I promise I'll finish the Kruger safari post at some point, but I'm having trouble accessing the pics. Something is wrong with our CD-ROM drive. (Who knows what the kids did to it.) For right now, I'm going to move on to Brussels.
On our return trip we had a 24-hr layover in Brussels, Belgium. Since Dug practically lived in Oklahoma last year, he has amassed quite a hefty sum of Marriott points. We decided that we would spend the day in Brussels, sleep in a hotel and then catch our flight home the next day. By using his Marriott points, we were able to book a room in the Brussels Marriott Hotel right in the middle of Brussels in the Grand Place. (This is the central market square and major tourist spot of the city.) We didn't even know how much it cost because we used his points and since he's a platinum member they upgrade our room automatically. (Later we found out the cheapest room was 489 euros a night! That's 773 US dollars, baby!) Anyway...
From the airport, we bought a ticket into the center of Brussels. Unfortunately we didn't know which side of the platform we were supposed to catch the train from. (There trains on both sides.) And of course, everything is in French and Flemish. (I only know rudimentary Spanish and it didn't help. The people who say Spanish and French are so similar are either big, fat liars or pretentious linguists who want you to know how smart they are.) Lucky for us a friendly English-speaker pointed us to the right train.
After getting off at our stop we come out of the railway station into the sun only to realize that we didn't get the address of our hotel before we left. Well, to be totally honest, we thought that since the website said it was located "at the Grand Place" that it would be somewhat easy to find. Right? (Keep your laughter to a minimum please.) Nope.
Undaunted, we started walking towards the tallest steeple we could find. (The Grand Place has these huge gothic buildings surrounding it and we knew that if we found them, we were at least somewhat in the right vicinity.) Before I go any further, I need to explain to you the nature of the streets of Brussels. Imagine a wagon wheel. Every intersection was like a wagon wheel and when you walked to the end of the "spoke" you were at another wagon wheel. And every spoke had a different name. That was Brussels. Even if we did have the address it was of no use since the roads didn't extend far enough to be followed for any sizable distance. I'm thinking that if you mapquested an address you would need about two pages to get you a mile.
Turn left onto Rue A. (0.1 m)
Turn right onto Rue B. (0.1m)
Turn right onto Rue C. (0.1 m)
Straight onto Rue D. (0.1 m)
Sl right onto Rue E. (0.1 m)
Are you starting to understand?
After asking a very friendly guy trying to sell us a guided bus tour we were pointed in what we hoped was the right direction. We did reach the Grand Place and it was breath-taking. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't a European theme park but it was the real deal. Although most of the people were tourists, I knew that some of these people really lived here, with the beautiful buildings and uneven but beautiful cobble streets. Seriously, the buildings were amazing. I thought the ones in DC were gorgeous, but they paled in comparison with Brussels.
We saw two policemen and asked them if they knew where the Marriott was. (Traveling tip: Whatever country you are in, try speaking English in their accent. They understand you much better.) Dug asked, "Do you know where the Marriott is?" *blank stare from policeman* "The Marriott? Hotel?" *policeman's brow furrows, head tilts and leans forward slightly* I ventured with my best French accent, "Meh-dee-ote?" (I know it doesn't look like it, but try saying it quickly out loud.) *suddenly comprehension dawns on his face and he nods in agreement* "Yes," he says. "Marriott!" I know at this moment Dug was thinking, "Yeah, that's what I've been saying the whole time!"
Now the policeman are giving directions in tandem. You know when one says something and then the other agrees and then gives their input which the other corrects in which they both agree that that one was right and then one gives the next direction...and the whole time they really aren't looking at you but having a conversation about the best way to give directions. Luckily Dug was here, because I really didn't get a lot of what they said. I just tried to remember important words. I heard one that sounded like Bus. I'm assuming we should look for a bus stop. And then they said the kicker, "Eet is next to zee MacDonald's!"
Of course it was next to McDonalds! We're Americans, why would they put any other kind of restaurant next to an American hotel? Even if you shell out over $700/night for the cheap rooms. Oh well, it is a good landmark you must admit.
So we followed what we understood of their directions and found that we were darn close to our hotel already. We walked a few "blocks" and we saw a sign that said "Bourse/Beurs." Aha! Our "bus." We were on the right track. And then, there across the street, we saw them. Those dang-blasted golden arches. And right above them, the word Marriott. Our search was at an end.
After checking in and showering off the filth of the last twenty hours of air travel we talked to the concierge. He suggested a few sites we could see and armed with a map, we were off. The first place he suggested we visit was the Grand Sablon. It was also the farthest so we thought we might start there and then hit the other sights on the way back.
The streets were so fascinating. The shortest buildings were five stories and all were squished together, and the road itself was quite narrow. That coupled with the seeming random angles of the streets made you feel like you were in a maze. We had almost made it to Sablon when I took the time to read the "Use This To Not Only Feel Like a Tourist But Look Like One, Too" map. Uh oh.
"I don't think we want to go to Sablon."
"Let me read the description to you: 'This is a veritable Mecca of antique dealers...'"
I didn't have to read any further. I like browsing almost any type of shopping venue, while Dug is not so keen. But that wasn't really the big deal. Dug is not a fan of antiques. And since I'm not a huge antique person, either, we knew this wasn't the best use of our few precious Belgian hours. Now to form a new plan of attack.
But first, some energy! We had been smelling this amazing aroma and to our left and right, people were passing us with delicious piles of whipped cream and chocolate in their hands. As we turned a corner, there on our left was a waffle vendor. What are the three big Belgian favorites? Beer (yuck!), Chocolate and Waffles! We stopped and ordered a waffle with whipped cream and caramel. I can't even begin to describe how delicious it was. I don't want to know what it was made with, either. Something that rich and mmmmm can only be made with exceptionally high quantities of fat and sugar.
Our bellies laden with supreme deliciousness, we decided on the new target: Museum of Modern Art. We found it, but it was not easy. Our map said it was "there" but when we got "there," no museum. After a bit of "Let's Try This Way." We stumbled, quite by accident, upon the entrance. There were two options: Ancient and Modern. We decided to attack chronologically. Ancient.
In the first main atrium-type room we saw this beautiful shimmering green globe-like thing. (This ended up being my favorite piece.) When you got up to it, you could see that the entire thing was covered in beetles. It was beautiful and yet disturbing. The colors were amazing and yet they were dead beetles. (To be accurate, it was just their exoskeleton.) I was fascinated and yet repelled at the same time. If you will please forgive me, I forgot to note its name and artist, but after a little research, I'm fairly confident it was done by Jan Fabre.
We spent a few hours there and had only made it through the Ancient section when we decided to wind our way back to the hotel. By the time we got back it would be about right for some din-din. (That's 'dinner' for those who don't know.) More or less, the route back went past one of the main landmarks in Brussels: the Mannekin Pis. It is THE little statue of a young boy peeing into the fountain basin. I wasn't especially excited to see him, but since he was on the way...we did. Unfortunately he was dressed up as some sort of neon leprechaun, but we can check See Mannekin Pis off our Things To Do Before We Die list now.
We also stopped at this chocolate shop called Planete Chocolat. (waffles: check! chocolate: check!) We had just missed the Tasting Session, bummer! The two salespeople were super friendly although they barely spoke English and we didn't speak French, but they gave us some hot chocolate and some samples while we shopped. I was asking the main guy if they had almond but he didn't understand "almond." So I found this bag containing disks of chocolate with a variety of nuts sitting on top. I pointed to the almond and asked, "How do you say 'almond' in French?" He said, "Ohhh, that is ahl-mahnd." I almost laughed out loud. But once again, proof that if you speak with a French accent, French speakers will understand you better.
Our hotel was just a few blocks from this area called St. Catherine's which apparently is home to a well-known street of restaurants. As we walked around a corner, suddenly this huge gothic silhouette dominated our view. (It was the darker side of evening.) Aha! This must be the area's namesake, the church of St. Catherine. Walking past the church we were greeted by the restaurant district. There were two streets in parallel; a large cobblestone open area nestled in between the streets. Restaurant after restaurant lined both sides. How were we to choose? Especially since all the little chalkboard signs put out on the sidewalks were written in very foofy, French cursive that I couldn't read. Luckily, about half the restaurants were closed since it was late Sunday evening but that only narrowed our choices down to about fifteen. There was another problem, as well. The concierge didn't tell us that this was the famous "fish" row. Dug, although the chap was raised in Alaska, doesn't like fish. And that was the dominating feature of every menu. We crossed over to the other street and started checking those out as well. One stood out to us, something "d'or."
We had tried to look up good Belgian restaurants before we left the hotel but it was too difficult. Dug wrote down a few from Lonely Planet.com and we decided to put our trust in the concierge. I remembered one of the high-rated ones was something "d'or." (That restaurant and the one we were at were not the same, by the way. But that's how we finally made our decision.) That and the fact that its logo had a pig on it led us to finally choose this restaurant. If it has a pig, it probably has more choices than just fish, right? Wrong. Dug pretty much had his choice of three types of steak, that's it. I chose the Sole, but in hindsight I could have just eaten the bread and been happy. It was sooooo good. The butter was even delicious-er than any other butter I've ever had. Dinner was absolutely yummy.
The rest of the trip was uneventful except that Dug misread our flight departure time by 40 minutes and we were almost late for the train back to the airport which, although one leaves every 30 minutes, we would have been too late to catch our flight. But we weren't and we didn't.
One more "memory": As we were in the train, passing various Brussel streets, right off the track was what I thought was a lingerie store mannequin in the window. But it moved! And then I saw there were more! There was a whole street of store fronts with scantily-clad women in the windows advertising their "wares." I was unable to take my eyes away. Dug and I whipped our head towards each other, silmultaneously asking, "Did you see that?!" Ahhhh Europe.
endnote: Thank goodness we were only in Brussels for 24 hrs. We bought one bag of chocolate and ate one meal. The grand total for those two things? $200! The chocolate alone was $70 and what we bought could have fit in a lunch bag. (It was soooo good, though. Dang! It was good!)