Brussels, Belgium Friday, 18 April 2014
17.04.2014 - 18.04.2014 15 °C
This is not a rhetorical question, because the entire city of Belgium smells like two things: chocolate and waffles covered in chocolate. If it is possible to gain weight by breathing, it will happen here. But more on that in a moment…
Thus far into the trip (Day 1!) it appears the travel gods are smiling upon us: neither Julie nor I had any air travel difficulties. I had planned on leaving for the Philadelphia airport about 9:00 am, but invoking Burch family standard time, I pulled out of the driveway at 8:45, which put me at the airport approximately four hours ahead of schedule (I have to believe God rewards good travel planning!), which gave me tons of time for one of my favorite airport activities: getting my shoes polished. I and my newly-shiny shoes arrived at JFK from Philadelphia around 2:30 pm yesterday afternoon (it takes two hours to go from Philadelphia to New York by rail—you can do the math on how short of a flight it is. We were up, we were down—there was no cruising altitude.) Anyway, I had tons of time to scope out where Julie’s flight from Columbus was coming in and where we had to go to catch our flight to Brussels, so when Julie’s flight landed, I collected her in short order and we caught the airport shuttle to the newly-renovated Terminal 4. Frankly, I did not find Terminal 4 to be all that and a bag of chips. Lots of high-end shopping, but it’s not like I’m going to invest in a Prada purse on my way out of the country! One interesting thing I did see, though, at both Philadelphia and JFK, were water fountains with special spigots to refill water bottles. Since yours truly had gone to the trouble of purchasing, labeling (with my label maker, of course), and schlepping a new water bottle, I was particularly gratified to see my foresight rewarded! No overpriced airport agua for me. (Told you I was cheap!)
We had a three-ish hour layover at JFK, which gave us time to have a leisurely dinner at Blue Smoke (a BBQ joint, in case you hadn’t guessed) and a scoop of frozen custard at The Shake Shack. (Go to Rita’s—it tastes exactly the same and is about half the price.) We did unhappily discover upon boarding the plane, a 2/3/2 Boeing 767, that we were not seated together. I was in seat 26E (an aisle), while Julie was in 27A. There is no POSSIBLE sequence of seat numbers that would put those two seats together, and since I had to sit beside a very wiggly stranger (you know my feelings about sitting beside people I do not know) for the 7-hour flight to Brussels, I was less than pleased. Delta did redeem themselves somewhat, however, with the quality of their on-demand video system—I finally got to see “Saving Mr. Banks” and watched “Love Actually” for about the 100th time. (I just love it when Hugh Grant offers to have Natalie’s ex-boyfriend murdered by the SAS…”trained killers are just a phone call away.”) And they even managed to get our luggage here with us, though Julie’s bag was about the second-to-last to come off the belt.
I love traveling with Tauck—there was a very tall man waving a very big sign, so we simply followed him to the bus, which deposited us at the very lovely hotel Hotel Amigo, near the Grand Place (or central square) of Brussels. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we stashed our stuff with the bell captain and headed out to explore. That’s when discovered the lovely smell. I imagine it must be what Hershey, Pennsylvania smells like—delicious!
We headed to the Grand Place and found three things: waffle shops, lace shops, and chocolate shops. We hit ‘em all. HARD. Let’s face it: lace makes a terrific souvenir: it’s light and it’s flat. You can infer what you will from that about your trip “prizes,” as Carol Baker calls them! Seriously, there were four or five shops within spitting distance of the hotel (and you know I can’t spit very far!), and we scoured them. I got a lovely piece that is supposed to be a doily, but it’s going to be a very gorgeous new piece of framed wall art when the folks at Fast Frames in Peoples’ Plaza get done with it! They had everything: handmade lace tablecloths with matching napkins (sorry, I didn’t want to take a second mortgage out on the house to buy any of you one of those!); christening gowns, bonnets, and booties; hand-embroidered napkins (wanted a set of those BAD but I’d never let anybody use them, so what would be the point?); tissue box covers; hankies; bridal veils; lace blouses. If it will hold still long enough, somebody has put handmade lace on it!
Then there were the chocolate shops. Oh. My. God. You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a gourmet chocolate shop (Neuhaus, Leonidas…Godiva is the cheap stuff over here.) And there are some shops where there are just giant bowls of truffles and you bag your own, like the old-timey Brachs candy displays we used to see in the grocery store. And it’s all so cute because the Easter stuff is out. We’re talking chocolate eggs with chocolate chicks INSIDE! Nary a Peep to be seen, that’s for sure. I had a lovely cup of true hot chocolate (“chocolat chaud” that was only slightly inferior to that at Angelina in Paris…it needed some whipped cream), and picked up a few small bars for emergency trip rations.
Coming in on the bus from the airport, we passed a museum flying a banner that touted “The Art of The Brick.” We asked the concierge here at the hotel, and he said that the building was the Bourse, which it turned out is not far from the hotel. We thought we’d go check it out—just the banner pictures were incredibly intricate and intriguing—but when we got there the line was absolutely INSANE and most of the members of said line were prepubescent, so we “Eiffel-towered it:” we took a picture and got the hell out of Dodge!
Instead, we decided to visit the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, or “The Art of the Comic Strip” museum. The comic strip was essentially invented in Belgium, and they have quite an extensive (and cerebral) museum dedicated to it in a gorgeous Art Nouveau building. There was lots of exhibit space devoted to Tin-tin, a beloved Belgian cartoon character, but we came to see one thing: The Smurfs! That’s right, the creator of the beloved Smurfs was Belgian, and there was some exhibit (and gift shop!) space dedicated to the little blue guys. Sadly, most of the Smurf story books were in either French or German, two of the main languages in this area. (It looks and feels very much like Paris here, but just like in Paris, as soon as you start speaking English, natives switch instantly and seamlessly to English with you.)
We swung by the hotel to actually get into our rooms and “facilitate” (that’s Sara-speak for hitting the head), then we headed back out to the lace, chocolate, and waffle shops. That’s where I suffered my first-ever travel shopping fatality: I bought some postcards and two magnets at a little tourist shop while Julie was getting a waffle. I showed them to her, then we made several more acquisition stops (Wittamer chocolate, for example!). When I started logging receipts and merchandise in my trip notebook (how else can you fill out your customs declaration completely if you don’t keep a log??), they were GONE. I was disconsolate, but the little shop was right around the corner, so we went out and I was able to replace the cards and one of the magnets, then found a second magnet that I like better than the one I lost. And I don’t think the 15 euro is going to make me or break me…
From there, it was on to the tour welcoming reception and dinner. I am used to being relatively youthful on Tauck trips, but we look like jailbait compared to most in this group! Wonder if there’s an AED on the bus…oh wait, I haven’t been officially trained. Better not <snark>! Anyway, the reception was nice—they had Coke in the tiny little glass bottles if you didn’t want beer, wine, or champagne—and dinner was tasty, if long. A scallop starter for me, with caprese salad for Julie, followed by sea bass (me) and scallops (Julie). We ate with a group of the oldsters that included an MIT Course 15 grad (who will celebrate his 65th college reunion next year…again, you can do the math) whom I recognized by his Brass Rat. (One always notices a person wearing a beaver on his finger!), a retired librarian, and a retired teacher going back to get her PhD in gifted/talented education. A good time was had by all…for over three hours. Ugh. (The bathtub here in our room does make up for it, though—I was able to stretch out FULL LENGTH and UP TO MY NECK!)
Tomorrow we are headed out on a guided walking tour of Brussels, following by lunch at a chateau, a visit to the American cemetery in Margraten, then a bus ride to where our ship is docked in Maastricht.