Day 34 – Brussels National Day

Today (21 July) is the Belgium National Holiday. The most common phrase I’ve seen is La Libre (The Freedom) which makes sense as this is the day of Belgium Independence. I can’t remember the exact number of years, but it’s a lot shorter than one would think. We often forget that while these places have an enormously long history, the actual country designations haven’t always been as long. If memory serves me (almost two weeks now… oops) it was the freedom from the Hapsburg dynasty which was, at the end, an Austrian and Spanish dynasty. Ruling families in Europe are amazingly difficult to follow.

So this being a holiday, which I hadn’t planned on, I was limited in my museum options. Luckily, the Musical Instruments Museum was open, which was my top choice. I got there a bit before they opened. I’ve never figured out metro timing, I’m always either late or early, rarely there when I plan to be there. Better to be early. This is even true when I’m at home and am only taking the single green line train.

The museum has audio guides. Which are different than the audio guides you get at most museums. These ones play the instrument in the case when you get close (some sort of NFC technology for the guides). I’m not sure why I have zero pictures from this museum. I thought a lot of it was really cool, but I guess I didn’t want to document it for anyone else. You’ll just have to go some day when you’re in Brussels.

My favorite was seeing instruments that eventually evolved into modern instruments. There were a couple that surprised me in the slight differences. The clarinet used to have a single reed on the top of the mouth piece. But more interesting, the old, old saxophones had double reeds. And there used to be a lot more double reed instruments.

After the museum I grabbed a bite and drink at their cafe (they sucked me in with the roof top bit).

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I could see where all the festivities were going to take place before I got into the museum but seeing it from above was pretty cool.

I left the museum and headed over to the park which was all set up for the day. Pretty much food and drink stands and games for children. I am not yet over the French fry thing, and figured the stands that get to be at the park for this day must be some of the best, right? So I grabbed some. I’ve noticed it’s pretty normal to get two sauces with your fries, and if you don’t get mayo you’re weird. I actually tried to get mayo and curry (a spicy sauce, but not curry like indian curry), but they were out, so mayo and ketchup it was.

Frites!
Frites!

I stayed in the park too long to get to see any other bits, which were set up down a couple other streets nearby. The park normally has a fence around, except for a few entrances. This isn’t a problem until there’s a billion people all in and around the park. I was planning to head out before the start of the parade, or more accurately, an HOUR before it was to start. What I didn’t know is that the royal family goes down the parade route roughly 45 minutes before the parade, so everyone was lined up well before I was planning to head out.

I didn’t try to fight my way to see the royalty, just seemed like a lot of work. I went back into the park and grabbed a sangria (yeah, sangria was available, for 3 euro, sweet deal). Luckily I’ve been toting my book around a lot. Grabbed a seat on some grass. I did get to see the Police band come right by me.

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The parade was listed as a military parade, which I didn’t really get. I mean, think of the 4th of July parades. There’s all sorts of things, but there’s military in there too most of the time. So I figured that’s what they meant. Nope. Just military (not that I was super close). Troops and vehicles. The cool part was they did a couple different fly overs. I wasn’t situated in the best spot to see them, but it was a couple different military planes and helicopters.

I had been slightly amused to see American military at the displays in the park, but I guess we have military everywhere right?

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Anyways, I finally managed to get out of the park, to the metro and back to my hostel. I had plans of heading back to watch the fireworks, but those didn’t pan out once I realized how nice it was to not be surrounded by tons of people.

I did however get to break into the cuberdons I bought at the park. They are a national candy, of which a specific flavor is the normal, but they make all kinds of flavors. The national flavor isn’t really some thing I can describe except to say it’s good (unlike the Danish candy flavor). The pictures are of a passion flavored cuberdon (passion fruit). It is entirely soft, but the outer coating is a thicker candy than the middle, and a bit less sticky. I think the pictures might do a better job than I can. I lucked out when buying them that the woman spoke English, but she couldn’t even explain it, and just gave me one to try. I would love to figure out how to make them.

Cuberdons

I tried to not devour them all in one day. Off to bed as the next day was a travel day! Off to Brugge!

Day 33 – Gent briefly, Parliamentarium

So the hostel nicely had maps for all the smaller towns around the area. I had grabbed one for Gent and one for Brugge (I’m sticking with those spellings, too many options, have to pick one). They’re of the Use-It variety, which I’ve found a couple other places and really enjoyed some of their suggestions. They say they are the maps/guides for the young traveler. Anyways, the one for Gent told me that the castle and cathedral are both open on Mondays. Score. That’s what I wanted to see there.

The joy of being able to take as many trains as I want with that Eurail pass. Just hopped on and suddenly you’re there.

Gent hosts a large festival around the Belgium National Holiday (21 July, tomorrow) called Gentse Feesten. Lots of concerts, carnival type things set up, etc. I’d equate it to the state fair at home.

Anyways, that was all set up, but at 10am, not much was going on. That was fine, large crowds of people speaking a foreign language when you’re by yourself is not a particularly fun activity.

I got to the castle, which not surprisingly, looks like a castle. What’s weird is that it is is pretty much in the middle of town now.

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As noted by this view from somewhere up top of the castle, where you can see all the festival tents set up right below.

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I enjoyed the castle tour. After that I wandered over to the cathedral.

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It gave me a pretty good laugh when I got there and saw this. It’s a nice historical place. One of the top listed things to see in Gent. But currently, it’s also home to the biggest stage area. The door is right behind the stage actually. The cathedral is giant, but there really wasn’t much you haven’t seen before. A lot of really old artifacts from the church of the area. It was nice that you could go down into the crypt area. And they had a nice explanation of the time line of evolution of the crypt. And there are a lot of large side areas where if you’re really rich, or famous, or something, you can have your grave there, all separate from where everyone walks. The name for that is escaping me.

After this I headed out to find some fries. I’ve been looking to find “the best” fries. So far nothing had totally wow-ed me. So I followed my trusty map off to a couple different fry places. One was closed on Mondays. One was closed from 2-4 (I got there at 2:15). No fries for me. But amusing that in this walking I ended up in this wide open plaza with nothing in it, while the rest of the town is packed. It’s really not far away.

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Caught the train back to Brussels and headed up to the Parliamentarium. Part of the head of the EU Government is in Brussels, and being there, I figured I should check it out. It also has a visitor center that explains about the evolution of the EU. I found this very interesting. I was sad that I hadn’t left myself more time to spend there (I got there around 4, they close at 6, free entry!).

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Since wandering around and checking out parks appears to be something I enjoy, it wont surprise anyone that I decided to check out the large park in the uppertown area near the parliament buildings. (Side note, unlike Minneapolis, the upper and lower town areas here make sense, upper town is on top of the hill, lower town isn’t)

There’s this awesome building in the park. What I could gather from signs is that it was built for the centennial celebration. That could be wrong, don’t go quoting me. What I do know is it had museums in it now, and that it is an energy neutral building. Funny what the signs in the park tell you and what they don’t.

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Hopped the metro back home from there. That was enough for one day.

Day 31 and 32 – Around Brussels

So before I jump into my full days in Brussels, I need to include a bit from the first night I got to town.

I was chilling around the hostel, doing some much needed laundry, when I met my roommate. Another woman traveling alone. She was looking to head down to the Grand Place, but wasn’t sure about heading there alone and was looking around for other single travelers when I showed up. Lucky for me!

I had heeded the suggestion that I should really check out the Grand Place at night, preferably before seeing it in the day (Thanks Uncle Alan). So off we went. I think we were finally ready and collected to head out around 11. So not a normal thing for me.

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Belgium is one of the countries where you can drink where ever and whenever you want. So once we got to the square and realized that everyone was just sitting around drinking and smoking (seems like everyone here smokes), we headed over to a night shop (what I’ve now learned it’s called, at the time, it was an open store). We picked up something to drink and planted ourselves in the square with everyone else.

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We hung around for a bit, it started to rain and everyone ran for cover around the buildings by the square. Then we finished the cider we had, and decided to head some where to grab a drink. Which some how turned into picking up food and a bottle of wine and heading home. The upside is with only the two of us, this was something that sounded awesome to us and that’s how it happened. We were the only two in our room and so it was easy to head back and chow down there.

Day 31

Lucky for me, Aurea (pronounced the same as Aria) had a lot of the same things on the want to do list as I did. So we wandered around together for the two days she was still in Brussels.

We started off with a walking tour. Always good for hitting up the main things. Like Mannekinpis.

Apparently he has hundreds of costumes
Apparently he has hundreds of costumes

And the cathedral. I never did make it back here to go inside. But perhaps there’s no need. Looks just like another one I’ll be visiting later.

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The other awesome thing about these tours continues to be the good suggestions for places to go or eat. Particularly when you ask about something specific. So a bunch of us were looking for fries (2pm, what else are you going to eat). We all headed over to the place recommended, sadly, closed for about a month.

Instead Aurea and I headed off to find some chocolate. Our hostel reception had pointed out a good area to go for stores. There’s no pictures of this. But perhaps I will manage to gain weight on my trip because, yum. A couple places in the area also had macarons. Also tasty. Still no pictures.

We then wandered around to find fries. Because try as we might, chocolate does not make a meal to fill you up. I think I’m converted to the mayonnaise with fries thing. But they also have a ton of other sauce options, all the ones I’ve had have been good. Way more interesting than ketchup, and I love ketchup.

Back to the hostel for dinner and resting. Because staying out late isn’t easy when you’re old.

Day 32

There was a flea market that Aurea had found out about. And I’m always curious about local markets. So off we went. Took the metro, got off at the correct stop, but that didn’t make it any easier to find the right little square we were looking for. And then some more rain.

Pretty much a flea market is the same every where I guess. All sorts of junk that the owner doesn’t need that they hope someone else thinks they need and will pay money for. There were some super cute boots that would have been hard to resist had then been in my size. The one time small feet are not a good thing is when you’re looking second hand.

But really, this is what one place had for their offerings:

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Piles and piles of random metal bits. I guess this could be interesting to dig through if you’re trying to restore a house or something. There was also a lot of clothes. Which just seems weird to buy at an outdoor market. Aurea left after the market, so back to being on my own.

I headed down to the Grand Place to catch a tour of the Town Hall. Turns out you can only go on the hour, as part of a tour group. The next tour in English wasn’t for another 4 hours. Bought my ticket. Then had to decide what else I wanted to do.

Having gotten a day pass for the metro, I decided to head out to the Atomium. It was built for the world fair. I ended up deciding not to wait in line to go inside. The line was long, it was cold and raining, and I hadn’t brought my rain coat for the day. And had opted for shorts. Always fun trying to figure out if the forecast is actually going to be correct. Not this day.

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You can go inside the balls. But most of what you get is a view over the city. And I was a bit over the whole idea of a view over the city when it’s all gloomy. Been there, done that. And this one was some amount of money way more than was worth it.

So I hopped the metro back into the city center. Stopped and grabbed some food for a picnic, because by this point it decided to be sunny again (and there are actual picnic tables in the street). Found some gluten free pasta and bread at the store, which I wasn’t looking for, but couldn’t pass up. It’s very annoying to carry food around from place to place, but it’s also getting old having no bread to go with breakfast when that’s so how European breakfasts are focused. So purchased all the deliciousness and off I went. Even expensive gluten free pasta is a a cheap meal.

Headed back to the town hall for the tour. An interesting building, a great story about the building, probably the worst tour I’ve been on. Earlier trying to buy my ticket was a confusing mess, and then the entire tour just didn’t have a ton of substance. Oh well. It is another one of those places that is still an actively used place of government, so it’s a lot of offices that aren’t interesting and not included on the tour. So the tour seems short for such a giant building.

Back to the hostel for dinner (pasta!) and to plan what to do for the next day. Turns out pretty much everything in Brussels is closed on Mondays (tourist things at least, similar to other big cities).