Day 1. Dad headed off to his conference from Gare de Bruxelles-Nord, mum and I headed out of the hotel to look for a tram into the city. There was a tram stop not far from the hotel, and there were a few locals patiently waiting. We asked the hotel where we could buy tram tickets, but we were told we just bought it from the driver when we got on.
When we got on the tram a local was explaining to the driver they didn’t have exact change for the ticket, and the driver was explaining they didn’t have any change for any notes. This conversation continued for sometime, all while the tram continued to barrel down the road. Eventually the local got some change from someone else on the tram and bought their ticket. We then started to have the same conversation with driver. We found enough change in coins to buy the tickets, validated them in the orange box, and then we got off the tram almost immediately. It really wasn’t far into the town.
All of the art galleries were still closed, it wasn’t yet 9AM, and they didn’t open till a much more civil 11AM on the weekends. We wandered around, looking for the occasional patch of Wi-Fi coverage, before deciding to head to the central station and catch a hop on hop off tourist bus that would take us around the city. There were two bus lines, a red and a blue that covered separate sides of the city. The first one we took was the longer route, and it included the Basilica and the European Parliament. The bus had an audio guide that we listened to with little earphones. It was a good way to see a lot of the town while remaining seated. I still hadn’t slept much since leaving Canberra the day before.
Brussels is a very old town, full of cobbled streets, plazas, and alleyways. The bus attacked a few corners at speed that I wouldn’t have been comfortable about approaching in my car, but it always made it through. A few times it was slowed up by a bike in the bike lane, or a guy on a skateboard in the bike lane. There was no horn and no yelling, the bus simply waited its turn. There were bike lanes everywhere. Often streets were one way, but bikes were allowed to go either direction. Bikes were everywhere. The city has an extensive public bike rental system, and everyone else seems to have their own bike. The bike are all completely functional. Drop bar road bikes were a rarity, as was Lycra. Single speed bikes seemed very popular, but not as popular as they are with Melbourne Hipsters. The number of bikes parked at Luxembourg train station was huge.
After completing a full circuit of the bus route, we got off in the centre and headed for something to eat. Mum had been to a little cafe in one of the gallerias and enjoyed it, so we headed back there. They have very specific rules for ordering food. If you sit down, you are waited on, and trying to walk up to the counter and order something extra like a raisin pastry, will just cause confusion. I was quickly told to sit down and someone will come and take my order shortly. I overheard another patron asking for the WiFi password, and successfully negotiated for it myself when our food arrived. After a quick walk around the old centre of Brussels and the main market square we headed back to the second bus.
Again we listened to the audio commentary, firstly in Dutch, before we found the English channel. This route took us up to the Atomium, we visited this again later with dad. After the bus completed a parallel parking manoeuvre with a high degree of difficulty I negotiated with mum to walk back to the hotel from town, instead of attempting to catch a tram for 3 or 4 stops. I followed my nose, and we were soon back near the metro station closest to the hotel. Mum was now happy that the hotel wasn’t too far from town, even if there was an uphill to walk up on the way back.
Day 2 started at a much more leisurely hour. I went over the road to the Carrefour Express to get a pastry or two for breakfast. While it is the equivalent a trumped up 7-11, the quality of the mass produced pastries weren’t bad at all, and they were an awful lot cheaper than breakfast in the hotel. Mum and I headed back into town to visit an art gallery, while dad had his last half a day at his conference. We went to the Royal Museums of Fine Art and looked through the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum, which concentrated on Belgian art from 1880s to 1910s. After a quick snack in the cafe we set off towards the European parliament, to find dad, and visit the Parlamentarium.
The Belgians love adding ‘ium’ to the end of things. The Parlamentarium is a highly-interactive museum looking at the history of European Union and the European Parliament. While there are currently some ongoing issues in Greece related to the Euro currency (well, more towards the economy of Greece, who doesn’t have as many monetary levers to pull, like printing more drachmas, to address issues in the economy which is then impacting the Euro), the European Union, or European Project is quite amazing.
For centuries most Europe had been at war, and yet within a 12 years of the end of World War II France and Germany had agreed to work together, and to even share precious resources both countries had a claim to. The Treaty of Rome setup the European Economic Community, with the idea that it would not only be undesirable for France or Germany to start a war, but almost impossible. To this end, the European project has succeeded. The rate of expansion has been phenomenal when you look at how long most of Europe spent fighting each other compared with the last 60+ years or relative peace between EU member states.
After we finished in the museum we head back to the hotel on a metro train.