Wasn’t supposed to be here all by myself but them’s the breaks. Rasa was supposed to join me, but they wouldn’t give her the time off work and then sent her to Germany besides, so here I am. Thing is, a couple months back, RyanAir (that bane of the comfortable traveler) had a special and it was either Brussels or Paris for us. Since that was right around the time of the terrorist attack in Paris, we opted for Belgium. Besides, I’d never been before and it was as good a place as any. So I booked the flights and we figured Rasa would get the time off after the three months probation period. At least we hoped so. We we wrong.
But the flights were already bought and paid for and Rasa insisted I go and enjoy… Especially since she left for somewhere around Stuttgart on Monday. So I went to work at my consulting gig in the afternoon, hung out for a while and then got a lift to the airport. The flight itself was fine. I was in row 33, which is the very final row. And since the flight wasn’t full, I ended up with the whole row to myself. Coming back, I know I’ll have an extra seat next to me since I confirmed Rasa’s ticket which put her seat next to mine (I made a mistake on the outgoing flight and she was scheduled to sit in the same row but on the other side – a nice surprise for the couple who were assigned the other seats there).
Now, since it’s RyanAir, they can’t actually fly into the airport in the city (so when I said Paris was an option, like when we went to Disneyland, we actually would have landed about 90 minutes away) so instead, we fly into Chareloi, which is about 50 minutes away. I pre-booked my shuttle tickets so got on and headed into Brussels proper.
Also, since it’s RyanAir, they can’t fly at normal times so we landed at just before 11pm, so by the time we get into the Brussels train station, it’s getting close to midnight and I still have to find my hostel. I have directions, but when you’re tired, and all the signs (if there are any) are in a foreign language, not so easy. I finally do find the 51 tram to get me where I need to be, but of course, the stops aren’t announced anywhere, so I’m following along, looking out the open doors at every stop to make sure I don’t miss it. I almost do anyway since by this time it’s started to snow.
That’s right. Snow. I was hoping to have left that behind when I left Lithuania. The forecast had been for warm (well, warmer than home) and dry. Not so much. It was cold and wet and I didn’t know where the hell I was going. Thankfully, unlike some of the places we stayed in Italy, the Meininger Hotel/Hostel is a fairly large place and open 24 hours. I checked in and headed to my room.
When I travel alone, I tend to book as inexpensively as possible, which means in Brussels, I’m booked into a 10 bed dorm. And when you check in after midnight and have to go into a room with 9 other people already sleeping, and it’s dark and you have to climb to a top bunk, make your bed and get all set in that condition it’s not easy. But I did it and got a little bit of sleep. Not much because for some reason (might be me snoring, but I don’t know) the girl sleeping below me would randomly kick my bed and wake me up.
Around 7, I decided that was it: Time to get up. I chatted with Rasa before she went to her office then, with those 9 people still sleeping, I got up, showered, and headed out to explore Brussels.
As has been mentioned, of course, the sun was not shining and the ground was not dry. Normally, when I first get to a city, I like to take a tour to get my bearings and see the big sights and figure out where I want to explore next. Interestingly, I get all the guidebooks and then never actually look at them until I either get to the city or, more often, after I’m gone and I look up background information on what I’ve seen. Most cities have some sort of free walking tour and Brussels is no exception. The hostel sponsors one which I figured I would take but the first was at 10:30 and I really wanted to check out the Comic Book museum first thing. No problem, There was a second tour in the afternoon, and I could catch that one.
Off I head, then, in the pre-dawn light (I was out before 8 and the sun doesn’t come up until almost 9). I had a general direction to head, a rough tourist map in my bag and an umbrella so I was good to go. Trying to stay as dry as I could, I walked towards the center. My meandering had a slight purpose, at least to start. I was hungry and looking for a place to eat. Although, really, any place to stop and get out of the rain for a few minutes was worth the distraction. The first place I stopped was Beurskaffe and I only stopped there because they had an old-fashioned photo booth in the front gallery. Going in, though, it looked they had a restaurant so I figured to stay. Unfortunately, they were having a private event but they did recommend a place called Or Coffee, which they assured me was just across the street. I crossed the street but didn’t see it (I would find it on my way back to the hostel that night and have breakfast there the next day).
I kept walking. I passed a McDonald’s and much to my surprise (and I’m sure most people reading this) I didn’t stop in. First day in Belgium was going to be a Belgian breakfast! As I continued, I realized it was still early (and raining – did I mention it was raining?) and there was no one on the street. But there were signs and one of them pointed to Mannekin Pis.
This statue is one of the symbols of the city and a definite “must see.” Okay, here’s the thing about me and travel. I’m a tourist. I like being a tourist. I want to see all the sights and do all the things. I understand this isn’t for everyone (One of the many things I love about Rasa is we have similar travel ideas) but when I tell people I’ve been someplace and they say “have you seen….?” I want to be able to emphatically say “yes!” It’s this very idea which got me where I am currently in that I saw something in Vilnius when I was there (Frank Zappa’s Head) which started the conversation with Rolanda which led to my moving to Lithuania, etc. Needless to say, I had to see this little statue of a boy peeing.
Breakfast could wait. I started following signs and heading down side streets (yes, this would be covered on the walking tour, but if I was already so close…). I knew I was getting closer when representations of the statue started showing up in the still closed shop windows and the food stands had all appended “pis” to their names (Not sure if “Waffle Pis” or “Mannekin Waffle” is the best place to eat, but hey, whatever sells, right?).
Finally, I found the little guy. I stress the “little” part because most tourists, especially Americans, tend to think these monuments should be huge. The people who are dejected because The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen is not the size of the Statue of Liberty. And don’t even get me started on the Mona Lisa! But I’d been prepped to understand how small he is…and he is. Maybe a meter tall and streaming as proud as can be. There was another tourist there trying to take a selfie but since it was raining I figured we could help each other and we did, so within an hour of leaving the hostel on my first morning, I had checked off an item on my “to see” list. I was stoked!
Still hadn’t eaten, however. I made my way back towards Grand Place (where I would pick up the afternoon walking tour) just to get my bearings and found the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful (and more importantly, covered) shopping arcade. Lots of nice shops here, as well as Mokafé, which seemed like a great spot for breakfast. It was. Lots of bread and some cheese and coffee and a big ol’ glass of orange juice and I was good to go. Thankfully, I had chosen a place which was on the way to the cartoon museum so it was only another 10 minute walk to get to my first, planned destination. I walked in to find, sscattered around the building, numerous life-size sculptures of a number of popular characters and a rocket ship (not life-size).
The first thing to know about the comic book museum is the official name is the Belgian Comic Strip Center. The second thing to know is they are serious about their 10am opening time. There was a family ahead of me waiting to buy tickets and the women working desk, once she’d actually gotten set up, jokingly said “9:59, just one more minute.” Then everyone laughed and the family got their tickets. I was next and after ditching my coat and bag into the “superman” locker went to explore.
If you don’t know anything about comics, the beginning of the exhibit is great. It walks you through the whole production process with all sorts of examples. There’s some depth in their explanations and it’s in all three languages (here’s the thing, Brussels is a bi-lingual city, French and Dutch and here they added English as well, which was nice).
The second floor had three different (and I felt) permanent exhibits. The first is about the building itself, which is a beautiful . Evidently at one point it was an abandoned Art Nouveau masterpiece of a very famous architect called Victor Horta. There are before and after pictures (more of the before since you can see the after by looking around) and they point out some features you might have missed. Also on this floor there’s space devoted two of the most famous Belgian comics creations Tin Tin and Smurfs (Asterix and Obelisk don’t quite count as they’re Dutch, but the Flemish claim them anyway). The Smurfs exhibit looks at the life and career of their creator, Peyo, which is fascinating, especially when you see what he did before the Smurfs. Evidently, the little blue guys started as guests in someone else’s comic and then took over. The other side of the floor is devoted to Tin Tin and not as much on Hergé, his creator. Some very clever analysis which I certainly appreciated.
The uppermost floor has rotating exhibits. When I was there, it was covering a Belgian creator. While there was a lot of text, it referred to Belgian comics which, if I had grown up there, I’m sure I would have loved and been fascinated by. As it was, it was mildly interesting as a peak into a different culture. Unfortunately, the comics are not available in English (at least I didn’t see them in well-stocked gift shop).
Next to the gift shop, though, there is a resource room with all sorts of international comics you can peruse as part of your entrance fee. They also seem to have a fairly impressive research library so I might be taking advantage of that upon my return to civilization and the life of a dissertation writer.
The question of where to go after seeing comics was originally answered by meeting that second walking tour. The rain, however, was fairly hideous so I figured I’d make today a museum day. See, here’s my reasoning: I know today is pissing down rain and the forecast (which has been wrong before) says it will be clear tomorrow… So if it’s raining tomorrow, I haven’t lost anything and if it’s not, I win! So I get directions for the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique – the big Belgium museum – and head out.
This is when I realize I kinda suck at listening to directions. I do eventually find the building, but not until I’ve gone the wrong way once and stopped for directions twice more. Inside the museum there are actually four different galleries, including the Magritte Museum, which is the one I specifically wanted to see. As it worked out, it was cheaper to get a combo ticket for four of the five galleries (Magritte, old masters, modern art and Fin de Siecle) while the fifth was a rotating exhibit and more than the other three combined. I took the three and went to see Rene.
Even though it’s attached to the main museum, Magritte himself takes up three full floors with a lot of art, both his originals and some of his graphic commissions (none of the “biggees” though) and looks at his life and time-line. It’s an incredibly informative place and I found pieces I wasn’t as familiar with that I really fell in love with including:
Unfortunately, on the down side, the lighting is horrible and combined with the reflective glass in the frames makes it really difficult to get a good view at the work. Looking at almost any piece dead on just gives you a eye-pounding reflection.
I hit the fin de siecle exhibit next. These are works from the turn of the century so the connection become more generic than thematic. There were pieces from artists like Seurat as well as some I loved from artists I’d never heard of (like ) but will certainly be checking out now.
Then came the Old Masters. One of the key pieces in the collection is Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David and I saw it. It’s huge and impressive. Lots of negative space which leaves the figure of Marat isolated while dying (he was killed on my birthday, so that’s something). A striking piece. They had a great triptych by Hieronymus Bosch which was creepy as hell. There were also a number of pieces by Rubens and Breughel, seeing as they’re Belgian. The thing I noticed about quite a few of these pieces, since I was a bit bored by the religious themes, was the fantastical creatures and scenarios which were playing out in the margins. I’ve never noticed these small scenes before but a lot of paintings had them. I wonder if anyone’s written a book or anything about it. I’m sure they have, but it’s fascinating and I’d really like to know more. Another thing on my list to read up on.
As I left the museum (without buying anything, which was good for me. I actually had some discount rack stuff in my hand then realized getting it home would be a pain and I really didn’t need it) I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I’d been burning through calories trying to stay warm in the freezing rain so I should probably eat something. Isn’t this how it always is, though? You’re so hungry nothing looks good so you keep going thinking the next place will be the perfect place to stop. I even went to tourist information to ask a couple of question (and find the Hard Rock to get Faye a shot glass – but no, not to eat). I was heading for the hostel knowing I’d find something along the way and I did — Bia Mara. It was a fish and chips place with an attitude. I opted for the special, which was a Krab beer and Argentinian fish and chips, which were much spicier than I was expecting. It was good, but I was glad I had the beer. Plus they were playing Bowie, what’s not to like.