A Voyage To The Continent......

Trip Start Aug 22, 2011
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Trip End Sep 29, 2011


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Sunday, August 28, 2011

11 Aug. 28 - Sunday

It's hard to believe that I'll be departing today for the next part of my trip. The time in Edinburgh seems to have passed so quickly. While I didn’t get to everything done that I had planned on my Itinerary, I feel that I still  covered a lot.  The city has so much character and so many historic sites, and I’ll look forward to returning on a future trip.

The proprietor of the Hotel kindly prepared breakfast a bit early for me this morning.  The breakfast room doesn’t normally open until 08:00 on Sundays, but I wanted to start a bit earlier than that, as I had arranged a Taxi for 08:30.  I had the usual English breakfast, which is a hearty and substantial meal that I hoped would keep me going on the long trip to London.  The Taxi was a bit early, and the trip to Waverley station on a Sunday morning was fairly quick.  Both the Festival and the Military Tattoo ended last night, so perhaps everyone is still "recovering".

The rail trip from Edinburgh Waverly to London King’s Cross took about five hours in total.  There were several intermediate stops at places like Newcastle, Northallerton and Darlington where passengers both disembarked or boarded the train.  The scenery was especially beautiful in the northern part of the trip when the train passed rolling green fields and farmland, complete with grazing sheep.  As the train progressed further south, the scenery became more urban and crowded.  I was seated beside a young lad from New Zealand, who’s been working in London for a few years.  Upon arrival in London, he kindly offered to show me the quickest route to St. Pancras, and the walk from King’s Cross to London St. Pancras (which is the EuroStar terminal) only took about five minutes.  I decided to stop for a Sandwich at Le Pain Quotidient, which is a local sandwich chain selling Baguette sandwiches, before going through security.

London St. Pancras is a very historic station and it underwent a massive renovation a few years ago.  Although the décor looks somewhat Victorian, it’s an extremely modern station.  There are numerous shops selling a variety of goods and lots of different types of restaurants.  It almost seems like a shopping mall.

Passengers taking the EuroStar must first pass through airport-style security, complete with X-Ray scanners and plastic bins for metal items.  The screening didn’t seem quite as extensive as airport security though, as there was no request to put the 3-1-1 liquids bag in the bin, or take the Netbook out of the case.  The entire process only took a few minutes.

The next step was Passport control, which was staffed by the French Border Police.  This was also very routine, with a cursory glance at the document and then a stamp.  From there passengers head directly to the departure lounge, with electronic signs indicating imminent departures and track number.  There are a few snack bars in the lounge, but the larger restaurants are in the main station.  While waiting for train departure, I had an interesting visit with a young Italian girl who was seated next to me, who is in London studying medicine.  She’ll be a  Physician in a year or so, which is an impressive accomplishment.

When a train departure is announced, Passengers travel up a "moving sidewalk" to track level of the station, which is one floor above the lounge.  Shortly after leaving the station, the train passes through several short tunnels prior to reaching the main tunnel leading under the English channel.  The channel portion seemed to last about 20-minutes, and was somewhat unremarkable.  I "snoozed" for part of the trip, as there wasn’t much to see.  Once the train reached Europe, there were a couple of intermediate stops but this particular EuroStar terminates at Brussels Midi station rather than Paris.  The young lady sitting beside me on the trip to Brussels works for NATO.

As my Hotel was closer to Brussels Central station, I decided to use the Metro rather than a Taxi.  It was exactly the same as Metro systems in other parts of Europe, so after determining which line to use and which direction, it only took a short time to reach the Hotel (which is only about a five minute walk downhill from the station).  When I was exiting Brussels Central station, a seedy looking individual walked up behind me holding his nose, as if to imply there was something producing an odour on my Backpack.  I was aware of that particular scam, so made it clear that I wasn’t interested in his attention (as I recall, the words “piss off” may have been used) and he disappeared very quickly.

Brussels is a city of 1.8 million people, and one of the most important cities in Europe.  In addition to being the capital of Belgium, it’s also the headquarters of NATO and of the European Union.  There are two E.U. Parliaments, with the other being located in Strasbourg, France. Parliamentarians apparently spend three weeks of each month working in Brussels, and one week in Strasbourg.  The three main branches of the E.U. consist of the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council (that part is the section where the Heads-of-State meet every two months).  One other interesting bit of trivia is that Belgium has produced some of the world’s most successful cartoon characters including the Smurfs, Tin-Tin and Lucky Luke.

The Hotel is located in a very central part of Brussels, only a short walk from the historic Grand Place which has been described as one of the most spectacular squares in Europe.  There seems to be a lot of street work taking place in the vicinity of the Hotel, with some streets blocked off and construction equipment in several places.  There seemed to be a lot of trash piles in the vicinity of the Hotel, which didn’t impress me on my first visit to the city, but the Clerk at the Hotel indicated this was a temporary situation and they would be cleaned up by morning (which they were).

There are many small restaurants (Greek, Italian) and shops in the neighborhood, including of course many shops selling the famous Belgian Chocolates.  Only a few restaurants seemed to have English menus, but others had large menus with pictures.  I suppose that’s an effective way to cover a lot of languages easily, but in my experience that usually indicates a somewhat sub-standard quality dining experience.  As it was late, I decided to stop at one of the Greek restaurants with that type of menu as it was close to the Hotel.  However, my experience there confirmed my opinion of restaurants with “picture menus”.  The food was at best mediocre and the swill they considered Wine was dreadful.  The only thing noteworthy was the price!

11 Aug. 29 - Monday

This is my first full day in Brussels, but I don’t have a lot planned as I’ll be covering many of the major sights on the Rick Steves tour.  Also, I wanted to see the Military Museum as it's not covered on the tour, but it's unfortunately closed on Mondays.  Breakfast at the Hotel was the somewhat “standard” European fare, with cold meats, cheese, breads, eggs, Croissants, fruit cocktail, Yogurt and juice.  It was a good substantial breakfast and not hard to fill up!

In order to get somewhat of an idea of the layout of the city and where the main sights are located, I decided to take one of the Hop On / Hop Off Bus tours, which lasted about two hours.  That particular tour stops at the Military Museum, which is located some distance from the Hotel.  I'll probably use the Bus again tomorrow to get to the Museum (my ticket should still be valid then).

One of the locations covered on the Bus tour is the Atomium, which was built for the 1958 World’s Fair.  It consists of a large series of enormous stainless steel globes, arranged in the pattern of an iron molecule.  Visitors can tour exhibits inside five of the nine globes, using escalators and elevators.

The remainder of my day was rather quiet, and I spent my time exploring the area around the Hotel and getting some photos.  The tour will be starting tomorrow afternoon, beginning with an introductory meeting of the group and Guide at 16:00, followed by dinner together.  The Guide visited the Hotel this afternoon and posted the usual tour notice.  I’ve already met one couple from the U.S. who will be on the tour, but the others apparently haven’t arrived yet.

11 Aug. 30 – Tuesday

Breakfast this morning consisted of about the same items as yesterday.  In addition to the Beans and Weiners, there was some kind of Ravioli.  None of it looked appetizing for breakfast fare, so I got the usual selection of cold meats, cheese, eggs and toast.

After breakfast I got my Packs organized and checked with the front desk regarding my room.  I would have to change rooms but my new room wasn’t ready yet.  I left my bags in the storage area behind the desk, and headed out touring.

I had originally planned to use my Hop On / Hop Off Bus tour ticket to get to the Military Museum, as the ticket was good for 24-hours and I still had a bit of time left.  However the driver said it would take about one and a half hours to reach the Museum, and I didn’t want to waste the time sitting on the Bus for that length of time (especially as I had ridden the whole route the previous day).  He suggested using the Metro to the Merode station which would only take a few minutes.  I decided that was a much better option.

The large arches next to the museum were easy to spot when I exited the Metro.  Admission was free, which is always nice. I started with a brief look in the WW-I section, and then headed for the aviation displays.  One of the most impressive displays in the aviation wing was the MIL-24 Hind (Russian Helicopter) that was located right at the entrance.  That’s an impressive piece of military hardware!  Most of the Museum closes for lunch from 11:45 to 13:00, but the aviation part and the Café stay open.

During my walk around the Aviation section, I had a nice chat with a girl from New Zealand (now living in Brussels) who was touring with her three boys.  I also spoke with a couple of ex-Belgian soldiers (Infantry), which was very interesting.  When the main section of the Museum re-opened, I had a brief look at the WW-I airplanes, a look at another part of the WW-I displays and then headed for the WW-II exhibits, which are in a different part of the Museum.  That was the section I enjoyed the most, as that’s the military history I’m most interested in. The displays were well done, especially the mockups of Normandy Bunkers on the “Atlantic Wall”, including the “layered” concrete appearance (they were made from plywood).

I left the Museum at about 14:00 and took the Metro back to Brussels Central.  As usual, I exited the Metro at the wrong entrance and couldn’t locate any landmarks, so I walked completely around the block until I figured out where I was.  For some reason, I still haven’t been able to locate the correct exit from the Metro station.

This afternoon is officially the start if the 11-day Rick Steves Holland & Belgium tour, so I went to the Lobby at about 15:50 to meet the rest of the group and the Guide.  The group slowly filtered in, as well as our Guide, Hildbren.  After a brief introductory talk, we started with a short orientation walk of the neighborhood, which included one of the most recognizable sites in Brussels, Mannekin Pis (unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing one of his usual costumes).  There are various stories about the origin of the little “peeing” statue, and one of the most common is that he “wetted down” a fire, thereby saving the city from being destruction.  Regardless of the real story, it does make for interesting speculation.

Our brief walking tour ended at an “old world” Pub lounge for a sample of Belgian Beers and more formal introductions of the group.  To provide some idea of the décor, the lounge had a lot of dark wood paneling, and old wood furniture, similar to something which might have been in fashion in the 1800’s.  This tour has about 19 people in total, including two couples from India.  It’s a bit smaller than expected though, as two couples weren’t able to get out of the U.S. due to the hurricanes on the east coast.  We each provided a short introduction, as did our Guide (he’s apparently a University Professor or similar, has several degrees and speaks three languages).

After the Beer tasting it was back to the Hotel for a short rest, and we headed out again at about 18:45 for a group dinner at Aux Armes de Bruxelles restaurant, which is about 75 years old and a very historic property.   The restaurant was located in an alley which we accessed through a large shopping mall similar to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan.  It’s an area that looks like a good spot for photos, so I’ll have to return later.

We were offered two choices for dinner – Salmon with Bernaise sauce and Waterzooi, which is apparently a Belgian delicacy.  It’s basically like a chicken stew with potatoes and vegetables (that’s what I had).  We were allowed two glasses of Wine, and had Chocolate Mousse and coffee for dessert.

After dinner the group dispersed somewhat but myself and a few others waited for the Guide and walked back with him.  When I entered the Hotel lobby, I was providing a few details on the RCMP to the Guide.  A girl sitting just inside the door overheard my comment, and it turned out that she’s a Diplomat from Ottawa.  She was in Belgium for a wedding, which was an elaborate affair and took place in a nearby Castle.  Guests apparently came from 29 countries for the wedding, including Afghanistan.  The Bride and Groom were also in that field, so had a lot of Diplomatic and Military friends from many countries.   After dropping my gear in the room, I walked across the street to the Flanders tourism office as they have free Wi-Fi which can be picked up outside the building (which is closed for the night).  The Guide mentioned that helpful fact out to the group, as the Hotel charges €5.00 per hour for internet time, so doing any meaninful work becomes expensive in a hurry!  We’ll be starting our day tomorrow with a walking tour with a local Guide at 09:00.

11 Aug. 31 - Wednesday

The group met in front of the Hotel shortly before 09:00 and we met the local Guide, Christian.  We proceed to take a tour of the Grand Place and other local sights, ending near the Mannekin Pis (who is still not wearing any costumes – I was hoping that he’d be wearing an elaborate outfit today).  We then took a break for lunch and the Guide recommended that I try Stoemp avec Saucisse, and a Leffe Beer (he indicated this would cover my “essential Brussels experience”).  The dish consisted of mashed potatoes with carrots and other vegetables mixed in (which is the Stoemp part), and a large sausage.  It was a very good lunch, but very filling!

After lunch the group met in a nearby square and we proceeded to a tour of the National Museum of Fine Arts.  This particular tour was provided by employees of the Museum, and lasted about two hours.  After that it was back to the Hotel for a much needed rest.  I went out again at about 16:00 for a coffee at Exti, a nearby snack bar.  It’s become my favourite spot for coffee as it has nice atmosphere, great background music and the staff are very nice.

Our next activity for the evening was another Beer tasting session at a well know local Pub.  It was a bit of a walk but eventually we arrived. We learned that the Pub was apparently a “crack house” before it was renovated.  We were served three different types of Beer along with some bread and a type of cream cheese spread.  The last Beer, Kriek had a distinctive red colour and somewhat of a cherry flavor.  The tasting session lasted about an hour and after that the group was free for the night.

I considered several different ideas for dinner, but after walking through the restaurant row which is accessed through the shopping arcade, nothing appealed to me. Everything seemed so expensive and I wasn’t really in the mood for a large “sit down” meal with wine and all the usual extras.  Also, at each restaurant I passed, the staff would come out and try to encourage me to sit down.  The tactic was annoying, so that was another reason I didn’t want to stop there as it seemed too “touristy”.  I was tired and just wanted something “quick”.   I eventually went to Subway for my “usual”, and then next door to Exti for a coffee and finally back to the Hotel.

My final activity for the night was to return to restaurant row for some photos.  The light had changed so the scene was now much more interesting.  I walked back and forth and got what I hope are some interesting photos.  I also got a short video of a Gypsy band playing outside of the restaurant where we dined last night (they didn’t ask for a donation but I gave them one anyway, as that’s the custom and only fair if I’m photographing them).  I’ve included a short video of one of their performances.

On the way back to the Hotel, I noticed a large group with the Guide holding an umbrella above his head.  I spoke with a few of the people and it turned out that they were a Russian tour group (although one of them was from Toronto).

This is our last night in Brussels, and we’ll be leaving for Bruges right after breakfast in the morning.  The usual departure time on Rick Steves tours is often 09:00, although earlier departures are sometimes used depending on circumstances.

One reminder regarding the photos.  If you "click" on the photos, they will enlarge and the caption will appear. This will also indicate which ones are videos rather than photos.


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Comments

Glenn Schultz on

I can't believe the detail you write Ken. I feel I'm taking the trip with you. I enjoy it all especially the bit on the royal yacht Britannia. I also always wondered what the train trip was like in the Chunnel and what Europe is really like since I've never been there. Looking forward to the next installment.

Alfred and Kathie on

Ken, we are both enjoying your trip again. We are jealous. Looking forward to the next installment.

wayne on

well done Ken...reading this; I feel as if I am walking down the sidewalks. Really look forward to the next trip in Brugge

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