Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Brussels (part II)

Brussels is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, so I have been told. I haven’t got around to look much into its history, and of all European countries, Belgium is of those I know the least about. I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know really where I should be going (except for the general direction given to me by the hotel’s receptionist)…

In one of my favourite Seinfeld episode, Elayne wanders the streets of New York, weeping, as she bumps into Jay Peterman (who later becomes her employer). She cries to him: “Sorry, I don’t know where I’m going”, to which he replies “well, that is a great way to reach places you’ve never been to”. It’s funny but also so very true, and I keep that in mind whenever I wander around places I had never been to before.

The hotel I stayed in is within 10-15 minutes walk from touristic Brussels. Very simple walk, too – just go south on the same street you’re at and turn left to Groote Markt. Walking the streets, I realized why they say Brussels is beautiful: because it really is.

I didn’t take too many pictures due to my rather low mood, and you could find good pictures in Google anyhow… so I suggest you take a look. Very old buildings, very impressive details, even for people that are generally unimpressed with art (like yours truly).

Looking to my left, I saw a nice statue two blocks away from me and so I decided to deviate from the original plan and get to the Groote Markt using an alternate route. Once I arrived, I realized that I am now in some sort of a maze: very narrow streets, boasting literally hundreds of restaurants, pubs, bars, food stands, gift shops… try to recall a movie you’ve seen recently, with scenes involving terraces full of people basking at the sun and having a good time. Got it? good. It’s exactly like that.

I allowed myself to get lost and walked rather aimlessly, despite the fact that my BlackBerry’s help might be limited later on (I wrote in the previous post that something must be wrong with Google Maps when it comes to mapping out Brussels). I needed the walk, and the air, more than I needed any “context”. You probably also found yourself, at some point in your life, walking aimlessly for the sole purpose of walking and absorbing your surroundings in order to just feel better; so you must know what I am talking about.

One thing that stands out when you’re walking the streets of Brussels is that, despite it being a major tourism attraction, almost no regard has been given to people who people who can only speak English (Belgium has three official languages – Dutch, French and German; Dutch is the most popular, however it is spoken in various dialects). This makes it rather cumbersome to get around, especially when you walk through those beautiful narrow streets. If English is the only language you speak, you’re bound for trouble if you’re only relying on signs. Most locals, though, can speak English so you should be OK to ask people for help.

After walking for quite a while and having a good meal, I came across (what I believe was) the famous cathedral, and parked my butt on the grass there where I started to write the previous post. The view was lovely – the cathedral is really impressive and the atmosphere is altogether relaxed – people lying on the grass, absorbing the mixture of fresh air and terrible smog that comes from the nearby junction (which happens to be a rather busy one). Some couples smooching around.

After about 45 minutes I decided to go back to the hotel, which turned out to be a tricky endeavour due to not being able to read any sign and Google Maps misbehaving. I had a little map that I took from the hotel, and it was only semi-helpful. Took me some time to realize where I am and where I should be going, but I finally made it.

After resting for a few hours, I realized it’s dark outside and that I am hungry, and perhaps it would be interesting to explore Brussels at night time. Grabbed my jacket, headphones, and off I went on my way listening to Get Lucky (what else could I be listening to? this album is one of the most addictive albums I ever came across) and trying to work out some mental details that are related to the severe emotional swings I have been experiencing recently. Glad to say it helped; music is one of the two most effective ways I know of to get to a state of peace of mind (the other one being wandering through nature; Jasper, Alberta being the place), and Knopfler’s music does it best – ridiculously better than any other – and perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of it.

Might get lucky now and then”, he sings. Up to that point, all chords in the song (the title song, also named Get Lucky) are major and it sounds jolly, but comes the word “lucky”, he strikes a completely and utterly unexpected minor chord (C#m, in case you wondered) that makes your soul shake and – if you’re in a really shaky mood – tears build up.

I recall listening to this song for the first time; I was working at the office, and just realized (thanks to Jeroen sending me an email) that the song has been released for preview in the artist’s official website. I listened to it and that minor chord, done so simply and lightly, made me lose focus for a few moments as I didn’t know how to compute the beauty of what I had just heard.

Took the turn into Groote Markt and, guys, I have to say that I was genuinely impressed. At night, the beauty of this city exceeds your expectations and you can’t possibly avoid saying WOW. The narrow streets were full of people, restaurants with fully-occupied terraces; perfect weather – I would say it was 21-22 degrees, soft cool breeze, intensified when you look up and see the moon and a few stars shine through absolutely clear sky.

The main point of interest in that area is something that I could best describe as a square, with the museum at one side, and what appears to be a cathedral facing it. At night, both are lit in with stunning yellowish light, making this sight one of the most romantic ones I have ever witnessed. In the square itself, you see groups of people – usually youngsters – sitting in circles, talking, laughing, some are playing the guitars… an ultimate chill-out location.

Bars and pubs in literally every corner, and then some. I couldn’t keep count of the Stella Artois signs, mainly because (and I am taking a huge leap here as I am not a beer drinker so I may be talking rubbish) this beer is made here in Belgium. Restaurants of any kind you can think of; one of those narrow streets, for example, is full of seafood – and only seafood – restaurants. However, after spending some time in a restaurant with my best friend in London just the night before, I found it kind of pointless to sit by myself and decided to postpone eating until I come across some take-out place.

I continued wandering through the streets quite aimlessly, listening to songs (well, yes, Get Lucky again; you get the chills when you listen to So Far from the Clyde while walking through these wonderfully-lit streets. The prominent, well-emphasized minor chords of this song blend wonderfully with the feeling of romance that takes over you).

On my way back to the hotel, I started chatting with Pavla, Zuzana’s sister. Apparently, Zuzana drew a picture for me, mailed it to her sister in the Czech Republic so she can scan it and email it to me. Facebook for BlackBerry doesn’t show you pictures embedded within messages so I had to be patient until I go back to the hotel, but Pavla and I had a good funny chat at the meantime.

I stopped for food twice. Once in a shawarma place which was surprisingly good (I say surprisingly because it was the first time ever I had shawarma outside of Israel, which didn’t taste like complete rubbish), and then at Cafe Metropolitan – owned by Hotel Metropolitan close to the Groote Markt. There I had an amazing strawberry cake, with – listen to this – cherry beer. I simply didn’t know what to drink alongside with a dessert, so the waiter recommended a sweet beer… which was actually quite good.

Back at the hotel, I was looking at the drawing Zuzana drew for me. It was so beautiful; I left instructions to Pavla (hopefully she’ll follow through) to mail the picture to my house in Canada so I can frame it and put it on my wall. Such a sweet gift from such a sweet lady. Thank you!

Another couple of hours going through emails and booking my Frankfurt hotel, I went to sleep. Saturday’s going to be a semi-long day… and also the last one for this journey.


1 comment:

Nancy said...

Aww, reading this brings back memories. I spent a very interesting week in Brussels a few years ago, when anti-American sentiments were at an all time high. It's a lovely city. Hope you bought a waffle from a street vendor. I liked Bruges much better, though.