Belgium

BelgiumDestinationsEuropeFoodWestern Europe

The Brouhaha of Brugge

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Yet another day trip to Brugge, and as the travel guides promised, that place is overhyped and insanely touristy. I reached there smack in the mid-morning of the weekend and a bustling market was already in place selling mostly old women’ clothing, lace, hardware and other bric-a-bracs. The lace shops are undoubtedly tourist traps but also hark back to the era when Brugge was a textile powerhouse, and lace was one of the many materials that merchants dabbled in during its heyday.

I was momentarily outraged that I had to pay a good dollar for a map, but the soothing nature of the girl in the tourist office helped take the edge off. Maybe that is why they hire mild-mannered people for this very reason.

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The historic town filled to the brim with people piling onto boats for a ride down the canals. Maybe the midday sun helped the “romantic” atmosphere none. The look of the city has hardly changed since the high middle ages when it gained its charter in the 12th century. The thriving cloth and spice industries and the involvement of the hanseatic merchants did lots to improve its stature among the great European trading centres of its time. While London was in still its infancy, this town thrived and nearly burst at its seams, until its eventual decline when the river Zwijn shifted its course and silted up. By the 16th century, only memories of its former glory remained.

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Let’s just say Antwerp surprised me, and Brugge disappointed me. The city was always on the verge of photogenic greatness, but fell short because of some minute detail that looked out of place. What a shallow standard to judge a city. Nonetheless, it is easy to get lost in another time walking past the strange buildings and the haphazard manner of lanes.

Walked around the touristy bit near the Grote Markt, before trying some typical Flemish dishes in De Vlaamsche Pot serving typical Flemish dishes. Their pet bulldogs (one fat, and one small) appeared each time people came to eat, and one head-butted me all too often. After lunch, I walked around even more, completing a diagonal trek around the historic centre bounded by the canal only to be disappointed by the less magnificent sight of a few straggling windmills.

I decided there and then that the sights were quite enough; I didn’t want to enter any more basilicas/cathedrals that celebrate their acquisition of some part of Christ’s body or the security of some Apostle’s creed or to see some statue that is reportedly the only one in the world.

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BelgiumDestinationsEuropeWestern Europe

A day in Antwerp

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The foray in Antwerp began from the impressively massive Antwerpen Centraal Train station, a masterpiece unto itself. They are still expanding it to add more shops in its staggering 3-5 storey-high building, with train platforms nearly on each level.

The distance of about a km and a half paves the way from the central station to the historic core (Grote Markt) is a massive pedestrian vein known as the “Meir” of shops ranging from the kitsch to the large department stores.

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Antwerp is known for its avant-garde designers and has since become a shopping magnet for hard core shoppers. I walked around the historic centre for a while, and wondered how long it would be before I filled myself to saturation point with 16th century gothic guild houses.

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Past the historic centre to the small river Scheldt, lies a strange statue of Lange Wapper at the foot of the Steen castle (now a maritime museum). According to 16th century Flemish folklore, the Lange Wapper is a legendary character whose powers include inexhaustible ways of changing his form and height to – guess what – get close to the women or drink their breast milk.

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Some stories say that on one occasion he disguised himself as a newly-starched white handkerchief and lay down on the street. He was picked up by an unsuspecting passer-by and ended up in the pocket of her skirt. On another occasion he took the form of a newborn baby and laid himself on a stone bench outside the Butcher’s Hall pretending to be a foundling. A woman who had just given birth to a child took pity on the crying baby and gave him her breast.

The debauched medieval mind makes me feel so much better about the century I’m living in.

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BelgiumDestinationsEuropeWestern Europe

The unofficial capital of the EU

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Sleeping off the stress associated with missing luggage works wonders. With that cat-nap behind me, thinking suddenly becomes easier, and Brussels suddenly looked more beautiful. Did I mention that my bag finally arrived on a separate plane, chauffeured to my hostel?

I am also now clean and scrubbed, thank god, but my room still smells like a sewer every couple of hours.

2Go4 Hostel Brussels is the place (strange name), on Boulevard Emile-Jacqmainlaan, and a sneaky 2 streets parallel from the shopping stretch.

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Walk down a mile more and hit the Brussels’ central tourist catchment area (or trapment area), the Grand Place/ Grote Markt/ Grande Place, some World Heritage site which the Belgians simply acknowledge as ‘too many people’. The architecture is even cheerfully gothic. The people speak French, Dutch, Flemish and some other dialects that sound like American English shouted aloud under water.

Weirdness is worshipped. Where else in the world do you have a status of a pissing boy (the Mannaken Pis) as an icon?

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The rage right now, is to be seen eating the rectangular waffles with cream (only tourists ask for extra sauce) and sit down in some chocolate cafe.

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I can live happily with all of that.

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BelgiumDestinationsEuropeWestern Europe

Misadventures in Brussels

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Ingredients for misadventures:

Take –
1. smelly, beer-swirling, alcohol-loving fat man
2. A less fat Korean man with a nasal English accent

Put #1 and #2 together, mix with
3. Lousy Airline Food (poor excuse for Chinese fried rice and watery egg)

Vigorously fold in
4. Incompetent baggage handling

Garnish with
5. Nose bleeds

For dessert: Throw in many loud-mouthed, vocabluary-challenged teenage Americans enjoying their gap-year thronging every corner of the hostel and several thieves who shoplift their way through the city.

As far as I know, all these have happened in the space of the last 12-18 hours.

“Your bag is still in Amsterdam,” some baggage handler said curtly as I stood in an ominous dusty room next to the Brussels’ Airport Arrival hall carrying literally all but the clothes on my body and that backpack. Just outside that room was an LCD screen proudly proclaiming the fastest luggage handling time as part of their ‘performance indicators’.

Excuse me while I choke.

As I type, I am still wearing the same old clothes.

So I’ll be in Brussels waiting for some unknown time tonight when the luggage finally arrives, wearing the same icky clothes, too tired even to use the excuse to go shopping.

But the quick update so far is this:
Horrible, crowded flight, and had hardly any sleep. I had a choice between sitting next to a fat man who stank of stale beer and cigarettes, who wore sunglasses the whole time, and spoke with a dubious Russian accent, and sitting next to a Korean man who resembles someone I actually know.

The transit in Amsterdam was quick and the 30 minutes flight to Brussels was an anti-climax and all hope of checking in early to get a bath and some shut-eye disappeared when the last but equally important piece of luggage decided to stay back a while longer in sin-city. Even then, I walked through the old town for a while, and could not quite enjoy it yet until I know I’m clean with some proper change of clothing and some hours of sleep behind me.

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