Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bumming around Brulgium (part I)

A few weeks ago I got itchy feet and decided to *finally* make the short journey over the border to see Belgium (or Brussels at least, although the country's so damn tiny that there seems to hardly be a difference). While anxious for a change of scenery, I can't say that I was exactly "enthusiastic" about the trip. For starters, Brussels/Belgium (Brulgium?) has always seemed to be a tackier, less-cultured version of the European capitals I know and love--it's like the redneck illegitimate child of Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin (linguistically, too!). Perhaps the best indicator of Brulgium's oddball identity can be found in its music; while England is known for its charmingly goofy Beatles, France for the classy crooning of Edith Piaf, Germany for the hardcore, sexualized mosh music of Rammstein, Brulgium's only notable contribution to the music scene is this, the beginnings of corny europop music that America imported only to pipe into gyms and during the seventh inning stretch at Baseball games.

Not to mention that my last experience in Brulgium was like one of those moments in a bad movie where some dumb character keeps saying "well, at least things can't get any worse". (We blew out a rental car tire in bumfuck, Brulgium, then waited several hours in a snowstorm for a replacement donut tire, only to be forced to turn back from our destination of Amsterdam to fight with Hertz in Northern France. Talk about a buzz kill.) Having learned my lesson, I opted to forgo the rental car this time and stick with the ultra cheap if slightly sketchy Eurolines bus service. This way, when the curse of Brulgium struck at around 11pm, it was on the bus driver and the owner of the nearby totaled car to work things out:
After about 20 minutes (and the arrival of an almost equal number of emergency vehicles), we realized that the bus wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon. Luckily, we had already crossed the Brulgium border, so we knew that we couldn't be too far from our destination. Shouldering our packs, we set off through the dark towards Brussel's Gare du Nord tram station. I've always complained that the Parisian metro system is not very user-friendly, but over the course of the weekend, Brulgium's slow and unmarked "metro"/tram/bus system (and the system of tickets that are impossible for foreigners to purchase and seem to make no difference anyway) made me appreciate my own in comparison. The rainy, dark walk through unknown territory wasn't particularly stimulating, and confusion over ticket buying meant we only just caught the last tram into the city, but fortunately, the city looked much more inviting by the light of day the next morning. Albeit poorly organized, the trams (and their cables and tracks) did give the city a charming olde towne appearance:

What struck me most about Brulgium was how much it seemed to be in contradiction with itself. (for anyone who watches that video and is as OCD as I am, I apologize for the misspelling of "totally"). Or to put it in pictures, Brulgium was an interesting mix of old, Cathedral-rich picturesque Europe:
And new, economic capital:

A mix of more modern, green central plazas:
And the more traditional central Grand Place, the market square in front of the Town Hall:
A mix of touristed streets of restaurants and bars:
And the less crowded (but equally interesting) places where normal Brulgiuns went about their daily lives:
I was a fan of the many pieces of public installation art, in particular this homage to the Queen of England, whose knights reminded me of chess pieces:

(to be continued...)

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