November 25, 2008

Breaking into Belgium

I've always been a fan of arriving fashionably late to things, and making a grand entrance. Well, on Friday November 21st, 2008, Liam, Christina, and I made quite an illustrious entrance into Belgium. As soon as we stepped off the plane, the three of us followed the group of people from our flight through the labyrinth of the airport hallways to Border Control. We stood in line without moving for about 10 minutes before I realized that no one was even in the glass booths checking passports. A man tried to open one of the doors, but it was locked. Everyone from our flight had crowded into this small room, with locked doors and no windows. I was waiting for them to release the genocide gasses…
We waited another 15 minutes or so before people started to get anxious and frustrated and resorted to panic mode. There was this gang of skinheads in skull-clad leather jackets. One of them, fed up, started pounding on the door. He tried to lift the metal shield that covered the glass booths to see if anyone was inside them. Then he violently kicked at the door. The crowd of people watched nervously. The skinhead kicked so hard that he kicked in the door and it swung open. He marched through and the door shut behind him. Everyone in the room just stood there in shock – not sure what to do. I was waiting for an alarm to sound or a SWAT team to repel down from the ceiling with machine guns. Christina, Liam, and I all exchanged glances of disbelief as if to say: Did that just happen? Did a skinhead just break into Belgium?
Another man tried to open the same door that the skinhead kicked in, but it was still locked. So he kicked it harder and harder until the lock came undone it swung open again. Then he held the door open and a few people made their way to the front of the room and followed him through to the other side. I looked at Christina and Liam again, “should we?” and then we shrugged and said, “why not,” and followed the crowd through the broken down door at Border Control. We successfully smuggled ourselves into the country, and went off the grid for three days. The government had no idea where we were all weekend long – it was all very Jason Bourne.

Once we checked into our hostel, we wandered around Brussels to see the city all lit up at night. On la Place d’Espagne, we discovered our favorite waffle shop called Gaufre de Bruxelles. Inside there were three long shelves packed with kettles in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Liam joked that it was like the Belgian Last Crusade: the hunt for the “Kettle of Christ”. We searched through the collection to find the plainest one to call the Kettle of Christ, it was a stout tin kettle with no ornaments or flashy handles.

Can you find the Kettle of Christ?

After dinner, we went to A La Morte Subite (Sudden Death), a beer hall named after the last hand of a card game that locals used to play there before returning to work. There is also a drink by the same name, Morte Subite gueuze (pronounced gerze), which Liam tried. It was absolutely awful. I tried a different twist of the same drink, the Morte Subite Blanche, which was good, and Christina (the beer hater) tried a fruity Lambic sparkling beer, Framboise (raspberry) which was delicious. I also tried an amber abbey beer, called Ciney Blond, which I liked. I loved the atmosphere of Morte Subite. It was like a banquet hall, with its long cafeteria-esque tables, square pillars with brass hat racks, and massive mirrors.

A La Morte Subite

We stayed in a 14-bed mixed-dormitory at the 2GO4 hostel on Blvd. Emile Jacqmain. But there were 15 people in our room that night – and 2 of them weren’t exactly sleeping. Apparently they “weren’t exactly sleeping” all night long. Thankfully I slept through it.

Belgian Waffles

Saturday morning we enjoyed waffles smothered in powdered sugar and chocolate sauce, from our favorite waffle shop, while it snowed in la Place d’Espagne. It was probably my all-time favorite moment of my life. Then it was off to Bruges. We cut through la Grand Place on our way to the train station. There was a giant Christmas tree in the middle of the square that dwarfs the tree at Rock Center.

Christina and I devouring waffles in snowy Brussels, Belgium

So, the whole reason for this trip: a few months ago during one of our Sunday movie nights, Liam suggested we watch one of his favorite movies called “In Bruges” staring Colin Farrell and Professor Mad-Eye Moody as screw-up assassins. It was a very depressing movie but it had hilarious moments of comic relief. The movie was obviously set in Bruges.

Ray: After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through - "Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges." I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was.
Ray: It's in Belgium.

The movie is filled with beautiful scenery of this fairytale town and I fell in love with it and decided that I had to visit Bruges.

The town did not disappoint with its cobblestone streets, canals, swans, horse-drawn carriages, old churches, and medieval buildings. Bruges has to be the prettiest place in the whole of Europe, nay, in the whole world. Bizarre weather though. It was all sunny, blue skies one moment and then violent hail storms the next, with scattered snow flurries and a light drizzle of rain thrown into the mix. I believe my exact words were "let’s climb to the top of the bell tower now while the weather is clear so we have good views of-" and before I could finish, grey clouds blew over the square and we were pelted with hail stones. We did eventually climb to the top of the Belfort and the views were spectacular. There was a room near the top of the tower where a man actually played the bells by hammering wooden pegs that protruded out from a piano/organ-looking instrument. The music swelled as we reached the top and echoed in the belfry as we looked out over Bruges. To quote Liam: “it sounded like the climax of an old Sherlock Holmes film.”

View of Bruges from the top of the bell tower 

Bells in the Belfort

We took a boat tour during a patch of sunny weather. The canals were absolutely beautiful. There were actually swans, just chilling in the canals of Bruges. They were so close to our boat that I could have easily picked one up. But large creatures with beaks frighten me, especially wild ones.

On the canals
The next stop on our “Shoot First. Sightsee Later. Tour” of Bruges was Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (The Basilica of the Holy Blood). There was a man sitting on a platform, guarding a glass phial that was said to contain a few drops of Jesus Christ’s blood. For a small donation of €2, I touched Jesus Christ’s blood. Well, I touched the plexiglass shield that was covering the glass phial that held within it red and yellow crusty dried up blood that may or may not have belonged to Jesus Christ. They did say that over the years, the blood has turned back into liquid a few times...

Saturday afternoon, Christina and I sent Liam off to Koningin Astridpark in search of his “alcoves” (watch “In Bruges” for an explanation) and then the two of us went shopping for lace, and chocolate, and Christmas ornaments. We met up for dinner and wandered around the city at night. On the Markt there’s a row of restaurants that look like gingerbread houses, all lit up with Christmas lights, and an ice skating rink set up in the middle of the square. Yay Christmas in Bruges!

Bruges at night (like gingerbread houses)

You know what they say: “when in Belgium, do as the Belgians do.” And what do Belgian’s do? They brew 1,000 different kinds of beer…and then consume them. So the three of us found a quiet local pub called De Keld where we had a nice report with the bartender (because for a majority of the evening, we were his only customers). I tried three beers. Isjeeses Reserva, recently voted the best beer in the world, on its label was a cross-eyed, stoned Jesus, blowing smoke out of his nose, donning a Santa hat. It was served in a tall-stemmed goblet – the coolest glass ever. Every beer brewed in Belgium has its own unique glass embossed with the beer's logo (marking the level where the head starts) and is specially shaped to enhance the taste and aromas. Then, I tried a brew called Mad Bitch, and I can’t even remember the name of the third beer I tried (maybe because these beers were 10-15% alcohol and came in giant goblets and wine-bottles). The bartender, Huran’s, ringtone was “Scotland the Brave.” We just can’t escape the bagpipes. They follow us wherever we go… even to Belgium… even to Bruges.

Sipping brews in Bruges

Isjeeses Reserva

As if we didn't have enough of an adventure in our hostel Friday night, Saturday night's stay at the Snuffel Backpacker's Hostel in Bruges proved very eventful. Around 2:30am, two guys came home drunk and made a racket, pulling the covers off of their two other friends, who were sleeping. The little guy jumped into his top bunk, fully dressed in his shoes, jacket, and hat, and started taking pictures - the flash lit up the entire room. The big guy did the exact opposite, he stripped down to just his briefs, his giant beer belly hanging out in the front and a major butt crack in the back. After they finally passed out, a group of six people came into the room, and one of the girls noticed that her bed was stolen by one of the drunk guys' sleeping friends. So her boyfriend woke him up and they argued about it for a while, then realized that they were assigned the same bed number and left it at that. Five minutes later, the lights in the room came on because the group of six people had gone downstairs and brought up the manager so that they could argue about it some more. The manager told her to take the empty bed on the other side of the room. How logical. She could have done that 20 minutes ago and not woken me up. Seriously, Liam, I don't know how you slept through this. Oh wait, yeah I do. You were wasted and passed out.    

Sunday morning, it was back to Brussels. We found the famous Manneken Pis (the little 30 cm tall statue of a boy peeing) and his sister statue, Jeanneke Pis. Then we parted ways and I headed off to the Royal Quarter & Sablon to visit the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts (Royal Museum of Fine Arts) because my guidebook told me that they had opened an entire Rene Magritte museum downstairs. Unfortunately, the Magritte museum wouldn’t be open until 2009, but I did get to see a few of his paintings on display in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. While I was in the Royal Quarter it started to snow. I saw some amazing churches, parks, justice courts, and palaces, but my camera battery died so I couldn’t take any pictures of them. They looked beautiful in the snow. But the blizzard wasn’t letting up, so I returned to the hostel, my shoes soaking wet from trekking through the snowy streets, and my toes frozen to the bone. I snuggled up in dry pjs, under my down comforter and took a 3-hour nap.

Manneken Pis 

Starting to snow

In the reception waiting area of our 2GO4 hostel, there was crown molding on the ceiling surrounding a disco ball, with a flat screen TV hanging above a fireplace and a red cushy sofa. During the snowstorm, I curled up on that sofa by the fire and read for a few hours. One of my favorite pastimes: reading by the fire on a snowy evening.

Disco ball in our hostel lobby
Our departure from Belgium was not nearly as exciting as our entry. As soon as they stamped our passports on the way out, we were back on the grid. I bet the government was chasing its tail all weekend searching for us...


Anonymous said...

I too have a fear of beaked animals, let me tell you. So little ducklings, cute right? Why not try and catch one. It sounded like such a great plan to my 8 year old mind. So I was flat on my stomach under a tree reaching out towards the white fluffs of feather that were ducklings. When all of a sudden I feel something odd on the back of my calfs working its way upward. I look back to see the mother duck rushing up my backside wings fully extended and beak snapping. I barely escaped with my limbs intact. That mother was vicious! Thus my fear of beaked animals. The end


Anonymous said...

wow I love your blog! :) Sounds like your having an amazing time and taking in every opportunity! Missing having the annual Thanksgiving football game with the Wiss Crew! Maybe one day we will all have one again!
Hope all is Grande!

<3 Tine

Kara said...

That picture of the restaurants that look like gingerbread houses is my's soo Christmasy! Please try to bring some of your snow home to Blue Bell. (ps Happy December! See you so soon!)