Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!!

Merry Christmas!

Turns out the streets around the hotel in Brussels on Christmas morning are quite deserted.  That didn't last long, but it was kind of cool walking around on empty streets that were full of people the day before.

Breakfast was fun!  Due to the deserted nature of the streets, the pickings were slim.  We found some place on a big street that gave The LPP orange juice with a tiny fly in it.  The guy offered to fish it out, but Elizabeth was way ahead of him, and he deferred to her.  Rad!

We had a goal of going to the Atomium that morning.  It's a bit out of town, so we figured an early start would be good.  Turns out, it opens at noon on Christmas, so we had about 90 minutes to kill.  The weather was freezing, but we made the best of it.  Our suburban adventures took us by the Belgian national football stadium and (via a random tram ride) into the neighborhood of Esseghem.  We passed some (warm) time in a cafĂ© where LPP got amped up on coffee, and I had a coffee as well.  Once the Atomium was open, we stood in the long line to get tickets, and finally went in.  Thanks to her coffee, Elizabeth was a bit warm, but I appreciated the climate as compared to the outside.  It was a pretty cool attraction, and we spent a good couple of hours walking around it.

Lunch was another exercise in finding something open.  The selections were much better than the morning, but still not that great.  It didn't help that we were starving, so we stopped in a place called the Food Factory (no, really!).  It was a total tourist trap, but they had food and beer, so we were fine.

After a nap (Why are we so exhausted?) we decided to brave the Christmas market (by now, we had been down so many of main central roads, we knew exactly where to go).  This started with a purchase of some pervasively vended vin chaud (warm wine).  Then, we just wandered; looking in many of the wooden houses selling market-type stuff.  The end of the Christmas market line presented us with a huge ferris wheel.  Of course we're going on that!  It was fantastic!

After the market, we headed over to what is (presumably) the oldest bar in Brussels: A La Bacasse (I think it's a woodcock).  They specialize in Timmermans lambics.  The gueuze labelled Timmermans Limited Edition was the best gueuze ever, and that's an opinion certified by both Elizabeth and myself.

Christmas dinner was another wander-around-until you find a place exercise, but this time it worked out great!  We had crepes, and they were fantastic.  The Maison des Crepes was fantastic!  There were quite a few more people out by this time, and a lot more places were open.

So, last night in Brussels... what's left?  Oh yeah!!  Another statue taking a wee wee!!  We saved the best, smallest, and original for last.  We we nt to see the Mannekin Pis, and it was quite a relief to see it.  Better still, there is a bar across the street called Le Poechenellekelder.  Sure, it's touristy.  It's across the street from the statue that people love to go to Brussels to see (guilty!), but it was really nice inside, and they had a pretty darn good beer selection, so I'm not complaining.  The prices were definitely not tourist trap level, so we stayed for a couple.

Then, to bed.  Tomorrow... Train to Bruges!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Brussels, Day 1

So, for our first real day in Brussels, we had breakfast.  It was nice breakfast in the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert.  Having food on the brain, we didn't really know it a the time that this was a place we wanted to see, but once we were satiated, we looked up and were impressed by the glass-covered pedestrian area that had a bunch of shops and eateries.  We ate at MokafĂ©, and were pleased: Waffles with chocolate, fruit and whipped cream... yes, please!

After breakfast, we wandered into the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  It was pretty amazing, and was close by.  It was our first church of the trip, so we were quite impressed.  It was absolutely beautiful.

Following that, we procured a couple of multi-day transit passes that proved quite useful while in the city.  The transit system of Brussels is very robust, and we would not have gotten to as many of the sights without them.

Time to put the transit to use!  First stop: the Cantillon brewery in the neighborhood of Anderlecht.  This is not the best part of town, but the brewery was completely worth it.  It's an old operation that refuses to grow with demand, preferring to continue making lambic (and gueuze) the same way they did 100 years ago.

Time for food!  We found a rather promising Ethiopian place on the interwebs called Kokob, but it was a bit closed (due to Christmas eve and all).  We settled for a falafel wraps that were so-so.  It was a small corner place, and we got fed, so... yay!

On the way from lunch, we happened across a small, pretty church called the Chapel of Our Lady of Refuge.  It was probably free to visit, but there was a gentleman off to the side demanding 1€ per visitor.  We skeptically paid up, but later decided we got scammed... lesson learned!

Off to the neighborhood of Sablon!  This is sort of south of the city center.  Here we saw the huge Palais de justice de Bruxelles which was undergoing renovation and encrusted with scaffolding.  Elizabeth got a couple of candid shots of a fellow in court robes, so, you know... it's legit.  Sablon also has the Notre-Dame du Sablon (another church!!).  Again, beautiful.

So, then we went to the Horta Museum (also in the neighborhood of Sablon).  It's the fantastic house and studio of the architect Victor Horta, who was huge in the art nouveau movement.  While it was quite impressive, we were a bit disappointed by the lack of educational material, and moved through it quicker than normal.

Back in the center of town, we finally experienced waffle insanity.  Of course, there was a group of tourists crowding a shop, se we (being tourists ourselves) joined the insanity and were rewarded with a pile of whipped cream and chocolate that obscured the gooey, doughy waffle thing underneath.  This was nothing like the light, crispy thing we had at breakfast, but probably as healthy.

After a failed attempt at visiting A La Becasse (more on this later), we decided to go and continue our pee-pee tourism and find the not-so-well-known Zinneke Pis.  Turns out, it's a statue of a dog taking a pee on a pole on a dark-ish corner.  2 down.... 1 to go!

OK.  Time for a nice Christmas Eve dinner... Right?  Wrong.  We knew many places would be closed on this particular night, so we made reservations at a place called La Kasbah.  We were not so impressed.  The food was a bit bland and odd.  We are fairly adventurous, but this was just plain nasty.  Oh well.  We did fill our bellies for more adventure, so let's just move along, OK?

During all of the vacation research, we read all about the Christmas markets throughout Europe, and specifically about the one in Brussels.  We decided to find it and have a walk around.  Turns out, Christmas eve isn't the best time to do this either.  It was closing around 6:30pm.  The market stalls are near the Place Ste. Catherine.  In the middle of this, there is a cathedral (I'll let you guess the name).  As it turns out, there is a series of about 4 urinals along one of the walls for the use of the public (sorry, Elizabeth!).  After determining it was kosher (ha!), I went ahead and made use of it.  Even though the market was closed, there was a cool projected light show on the front that incorporated the architecture of the front of the church.  Pretty neat stuff!

Following that, we went to Au Bon Vieux Temps to grab a beer.  As it turns out, they serve Westvleteren 12, the most rare of the Belgian Trappist ales.  It was fantastic (better be at 10€ per bottle)!  This is a great little bar that's down a tiny alley... and that's saying a lot since the streets in the area are pretty narrow to begin with.

Seeing how it was Christmas eve, we thought it would be nice to include Jesus in our travels.  Since he didn't come to us, we went to him.  We went back to our first church of the day and listened to the organ and choir in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  It was pretty fantastic!  Definitely something I'd like to do again.

OK.  Wow.  That was a big day!  What's in store for Brussels, Day 2?  Not sure, but I have to sleep now, so it's going to have to wait for tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Landing in Brussels

So, after the 10+ hour flight(s) we finally made it to Brussels.  The walk to the hotel was pretty short, and that's a good thing, considering how much luggage we were hauling.

This particular hotel was an "apartment-hotel", so there was nobody on-site to check us in.  Apparently, hotwire doesn't send along the security code for the front door, so we had to be saved by a nice English tourist lady to let us in and allow us to use her security code to get the room key.  After that tiny bit of stress, all was well.  We fought off the jet-lag and were able to see the little streets with all of the touristy restaurants as well as the Grand Place that they inevitably lead toward.

The plaza was full of groups of kids and other tourists, and it had a huge Christmas tree and a well-secured nativity scene in the middle.  It is surrounded on all sides by some amazingly beautiful old buildings, but they were so dark by that time.

After leaving the Grand Place, we found our way to the Delirium Tremens bar.  It was full of loud, drunk people, and was not all that pleasant.  While ordering our beer, we actually saw a small tower of shot glasses crash over on the bar and leave a few shards on our beer menu.  Luckily, this bar is huge, and we were able to find a much quieter area where we could sit and chat.  At one point in the evening, Elizabeth did a double-take toward a street-facing window, and said, "That's the peeing girl!"  She was absolutely right!  We were yards away from the Jeanneke Pis; the second-most-famous tribute to micturition in Brussels.  After an awkward photo shoot (drunk kids were socializing and surrounding the statue) we decided to turn in.

The hotel was quite close (thanks Google maps + T-Mobile!!).  We made it home with no problems, and were snuggled in bed, asleep right away.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Night Before...

Here we are, lying in bed, half-packed, exhausted, Aaron has a headache, Sasha is quiet, the dryer just finished, and I don't think I'm going to be able to sleep! We had Christmas with family and friends all weekend, since we'll be gone over Christmas. Went to DiMille's with the Mars family on Saturday, then had dinner with my family, and then visited Dear Ol' Dad in the hospital.

Tomorrow will be Sasha Spa Day, which includes going to the beach, getting her nails clipped, & a bath! Grandpa & Grandma Mars, Grandma, & Auntie Carole will have the joy of watching Sasha High-Cuts for 2 weeks. Then we get to leave on a 777 at 7:40pm, direct to London, and then to Brussels!