First, Brussels. I did not like it.
I arrived around 7:40 pm, the sun was going down but it wasn’t dark yet. I had decided to spend a night in Brussels as a convenient stop-over between Amsterdam and France, and didn’t know what to expect. I decided to walk to my hotel, which was in the south of the city. My first impressions were neither comforting nor beautiful. Prostitutes in windows in the red light district next to the train station. Military everywhere downtown, central squares closed off around the Stock Market and the major train stations, tactical vehicles in the streets.
And then a long walk down a major road that triggered all my internal alarms. It wasn’t the languages I heard around me, or the empty bottles or the homeless refugees begging in doorways. It was the fact that there were hundreds and hundreds of men out talking, drinking tea, walking, and maybe only 20 women. I wasn’t worried, but wary, and it was very interesting to me to see what triggered my alarms. I caught up to one woman who was walking quickly and stayed about 10 feet behind her the whole rest of the way, somehow comforted by her presence. Of course no one bothered me, but it wasn’t a great introduction to a city.
I had chicken kebabs at a bbq spot on the same square as my hotel, and drank my Belgian beer slowly. Again, no women about, only men. I heard the table next to me say something about “once we get to Russia, I can get you anything you need.” Followed by whispers and sideways glances. The only laughter I heard the entire time I was in the Brussels was from three kids out at 10 pm, riding bicycles way too big for them through a water fountain. The whole place just felt weird.
In the morning I decided to give it a second chance, as if it was a date that didn’t go so well the first time. I got up early and walked back up the same long avenue to the city center. This time it felt very different; there were almost no men around, replaced by moms and kids walking to school. But again, lots of military in the city center. I had a bit of a panic after I took this photo as they all started walking my direction, but I went slowly and they ended up taking a different turn.
I found the “Grand Place,” a UNESCO world heritage site, but even that wasn’t as charming as it should have been, with police blowing whistles to direct pedestrians away from the teams of workers setting up a stage in front of the Town Hall.
I found some random old churches incorporated into modern architecture, and also found the Beguinage, although it wasn’t nearly as peaceful as the one in Lier. As I turned out of the Beguinage to make my way back to the hotel I found myself at a point where I had a straight line view of two impressive cathedrals, both blocks away. I stood for a minute where those two roads converged, and then moved along.
I took a different way back to the hotel and had to shimmy around a few trash trucks on narrow streets, and found myself walking past a prison, with armed guards stationed in front.
The one moment of joy was when I found this on a street sign, a reminder of my Camino Pilgrimage:
But later I realized it was pointing in the direction of a borough named St James, and not a marker for The Way.
All of that to say, I was over Brussels as soon as I got there.
I high-tailed it for Bruges. The woman who sat next to me on the plane from Oslo told me when she was 40 she took herself on a solo trip around Europe, and it was her favorite city that she visited. That is a good enough recommendation for me! And it lived up to its reputation. “Brugge” means Bridges in Dutch, and it is aptly named. I got there early enough to see the Beguinage and central square before it got too choked with tourists, and spent most of the day wandering along the historic canals.
I saved this one for you, Robin. I got a Belgium waffle. In Belgium. And it was different from what we call a Belgian waffle in every way except shape. This was chewy like a bagel, flaky like a pastry, and with carmelized sugar bits throughout. And warm. Yummmmm
My next stop was Lille, France, where I spent 3 days setting up for, and attending, the wedding of my beautiful friends Rick and Marjorie. I was put up by a family down the street who were incredibly generous, friendly, and sweet. A typical meal went like this: An apertif (I opted for Scotch), white wine, fish cooked with wine and small peeled potatoes with lots and lots of butter, at least half a baguette apiece, then apple tart, then they ask “do you want cheese….?” And I say “But of course, I’m in France!!”