Wednesday, May 5, 2010

European, Work trip

M. here. As A. alluded to, I'm currently in Brussels, Belgium. The rationale for the trip is a workshop that I'll be attending on Thursday and Friday to help the European Commission think through the process of establishing a couple of large research programs. I wrote a report detailing some historical examples, mostly from the US, which will factor into the discussion, so it should be interesting. Since I didn't want to be totally jet-lagged for the meeting, I decided to fly into Brussels a day early and let my body adjust a bit through the healing powers of chocolate, beer, waffles, mussels, and bad Jan-Claude Van Damme movies (of which there are none; Bloodsport remains to this day one of the finest revenge/karate movies ever made.) So far, I've managed beer and chocolate. I passed on a couple of tourist-trap waffle places today and fear that mussels may be out of season. I haven't turned on the hotel TV yet, but assume that there is a Belgian station dedicated to their patron son of the martial arts, the Muscles from Brussels.

Before providing you with a pictorial of my five hour walking tour of Brussels, let me note a few observations:
1) Having spent my entire life in a "new" country, I've totally under appreciated parallel and perpendicular roads. US urban planners have it easy, with their blank sheets of land to develop. Try modernizing a city that's been around for half a millennium.
2) Cobble stone, while quite lovely to look at, is a bit tough on the ol' feet after a couple of hours.
3) Thank God the majority of the world grows-up learning English. I noticed this first in Vietnam, but it wasn't such a big deal because I was traveling with co-workers. This trip, however, I'm completely on my own. So, while I can piece together some French (thank you Grandpa Milo for sharing your college adventures in French class during fishing trips), it's reassuring to know that I can fall-back on English if needed, which is every time I'm saying something other than Thank You. Basically, I've specialized in Merci!

So, without further ado, my day in pics (guided by my faithful Frommer's):

We begin with my home-base for this trip, the NH Hotel du Grande Sablon, conveniently located near most of the touristy interests.

Next up is an example of the juxtaposition I guess you expect from cities that have been around for 500+ years. Yes, that's a fairly modern bowling alley tucked behind a really, really, really old brick wall that's been preserved.

We move now to Le Sablon, where a beautiful garden is best seen from an elevated vantage point. The really big spire in this picture...

...belongs to one of the amazing building surrounding Grand' Place. Protected by crowded medieval streets bustling with tourists, restaurants, and chic shops, Grand' Place definitely has a Wow factor. According to Frommer's, this used to be the administrative hub of Brussels in the 1600's, with each of the buildings housing the all-important guilds. The Gothic architecture is overflowing with details that depict the guilds crafts. Now, it's a great place to people-watch and take in the "how do they keep it so shiny?" gold accents on the buildings.

More Grand' Place.

Yet more Grand' Place.

God, please no more Grand' Place.

On second thought, maybe Grand' Place pictures weren't so bad! Those in the know will recognize this little fella' as Mannekin-Pis, who apparently has become something of an icon for Brussels. As one of a million different legends goes, Brussels was being invaded by (insert any number of groups that have sacked Brussels). As the soldiers marched on the city, a boy took up residence in a tree and "showered" them with insults. The rest, as they say, is history. It's now one of the largest tourist traps in the world. I've been to Wall Drug. I've seen the World's Largest Ball of Twine. I've toured the Corn Palace. This beat those hands down.

If you leave the Grand' Place in a certain direction, you wind through some very cool cobblestone corridors. If you're lucky, you'll stumble on the the Galeries St. Hubart, which has to be the original mall. Basically, it's a really long glass roof over a narrow street, with cool shops all along the way.

Next stop is the Cathedrale des St. Michel et Ste. Gudele, a 16th century Gothic church where members of the Belgium royal family are married and crowned. I was amazed by the fact that much of the outer edge of the floor is actually comprised of the top of crypts (I'm sure there's a more accurate description). In this picture, you're looking down the main aisle of the church. The statues depicted on each column are the 12 disciples.

This picture is for you, mom. Pretty awesome organ pipes, don't you think?

Finally, what trip would be complete without a trip to Palais Royal to see the current royal family. What? Oh, they prefer a different home in the 'burbs. So, this one just pretty much sits empty then? Huh. Not a bad second home, I'd say.

Finally, after all of my walking around, I decided to treat myself to a late lunch (or early breakfast since my internal clock is all screwed up). Thank you, waiter at L'entree des Artistes, for allowing me to order by pointing at a random entree on the French menu. I now know that Boulettes are meatballs, which is nice. Lunch was accompanied by a cold glass of Belle Vue Kriek, a cherry beer. Delightful!


  1. I am so, so, so jealous! I am glad you had a nice day out! I hope the rest of your visit is also wonderful!

  2. Mark, this is awesome! I'm also jealous. Did you know that Jean Claude is actually FROM the Belgian village Van Damme? I biked through there on a tour once! (I don't know if I should be embarrassed about that story or if I should proudly tell it.)

  3. When you get back, you'll have to go to this Belgian restaurant in Olney - yes, it's called Mannequin Pis!!
    (And check out the mouse pointer when you go to the site..LOL)

  4. The restaurant is too much! Love the cursor; what impressive range for such a young lad. Couldn't help but notice that their menu contains a pis salad. Really? Who's going to order that with a straight face.