One day in Brussels

Trip Start Nov 09, 2007
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Trip End Feb 03, 2008


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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Our next morning started much as the one that went before, with us waiting on the street for a car that didn't come on time. I had allowed a 30 minute buffer for making our check in time and had even checked in online but the %$%^$ car company used all of this up. Booked for 6:30am the car turned up at 7 with no explanation or apology. Asking the driver very politely why he was so late merely brought a shrug of the shoulders. I was getting very sick of being stressed trying to make planes, trains and buses.
As it turned out we were in time for our flight and spent the last of our crowns on an expensive and lousy cup of airport coffee. We were flying from Prague to Lisbon via Brussels and had 6 hours in Brussels between flights. After our successful sortie into Belgrade earlier in our trip we were confident that we could have a good time in Brussels too.
The woman at the tourist information desk in Brussels Airport was incredibly helpful, telling us of the various attractions and mapping out a walking circuit for us. I had read online about a flea market that I thought would be interesting and she showed us how to get there.
We caught the train to Brussels-Zuid to visit the daily flea market on Jeu de Balle. We found a sprawling mess of stall holders displaying their wares mainly on tarpaulins or rugs on the ground. There was furniture, clothes, picture frames, ceramics, old coins and badges, jewellery; anything and everything in fact. It was amazing. Despite the onset of a fine drizzle, which resulted in a number of the stalls being covered with plastic, we poked around there for over an hour. Georgie bought a small brass box that the stall holder assured us was very old. Maggie bought a small brass coloured fork that another stall holder assured us was silver - 'just needs a polish' she gestured to us.
We had spent too much time at the flea market, yet not enough but it was time to move on, radically pruning our identified walking route now. We walked to the main square, along the way passing something called - Maneken Pis - statue in the wall of a small boy peeing. Apparently this is a Brussels landmark, so we took a picture. The main square is very impressive, with elaborately decorated buildings all around. Just around the corner is a chocolate museum. Belgium claims to have invented chocolate as we know it today and this museum was one that I did not have to convince the girls they would enjoy. The displays were interesting and the chocolate making demonstration held the girls' attention like no other could.
One the way to the station to catch the train back we called into three or four different chocolate shops. 'Try our chocolate fondue' we were invited. We did. 'Try some free samples' said another. We did. And so it went on.
Thanks to the very good map we had been given we found that train station easily and jumper on the train back to the airport.
All in all, a very successful day trip to Brussels.
When we reached the airport we had plenty of time to spare and needed to get some food before the flight, as we had the cheap tickets on Air Brussels and this means no food. We found a pub in the airport and I had a beer and a hotdog and some free bar snacks and I was full. Jess and the girls had some pastries and hot chocolate/coffee and we were ready to get on our flight.
We shared the flight with a sporting team of some kind. Evidently they need to travel with a snare drum which needed to be beaten at regular intervals before and after the flight. Mercifully the drum had a sleep on the actual flight, but some of the team members decided to have a bit of a jog on the plane. It was all in good fun though and when we asked them what sport it was they consulted each other as to the English translation and told us 'Curve ball'. Now, I've never heard of it but they assured me that Australia has a national team.
We went to the baggage carousel to collect our things. They all came through except mine. We waited - no bag. The sign on the carousel said that all the bags from that flight had now been unloaded so there was nothing for it but to go and report it missing. To my horror when I tried to find the baggage tag for the missing bag I didn't have one. My heart sank. There was no way my bag would get to me now. The woman on the other side of the desk had a different opinion to me though. We will find your bag and return it to you soon she told me confidently. OK then.
I paid a quick stop at the ATM to get some money only to find that it would only issue me with a maximum of 200 euros. I later learned that this is some kind of rule in Portugal and no ATM will issue more than 200 euros in a single transaction.
We went from there to the taxi rank and jumped in to a waiting chariot. The driver had no English - not a scrap and so I had to show him the map of where we were going before we could get underway.  The driver chatted with me in great detail in Portuguese, about what I have no idea, but his ramblings were interspersed with a hacking cough that sent shudders through me. I'm pretty sure that at one point he coughed up one of his lungs, but he must have swallowed it back down again, because he recommenced his diatribe soon after.
When we got near it was pretty clear he had no idea where he was taking us. He got pretty close then wound down his window and asked some of the people standing around the square. Despite appearing to be locals, they appeared to have no idea where Beco da Lapa wa either. I knew we were pretty close so I told the driver we would get out here. The fare on the meter said 7.35 euro and 1.60 in extras - presumably for the bags. The driver proceeded to press some button on the meter which wiped out the fare. The meter was blank, but when he pressed a button on it the meter displayed the number 1199 which the driver tried to tell me was the fare.
Now, I know it was only a matter o 3 euro, but I knew this wasn't the correct fare and I don't like this kind of practice. So I told him this was not the fare and he got very agitated and assured me it was. We had a slanging match where we both threatened to go to the police. He wanted to drive away with us still in the car and told me to shut the door. I was having none of this and refused, telling Jess and the girls to get out of the car. We got our luggage out of the boot and I paid him 10 euros which he accepted and drove off. The various people witnessing this little episode appeared most amused.
We walked up the hill in the direction of Beco da Lapa, asking anyone we passed if they knew where it was. I had a map that clearly showed where it is, but if you know the Alfama district of Lisbon at all you will know that a map can often be of little help at all.
We eventually found it wand found number 24. I buzzed for Flat 3 and the door unlatched. I open the door to what appeared to be a ladder. A stairway rose almost vertically before us. At this point I was almost glad we had one less bag - the heaviest to lug up three flights.
The apartment itself is lovely, with windows to the street and plenty of room. Perhaps the only complaint I have is that there is only seating in the lounge area for 2 people, despite being an apartment for 4 to 5 people.
The first thing that all of us noticed about Lisbon was how lovely and warm it is. It was so nice to be able to take a walk outside without putting on hats, scarves, thermals, coats etc etc. We went for a walk around the neighbourhood, soaking up the atmosphere of the Alfama district. This area is famous as the birthplace of fado music, a melancholy form of singing that is distinctly Lisbon. A quick stroll around our apartment revealed numerous fado bars and restaurants.
We decided to eat al fresco - what a delight! We chose a restaurant in a pretty courtyard where we had some delicious grilled salmon. The restaurants here are a bit more expensive than I had expected, with main courses in most of the places here costing around 10-15 euros. Still, for salmon at least, this is good value. Perhaps a little bit too much for grilled chicken.
We finished our meal and returned to our apartment. It was nearly 11 pm by this point and we were all dead on our feet.
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