We would like to dedicate this blog to the people of Belgium and especially to those who so very sadly perished or have been injured both physically and mentally by the recent terrorist atrocities committed in Brussels. You are in our thoughts and prayers. Belgium is a beautiful country, the folk there so very friendly, welcoming….. a great sense of humour too.
Wednesday 21/1/16 – Warsaw to Brussels
Our main purpose for visiting Belgium was to catch up with friends Kristel, Marc and Noor, for Noor’s 3rd birthday. They live is Beezel which is around 45km north of Brussels.
The Ryan Air flights are so very cheap, $52.00 return / each. (Anecdotally, it costs us around $40.00 to fill the bike with fuel!) There was snow on the ground as we left Warsaw and the view of the white countryside was spectacular from the air.
In absolute contrast, when we flew into Charleroi airport, which is about an hour from Brussels, there was not a snow flake to be seen. It was a one hour bus ride from the airport to Brussels and a half hour walk to find our hotel.
Initial impressions were not good, however that changed once we arrived in the old town. As we walked we noticed the streets looked rather grubby and littered. There were a lot of men who seemed to be ‘just hanging around’ in groups too, which was a little intimidating to say the least. Once in the Old town however it was quite different. The streets were much cleaner, brighter and the overall atmosphere much more friendy.
Span does a great job booking all the travel and accommodation on line before we leave, although I must admit sometimes the accommodation can be wellllll…. a little bit dodgy, but this time the Hotel Aris was a winner as it was right in the centre of Brussels, just a minute’s walk to the old market square.
First stop was the tourist information where we found there was to be a Red Umbrella walking tour at 2pm. It was 15 minutes to 2, so we hastily dropped our bags at the hotel and headed back to the square with 5 minutes to spare.
The tour guide (Senna Rees) was excellent. Very animated, passionate and knowledgeable, not only about Brussels, but his homeland Belgium in general. We spent a fabulous few hours walking the streets listening, looking and learning. The old buildings with the varied architecture and the gardens etc were a delight to see; and all amply embellished by Senna’s great story telling. There was a strong security presence in all areas with armed soldiers and police constantly patrolling.
The old market square also known as the Grand Place or Grote Markt, has as Senna put it, ‘an eclectic mix of Baroque, Louis XIV and Gothic buildings, which in 1998 earned it a listing as one of UNESCOs Sites of World Heritage’. It truly is a most beautiful square with a mix of public and private buildings dating back to the 17th century.
It was remarkable to be standing there looking at the beautifully ornate and complex buildings; some so intricate that they look like they were adorned with lace, rather than being sculptured from stone.
One of Brussels main attractions is Mannekin Pis or Little pee man. This small bronze statue is but 61cm tall, and as the name suggests it is of a little boy urinating. The statue was first presented to the city back around 1618 and was used as a fountain to distribute drinking water at that time. He has been stolen many times over the years, so the one on exhibition is a replica, with the original safely kept in a nearby museum.
Mannekin Pis is quite the character. The city of Brussels website tells us that he is the ‘emblem of the rebellious spirit of Brussels.’ As he is no longer needed to distribute drinking water, his role is is now one of a ‘local identity’ if you will. Mannequin Pis is dressed up regularly in different costumes. The records for this date back to the mid 18th century, although he was only dressed up 4 times per year way back then. Senna said he has almost 1000 different costumes today, and even has a schedule for wearing the costumes; on the day we visited however, he was butt naked!
At times he is even hooked up to a keg of beer and people fill their glasses from him as he ???????.. what a laugh! So unique is this little man to Brussels that he features highly in souvenir shops and at different places throughout the city. The cork screws were pretty cute!!!
Senna told us that it is easy to pick the tourists by the waffles they eat! Tourist have all the toppings, whereas the locals have just plain or chocolate. So we decided on a plain waffle. Initially we were going to share one, BUT they were so good that after the first bite…. sharing was out of the question!
On the tour we met a terrific couple (Cathy and Neil) from Australia…. it is not hard to pick THAT accent! They are from Sydney…. not that we hold that against them!! We got to chatting and decided to meet for a ‘well deserved beer’ after the tour.
Well the one beer became two, and we spent a great hour or so chatting and enjoying the wonderful Belgian beers. We each chose a different one, so we could do a taste test. The Trappist beers were an absolute winner. Each beer is served in its own branded and shaped glass. the wide open glasses designed to allow for the best taste and aromas from the beer. It is amazing how sometimes one just clicks with complete strangers and you part with the distinct feeling that the meeting was meant to be.
We had just the one night in Brussels as we were going to Beezel the next day, so we walked the streets until it was time for dinner.
We found a lovely little restaurant for dinner; Span had a mixed grill and I had the biggest pot of mussels and fritz, which were just superb! All this was washed down by a very welcome Trappist beer – Chimay Blue! It will be a week of fasting before we get back on the poor old Vstrom at this rate!!!!
After dinner, it was leisurely couple of hours spent walking the streets to see more of Brussels by night. The Old market square was simply dazzling, the wet cobblestones providing such a glimmering effect!
Friday 22/1/16 to 25/1/16
We were to catch the 2pm train to Mechelen (about 15 minutes from Beezel) where Marc was to pick us up, so there was plenty of time for more walking / sightseeing, and waffles before leaving. As we walked, Marc who is a teacher, sent a picture with him and his students in a cooking lesson. What a great pic, all so very happy.
It was so good to see Kristel, Marc and Noor again. They had a special Belgian dinner planned for us….. Stew and Fritz (fries). Marc tells us that French fries should be called Belgian fries because they originate here.
What a feast we had.. Firstly John and Marc peeled a whole bag of potatoes, which prompted the question… ‘Who else is coming?” to which Marc casually replied…. ‘No, it is just us’. WOW! The bag of spuds cut up to two HUGE bowls of chip potatoes, which I thought we could not eat in a ‘pink fit’; how wrong that thought turned out to be!
Next came the special 2 phase cooking process … hope we have it right Marc! The chip potatoes are firstly cooked in hot oil for a few minutes so as to make the potato light and fluffy on the inside. The temperature of the oil is then raised to boiling so as to make them golden brown and crisp on the outside ……and behold….. Belgian Fritz! Kristell had prepared a most scrumptious Belgian stew, so we sat down to stew n Fritz, and yes we ate almost all the fritz!
The next day was Noor’s birthday, so it was all systems go. We were in for another treat of traditional Belgian food…. meat balls with cherry sauce. Marc supervised the rolling of the meat balls to ensure they were the correct size and weight. What fun we had both in the preparation and the celebration.
Noor’s birthday cake was made by the students at Marc’s school and again WOW, how clever they are. Kristell set a beautiful table, and a good time was had by all.
All in all we spent a few most enjoyable days with Kristel, Marc, Noor, their family and friends, and as always it is hard to say goodbye.
However Noor had one last surprise for us.. a most unique way to put on her overcoat.
Tuesday 26/1/16 to 27/1/16 – Back to Brussels
The number of beggars in Brussels was remarkable, in fact ‘it beggars belief’. 😀😀😀 We felt they were perhaps in two categories, those who are simply homeless (mostly men of various ages) and ‘the professionals’. The latter being gypsies, who invariably had a child in tow, and at all times of the day or night. They would walk up to you shaking a cup vigorously, jingling some coins they had. Funny… one did not feel they were in great need when one observed the gold some were wearing. Span was tempted to say … ‘thankyou’ to the proffered cup and take some, but he never did. Would have loved to see the reaction if he did!!
We had a day and a half in Brussels, just enough time to go to Waterloo and the Atomium.
It was train and bus to Waterloo (getting very good with public transport now), and we spent a good part of the day there. It was most certainly time very well spent. Once again we found ourselves standing in a place of such historical significance……. only this time humming Abba’s… ‘Waterloo……
We toured the Wellington museum, climbed the Lion mound and also went to Hougoumont Farm, the western end of the allied line where Napoleon opened hostilities.
After visiting the brilliant, interactive Wellington museum, complete with re-enactment films, it was not hard to imagine the formations of soldiers and cavalry as well as the bloodied and terrible battle that took place at Waterloo. Wellington put it so very well ….. “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”.
We came away with a very good understanding of this bloody battle that lasted but one day (9.5 hours some say) and during which around 50,000 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The 50m high ‘Lion mound’ is made up of soil taken from the actual battle field. Five years after Waterloo it was constructed by order of King William 1 of the Netherlands to honour his son, the Prince of Orange who was injured there during the battle.
The mound took 3 years to construct, with over 10 million cubic feet of dirt being shifted by hand. Sadly hundreds of corpses were disturbed during this process. Some 2000 labourers, 600 horses and hundreds of carts dug up the valley south of Waterloo to achieve this task. In doing so they changed the landscape so much so that on a return visit in 1827, Wellington is quoted as saying “they have ruined my battlefield”. Perhaps this was because the Bridge of Mont St Jean that the Allied army had fought so hard to defend had been built over. ( our thanks to the Waterloo200 website for this information).
The lion that sits high atop the mound is the symbol of both the Dutch and British Royal families and in this place it symbolises the victory on this battlefield. Ironically the Lion is facing France. Some say that this triumphant lion standing with his right paw on the globe symbolises global victory over the French. However in the words of the architect it “announces the peace that Europe has won in the plains of Waterloo”.
We climbed the 226 rather steep steps up to the top of the Lion mound, and the view was simply spectacular. We were seeing it in winter and could only imagine how beautifully different it would be in the other three seasons. There was a board at the top that depicted the positioning of the troops on the battlefield that also sparked our imaginations of the ferocious and bloody battle waged here.
The farm at Hougoumont was where Napoleon initially concentrated his efforts. It was a bloodied battle with around 5,500 troops (from both sides) dead or injured. As well as injuries from musket and canon fire etc, many suffered horrific burns as the buildings and haystacks burned from the pitch and oil filled carcasses that were fired from the French Howitzers.
One story we read was about the small chapel where injured British soldiers were taking shelter. When fire came through the doorway and the feet of the 16th century crucifix started to burn, the fire suddenly abated. This is considered the first miracle attributed to the crucifix. The restored crucifix was stolen in 2011 and not found until 2014. It was very badly damaged, with the surviving leg from the initial fire missing. The second miracle attributed to this crucifix is that the beautiful head of Christ was undamaged.
Today the farm is peaceful, tranquil and very beautiful, with the sun shining brightly when we visited. Indeed there is a feeling of calm as one looks out across the land surrounding the farm. Stark comparison to the cold, wet weather of the battle day that history describes. Interestingly, it was actively farmed until 2003. There were a number of memorials both to British and French soldiers, some with small wreaths or crosses with a poppy, left to remember them.
The Lion Mound was clearly visible from Hougoumont farm and it was an amazing feeling to be peering through gun holes in the wall. One can only imagine the myriad of feelings and sounds the soldiers felt and heard as they saw thousands of French soldiers advancing on the walls through these small square holes. The feelings of those atop the wall would not have been much better one suspects.
The presentation in the old barn was so very clever. There were three large white boards with a different relief on each. They looked like a white plaster mould. As the show began, they were draped in different colours and placed in different angles to depict the story of the battle . It was quite remarkable and well worth the look.
The sun was beginning to set as we made out way out of Hougoumont farm, so calm, peaceful and warm today compared to the 18th of June 1815.
Our last afternoon and evening in Brussels was once again spent walking; trying to take in a s much as possible. The brilliant blue evening sky making a brilliant backdrop for pictures.
Next morning, we had just enough time to go to see the Atomium, a short train ride from the main city. The Atomium was built to be the centre piece of the 1958 Brussels World fair, or Expo ’58; by popular demand has remained a popular tourist destination.
At 102 m high it is (according to the Atomium website) … “A seminal totem in the Brussels skyline; neither tower, nor pyramid, a little bit cubic, a little bit spherical, half-way between sculpture and architecture, a relic of the past with a determinedly futuristic look, museum and exhibition centre. The Atomium is, at once, an object, a place, a space, a Utopia and the only symbol of its kind in the world, which eludes any kind of classification.” Indeed when we were in Mechelen in August, John, Kristel and Marc climbed the church bell tower and it was visible from there, some 30 km away.
The Atomium is the shape of an elementary iron crystal, only 165 billion times bigger. There are 9 interconnecting spheres, five of which, spread over 8 levels are open to the public. The steel cladding makes it stand out brilliantly. The lift operator tells us it is the fastest lift in Europe, travelling at 5m/sec. When the Atomium opened it also had the longest escalator (35m) in Europe.
It was a very windy when we went up and at one stage the whole section in which we were sanding was moving quite noticeably. It felt like the images one sees of a building moving in an earthquake.
From the Atomium it was back to the hotel to collect our bags before heading to Brussels airport for our flight back to Warsaw, with more wonderful memories for our ever growing memory banks!