Sunday, March 1, 2009

Thanks...I mean,, wait. CRAP. Merci beaucoup!

Before I get to Brussels, let me tell you about the night before, Thursday night. My new friend, Aubrey is a member of the Christian Union here at UCLan, and she invited a bunch of us to a free dinner they were putting on. I don't pass up free food, and neither does Jori, lol. So we all sat a table with people we didn't know and they quizzed us about life in America (I didn't know it was so fascinating). We covered school systems and where we all lived. I knew Aubrey was from Missouri, but I didn't know she was only half an hour from Kansas City. I made the mistake of mentioning that I had been to KC recently for the American Royal (she had no idea what that was). All of the British people at the table pounced on it. What in heaven's name is the American Royal (I suppose this sounds oxymoronic, American + Royal...)? Well, I explained, its a livestock show. Livestock? Yes, livestock. Sighing, I explained that in the US, I'm an animal science major. No, I don't want to be a vet. Well, what do you want to do, then? Research, probably. You mean animal testing? *Facepalm* This is why I hate explaining myself over here. It's opens the door to awkward questions and even more awkward looks.

Apparently word got around that there were three Americans in the room. A group several tables over set out to name all 50 states, if we could name three counties in England. I was actually quite impressed, they got about 43! However, they spelled Massachusetts horrendously wrong and thought Columbia was a state. Of course, the counties were a cinch, I can name about 8 (Wanna see? Derbyshire [Mr. Darcy], Yorkshire [Brönte sisters, pigs], Cheshire [cats, pigs], Hampshire [sheep, pigs], Dorset [sheep], Berkshire [pigs], Lancashire [where I'm at now...], and Hartfordshire [Elizabeth Bennet]. Aren't you impressed?).

Anyway, I finally got to bed that night. We got up bright and early, trudged to the rail station and got to Manchester Airport with no problem. We made our flight in plenty of time and got to Brussels about 11AM (they're GMT +1, an hour ahead of England). We flew with RyanAir, a European discount airline. Discount airlines don't usually use the main airport in the city, its typically a regional airport, farther away from the city itself. This is how they rip you off. Charleroi Airport (the one we flew into) is a 45 minute coach ride into the city of Brussels. It cost 13 euros to use the coach one way. Good grief. We grudgingly paid this (we couldn't very well walk, after all), and got to the Gare du Midi station on the south end of Brussels. I was armed with a map I got at the aiport and we set off in search of our hostel, on the north end of the city. Katie was under the impression that we would forfeit our beds if we showed up past noon. I was skeptical, but we decided to attempt the Brussels Metro system in favor of walking to the other side of town. Fortunately, its really cheap and we found a very nice woman at the ticket station that spoke English and directed us to where we needed to go.

We got to the hostel fine, after realizing that all the street signs, I mean ALL of them, are in both French and Flemish (or German, I'm not positive). We dropped our backpacks off and set out in search of the Grand Place (creative, I know), which is the main square in the heart of the city. Along the way, we found the Place du Martyrs (Martyr Plaza, rougly).

Place du Martyrs

Kinda a crappy day for sight-seeing, but welcome to Northern Europe.

The Grand Place is reputed to be one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe. It doesn't disappoint in terms of scale and oppulence.
We were really hungry by then, so we looked for somewhere to eat nearby. Europe is handy because most places post their menu with prices outside, so you can decide if you want to eat there or not. We managed to find a cafe close by. So we got inside, had a closer look at the menu and it was ALL IN FRENCH. Not that I was surprised, but I thought being halfway fluent in another Romance language would help. Nope. Not at all. So we cast our fate to the winds and ordered in French. I wound up with a ham and cheese pannini thing (jambon et fromage), which was quite good, and warm wine (vin chaud) which was gross. Belgium doesn't have the smoking ban that the UK does, so it was VERY smokey in the restaurant. And every. single. person. had a beer. No kidding.
After we finished up, we walked around the Grand Place some more and found a store solely dedicated to BEER, lots and lots of beer.
A girl I met Thursday night recommended I try a raspberry beer, and assured me it was "quite lovely." I got some. It wasn't. We continued to walk around the city centre-ish area. We found a waffle vendor, and I got a waffle with chocolate syrup.
The Grand Place is famous for it's incredibly intricate façades. Have a look at this:

Behind the Grand Place.

The whole place is cobblestone! Everywhere!
There is a really great shopping center near the Grand Place. It has a lot of higher end stores, but also chocolateries and lace stores. Brussels is famous for its lace, but I had no idea what to get as a souvenir. So I didn't get any. By this time, it was about 3ish and the combination of walking a lot and getting up really early prompted us to go back to the hostel for a nap. We got out again around 5 to get something to eat. Again, we cast our fate to the winds and ordered in French again. I got a ham sandwich with pesto (only it didn't have pesto...odd).
We did manage to see the Manneken Pis Friday. The picture is self explanatory.
Don't ask me why this is a cultural landmark. Totally underwhelming.
Katie and I had been talking about how we were going to get to the airport on Sunday morning. As far as we could tell, the coach that got us into Brussels started running at 8:30 AM, which wouldn't work because our flight left at 7:20. So we decided we would cancel our reservation at the hostel for Saturday, go to the airport the night before and hang out/doze off until our flight the next morning. We got back from dinner and told the lady at the desk our predicament and she told us that we were insane. Well, not in so many words. Apparently the coach left at 4:30AM and would get us to the airport in plenty of time. So she ordered us a cab to get us to the station at 4AM and we got to sleep in a decent bed Saturday night. YAY!
We got up fairly early Saturday morning to begin our full day of Brussels. The hostel had a free, if spartan, breakfast and we partook of that before we started our sight seeing. I figured out that it would be easiest if we started on the south end of Brussels and moseyed along to the north end throughout the day. Because we had conquered the Belgian Metro system the day before, we took it to the Louiza station, just outside the Palais de Justice, which is where we officially began. The Palais de Jusice is the Law Courts of Belgium. It is supposedly the largest secular building constructed in the 19th century. It is rather huge, but currently undergoing renovations, so there was a lot of scaffolding in the way.
Neat view of the city from the Palais de Justice.

It was totally open, no one inside. Lots of grafitti on some of the stone.

The Palais de Justice is a short walk from the Royal Palace (the Belgian royal family's "official" residence, but not their regular residence, go figure). So we walked there next, and to the large gardens there.
Impressive, huh?

Our next stop was St. Michael's Cathedral. They began to build it in 1305 and finished up in the 1500s some time.
Now THAT is what I call an altar.

St. Michael himself killing a lizard of some kind.
We made our way back towards the city centre and found what I had been looking for all along:

Need I say more? I will anyway: they were EXPENSIVE. But I enjoyed every bite.
Mission accomplished.
Belgium is big on their comics (dunno why...). There was something comic-related going on, but neither Katie nor I could figure out what.
We went back to the beer store and as I wanted to bring back some stuff for my college friends (hahahahahaha). Actually, just Leeann. She had requested a Belgian beer. I had quite a time explaining that I wanted a wheat beer to the woman in the store. Eventually we figured it out and I got what I wanted.
We got back to the hostel and crashed. We had an early start, after all. We got to the airport without incident. And then we got to security. I had a nasty feeling that the beer wasn't going to make it through. It didn't. The security gaurd told me that I could go back into the lobby and drink it (it was 6AM, mind you) and keep the bottle if I wanted. In the end, he dumped it out (though I'm not entirely convinced HE didn't go into the lobby and drink it himself) and gave me the bottle. I found the duty-free store past security, but they didn't have the brand I wanted. I think I can find it over here though. Not the same, though!
We made it back to Preston without incident, though we were (and still are) tired.
We decided that there isn't enough to do in Brussels to keep us occupied for a solid two days, but it was interesting nonetheless. We saw everything we wanted to see, had some great food, and even learned a teensy bit of French.
I'm having a horrendous time uploading all the pictures to photobucket. I'm working on switching them over to something else, I'll let you all know when that is!

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