Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Final Brussels Bout

A photo album that has some Luxembourg, a little Independence Day (a little on that later), and some images of this final border-skipping gallivant. In the next few posts it will all make sense.

I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve been flipping through digital photo albums from last August, musing on how far I’ve wandered and how little I’ve gotten done. In less than two weeks I say goodbye to Deutschland…kind of. Carolyn is meeting me in Dublin at the beginning of August. We’ll wander for ten days then I fly back to Frankfurt. The next day I fly out again, bound for parts west. So technically, I say goodbye to Germany on the 14th of August, but my real goodbyes have been going on for a while. Here I say goodbye to Continental exploration:

Two weekends ago I took my last international weekend ramble with Marty who you may remember as the Aeronautical Engineer who accompanied me to Prague, Vienna, and Copenhagen. His stated goal in taking on this Fulbright thing was to visit every country that borders Germany. There are nine. Can you list them (hint, how well do you know your WWII trivia?). In case you missed one or two, here’s the rundown: Denmark, Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and The Netherlands. He had knocked seven off the list leaving Luxembourg and Belgium as the only obstacles to his Circumnavigation of Germany Merit Badge.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to accomplish this goal. A jaunt to Krakow or Warsaw will have to wait until I take a trip to Eastern Europe to check out Russia, Estonia, Poland etc. at some distant, as yet determined time (I have determined it will be at a time when my wallet isn’t quite this lean). But I'll be damned if I was going to watch someone else get so close to this noble goal then stumble at the finish because no one wanted to see Brussels. So, I was going back to Belgium.

Marty met me in Bonn. Both of us had spent the previous week furiously working on our projects since our time is quickly winding down. Our preparation for the weekend basically consisted of Marty saying, “Hey, I’ll be in around 8. Oh, and we might be meeting a friend of mine in Luxembourg.” So, when he arrived, one would think we would sit down to do some itinerary work. Neh, we had Kölsch to sample.

We bar hopped and re-hashed the following conversation for about two hours:

Me/Marty: I can’t believe it’s almost over.
Me/Marty: I know, isn’t it crazy?
Me/Marty: Yeah. Yeah, it’s crazy.

When we decided to call it a night, we remembered to check our train times. We would go to Belgium first, getting there as early as possible, explore Brussels, then drop down to Luxembourg for the night. It was also established I should bring my tent. We didn’t bother to look up campgrounds, but figured we might as well have a place to sleep in case the airport was booked for the night.

We discovered there was only one way to get to Brussels before 1PM (I really don't understand how the city functions with so few connections to the wider world) and that was on a train that left at 8:30AM from Cologne. It would be an early morning, but we managed to drag ourselves out the door and caught the tram to the Bonn station. About 1.5 km from the station, we came to a screeching halt and sat…on…the…tracks for about ten minutes. Our connection to Cologne was long gone.

Desperately we tried to figure out a way to get to Cologne so could catch that 8:30. We had one shot. The our train pulled into Bonn at 8:08 and into Cologne at 8:28, leaving us about a minute-and-a-half to make the jump to our Brussels-bound train somewhere in the massive Cologne train station. We were pacing by the doors as we pulled into Cologne, throwing ourselves onto the platform as soon as the door rattled open. My lopsided, tent-filled pack threatened to take out septuagenarians and four-year-olds as we sprinted down the stairs, got held up by a woman really taking her time with those steps, and up to our Brussels-bound platform.

We hopped onto the train and slowed down to look at the platform’s sign. It declared half the train was headed for Amsterdam, the other half for Brussels. But which half were we on? An overheard conversation told us Amsterdam. We tried to jog through the aisle to make the Brussels section, but middle-aged women carefully arranging their overhead luggage, and giggling tweens clogged the flow. Then we reached a dead end. The aisle terminated into an engine. We hoped off and had the distinct pleasure of watching our ride to Brussels receding to the horizon after disconnecting from the engine we had just discovered. Damn.

We found an automated ticket machine and established that the next train to Brussels wouldn’t get us there until 1:20PM and would involve two half-hour layovers en route. This would be a long ride.

The up-shot was we had a half-hour to kill in Cologne, so Marty and I were able to scamper to the neighboring Cologne Cathedral. Marty was properly awed by the towering height of the Gothic structure and it's soaring windows and I provided a little of my commentary, but not too much. We had the first of three trains to catch.

It dumped us off in Aachen, a German town on the border of The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany (where they have the best deals in the Tri-Country area). We had a half-hour. Anyone up for another cathedral?

Back in November I visited Charlemagne’s Byzantine-inspired church and saw his golden casket, but I wouldn’t see it a second time. A couple hundred yards from the steeple we had to scramble back to the station for a ride to Liege, Belgium on a train that somehow timewarped from 1880s Wyoming. The red paint was photogenically peeling from the battered exterior as we slowly chugged across the border to the grungy, industrial city that is best known for its less grungy waffles.
A Liege waffle is an ovoid affair with caramelized sugar grilled right into the dough. We were able to track down this Belgian staple near the space-age station before finally boarding for Brussels.
With three and half hours of travel under our belts we rolled into capital of Europe, a third visit to a city I never expected to see once. Despite previous experiences, there was still confusion over where exactly to get off. Instead of building one massive station as a central hub for trans-Belgian travel, Brussels has three stations. Each sports a Flemish and French name giving a person six unfamiliar words to juggle as they try to plan an excursion. Of course, we really didn’t plan our excursion, compounding our confusion when we stepped off at “Midi” then decided to hop to “Centraal.”

At the station we found out we would need to leave in about three hours if we wanted to make it to Luxembourg to see Marty’s friend who was being frustratingly coy about when/if he would even be able to meet us. After following a winding route that might have doubled as a rat-maze experiment, we dropped our bags and scrambled for food. We managed to take out two-birds with one stone by getting a Frikadeller (fried, meat-ball like sausage) sandwich with fresh Belgian French fries between the bun. I don’t recall the Flemish word for this entree, but I think roughly translated it meant “Heart attack on a bun.” It as also delicious.

As we strolled through the streets of Brussels in search of the Mannequin Pis, Marty managed to find an internet connection outside a bar. He checked his e-mail and found out his friend wouldn’t be able to meet us that night and would shoot for a rendezvous the next day. Through the wonders of technology we discovered we had the rest of the afternoon and evening to spend savoring Brussels rather than sprinting off for a 6th city in one day. This newly discovered time was crucial because Marty had one Belgian goal: sample as many varieties of their legendary beers as possible before moving on to wine-guzzling Luxembourg the next day. With that goal in mind I had a new appreciation for the Mannequin Pis as a symbol of the city.

I led a now practiced tour through the winding Medieval streets of Brussels. I will freely admit I never planned to have the capital so perfectly mapped in my head when I touched down last August, but I can now describe the most efficient path from St. Michael’s Cathedral to the Grand Place. Just in case you need it at some point.
As we swung through the tangled mess that is the seafood café district I pointed out Delirium Cafe, an establishment that holds the record for most available varieties of beer in one establishment. Erin and I checked it out back in February. Marty wanted to check it out today. It was time to start checking brews off the list.
Because it was early in the afternoon, the place had a subdued local vibe with people sitting around massive barrels discussing their beer selections and circuitous routes to Brussels (it’s never direct unless you’re Eurocrat). Marty drank a sweet thing called a “Pink Killer” and I had a Trappist triple. We had no idea where we were spending the night, but we knew we would feel good once we got there.

For a shift from the shadowy subterranean to the roaring ‘20s, I lead the way to Mort Subite, the bar Mike, Tim, and I discovered two weeks earlier, and I would happily revisit any chance I get. The waiters are appropriately brusque and home brewed beer appropriately delicious. The clientele ranged from families of exhausted tourists to elderly, Belgian couples out for some Saturday shopping (who managed to look much peppier than the Italian ten-year-olds).
It was time to sort out where we would rest our heads for the night. While the airport sounded appealing, I was short on digestive biscuits and had hauled my tent along, so I miraculously remembered where the youth tourism office was and inquired if there was a campground within an easy bus ride of the city center. They said they could do me one better and circled a campground within walking distance that called the European Parliament its next-door neighbor. This we had to see, so we went back to the station, saddled up with our gear and started the familiar walk uphill towards the Old England and the Royal Palace.
The U.S. really needs to import some better street performers. I would pay good money to watch something like this parade by my window on a daily basis. To pay up I would put it on my bill.

After a stroll through more suburban Brussels we arrived at the designated address. We saw a small neighborhood church and a cracking asphalt driveway leading into an unseen parking lot. Things weren’t looking too promising. We ascended a short flight of crumbling concrete steps and discovered a storage facility and parking lot that would have worked for a West Side Story set.
I briefly scanned the ground for a tent-sized patch of gravel and pavement without obvious shards of glass. As I tracked the parking lot, Marty noticed a promising sign for “Camping” pointing to an enclosed lot next to the storage yard. We stepped through a chain-link gate and a wild garden spread before us, punctuated by neon rain-flies. This would be a good place to call home…assuming it didn’t rain. We paid our 9 Euro, probably the most expensive camp site I’ve ever stayed in. To be fair, I would be sleeping on the most expensive ground I’ve ever pitched a tent on, so it all worked out.
Following a Lonely Planet tip, we found a tiny pasta café along one of the fashionable shopping boulevards just outside the Old Town. There were three items on the menu: spaghetti carbonara, Pasta Bolognese, and Pasta Marinera. There were three drinks: soda, beer, and wine. Nine combinations yet the waitress brought along her notepad in case things got complicated.

It was delicious and relatively cheap for a mountain of noodles. With a solid base, it was time to pub crawl. As we dove into the winding alleys of Brussels, we heard thudding bass echoing off the baroque façades. We followed the music to the Grand Place where a massive stage had been erected to support a twenty piece band, a half-acre of LCD screens, and a lead singer belting in Spanish. You will understand our confusion when we learned this was in celebration of Flemish Pride.

Belgium is a divided country. The Northern half is Flanders and when they look south to Wallonia, the southern French speaking half of Belgium, they see nothing they like. Okay, it’s not that rabid a rivalry, but there is a political party in Flanders that agitates for secession from the French. This concert wasn’t really a demonstrative political act, it was just an event on a day that celebrates Flemish pride, but I did wonder what the Wallonian perspective would be on the whole undertaking. I guess it’s like going to a Civil War reenactment, or Alaskan Secession meeting, and wondering what people in the North or the lower 48 think. In all probability, no one really cares. They just want spectacle.
And spectacle we got as digital fireworks exploded behind the troop of artists who had performed and now joined voices in what Marty and I assumed was a Flemish standard. The crowd didn’t seem to know the words. Everyone lingered on stage after their bows hoping for a call for encore. None came. The square, filled with mostly subdued gawkers to begin with, quickly drained to the bars. Marty and I followed.

We settled on the pub Marty had used to check his e-mail earlier so he could digitally touch base again. After leeching their wi-fi, it was the least we could do to buy a drink. That is, if they wanted to sell us one. We sat in the Biergarten for fifteen minutes, then a half-hour, then forty-five minutes, praying a waitress would arrive. People around us had beverages, maybe we should go in? I checked after waiting twenty and was shooed out the door by an overwhelmed waitress who had a bachelor party on her hands.

So we sat and waited. There’s nothing as sobering as sitting in a bar without a beer. Another pair was also waiting. We would make disbelieving eye contact then look hopefully towards the door. After a certain amount of time elapses it becomes an investment. You continue to wait because leaving would prove the preceeding minutes were wasted. When our drinks finally arrived we could say we were drinking 3.50 Euros and 45 minutes of sitting worth of Belgian beer. After one we were done with Kwak Café.
Marty enjoys his Kwak, a type of lambic beer named for the sound the liquid makes when it sloshes through the neck.

We were getting tired and ready to collapse into the tent, but decided we needed at least one more authentic Belgian brew in our systems before calling it a night, and Marty had a hankering for some superlatives. Back to Delirium.
This time it was late on a Saturday night. Two floor of bars were operating and the local dive bar had evaporated, leaving a fraternity residue. The place was packed with young tourists from roughly 20 different countries. Indians carried two liter boots of beer, and Canadians drained a dozen varieties before shouldering their way back to the bar for another round. Marty was a little disappointed that the atmosphere had lost a little local flavor. The laughing and people-watching at least re-energized me (along with my honey beer) for the long walk back to the campsite where we could bask in the glow of European Unity and broken fluorescent street lights before drifting into a well-earned dreams of sampling each of Delirium’s 2,200 offerings.

The photo album of random excursions from the final weeks.


Tim said...

Good to see you made it back to the Mort Subite! That really was a pretty awesome discovery, though I learned flavoring beer with anything other than lime isn't as good as I once thought.

Carolyn said...

I think the Candy Hill campground was even more expensive than your Brussels plot - and that was for a piece of ground (albeit an electrified one) in rural Virginia for less than 8 hours.