As I post up sans WI-FI for the next two hours at the Brussels Gare du Midi train station, I find it to be a perfect time to reflect upon my stay here. I will try not to let my lackluster arrival and delayed departure cloud the overall positive tone of my stay in Belgium.
The high speed train links Paris and Brussels, a distance of just under 200 miles, in 1 hour 20 minutes. You do the math, but the train is damn fast. My train pulled into Brussels at just after 10:15 Saturday morning, which you can imagine is a relatively busy time at the station. I immediately made my way towards the Metro entrance, knowing nothing about Brussels, my hotel location, or the Metro network other than the fact that I needed to get off at the Madou station. It would seem likely that a simple metro map would be all I needed to figure out my way. I have rode metro systems in many cities before. They certainly are not all laid out the same way, but the premise is still the same. Get on the line you desire, headed in the direction of your stop. However, Brussels finds metro maps to be cumbersome apparently. There were no metro maps anywhere! Only simple signs with line colors and numbers (of which I had no clue what line the Madou station was on). After a lengthy wait in line, the not-so-friendly attendant sold me a ticket, gave me a map, and promptly ushered me in the right direction. She did answer my question, but did not seem eager to assist or speak English with me. It was a scary introduction to a city that I have heard so many positive stories about. And soon I would come to find out that she was merely one small face to an incredibly diverse, beautiful, and altogether friendly city-and country!
Making my way on the correct Metro train, I figured that the hard part was accomplished. I had checked the location of my hotel on the internet before departing Paris and saw that the Madou station was right next to it, score! This is actually a surprising feat because the Brussels Metro system leaves much to be desired. I have become very used to the Paris system with its 14 metro lines, five separate regional train lines, a plethora of maps at each station, and an abundance of trains running damn near every minute apart! Any location in Paris can be reached in a decent amount of time, without suffering any crazy long walks. Brussels is a smaller city, granted, but their system could use an overhaul in my opinion. They only have four Metro lines and three tram lines (which I could not figure out how to use). Even then, two of the lines run together for a majority of the time, which seems pretty pointless to me. Only two trains are running in each direction at any given time, making waits at the station up to 10 or 15 minutes long! And there is a LARGE portion of the city that is not serviced by any lines. There were actually a few sights I wanted to visit but decided not to because of this situation (more about my aversion to taxis-pricey, and walking-my feet were ready to fall off, in another post).
I took a gamble arriving in a new city without any knowledge of it: no guidebook, no map, not entirely sure what languages they would accommodate. I can make my way with basic French, but Belgium is a country divided between French and Flemish (Basically Dutch with an accent), and I know zero Dutch. Outside of the Madou station, I started heading in a random direction. This was not exactly the smartest move, but it was downhill and I love a good downhill walk. Maybe I was just wishfully hoping that one freaking walk on this trip would be downhill. Alas, it was not the right direction. I turned around, walked back up the hill. I decided to turn right and take a perpendicular route, for this seemed to be the busier street and I now recalled my Google map showing that my hotel road was off of a major road. Luckily I ran into an incredibly friendly police officer not too far down. Perhaps a little too friendly. Like in my personal space for the majority of our 10 minute conversation friendly. I wanted to ask if he had ever studied the four zones of interpersonal space in sociology, my guess is no. Besides the map/metro issue, I found the demeanor of citizens to be another direct opposite of Paris. The French are very private people, they will not go out of their way to talk to you. Apparently the Belgians are quite different. Of course he did the obligatory, where are you from speech. He was excited that I’m American but bewildered that I wasn’t from New York, Los Angeles or Miami. I have found that many Europeans don’t actually realize that America is huge and there are a wealth of states between coasts. When I said Ohio, he asked if that was by Texas. No, but you are at least getting closer to the mid-west! He was helpful in pointing me in the correct direction (opposite of where I was headed of course) but at least it was a flat route. Had I been a Native American, or at least a girl scout, I would have realized by the sun location that I was walking north when I remembered from my search that I needed to head south. Needless to say, this realization came to me just seconds after I received help.
At this point, I again figured that the hard part was over. And yet again, I was wrong. I must have passed my road because he said it wasn’t too far down and now I’ve walked a kilometer. My feet have begun to hurt and I have a long weekend ahead of me to have aching feet already. I decided to throw another 2 euros down the drain and just hop back on he metro when I saw a sign for the Troon station. I had walked two stations down and never found my hotel! The one redeeming point of my being lost was that I walked by the United States Embassy. It actually warranted taking a picture because they have the sidewalk and road in front of it closed off and guarded at all times. Interesting, scary, and yet comforting all at the same time. At least I now know where I could go if I needed help during my stay in Brussels.
This time when I departed at Madou, I was determined to find this freaking hotel. Having burnt up over an hour of my precious sightseeing time by looking for this hotel, I was possibly not in the best mood. I combed over the area again, looking at every street sign (posted on the sides of buildings) for Rue du Congres. Nowhere in sight! I saw two guys walking down the street and speaking English so I took another chance. Did they know where Rue du Congres was? Why yes, of course, it is hard to find but their hotel was on that street too. I was basically one street over from where I needed to be but it was not my fault that I couldn’t find my way. Where the road broke off from the main street, there was a plaza and from that plaza the road broke into two different directions. The only signs I could find in the plaza were the name of the plaza, and I needed the north road headed out of the plaza. Once I found my hotel, I was a thrilled to hear that I could check in even though it was only noon. I deposited my belongings in my room (quite nice I must add), asked the front desk for a map, and headed out into Brussels!
I would have loved to head downtown to the Grand Place right away but I had other business to attend to first. To the north of town, luckily off of a metro stop, is the Bruparck which houses a fantastic Mini-Europe park and the famous Atomium. Getting there is no small feat due to the cumbersome Metro system. I was required to ride through a staggering 19 stations, with one train change, before arriving at my destination. Once I arrived, I immediately saw the Atomium and headed that direction. Starving for lunch by this point, I savored my first true Belgian waffle outside the entrance. The waffle was a warm respite from the freezing temperatures. Let me side-note about my awful packing decisions here. I only brought a light jacket to Paris, no gloves, no hat, no boots. I have regretted this decision a few times in France but never more than Saturday in Belgium. I layered with every piece of clothing in my bag, but it was still not enough.
I snapped a few pictures of the Atomium but had no real desire to go inside. As we all know, I’m on a tight budget and I’m not a fan of heights anyway. The Atomium was built as part of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn with interiors by architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102 m (335 ft) tall. It has nine 18 m (59 ft) diameter stainless steel spheres that connect to form a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. CNN named the Atomium Europe’s most bizarre building.
Then my search began for Mini-Europe, the true reason I had suffered the long trip to the northern part of the city. There were no signs pointing in its direction. There was one small “You are Here” map just under the Atomium, though it did not give the correct location of where I was, and the same map was in a few different locations. Excuse me, how can I be in multiple places at once? I walked around for at least 30 minutes in the freezing cold trying to find this freaking Mini-Europe. I tried to head in the direction that the “You are Here” map showed to no avail. I even returned to that same map multiple times in an attempt to figure out my surroundings. Finally with my last shred of pride and resolve summoned, I found myself headed in the correct direction. I heard voices of people viewing the mini buildings but still could not figure out how to get inside the fence. I walked around more. I turned in the other direction and walked more. FINALLY that last up hill walk deposited me semi-close to the entrance. I was so thrilled I would have paid 50 euros and my right arm to finally get in. Although still a hefty price at 14 euros and despite the freezing temperatures, I was determined to savor each building in the display just to prove that the trip was worth it.
Mini-Europe is a delight for anyone loving history, architecture, or mini models. I happen to love all three. In writing this article, I have learned that the park and its nearby watermark, Océade, will be permanently closing their doors on August 31, 2013. Redevelopment of the area, including a mall, hotels, housing, offices, and a convention center are forcing it to close. So everyone better get their butts over to Brussels in the next few months. Each building in Mini-Europe is constructed at a 1:25 scale and displays great detail. Roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented. Please read more here. Had it been a warmer day, I would have loved to devote more time to looking over each model, but the cold and wind forced me through very quickly. Despite the hassle, I am very glad that I made the trip to see this architecture-nerd’s paradise before it closes for good.
I am now at least sitting on my train, although we are still delayed. I realize this particular post only focuses on the negative aspects of my trip to Belgium although I promised it would not. Trust me, the trip was great, and you will have time to read all about that. But traveling isn’t always sunshine and roses. International travel is never easy, and that’s one reason why I love it. It forces me to let go of my schedule, say what the heck, and go with the flow. I take pride in my general ability to read a map and usually find my way around, but sometimes it takes getting lost to truly be found.