I think the universe wanted to make sure that we experienced Belgium when we found tickets to Brussels from Denver for $400. There are so many things to like about Belgium- art everywhere, diversity, a trilingual population (people speak French, Dutch and English, most speak even more), great beer, chocolate and waffles just to name a few. We spent a couple of days in Brussels and four days in Bruges. I'm hoping we make it back because it feels like the adventures there have just begun. My Brussels highlights (so far) were street art, meeting our greeter Freddy and hanging out in the "brown cafe" where surrealist painter Magritte drank his Belgian beers, some pretty epic shawarma and chocolate, of course.
Both the Brussel-ian sense of humor and love of color and design is evident from walking the streets where the street art juxtaposes against the old Flemish buildings (characterized by stair-stepping up to a point at the tip of the building), grey weather and cobblestone streets. Apparently the city is known for it's comic strip murals, which they say, "pay[s] tribute to characters and authors of the Franco-Belgian comics on the walls in the Pentagon (city centre) and Laeken." It felt like there's a visual treat to be had around every corner. This fantastic street art map includes designated walking tours.
I very much appreciated this repurposed fire-hose being used as the "fabric" of the gates to the firehouse. Way to re-use materials!
The Brussel-ian sense of humor that our greeter Freddy told us about was on full display when we walked past the landmark "Manneken Pis" which is a sculpture of a little boy peeing into the basin of a fountain. On that day he had been transformed into a fully-dressed fire fighter (I assume that was his costume) just peeing away. See the lil pisser image below. Apparently decorating public art is a world-wide obsession not just a past-time of Durang-a-tangs.
On our second day in Brussels we shook off the jet-lag and hustled over to the Marolles neighborhood to meet our friendly Brussels greeter Freddy. Another new discovery- there is a Global Greeter Network of people that will meet up with you and show you their town, for free! It's the un-monetized version of AirBnb's "Experiences" and our experience was awesome! Freddy gamely led us and our wild four year old around the city on a cold and rainy day, patiently explaining bits of history and pointing out important landmarks while I tried to prevent Finn from catching pigeons and licking the city dirt off of his hands.
We ended our tour in Belgium's revered surrealist painter Rene Magritte's favorite "brown cafe" ‘La Fleur en Papier Doré.’ The tiny bar is cozy and full of life. The walls are covered with drawings, inscriptions and framed photos and they are literally brown from years of smoke. The traditional beef stew and stoempe (Belgian mashed potatoes) hit the spot on that rainy day. We struck up a conversation with the young owner of the bar who had spent some time in the U.S. He asked us about traveling with kids, we asked him about life in Belgium. Paul and I were both a little surprised to hear that he said he would prefer to live in the U.S. because taxes are lower and you can make more money. Ah ha, we had stumbled upon a classic case of the grass being greener! As we were falling in love with his country and lamenting the state of politics in ours, he had done just the same. How interesting. If he hadn't been working and we hadn't been tending to a busy little boy, I'm sure we would have learned more. I'm still curious...
Of course, we sampled at least 20 different beers over our time in Belgium and the Cantillon Gueuze was my favorite. We were told the brewery tour is pretty cool, especially on a rainy day. But I liked this beer chandelier the best!
Finn and I stumbled across it in Bruges' Historium (the site where Finn got to play king in the picture below). The artist Michael Stailstofer says that his floating beer fridge entitled "Hangover" has over 300 bottles of Duval on it and the more you drink the lighter the room becomes. I think Uncle Kenyon needs one of these babies.
Then there's the famous chocolate that is literally EVERYWHERE. I'm no chocolate expert, but we had some damn fine earl grey and matcha flavored bites that were pretty heavenly. And the shawarma from Le'Express just off the Grand Place deserves a mention too. The purveyor was a Lebanese man who kindly gave us samples of all his fare to help make our decision a bit easier. YUMMMY!!! And yes, Adam we did have our fair share of pomme frites. I found that mostly they seemed salt averse which makes for a pretty boring strip of fried potato in my opinion.
Bruges is a very touristy town, even in cold rainy late March. Tourists flock here for good reason, the place is darling. It must be a pain-in-the-ass to live there. Despite it's middle-ages cobble-stone charm, some of the public art was surprisingly contemporary.
Take a look at this guy. He's a wooden man suspended from the top of a box and sliced horizontally every few inches. There's a sensor in the tree right next to his glass box and the sign says that he dances every 15 minutes. I think the sensor must have gone out but I enjoyed just standing there waiting for the wooden figure to come to life. Then it dawned on me that maybe the real public art is watching the people wait for the man to awaken! I hope we put on a good show.
Let us out!!!
And these bikes- public art or were they left behind by drunken sailors many years ago?
On a recommendation from the hosts of our AirBnb we tried 'Carpe Diem' for a delightful Belgian breakfast. Fresh coffee, hand squeezed orange juice, lovely bread and jam and the fabled Belgian waffle. Fantastic! Even though we were a bit unruly in what felt like a serious kind of a place, the waitstaff were kind and even doting on Finn while laughing at his antics. He thinks it's funny to hiss like a cheetah and speak nonsense instead of real words at the moment. I have no idea where he got that from.
In terms of public spaces, Bruges was well made (in my opinion). What I find most amazing is that this, and other quaint European towns, were built many centuries ago and yet they still "feel" right. It's like they found the perfect formula for scale of buildings, public squares, uses, landscaping and decorative elements that consummately accommodates the people who use them. Amazingly, many contemporary European towns like Bruges have adapted, rather than bulldozed. They've built smaller cars, made extensive use of other modes of transit and incorporated lots of small but incredibly satisfying public spaces.
Like this sweet little community garden area in the Minnewater area. What a pleasant place to escape the tourists!
Even their public benches are interesting. Who doesn't want to sit on a dragon bench?! Finn wishes we had one at home.
And now we've landed in Syracusa Sicily where the sun is shining and the sea is bright blue. Pretty damn good!
Finn and I are in the midst of a face-off with the flu but I'm hoping that we're on the tail-end and that Paul is able to avoid it altogether.
More adventures to come!
If Finn were king...
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Big hugs!! E