After narrowly missing our connection train in Koln (Cologne, Germany) we boarded our high speed train to Brussels. The first class seating was great, complete with mini-television screens and leather recliner chairs.
The rail system in Western Europe is actually quite efficient and organized. It's also amazing how many people use the service. North America should seriously consider creating a better train infrastructure, it's such a great way to travel around the continent.
While waiting in line to disembark the train we overheard a pompous British vacationer sarcastically mutter to his wife, "It must be nice to go backpacking in first class." He wasn't lying. It is nice traveling in first class while backpacking through Europe! Our Eurail pass costs us the same for either second or first class, so obviously we'll indulge in some luxury when it's available.
Brussels was a late addition to our Western European itinerary. When we bought our train pass it came with ten segments that could be used within a 24-hour period. Knowing that Amsterdam was high on the list, it seemed natural to add Belgium's capital because it was only a short 3-hour trip away.
We lucked out once again. A family friend has a small apartment in the city that he uses for business purposes. He was not going to be at his apartment and graciously offered it to us during our visit. We couldn't have predicted a better scenario. The apartment was within walking distance to most of the tourist hot spots and also allowed us to cook our own meals for a change, something we've really missed while living out of our backpacks.
We could instantly feel the country's multiculturalism the second we arrived at the Gare du Midi Train Terminal. It was quite different from the predominantly Caucasian populations in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.
The other thing we noticed right away was the language, or should we say language's' in Brussels. We couldn't put our finger on what the standard language was. The signs and print were in Belgium (or Flemish), French, German, English and in some places Dutch. It changed from store to store, restaurant to restaurant, person to person. Although it's often frustratingly confusing, that's part of Europe's charm. The fact that we can jump on a two hour train and have a completely different language, culture, history and political environment makes Europe such a unique place to travel.
Our four days in Brussels gave us the opportunity to see most of the city at a relaxed pace. We were happy to see that Brussels also embraces the Christmas markets that we've enjoyed in Budapest, Berlin and Prague.
We visited most of the main attractions including the European Parliament (quite an impressive building), the EU Headquarters that spans several blocks, Palais Royal and the extraordinary Saint Michel and Gudele Cathedral.
The popular Grand Place, with its awesome Gothic-style Hotel de Ville and magnificent guildhalls, was the clear highlight its light shows and Christmas decorations in the evenings. In the daytime hundreds of locals and visitors gather in the Grand Place and connecting pedestrian streets for its festive atmosphere, carnival-like parades and endless restaurants, bars and shopping. It's the perfect city to visit during the holiday season!
When we thought of Belgium two things came to mind - Belgium Beer and Belgium Waffles. Okay those are the two things that came to Cameron's mind, Nicole had already traveled to the country ten years earlier. So as you would expect we indulged in both - and both were delicious! We were keen to also get into the Belgium chocolate trend but had to draw a line somewhere, our waistlines could use the discipline.
We liked Brussels and enjoyed our time there. It's a very modern and progressive city that has managed to keep its heritage buildings and traditions intact. Of course it was also very nice to have an apartment to come to in the evenings.
While in Egypt we met a couple from Holland that advised us to visit Antwerp, Belgium's second city, because it splits the route between Brussels and Amsterdam. It was only an hour away so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring the celebrated city that is known for its fashion and night clubbing circuit.
It worked out well because our train pass allows unlimited travel during a 24-hour period on the day of usage. This meant that we could board a train to Antwerp, store our luggage at the train station, explore the city for the day, and then connect on a 2-hour evening train to Amsterdam.
It was a good plan, so that's precisely what we did.
The weather wasn't cooperating in the morning but it eventually turned itself around long enough for us to see the city's main attractions. Rather than get to deep into Antwerp, take a look at the attached photo album to get a sense of the city's grand architecture. We really enjoyed our brief stopover in Antwerp and could see how it gets the Euro-trendy reputation that it does.
So that's about it for our time in Belgium. Short and sweet. It's a fun and vibrant country that deserves more than the 5 days we gave it. But in order to see all that we want to see in Europe we have to make sacrifices along the way.
Our next destination was to be the liberal sin-city of Amsterdam. As one of Europe's most exciting and famous cities, it needs no further introduction.
December 8th, 2009