tiny! When we saw him, he was clothed... and not very well, either, in ragged green shorts! He's dressed up differently depending on the occasion (like say Valentine's Day) and has more than 600 outfits! Good going for a little 2-foot statue, eh?
Another quite bizarre creation was the Atomium... a building that's built to look like the structure of an atom. Its dimensions are impressive, but we didnt really want to go inside to look at some scientific exhibition. The gardens and trees around the Atomium were actually the first lush greenery that we came across in Brussels, and what a welcome change it was! Especially as it was a lot cooler there than in the city centre.
The one-day trip we made to Luxembourg was more the kind of thing I love... it takes about an hour and a half to get there, and the route is completely beautiful. It takes you up hill and down dale, with thick forests on both sides for some of the way, and the countryside is almost English with all the green meadows. We stopped at a castle (St Anne's) on the way but though the views were spectacular, the minus points were that all the signs and explanations were in French and Flemish, two languages none of us knew.
Had it been in German, I could have coped, but as it is, I dont have much data about the place! They didnt have even the tourist literature in English - pah! Just like the French (or the Belgians) to be so arrogantly insular. One thing I did understand was that it was owned by hunting enthusiasts, because most of the rooms were full of stuffed and mounted animals and birds - boars, deer, wolves, all kinds of pretty colourful birds - and even the skulls of dead animals. Pretty gruesome, really. Not my cuppa tea, anyway.
Luxembourg is the most picturesque, beautiful little country... it's also one of the smallest - 82 km long and about 58 km wide, I think. It was a fortress in medieval times, and the huge, solid walls that you find here and there are in use even now - though not as a fortress. It's the headquarters of the translators for the various EU languages, and there are dozens of modern buildings being built to accommodate various EU offices and banks. The population of Luxembourg is only about 450,000 - and about 18000 people come in everyday to work from France, Belgium and Germany, its neighbours.
It's a very, VERY expensive city, however. And looks like it, too!
We managed to visit one more city in Belgium - Bruges. It used to be a major inland port and financial centre in the medieval ages... in fact, the word "bourse" originated here. But as the port got more and more silted up, traders moved on to ports in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and other places, and Bruges lost its importance. Its appeal now is that most of the town is almost exactly as it used to be hundreds of years ago.
Bruges is also very famous for lace. We saw a lace-maker at work - my GOODNESS it's complicated. They use upto 250 bobbins with the finest thread to make the finest lace... less fine lace uses fewer bobbins. Lacemakers have to go to lace-making school for upto 8 years! No wonder it's so expensive.
Actually when we went to Bruges, it was absolutely jam-packed with tourists - think of Ranganathan Street! Yes, actually as crowded as that! Our guide said even he'd never seen it as teeming, and he had to hold up his umbrella, yellow handle up, so that we could locate him in the throngs :) Still, it's a lovely little town – the buildings have brightly coloured and decorated facades - in fact, some of them seem to be two-dimensional, especially when you see them all in a row, side by side. I loved the quaint little bridges and the river that flowed through the town. There were boat rides to be had, but there wouldnt have been the GHOST of a chance of getting on without at least a two-hour wait, so we had to forget it. About the same could be said for the horse-drawn carriages that clopped their way around. Though tourism is the major earner for Bruges now, I wouldn’t like to be a resident there... imagine a place where you can hardly drive on the road - never mind drive, you cant even cycle! And walking involves lots of ducking and dodging to sidestep other tourists!
All around Brussels and Bruges there are loads of chocolate shops and lace shops, all claiming to have the authentic thing. But quite a lot of the lace is apparently made in Asia... you have to be very careful not to buy junk and pay through your nose for the privilege as well! As for the chocolates, I've never seen so many beautiful shapes and names, but I wasnt much tempted to try 'em out. Even the smell of chocolate can get too much.
And talking about chocolate, we went to the chocolate museum in Brussels... they could do with more enthusiastic employees, to start with, but it was allright. What impressed me were the chocolate sculptures there - hats and dresses and jewellery! None of it edible, of course, or for sale, and all of it behind glass - understandably enough, I suppose.
We left Brussels the same way we entered it - in a welter of confusion! We'd started from the hostel early enough, around 9.30am, in case we got lost or missed our way or something. Our flight was at 1.30pm, but we had to be there at least by 1pm. We took a taxi down to the station in perfectly good order, checked the train timings and destinations and went to buy a ticket. The ticket-salesperson was as true to Belgian form as we'd experienced - he didnt smile, was barely civil, didnt even look at us, but he gave us the tickets for the 10.47 express we'd asked for, which we thought went to Charleroi.
What we didnt know (and he didnt inform us) was that there are two airports in Brussels - one's Brussels airport (duh) and the other's Charleroi. The 10.47 that we'd wanted to take went to Brussels airport, not Charleroi - but he didnt see fit to put us right on that.
So we got on the train at 10.47, marvelling at how easy it'd all been and congratulating each other for being so efficient. That disappeared completely when the ticket collector came around and said we were headed in the wrong direction for the wrong airport, and we had to return to Brussels Centraal station!! And of course, this being the express train, it didnt stop anywhere but at Brussels airport. So we had to take the train back to Brussels Noord, and change trains again. Finally from Noord, we took a taxi to the airport and got there at 1.10pm - just in time! Charleroi airport didnt look any better that time either... passengers for 2-3 flights were all herded into one room (overheated as always) surrounded by boards and "men working" signs - to the last, Brussels was under renovation!