I saw a fantastic poster today in a travel agency that said “I traveled, I saw, I photographed!” made by Turkish Air, sponsoring a photography contest. My sentiments exactly. The “I saw” part really describes today, as I found myself observing four different scenes in the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. I had the day to myself to look around Brussels, walking around. This trip so far has mostly been taking a car around Europe, which I’m not used to. The last four times I’ve been to Europe I’ve always found myself on foot, which gives many more opportunities for taking good pictures and seeing how people live.
I walked out towards the Place and Palais Royal, which is the home of the Royal Belgian family. While on the street, I was given a sample of Orange Fanta by a street marketing event. I guess marketers have to work extra hard in Europe, because just half a block later, I saw a parking lot sponsored by Nissan which encouraged drivers to drive in and leave with a test drive of a new car before returning to pick up their old one. Miniature can of Orange Fanta in hand, I continued to the Parc de Bruxelles, a rectangular tract of green space with city inhabitants jogging this Saturday morning. Countless tourists snapped pictures of themselves under the rows of trees and neatly divided lawns.
Tourists really were out in full force as I walked down the streets filled with shops and boutiques of the Grasmarkt. In Europe you always find these streets of mixed retail and outside patios. It’s kind of like walking down Queen Street in Toronto, but denser and more lively. I’m not sure if regular people drive around the equivalent of Mississauga and buy their stuff at Heartland Mall at Mavis and Britannia; and this is more for show, or they actually shop at these crowded narrow streets. Nonetheless, tourists of all kinds, including a bunch of German scouts, filled the streets this afternoon.
Yesterday I tried a waffle at Walibi Belgium and it was kind of doughy. I figured it was just because it was typical amusement park food, so I decided to try another one as a snack. I picked the most expensive looking waffle shop I could find; making live, fresh, not reheated waffles; shelled out 4.50 euros for the deluxe chocolate and fresh strawberry waffle combo…and it was doughy. While watching my waffle made, I noticed they had to spread the batter onto the griddle, versus just ladling it on. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that Belgian waffles I think must be doughy, not the fluffy ones we expect at home.
I got to the Grand Place and took a look around. My favourite plaza is the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy; but the Piazza San Marco in Venice probably approximates the Grand Place in Brussels better. The square is boxed in by several large buildings ornately decorated with gold and stone carvings, some in the Gothic style. The buildings, including the Town Hall or Hotel de Ville, have been around since 1700. It reminded me of the buildings in Munich, though none of these had a cuckoo clockwork.
A couple came out of one of them, newly married with friends and families throwing tissue paper hearts into the sky. All the tourists, myself included, decided to take a picture of them, even though we have no idea who they are. Perhaps it will add some glamour to their wedding memories.
All of a sudden, screaming and chanting came from one of the side streets feeding into the Grand Place. A hundred teenage girls, dressing from the Avril Lavigne School of Fashion, came charging out and congregated in the centre of the square. I couldn’t figure it out, nor could other travelers watching them. They cheered at random intervals, and taunted the German boy scouts. I was trying to determine if this was teenagers lobbying the EU to make Emo a recognized country of its own, when I noticed many of the girls had the words “Tokio Hotel” on their bags and shirts. I finally gave up and asked a bunch of them what Tokio Hotel was, as I’ve been to many a Japanese hotel and they’re not worth cheering about. One of them told me in English that it was a band they all liked and the lead singer apparently has lost his voice. The fan club has apparently decided to rally the troops to wish him a quick recovery.
If that wasn’t strange enough for you, about five minutes later, two girls dressed like maids or nannies walked into the square with an object in a stroller. It appeared to be a sculpture or doll of an anthropomorphised animal/baby. They went around asking people their opinion of the creature in the stroller. I asked the guy with the 5D/70-200mm f2.8L IS following them what the deal was, and apparently it is an art project. The creature is supposed to be some sort of hybrid dog and baby. The two ladies ask you to fill out a survey and if the artist likes your answer, he or she will mail you the baby sculpture. I was trying to frame it as a social commentary on bioengineered crops or hormones in our drinking water, but I was told it was just art. It’s really kinda hideous, so I’ve decided not to put it up for show. I guess I also don’t get to win the sculpture, as they were looking for a compassionate interviewee.
I left the square to find the Bourse, the original Stock Exchange for Brussels. I also continued to look at a few cathedrals. One of them, sadly, gave me a shock: Half of it had been converted into a shelter for refugees. It was visually arresting to see hundreds of colourful but makeshift beds filling out an apse of the church just a few hundred feet from prosperous businesses nearby.
I made a detour to the main city library, discovering their free washrooms and section about Expo 58. I spent about ten minutes reading about key Brussels landmarks, comparing it to the free map from the hotel. Then I continued to the Cathedral of Saint Catherine, built in 1226.
Siobhan had suggested going to Leon’s in Brussels to have “Les moules”, a famous Belgian food, mussels. Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to find this place, so I ended up at another restaurant, where I had moules au vin (mussels in white wine), some fries, and a Maes, which is a blond beer similar to Stella Artois. I picked it solely based on the number of ads for Maes around the city. I know that’s a poor way to choose anything to eat, but it seemed pretty good. It tastes just like a Stella.
In the square, a bunch of roadies and sound guys sat behind a large mixing desk with a handwritten sign saying “Jazz concert, 20:00h, We do not have any more information”. Earlier I had seen the portable stage being set up, and I wanted to watch this performance, so I decided to wait around. I gave the sound guy a “yeah, a gig’s a gig” look, grabbed a metal chair, and sat down and waited. The jazz band, students from the local conservatory, slowly filed into the plaza, each carrying their instrument. A full sound check was done, to a growing crowd of perhaps two hundred.
Shortly after the sound check, it started to rain. I sat on my precious chair, with my 5D/24-70mm tucked under my fleece to keep it from getting wet. A lady who also had secured a seat earlier offered a plastic bag. We all sat it out and thankfully, the skies cleared for the band to start. The conductor explained it was the culmination of their jazz/big band program and the students were working in cooperation with the city of Brussels. They launched into an hour of jazz hits from both Belgian composers and the greats like Mingus and Parker. I think that was the best travel experience I’ve ever had.