Monday, June 08, 2009

Travel to the land of Tintin : Brussels, Belgium

It’s been two weeks since my return from Brussels and somehow I have been kept busy and not able to write about it. Finally, today I start when my proteins are spinning upstairs leaving me a bit relaxed in the office. Every time, my experiences are written like a guide book, but this time, I would like to write it like a journal entry or perhaps like experience sharing. Either way, I can tell you, it might be a bit long!

Brussels Zuid or Brussels Midi, the main station is just 100 minutes away from Aachen, Germany. The fast trains are a pleasure to travel inspite the fact that Deutche bahn (German rail) is always very expensive. But luck brought a 38 Euro two way ticket to me!

First things first! Everyone speaks English! Relief, especially after the sign language and grunts in Paris! Brussels is nearly the centre of Europe and had 3 official languages, Dutch, French and English. Though you can hear people dabbling away in French, they also speak good English. I didn’t hear them speak Dutch but there were advertisements and announcements. Who cares as long as they all speak English!! Makes your travel much easier and allows you to get lost happily.

Brussels is very well laid out. Makes touristic travel very cheap since all the important visits are situated around the Grote Mart or the grand place. It lives up to its name, grand place, for it is really grand. Grandeur comes to this place from its oldness. The minute you stand in the centre of the Grote mart, flanked by the Flemish bell towers and the magnificent buildings, you feel transported back to the medieval times. The place smells of roasted nuts, caramel, ice creams, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate! There are pubs and restaurants and it makes the place very enjoyable.

Situated around the grand place are the churches, Royal palace, Belgium centre for fine arts, the comic strip museum and the Mannekin Pis. A couple of minutes in the metro will take you to the Atomium and the mini Europe. I did not visit the mini Europe because I did not want the miniatures to spoil my fantasy of standing before the originals. Probably I will visit mini Europe after I have visited all of Europe!

Brussels is the birth place of Tintin amongst other cartoon characters. As a kid, I grew up on him and liked the characters very much. To actually be in Brussels, was very exciting for me, just to satisfy the Tintin hunger! Cartoons painted over several walls and buildings all around the city boast of its glorious cartoon characters and their creators.

Belgium is a very beautiful country and the travel within Belgium is very cheap, even at 300Kmph! I bought tickets to Antwerp, Ghent and Brugge in the fast trains, both ways for just 21 Euros! Enchantingly tourist friendly!

The train from Brussels to Antwerp takes 40 minutes, at 300Kmph and as usual, the very first thing that attracted me in Antwerp, more than its diamonds is the really antique look of the railway station. Though modernisation is evident interiors, the structure is perfectly antique and massive.

Walking out of the station brings you right to the diamond centre of the world. Inspite the fact that business has changed hands from the Jews to the Gujjus (no offence meant!), the best diamonds are still out of reach for me at the moment! The Meir is the shopping street of Antwerp and seriously, wow! Women will freak out shopping here. The French impression is well seen when it comes to fashion and the Dutch impression is seen on the architecture. Exotic blend I would say. The city centre of Antwerp has less to offer but the Rubin house is really worth the visit when it comes to appreciating painting. The huge metal guy looking down on you near the harbour really gets into you when you look around the brilliantly shaped city and the once biggest harbour of the world. Incidentally, Congress party will have an easy victory in Antwerp since the symbol for Antwerp is the Hand (Antwerp – from the hand).

Ghent is another beautiful city, 30 minutes from Brussels. It was a merchant controlled town laid out in great perfection. Absolutely easy to navigate by foot with the tourist map, Ghent is a real good destination for walking tour buffs like me. Oh yeah, not to forget the awesome soup I had there. I was automatically attracted to the soup salon serving only vegetarian soups with various toppings. Brilliant!

Brugge is further 30 minutes from Ghent and is considered to be the best romantic spot in the world. Well, I would not argue much for I also felt the same way when I saw the city. It’s a city which has everything. Canals, churches, a perfect city centre, boats, walks and cycle routes. It is really a huge city and would take an entire day to enjoy its history by walk and by water. Unfortunately I could not spend the evening there, but then yeah, I wasn’t with the perfect companion either!

A surprise inclusion in the trip was Ostendee. It’s a beach and was hyped to be great. Well, being brought up on the seaside, it was not thrilling for me, just a blank, bland beach. I would any day rate our good old Marina as more happening and exciting. Not even babes in bikini decorated the vast emptiness. May be it was not the season yet, but this place holds nothing special.

Waterloo would seem an exciting bet as soon as you hear the name and imagine Napoleon at war and conquered. But trust me, its nothing more than a hill with a lion on top and green fields beneath. Well, the light and sound shows and museums might be of interest, but missing this place owing to a tight budget or time is no blasphemy.

Coming to the issue, food and people. Well, non vegetarians will love the food since Belgium boasts of one of the finest sea food. Me being a vegetarian always had French fries, pizzas, falafels and the likes to fill my stomach. No complains since it was cheap and always allowed place for Australian ice creams. This is the best selling brand here and the scoops are always extra big! People are tourist friendly and like every city, the night life always attracts. Brussels is safe and locals willingly help you with directions. This city also boasts highly about its gay population and yet again it is not a threat to any male tourist!

Shopping can get very addictive in Brussels. Being the French like in fashion, Brussels offers every new fashion you can imagine of. And chocolates! I think there are more chocolate bars in Brussels than the bricks that would have gone into constructing the city!
Every street has chocolatiers making home made chocolates and selling them and you get to choose from unheard but tempting varieties!

On the whole, Brussels is an ideal place to camp and move around Belgium and even entire of Europe. Its cheap and fast railways and international airport offers the best and quick connectivity.