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Belgium Mar 2005
 
Look at the slideshows:
See Lonely Planet's site for more info or their map
Also, here is a city map (though the interface is in German).
 

Brrr. Mid-winter in a colder-than-usual time in Europe (snow in Paris and even Cannes!?). Cold winds and rain or snow lends a dreary look to pretty much any city.

I tagged along on Susan's business trip, using her "free" companion ticket (free, that is, except for the taxes, the flights between London and Brussels) to fly business class from Toronto to London.

Being the whirlwind globetrotter that I am (he says, semi-facetiously), the day before I arranged via e-mail to have coffee with an old high school friend (in fact we had gone to school together from Kindergarten through high school) -- it was a 1 of 3 hit ratio.
I hopped on the tube from Heathrow airport, dutifully popped out at Hammersmith for an hour-long coffee chat with Kristina (and her hyperactive daughter :-) then resumed the tube ride to Waterloo station to catch the EuroStar train to Brussels. I put the US site link there because it is less expensive than the British site -- to wit, my one way ticket for the cheapest mid-day train was US$90, versus the British site's fare of £145 (approx US$250) which matched the walk-up price. The experience was similar to the plane -- with my electronic ticket number and my credit card I printed out an airplane-like boarding pass, went through a similar security checkpoint (albeit with a much smaller line) and settled in for the 2.5 hour ride. Other than the fact that the train went through a long tunnel (and pops out in France!) the ride was quite unremarkable. For a downtown to downtown connection from London to Brussels or Paris, it's certainly more convenient.

Aside: even though you think of London, England, being in the northwest corner of Europe, London is actually almost due west of Brussels, and London is even slightly further south than Amsterdam, which makes for a good bar bet.

Beware currency exchange booths! Especially in these times of the falling US dollar. Preferring maximum withdrawals from ATM machines (for the best rate, and to minimize the effect of the ATM fee), it had been years since I exchanged money at a booth in Europe. In the Brussels Midi (south) train station, at a normally semi-respectable Travelex exchange booth, the buy-sell rate for US$ to euro was approximately $1.52 - $1.30, which normally means the official exchange rate (the one you see in the paper but never get in the real world) would lie in the middle ($1.40 in this case) and the usual profit margin is around 5% in either direction. Not having checked the exchange rate, I assumed the dollar had recently plummeted quite strongly, as I would have expected a rate around $1.33 from a few weeks earlier. As it turns out, the official exchange rate was $1.3182, meaning about 15% profit for them when I sell them my dollars (buy euros), and less than 1% profit when I buy dollars back using my euros. In all my years of travel, I've never seen it skewed like that! Further proof that the USD is not desired by most countries (not including poor countries with travel-tourism driven economies).

Incidentally, the USD will likely drop further due to the obscene trade deficit, which in a nutshell causes foreign governments to have too much USD in reserves which becomes less valuable; therefore they sell off USD reserves and buy other currencies (i.e. the euro) which add further downward pressure on the USD (increased supply, lowered demand) in the foreign currency markets. Don't expect the "mighty" dollar to ever get back to anywhere near its height of a few years ago; in fact, expect it to fall further. And interest rates will rise in the US, causing US residents to become poorer.

But I digress.

While Susan was off to her business meeting early Thursday morning, jetlag (and not sleeping at all on the overnight flight) made me sleep in and miss the included buffet breakfast. So I ate the rest of Susan's room service breakfast (pastries and "cheese") and headed out for a chilly stroll around the old downtown. By the time I stopped for a cappuccino, I wanted to dip my hands in it more than drink it. The weather couldn't seem to decide if it wanted to rain or snow, a trend that would continue most of the week. Apparently this storm was so unusual in Europe that it was even snowing on the beaches in the south of France (while a few hardy souls still swam in the steaming Mediterannean).

I went out for a long walk around the old downtown core, the highlights of which are captured in the slideshow: many churches, old buildings, yadda yadda yadda. The nasty weather took a bit of the fun out of it. That night we went to quaint little French restaurant with Susan's co-worker and a Turkish client, which made for interesting cross-cultural conversations including, coincidentally as I had read it in the paper that morning, the fact the Turkey recently dropped 6 zeros from its lira at the start of this year.

The next day (Friday) I went out for a brief walk, including a stop in the fancy bathroom store down the street. Europeans sure have some styling bathroom fixtures (even if it is over-consumption, I'm allowed to window-shop) including, I kid you not, a luxurious 12,000 € (~US$16,000) shower enclosure with the whole works. However, with neither of us having a mobile handy (did you know Germans call a mobile phone a "Handy" which is rather odd -- not so much that they use an English word, which is becoming more common, but that they chose a word which the English-speaking world does not use in that context), and not knowing when Susan would be done with her morning meeting and/or lunch, I didn't venture too far. Though far enough to find a pharmacy that wouldn't give me good sleeping pills without a prescription.

When I returned to the hotel room, Susan was already back so we stepped out for lunch in a delightful small restaurant in a nearby pedestrian street called La Cremerie de la Vache (near Place Stephanie which is near the Louise metro stop) which translates to "The Cow's Creamery." We enjoyed a fine tasting meal -- the quiche was outstanding! -- and a cafe au lait while the restaurant slowly but surely filled to capacity. Naturally there were smokers in there -- usually women, I noticed -- but such is life in Europe. To my great surprise, Italy recently passed an anti-smoking law banning it in most public spaces (as did Ireland and Finland last year which I missed, and more European countries are drafting regulation).

After a little stop at the Furla purse store (near which she broke her elbow crossing the street when tripping on midget curbs along the streetcar tracks, visible in the slideshow) and acquiring sleeping pills sans prescription at a different pharmacy (across the street from our hotel, as it turns out, on the tip of Susan's co-worker), Susan went back to work on the computer (ah, the joys of business travel) for the rest of the afternoon and into the early evening. While waiting for Susan to finish ("just 15 more minutes" -- uh huh :-) I tried 2 different Belgian beers and rather liked the Lambic style blonde.

For dinner we headed to the Sainte Catherine area in the historic fish market area for seafood, which I had read about on the Rick Steves' Europe website (one of my favourite European guidebook authors, coincidentally from the Seattle area, I have bought many of his guidebooks over the years and heartily recommend them). We wanted to go to "Restaurant le Loup-Galant" but by the time I was able to call for reservations they were booked up. By the time we arrived in that area we were starving and it was getting late, so we went straight to another recommended restaurant called "La Marie Joseph" without even looking at the posted menu first. My large plate of tender eel was rather pleasing, and Susan's cod fillet was even better. We caught the last (and full) metro back to our hotel -- the kind of metro with an honour system entrance, and I suspect we were the only ones who paid. That night I took a sleeping pill and had the best night's sleep in a long time.

Saturday, finally a day to relax and enjoy Brussels! Naturally it was raining as we meandered through town together; bear in mind it was barely above freezing, making the rain miserable. Susan's hair was particularly drenched, and we were both cold and hungry. We bought some Belgian chocolates from two or three chocolatiers, then made our way to the Grand-Place, going by the Mannekin Pis statue again. Just then the rain turned to snow and these huge snowflakes drifted lazily into the square. Very pretty. But cold. So we ducked into a little cafe just off the Grand-Place that I had noticed 2 days earlier. Its endearing quality was a nice fireplace and after a few minutes we had a fireside table at which we enjoyed coffee (again! and you thought Seattle was bad) and a croque-monsieur. Then we high-tailed it back to the hotel in a taxi to change and continue on to dinner with Susan's local friends.

Christophe and Nadia lived a few blocks from our hotel in a 4 story "townhouse" with an oddly dark large staircase -- the kind where you can look all the way down the central "donut hole." I should add that each story is 12-14 feet high, making for lots of stairs. Christophe joked that they spend their lives in the stairwell. In any case, a lovely home. After some "champagne" (it was neither champagne nor regular sparkling wine; I forget the type) we went to a Lebanese restaurant near our hotel (down a street I wouldn't have thought to look for a restaurant) for a leisurely fun dinner, interrupted only by a belly dancing display accompanied by insanely loud annoying music. Side note: Christophe took Susan to the hospital when she broke her elbow the previous month.

Partly-sunny Sunday started with a lazy day in bed, followed by packing and meeting Christophe and Nadia again. This time he drove us into the old town to get some waffles -- another supposed Belgian must-do, though according to Christophe (a Frenchman) the Belgians are merely good at marketing -- mussels, chocolates, waffles, beer (ok the beer actually is good), and frites (pronounced "freet," French fries supposedly invented in Belgium). Naturally we drank another cafe au lait with our waffles... which we took to go, and ate back at his house along with yet another cup of coffee. The waffle place he recommended was between the Grand-Place and Mannekin Pis statue (who was dressed today; see the slideshow). It's amazing how some partial sunshine totally brightened up the Grand-Place and radically changed the atmosphere and indeed the beauty of the city.

The Brussels airport had some construction zones, which seems to be the case at just about every major airport, and a very good duty free store for liquor (fyi, the duty-free alcohol selection and prices at London's Heathrow airport, terminal 3, was brutal). With a flight delay, we barely made it to checkin for our London-Toronto flight in time; that being one danger of having two separate tickets, where you are in deep trouble if you miss the flight because technically it is not a "connection" that one airline is responsible for -- you are. We were in business class again, but this time the plane was smaller and older, meaning less amenities like no individual on-demand video screen. Sigh. How quickly we become spoiled. Alas, it will be some time before I fly business class again, when I have saved up enough frequent flyer miles.

In the middle of the night on the flight home, we also witnessed a great display of northern lights (aurora borealis) but my photos didn't turn out. Amazing dancing colors!

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