Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chocolate, Frities and Waffels!

Cat and I at the Belfry Tower in Bruges
Part of studying abroad is living cheaply, and so when I travel I never have any expectations of where I go. How I determine my weekend plans is scanning for the cheapest flights on Ryan Air. As Cat says, it should be every college students bookmarks on their computer. This is how I came across Brussels. I can’t even remember the price of the plane tickets, all I can remember is it was cheaper than an expensive restaurant in Florence.

Brussels was my last weekend vacation with my travel buddies. What a better way to end it in the Capital of Europe. Brussels is where the European Union has its main base of operation and NATO head quarters. There are 40,000 EU employees and 4,000 NATO employees as well. Brussels is one of the most international cities in the world and 27% of the population is made up of foreigners. Geographically speaking Belgium is separated into three regions due to the differences in language. Most people who live in Belgium speak French or Dutch. People who speak Dutch commonly reside in Flanders—the North. People who speak French live in the South, which is considered the Wallonia region. Then there is Brussels and that is known as the bilingual region. However, there is a small area called Ardennes, where German speakers live, however this is not an official region. Much culture and government was soaked in during my four day stay.

Because I was traveling North of Italy, I was afraid of bad weather. Bad weather equals delays and I have been so lucky not to encounter any. My luck continued, because there weren’t any delays. However, once I landed there was a ton of snow. This time I was fully prepared. I call my Brussels visit MY half time. The first half time was in Germany, as I had underestimated how cold it was going to be. This time in Brussels, I brought every piece of warm clothing I owed. I can’t tell you how much money I have spent on socks, and extra gloves because I thought it wasn’t going to be cold. Despite all my preparation the weather was still cold, but at least I had warmer clothes. There was a bus to take in order to reach the heart of the city and there were 50 people waiting and only 40 seats. You better believe I got my game face on. I grabbed my travel buddy’s hand, Cat, and I pushed ourselves to the front so we could get on the bus. If I hadn’t, I am sure I would have found ourselves waiting in the cold for the next bus. That idea alone was enough for me to push myself to the front. I guess I’m becoming a true Italian, or for that fact a European because no one seems to follow how Americans regard waiting in line. If you want it, push for it!

The bus dropped us at the main train station. By the time we arrived I was so cold and hungry that Cat knew the only thing would make me happy and satisfied again would be hot chocolate. Let me tell you, Brussels knows how to make hot chocolate. I had hot chocolate with a mountain of whip cream and milk chocolate drizzled on the top. Too good to be true! Finally on our last tip, I got Cat to try the chocolate side rather than the coffee side. Life is always brighter when hot chocolate is involved.
I highly recommend if you are staying more than two days in Brussels you should get the three-day metro pass. It was under ten Euros. The pass saved us a lot of time and money. From the train station we found our hostel. From the freezing cold and into the hot hostel I couldn’t have been happier. HOWEVER, be careful what I wish for because at night they jacked the heater up so high I felt I was in hell. It was AWFUL! You know it’s bad when you wake up at 3:45am and count down until you can get up.  The heat had woken me and I felt I was a dragon with fire breath. I honestly considered taking my pillow into the hallway so I could sleep. I drank water and even though I drank three bottles, I woke up dehydrated. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt that way because in the morning, I talked to three other girls who also slept in the same room and they felt as if they had died of heat stroke. On the last day we discovered we could have opened the window…GOOD GRIEF!

To my surprise Brussels also has a Christmas market! Each year it is located at Place Sainte Catherine and the Marche aux Possions. Although this Christmas market wasn’t as big as the one in Frankfurt, there was a FERRIS WHEEL! Live in the moment my friends, live in the moment! Of course I went on and it wasn’t until I reached the top did I remember my fear of heights. I must admit the view was impeccable. Also included at the market was an ice rink. Christmas markets are amazing in Europe. I wish the United States would adopt the concept more widely.  Tons of people gather for the same reason, to experience the Christmas season. Whether a person is looking for presents, cookies, children’s entertainment, date night, food, hot wine, or just a place to watch life enfold, Christmas markets have a lot to offer anyone.

The next morning we went to Atomium. This sculpture or rather architecture was built in 1958 when Brussels hosted the World’s Fair.  The Atomium is modeled after a crystallized molecule of iron magnified 150 thousand million times. In the Atomium are escalators and an elevator to navigate between each of the spheres. I must admit when I saw this on the top attractions to visit, I almost passed up the opportunity, but the hotel receptionist insisted we went and I’m glad we listened. It would have been embarrassing to have gone to Brussels and never went to the Atomium. As we arrived it began to snow! Snow never gets old to me, it just is cold.
Inside the elevator going up!
Right next to the Atomium is Mini Europe. 80 cities and 350 mini buildings are represented in the park. I have a feeling it’s for children, but it was entertaining to say the least. It was so cold; the little ponds were frozen over.
Kicking it with Pisa
Went to Paris
I even saw Berlin Wall
The rest of the day was spent wandering around Brussels with our map. We got lost quite a few times, but in between navigation, we always stumbled across something unexpectedly. One of the most beautiful Roman Catholic churches I ventured into was Cathedralis SS. Michaelis et Gudulae, located at Treurenbery hill.  As the church is located in the capital, it is often used for Catholic ceremonies of national interest such as royal marriages and state funerals. Upon entering, photos hung all around of royal marriages that had taken place in the church years prior.

 I also came across St. Jacque’s Church at the Coundenbrh which is also known as the Royal Parish Principal Church of the Diocese of the Belgian Armed Forces. This church was built between 1776 and 1787.

Cat and I of course had to see the Royal Palace of Brussels. It is the official palace of the King of the Belgians in Brussels; however it is not used as a royal residence as the king and his family live in the Royal Castle of Laeken which is on the outskirts of Brussels. The palace is situated in front of the Brussels Park. I am lucky to have picked my semester in the fall because every European country I visited has had the change of the season and I am lucky to capture what I see by photos.

Of course at night, I had to get waffles, chocolate and fries. How could I not!  Chocolate is one of Belgium’s prominent industries and there are hundreds of chocolate shops scattered throughout the city. The praline is a well-known chocolate masterpiece that was created by Jean Neuhaus in 1912. The praline is a piece of chocolate filled with various mixtures of nuts, fruits and more chocolate.  Nonetheless, every time I was able to get my hands on a piece of chocolate I splurged.  After I ate something sweet, I had to have something salty, and so I had to have fries. Fries in Brussels are called frities, NOT French fries or chips. The best places to eat them are at snack food trolleys. The traditional sauce is samourai which is a spicy mayonnaise and chili combination (no thank you), mayonnaise, and frities special with fried onions.  It seemed like everyone was raving about the frities and so I had to try some. Shortly afterwards I had a craving for something sweet and so I had to have a waffle. 

On one of the evenings, we ventured to The Grand Place. It is Brussels most famous landmarks. The Place is home of some of the city’s most beautiful and iconic buildings including City Town Hall. The City Town Hall may be the focal point, but the buildings around are just as eye appealing. In the center a huge Christmas tree stood, and on the City Town Hall a light show projected onto the building along with music. The show would come on almost every 15 minutes. I look on in awe, it’s amazing how each country has its own traditions in celebrating Christmas.

From The Grand Palace, a three minute walk away was the Manneken Pis. You all know him as the peeing boy and I never really understood the fascination of this tiny statue. The statue of this small boy is on the corner of Rue de l’Etuve/Stoofstraat and Rue de hene/Eikstraat. The history behind this sculpture is unclear. One story is it was built to commemorate a battle where the infant Duke Godfrey II of Leuven urinated on the troops of the Berthouts prompting them to lose the battle. But then again I’m no history major.
The next day Cat recommended we travel to Bruges. And (NO) I didn’t go because of the 2008 movie, In Bruges, with Coin Farrell. I have actually never seen it and was only informed because of the two other guys we were traveling with. Bruges is called, “The Venice of the North.” It is a medieval city and is one of Beligum’s crown jewels. Bruges is the capital of the Belgian providence of the West-Flanders. It is only an hour and 10 Euro train trip away from Brussels. Bruges is unique in the sense that the town authorities have done the utmost to preserve the medieval-looking image of the city. However I was sad to see a section of the town had been tainted by the modern world of corporate shops such as H&M… actually two H&M shops exist within a mile of each other. But once I was able to ignore the modern add ons, it’s a beautiful city.

From the short time I was there, I saw many people using bicycles as a form of transportation. I was lucky again because there was Christmas market and like Brussels an ice skating rink. I was almost tempted to go ice skating but then the guys wanted to climb the Belfry tower.

The medieval tower has 366 steps to reach the top. You better believe I climbed to the top! Better than a stair master any day! It was a sight I will remember forever. From my experience, the best views in the cities are always from the top. So I always search for the highest peak to sightsee.
It could have ended very badly if I had fallen

My time in Bruges was short and sweet…sweet is a good way to put things. I found my ultimate chocolate shop that best describes me.  I wish I spent more time in Bruges but I feel like that everywhere I go. It’s just never enough… I guess I’m becoming a bit greedy.

On the flight back to Italy, I was lucky enough to fly over the Swiss Alps and see a blanket of snow on the mountain tops. Too bad I don’t have enough time to go skiing… maybe I’ll find a way, if I’m lucky.

Till next time,
Roamin’ Roman

1 comment:

  1. In Bruges was a good movie; however Ralph Fiennes was the better actor.