I’d settled back into a regular work routine with a new job shortly after arriving in Dublin (a bit too quickly perhaps), fully assessed the impact on my bank balance of 3 weeks jaunting round Australia, converted the rest of my savings to Euros and was finally comfortable and financially secure enough to plan some trips to mainland Europe. Then I spent the rest of my savings on a 2nd hand BMW sports car. The BMW was certainly going to facilitate some weekend trips around the emerald isle, I had already ear-marked some Irish sights to check out, but after a quick look at the price of using a car ferry I realized this vehicle wasn’t going to get me across to the mainland European countries that I had really moved here to see.
Dublin as it turns out is one of the most well connected capital cities in Europe, therefore after some quick investigation on my new favorite travel website Skyscanner, I discovered that cheap return flights to almost any destination in Europe were plentiful around the 100 Euro mark. In fact, there were almost too many destinations to choose – Spain, France, Scotland, Amsterdam . . . it was hard to pick where to start. Wanting to go somewhere new, accessible and most of all affordable, an easy choice emerged – Brussels.
The city promised much – Belgian Beers, Belgian Chocolate, Belgian Mussels, Belgian . . . well, you get the idea, this was definitely going to be a food-centric weekend. After a quick flight, a quick passport check and a taxi to a modestly priced, sparsely furnished and somewhat dubiously located hotel, it was time to get some eating underway and check out what the night-life in Brussels was like. Thanks to a tip from our taxi driver, we were advised that a large concert was underway in the Grote Markt van Brussel (Grand Place – a fairly typical yet still impressive European central market square). My girlfriend and I headed over on foot to see if we could get anywhere near the spectacle.
It wasn’t hard to find as the thick crowds converged on the edges of the square and after some shuffling a quick glimpse of the main stage was made. Dinner however was the priority so the crowd was ditched and the weekend of gluttony began. Indeed Belgium didn’t fail to disappoint and thanks to my girlfriend’s basic yet invaluable French translation skills, we managed to decipher the majority of most menus presented to us. The wine was excellent, the beer even more so, with the variety of Belgian beer offerings simply staggering. Hoegarden as it turns out is Belgian’s cheap stuff, the stuff they export to the rest of the world, the equivalent to Australia’s Fosters, Mexico’s Coronas, America’s Budweisers, Thailand’s Chang… anyways, you get the drift.
Food and drink aside however, Belgium really does hold the mantle of Europe’s most underrated capital city. It doesn’t have the spectacle of Rome’s statues and ruins, but a quick jog through a inner-city park quickly reveals dozens of corroding and graffiti-ed, but still impressive bronze-statues. An accessible and wide-spread public transport network affords easy access to numerous tourist attractions. Mini-Europe, a park consisting of miniature models of recognizable buildings across all of the countries in the European Union is somewhat gimmicky, yet still an excellent way to spend an hour. The Atomium, a giant steel structure in the shape of an Atom is as impressive, if not more so, than Seattle’s Space Needle, though the long lines to wade through at the end of the day in order to reach the top were frustrating.
Shopping options – plentiful, Historical sites – numerous, Night-life – certainly no shortage of options, Affordability – just right. I honestly couldn’t work out why this great city wasn’t higher on most people’s list of must-visit tourist European destinations. Is it because the name conjures childhood traumas of Brussel Sprouts for too many people? Or is it just out-shone by more iconic cities like Rome, Paris and London? Maybe its the fact that Brussels is simply missing one big draw-card… its main attraction Manneken Pis (a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain), the home-city of Jean-Claude Van Damme and the headquarters of the European Union just seems to be one of the countries squashed in between everyone else. And it shows – with French, German and Dutch all official languages and a flag almost identical to that of Germany.
Maybe its for the best… Brussels has a lot going for it and is probably best without any more hordes of tourists, which already overwhelm the most well-known tourist traps. Nevertheless, if I were to recommend a city for a weekend away with beer and food as the top priorities, Brussels would certainly be it.