I awoke with a plan… and someone else’s alarm. There were these four young college guys from Jersey in our room and they were planning on hitting Amsterdam today (it’s a three-hour train ride – something I would remember a couple of days later) and so had set alarms to get up in time to make the early train. Unfortunately, being college guys, they were not to be roused by a mere alarm. Me, however, being an old college professor, I get up at the slightest sound so when his alarm went off for the second time, I was ready to hit the day.
I’d scoped out OR Coffee while walking home the night before and I knew on Saturday they didn’t open until 9, so I leisurely got ready (confirming the meeting place of the free walking tour before I left) and was at their doors just past opening. I ordered my food and took a seat at the bar in the window (at the far end, against the wall, near the owner outlet). When I’m by myself, I tend to sit at the bar and here, it allowed me the chance to watch the street come alive… In the sunlight. Yes, I had guessed right and the forecast for the day was sunny, if not warm.
I pulled out my tablet to start working on my blog notes while I ate. At the other end of the bar a woman sat, enjoying her morning toast. As she got up to leave, she remarked “you can put me in your novel.”
I was a bit surprised until I realized that was what my sweatshirt said. Then I laughed. She introduced herself as Jane and explained she’d always wanted to write but instead was translating other people’s work. This led to a brief conversation about if it was ever “too late” to start. I contend it’s not. And that at a later date, you actually have more to write about. So now, I’m waiting for Jane’s novel about a translator in Belgium and the intrigue she gets up to!
I finished my notes, packed up and headed out to Grand Place to meet my tour. I’d scoped it out yesterday so I knew where it was and evidently the guides would have a red umbrella. What I didn’t realize at the time was this was NOT organized through the hostel but was actually part of the Sandeman tours. Evidently, Sandeman is a multi-national organization which sets up free walking tours in a number of cities under the same principle as people set up strip-clubs. The guides are all freelance, working directly off the tips they make (and they pay Sandeman for the privilege since corporate does all the advertising and what have you). Along the same lines, like dancers, each guide is different, with their own style and interest (yes, they have to pass an entrance exam but that seems to be the extent of corporate oversight).
Now, in a city like Brussels, obviously there are certain spots you’re going to see because those are things the city is known for and things tourists have come on tours specifically to see. In other words, there is no specific “tour.” Each guide decides what you’re going to see and how they’re going to present it. So when I showed up at the appropriate time and place, the guides there immediately asked “English of Spanish?”
“English,” I responded.
“Over here, please.” And he sent me to one side. The couple behind was asked the same question, “Spanish” was their answer, and they were shunted the other way. This continued as people arrived and I chatted with some of those around me. There were several military people, including one nice couple who were stationed in Rammstein and had brought their dog along (it was cold so the dog had a coat and boots!). The Spanish girl kept coming over to pet the dog and try to get pictures. All in all, it was a fun group of people. As the time for the tour started, us English folk were divided into two groups (there was a bit of comedy as a counting error led to people leaving one group and joining the other only to have to have to come back when too many were sent. I’ll wager this had more to do with tip distribution at the end than anything else.
Eventually, we got sorted and started. Our guide was Berber, originally from Amsterdam, which, as you’ll recall, isn’t very far away. Also, at 28, she had already abandoned a career as an international lawyer in favor of coming a professional storyteller and was currently studying at theatre school. I mention this to let you know what kind of a tour she leads: It’s political. You may have taken the girl out of International Law, but years of training don’t go to waste (especially when there’s plenty of stories to tell). She also focused a fair bit on history and some of the better known legends and myths. We got a lot of information about the Grand Place (the main square in town) including stories about the fire and the rebuilding, the city hall which is off-center (and provided one of my favorite stories about the architect killing himself over it) and the first time this trip I’d hear about guild halls. When we left the square, we all introduced ourselves and we certainly had an eclectic mix. There were folks from Ukraine, Prague, Naples, France, Australia and elsewhere. As in most tours, as you walk around you tend to meet and mingle with the others so it was nice getting to chat, however briefly, with lots of folks. Special shout out, though, to Kimberley, a speech pathologist from Australia. She was up visiting her brother, a vet living in London. We had some good talks!
Berber pointed out lots of comic book murals around the city, noting that Belgium ranked number one in terms of comic character creation, followed by the US. The flip side is that the US is better known for creating superheroes while the Belgian creations range from comedy figures to adventurers to just ordinary folks. Then we came to our friend, Mannekin Pis. Berber told another story about his origins (might be myth, might be legend, definitely fun). Here’s where we hit a slight snag, though. As I told you, the statue is small and tucked away in a corner and today, it was a nicer day and later in the morning than when I was there yesterday so there were more people around. And the streets are still active streets. Berber was trying to tell us stories and keep us from getting hit by cars all while we were trying to take pictures. She knew this would happen and even told us she’d show us but we’d have to come back for photos. The problem is that while I understand there’s a lot to get through, we’re also there to memorialize our trip. Not sure how to solve this issue, but I’d like to be able to hear everything and take pictures.
Being a three-hour tour, we stopped about half way through for a short rest break. Berber explained she would be leading a beer tasting tour that night (NOT a pub crawl) if anyone was interested it was meeting at Scott’s Bar, the place we were having our break. I was interested and got a ticket. Back in university I took a whole semester class on New World Wine so learning about beer in the heart of Belgium seemed rather apropos.
We finished the tour with stops to talk about the causes of the Second World War, the reasons the seat of the EU is in Brussels (Belgium has many different governments, one of which is the EU Parliament, and no one there, evidently, understands the political system) and why the Brussels cathedral looks like Notre Dame in Paris. There was also the really cool graffiti wall, some beautiful gardens and a brass shell embedded in the ground to mark the path of a pilgrimage to Spain.
At the end of the tour I joined a couple of people to get some fries, a Belgian speciality, before heading off on my own. My original plan was to go back to the hostel, maybe drop my bag, maybe take a rest before heading back out for beer tasting. Rasa got me a step counter for the holidays and on day one, I had walked considerably more than my goal so my feet were tired and I had proof so don’t judge me! Then again, being me, the odds of going for a rest while on vacation were slim and none. As I passed the tram line on the path back to the hostel, I remembered the guy from the tourist information office telling me that to get to the Atomium, I just had to take tram 51 all the way to the end. I debated for all of 30 seconds before I was standing on the platform waiting the oncoming tram.
It wasn’t exactly at the end of the line, but a short walk away. My map program wanted me to go through a closed up stadium (not permanently closed, but no events happening) so I had to figure out another way. Honestly, not very hard considering you could see thing from a fair distance. Also, it was right near Mini-Europe and a water park so it wasn’t hard to find.
Walking up to it, if you’re not impressed by the sheer size, I don’t know what will impress you. Designed for the 1958 World’s Fair, it literally looks like a giant atom. There are several nodules connected by walkways so you can explore the whole thing. Again, according the guy, it was important to see it, not as important to go inside, especially considering the price. Seems that aside from the uppermost level being an observation deck, the rest of it is devoted to a history of the Expo itself. I’m sure this is interesting, but not for me, not then. So I walked around, oohed and aahed at the pretty and took some pictures before heading back into town. I actually tried to be adventuress and take the underground metro to get me closer to the bar where we were meeting, but since I didn’t know the names of any of the stations, the map was all French (and Dutch – it is a bilingual city) so I made my way back to the 51 and from there back to the bar.
I ended up arriving a few minutes early and decided to have a quick bite. Considering all I’d had to eat all day was a continental breakfast and some fries, it would probably be a good idea to get some food in me before I started pounding back beer! I’m such a lightweight anyway, I needed as much help as I could get. Sitting at the bar, I ordered a burrito, the daily special. It was good! Really good. I know I’m starved for Mexican but seriously… 5:30 arrived and our tour was about to start. Looked like it was only going to be 7 people, including one American serviceman (whose name I’ve forgotten but he was a really nice guy and an OR nurse) and his Italian girlfriend who had been on my afternoon tour, and Sergi and Coral – remember the Spanish couple from the morning with the girl who kept trying to take a picture of the dog? That’s them! And Berber, once again our guide. Every time she tried to start, though, we kept adding more people. Eventually, we were about 15 or so and our intimate evening of chatting about beer became a little more raucous. Especially with the Romanians.
Our first round was a Trappist beer (we were given a choice of blond of brown) then taught how to pour and how beer is made. Also learned the difference between German and Belgian beer purity laws (hint: Belgium doesn’t have many) and what being a “Trappist” beer actually meant (really is made by monks!). From there we were led through the gay district (I’d actually found that on my way back towards the hostel amazed at some of the fine leather work on display in the windows) to a second bar where we were to have a taster set of three different beers. To be honest, while I enjoyed the Trappist, the rest, including a locally made Lambic, didn’t do it for me. We learned, though, that a number of local breweries would hire themselves out to work with local bars to produce establishment specific brews (and what were tasting were some of them, made for this place, which was one of the most popular bars in town).
The tour ended at Deliriums, which is a sprawling mess of a bar. The best thing about it was a statue in an alcove in the wall which was the female counterpart to our friend Mannekin Pis, Jeanneke Pis. Yup, she was squatting away. Sergi, Coral and I decided we didn’t want to stay, they had been up since 3am having come in basically just for the day. But Coral was hungry so we found a place to get some fries and something (I honestly don’t remember what it was called) which was basically a flat meatball. Of course, being evening in Brussels, after dinner, we went across the road to have waffles. I got mine with more whipped cream and chocolate sauce than you could shake a stick at. Eating was an adventure, though, as there was no way to actually accomplish this without making a mess. None.
After dinner, we said our goodbyes and I started walking back to the hostel… naturally, after such a nice day, it started snowing. I took it as a sign to leave Brussels.