Travel Diaries – Brussels

Eurotrip 2019 – Brussels

We left Dubai with a long travel day ahead of us as we made our way to Brussels, Belgium for the proper start of our trip to Europe. It didn’t look too bad on paper, but it ended up being a very long, twenty-hour day!

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It wasn’t meant to be that bad, but the original flights I booked changed timings. We were flying on Turkish Airlines, originally with a brief one hour stopover in Istanbul. First one flight changed by ten minutes, then the other flight moved by fifteen minutes, and suddenly the stopover had became too brief, and I had to change the second flight through to Brussels to the next one – five hours later.

Looking on the bright side, now I had plenty of time to explore the huge new Istanbul Airport that had only opened two weeks before.

Our first flight went well for the most part. It was the first time I had tested a low calorie meal on board a plane. It was bland, but I guess it was okay (I was really hungry!). I was surprised to find two slabs of cheese in the salad as well as butter and jam supplied – since I would not consider any of those “low calorie”. I would have thought it would be more economical for airlines to not include these, because surely people who are ordering a low calorie meal would not eat these, and then they would go straight in the bin as wastage.

Plane Food breakfast
A low calorie breakfast on the plane

While we were testing these out airline meals, we ordered a “low fat” meal for Simon. We couldn’t work out why these two options were both offered by the airline, and after receiving identical meals, we STILL don’t know why they are both available.

We also got to see how resilient these planes really are. As we were on our approach into Istanbul there was a huge bang and a flash of white light. We had been hit by lightning. None of the staff batted an eyelid, and we continued on our descent just like nothing had happened.

Then it was time for exploring the new Istanbul Airport. It is huge (it’s going to be the biggest in the world), new and shiny! It is so big that from the centre of the departures area to our gate was a 13 minute walk. It could, therefore, take nearly half an hour to walk between gates if you were unlucky enough to get the far opposing ends of the terminal during a transit stop.

New Istanbul Airport Arrivals
One of the huge arrivals passageways

And that time is not including having to go through security again even when transiting. The security lines were longish, but not the worst I’ve ever seen. But it was definitely up there with the most thorough screening I’ve ever had. It was the first time we’ve ever had to turn on all electronics (although I know this happens in other airports around the world too) and the first time I’ve had to physically show I was not wearing a belt.

It wasn’t a terrible experience, just very thorough. In my previous experiences in Turkey, airports have always had strict security, and the bombing at Ataturk Airport a couple of years ago would have done nothing towards changing that, so I am happy to see a high level of scrutiny.

Our overall experience though was not great. To start with, there is no wifi available – not even at Starbucks! There are also no lounges that accept Priority Pass, and from what we could see no OneWorld lounge. At least 50% of the shops/eateries are not yet open.

I know this airport has been a long time coming, but there is still a lot to do. Is has in fact been partially operational since October, so I really was surprised to see as little up and running as there was. Clearly some seating areas are still missing seats, as we saw carpeted areas with little poles sticking up in them for charging points. I would expect seats to be installed right next to them.

It was also common to see holes in the floor for electrical connections, even some in areas that otherwise seemed completed and in use. The airport (or at least the area with shops & restaurants where people wait for their flights) just really isn’t finished!

New Istanbul Airport Main Board
The main board at Istanbul Airport. Note the shops behind and to the left are not open

Our second flight through to Brussels was uneventful – with another boring, low calorie meal. This time it was grilled fish and steamed vegies

Plane Food Dinner
A low calorie dinner on the plane

One thing I did find amusing on both the Turkish Airlines flights was the LEGO safety demonstration videos! The first time it ran through it was in Turkish, and I wasn’t sure what it was – until I started to see the characters putting on seatbelts, airplane style! And thanks to YouTube, here it is for your viewing pleasure too!

Our arrival in Brussels coincided with at least one other flight from the Middle East, but at passport control there was only one person processing “Other Passports” (ie: not Europe) and it took forever! The worst part was that about every third person/group required extensive questioning, quite a few were even taken off to other rooms. The European Residents lines were even longer with only two people processing them. I couldn’t believe they did not put more staff on to process people.

Once we were eventually processed, we then had to fight the scrum to get out of the arrivals area. I have never before seen people rushing into the secure area to greet people as they appeared inside the doorway. There was absolutely no easy way through the crowds, and in the end I used my bulk (both front and back backpacks helped!) to literally push through!

We had a couple of train rides and then arrived at our hostel. We were staying at the quirky Train Hostel. Not surprisingly, the whole place was train themed, even to the point of some rooms being inside of train carriages. While not actually in a train carriage, our room was like a large train compartment, with three-level bunks on either side. For our bed one of the bottom bunks has been made bigger by connecting a second single bed to make it into a queen.

Train Hostel Bed, Brussels
The bed in our room. The middle bunk is folded up here. There is another set of bunks on the other side of the room, so in a different configuration six people could stay here.

The room was a really good size for a hostel private room. It also included storage lockers, a hanging space and a small table. The bathroom was also large, with plenty of space and a seperate toilet.

Meals are available at the hostel with a buffet for dinner every night except Sunday, but at €20/person, it was a bit too expensive for us to join in (although compared to other restaurant meals in Brussels, this is about standard).

Train Hostel Library
The library area of the Train Hostel
Train Hostel Carriage
A train carriage full of rooms – on the roof!

For our first night we walked down to the local convenience store and bought our standard “supermarket dinner” while we are travelling – a pre-made garden salad and a tin of tuna! This is a cheap, healthy and easy way to feed us on occasions when we couldn’t be bothered hunting down a decent restaurant or we have already blown the food budget for the day.

I’ve said it before but “Damn you body clock!” The next morning I was wide awake at 3:30am, but that at least gave me a chance to brush up on all the notes I had written for Brussels and work out a plan of attack for the day. We had heaps of things to try to squeeze in to just one single day. I was already starting to think that I had severely underestimated the time we would need here in Brussels let alone Belgium.

The good thing about being awake so early, is that by 7am we were heading out the door to get to the centre of Brussels before the crowds arrived. I had hoped to get some lovely photos of the empty city streets, but what we found instead was a city with streets full of rubbish, bins overflowing and a distinct day-after-the-night-before smell!

The garbage collectors and others were working to clean everything up, but it was so bad it looked like a festival had been held in the streets the previous night. It WAS Easter Sunday, so perhaps there were a lot of people visiting for the Easter weekend and the Saturday night was a particularly busy one, but still!

It was so nice though to be able to have a wander around without all the people, because that was to change later in the day, and the narrow streets became unbelievably crowded.

First stop was to get breakfast, and I had sone some research and found a couple of places that had been recommended. Peck 47 was a place that came up regularly in my reading, but we chose to go to the other option I had found, MoCafé – mostly because it was closer! It’s located in the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, which reminded me a lot of the well-known Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy.

Galeries Royales Saint Hubert
Galeries Royales Saint Hubert before most of the stores opened and the crowds descended

I, of course, had to have waffles for breakfast. Traditional waffles are generally just covered in sugar, no cream or extras. The idea is that the taste of the waffle should be the star of the meal, not all the accompaniments, but I couldn’t help myself, I had to get some fruit added to my waffles too.

Belgian Waffles
Waffles! Delicious, even if I did stay from the most traditional

As an aside, this is only one of the types of waffles found in Brussels. The second type is called L’Ancienne style, and they are found at supermarkets in packets of six or so. These are made with the sugar already inside of them, and take my word for it, they are a delicious treat. Unfortunately they did not last long enough for a photo!

The city of Brussels in the proud owner of three peeing statues! Yes, you read that right! The first one, Mannekin Pis (we will get to him later) was put in place in the early 1600’s. No one seems to know why the statue was created or if it is of a significant person.

In the 1980’s, some one though that there needed to be some gender equality – if Brussels has a peeing boy, why not a peeing girl too? So Jeanneke Pis was born. She sits (squats?) down a small alley where you will also find the famous pub Delirium (more on that later too!).

Jeanneke Pis
Jeanneke Pis

Then it was off to the stunning Grand Place to meet our guide for a free walking tour of the main sites. We again went with Sandeman’s New Europe. We have had many good free walking tours with them in the past but this one was not one of the best. While the guides always try to be entertaining, and more than one has been aspiring actors, our guide this time took it too far! It was all a bit over the top, and often the group seemed to find it a bit awkward instead of fun. I also sometimes felt that the theatrics left the actual information we were given to be a little thin on the ground.

Grand Place Brussels
The Grand Place. It got a little busy as we passed through later in the day
Starbucks Brussels
Even Starbucks is in a beautiful building in Brussels

Amongst other places, during the tour we walked past Mannekin Pis, the original peeing statue. When we saw him he was naked, but he has around 1000 different outfits and there is a person whose job it is to change what he is wearing regularly. He is clothed for two days, has one day naked, clothed again differently for two days, and so on.

Mannekin Pis
Mannekin Pis in all his glory

As I said above, no one really knows who the statue is of, but one of the popular legends is that it is the Duke Godfrey III of Leuven from back in the twelfth century. At two years old the Duke was too young to lead his troops into battle, so he was instead hung in a tree near the battlefield. Apparently at one stage the enemy came right up to him – and he peed on them! This proved inspirational to his troops, who went on to win the battle.

Whatever the reason this statue is here, it has now become an icon of Brussels. The tourists flock to see the him, and are almost all disappointed at how small he is. In fact, he is often quite a let down. You will likely pass by him anyway while you are in Brussels, but the legend is more interesting than the actual statue – unless of course you want to check out what he is wearing!

One thing our guide did do well during the walking tour was to talk a lot about the local foods and give some good recommendations where to find the best local versions. After the tour I needed a few minutes to sit down and figure out what was next now that we had those new recommendations, preferably somewhere with wifi! Simon also wanted to tick another Hard Rock Cafe off his list, so now was a great opportunity to grab a cooling drink, rest our feet and put together my plan of attack for the afternoon.

We were getting hungry and food had to be one of the real Belgian originals, so Frites it was. Our guide had recommended a tiny place called Friterie Tabora and we discovered once we arrived that it’s really popular – but also really tasty! Basically these are a really good version of hot chips. This little store had 42 different sauces you could pour over the top. There was everything you could possibly imagine. I tried a spicy one called Samurai – again recommended by our guide, and now also by me if you like something with a little bit of a kick.

Friterie Tabora Line
Friterie Tabora is a tiny takeaway shop, but it is very popular!
Friterie Tabora Frites
And finally the fries!

While we were on that side of town, we rounded out our collection with the third of the Brussels peeing statues. This time is was Het Zinneke, a dog with his leg cocked towards a street pole. This guy is not a fountain though, so there is no flowing water involved. While trivial, these statues are kind of fun to seek out – and wonder what the Belgians are going to come up with next.

Het Zinneke
Het Zinneke

Next on the list was the Comics Art Museum, but it was over the other side of the city so we took a few detours as we made our way there – primarily through a few of the beautiful chocolate shops. While these places I am sure are amazing, even just to look at, all year around, on Easter Sunday they are even more beautiful with easter displays in all the windows and some really special products available for sale. We weren’t indulging, but we couldn’t help but pick up a few treats to get us through the next few days.

We picked up some traditional Speculoos biscuits from Maison Dandoy, Champagne Rose and Salted Butter Caramel chocolates from Mary, the first chocolate shop in Brussels by a female, and from Neuhaus, the very first Belgian chocolatier, we got the famous Manon chocolates and the Orangette chocolates.

Maison Dandoy biscuits
A small portion of the goodies for sale at Maison Dandoy
Neuhaus Chocolates
Chocolates from Neuhaus

Our walk also took us through St Michael’s Cathedral – a Notre Dame look-a-like. I am clearly recovered from being all churched out last year because I again loved the stained glass windows and the soaring ceilings. While this church was built about 200 years later than Notre Dame in Paris, it was built by the same “brotherhood” of builders so has many of the same features and design details. This may be a great alternative to see this amazing style while the Paris cathedral is being rebuilt.

St Michaels Cathedral
St Michaels Cathedral
St Michaels window
One of the beautiful stained glass windows in St Michael’s

And then finally we got to the Comic Art Museum. Belgium is where comics were invented, giving us characters known the world over such as Tin Tin, The Smurfs and Asterix. This museum is dedicated to them, and all the thousands of characters the locals know and love but we have never heard of.

There is so much detail about the work that goes into the comics and all of the different styles, as well as sections on some of the most famous authors. I was finding it interesting, but it was really hot and stuffy on the higher floors. There was no air movement at all and there were lots of people looking around in a small space. I would have stayed longer and enjoyed it more  if it wasn’t for the heat inside.

Comic Art Museum
The pencil-drawn draft on the left and the final pen version on the right
Comic Art Museum
Some of the larger pieces of artwork on display at the Comic Art Museum

We were heading back into the city centre, and this time there was no distraction – Simon was on a mission, and it involved beer! There is a bar in Brussels with more than 3000 beers from around the world available, so while here, he had to test out a couple! Delirium is actually a group of bars, all located next door to each other. Each has it’s own style and specialty. There are so many different beers though, that any one of them will have more than enough options for someone popping in for a casual beer just to try something new.

Delirium Bar Brussels
One of the many bars that make up Delirium

Just one more thing to tick off the list before I could get an early night in preparation for tomorrow’s stupidly early morning, and that was to eat mussels. Mussels are a particularly renowned food in Brussels – is it just because of the rhyming words??

We stopped at the well known, but uber touristy, Chez Leon. We had mussels and another Belgian food called stoemp. Both were pretty good. Service on the other hand was a bit average. It was like our waiter was having a temper tantrum all night! We were fairly early for dinner by European standards, and it wasn’t very busy, but this poor guy just didn’t seem to be able to cope. Hopefully he was just having a bad day and service is not always like that.

A pot of Mussels from Chez Leon

By the time we had eaten, the jet lag was well and truely kicking back in and I needed to get some sleep.

In the morning we took a walk around the area of Schaerbeek where we were staying, looking for a place open to get coffee. It appears not too many places open that early on a public holiday though. We did eventually find a little cafe called Miracle, and according to Simon who loves his coffee, it was just that! Actually, it was more of a dingy little smoke-filled bar that would be more at home serving beers in the evening, but the coffee was cheap and good.

We also came across a local market and picked up some delicious fruit, and of course a baguette, which would make up our lunch while on the bus later in the day.

From there we checked out of our hostel, and made our way to the Brussels-Nord station, where the buses run from. I expected some sort of bus station, but this was really just a parking place for buses near the train station. It was some sort of organised chaos, and we watched for about 45 minutes before realising our bus wasn’t a green Flixbus that I had booked on, but a red one up the road!

But our bus was on time, comfy enough, and a cheap, easy way to get to Luxembourg City, just up the road!

Want to read more about our European adventures? Have a look at these posts
Travel Diaries – Paris
A Day Trip to Versailles from Paris
Things to do in Porto, Portugal

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