It is hard to believe that it has been nearly four weeks since I arrived in Italy for my first time abroad. It seems like only yesterday that I was struggling to keep my suitcases less than fifty pounds while attempting to pack everything that I would need for my four months studying in Florence. In retrospect, these past four weeks have gone by tremendously fast, and it pains me to think that nearly a quarter of my stay overseas is complete. During the time that I have been here, I have already explored the Piazza del Campo in Siena, shopped in the expansive Mercato Centrale, courageously entered the Italian women’s domain, and eaten troppa, “too much,” pasta. Living in Italy has been an absolute dream!
Although I love the culture and the food of Italy and I recognize how limited my time is in such a wonderful country, this past weekend I took out my passport and crossed the borders. Along with my fellow housemate Emily, I ventured off to Brussels, Belgium, a destination that I had very little knowledge about other than its title as the home of the European Union and its renowned chocolate and waffles. Having booked our flights earlier in the week, Emily and I spent Thursday evening planning our thirty-six hours in the Belgian capital. On the list: chocolate, Flemish art, French fries with Cognac mayonnaise, Art Nouveau, waffles with chocolate sauce, Mannekin Pis, and moules frites. The weekend looked to be an exciting three days of excellent food and culture.
Our flight to Brussels on Friday was 12:35 P.M. and departed from Pisa. As broke college students, Emily and I found cheap flights to Brussels, but the low cost of the tickets required that we take a one-hour train ride to the Pisa Aeroporto. Although our flight did not leave until the afternoon, the only feasible departure time to Pisa was at 7:00 in the morning. This inconvenience resulted in staying nearly four hours at the airport; needless to say, I was successfully able to enjoy a cappuccino before the Italians deemed it improper to order one.
So after a 5:00 A.M. wake-up call, two bus-rides to the train station, an hour on the train, and about four hours sitting at the airport, Emily and I finally boarded the plan to Bruxelles. In all, the time it took to get to Pisa was longer than the actual one and half hour flight to another country. By two-thirty in the afternoon, we touched down at the Charleroi Airport, which was followed by, of course, another bus ride, this time forty-five minutes, into the city center.
Rather than heading straight for our hostel, we took a taxi to the former home of the famous Belgian architect Victor Horta. Horta was a renowned architect of the Art Nouveau style, and today his home in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood serves as a museum to his great talent. Inside, there is a gorgeous spiral staircase; a stained glass ceiling that illuminates the entire house; and unique Chinese decorations. Art Nouveau was a popular international movement of the later 1890s and early 1900s, and examples of the organic, stylized architecture can be found throughout the Belgian capital.
After the museum, it was finally off to the hostel. All I need to say about the hostel was that it was a place to sleep. It was anything but perfect (not even a door on the shower!) but again it was affordable and reasonably located. The woman at the front desk, however, was very helpful in recommending a spot for dinner. Emily and I were looking forward to a typical Belgian meal of moules frites, mussels and fries. Unfortunately, we learned that mussels are not currently in season, but the woman recommended a nearby spot for another speciality called stoemp. Basically, stoemp is sausage and mashed potatoes. With an ice-cold Belgian beer to wash it down, the meal was a warm, satisfying way to conclude an exhausting day.
Though I wrote that Friday was exhausting, Saturday was equally tiring. After breakfast at the hostel, Emily and I headed out for the day to check off all that was on our to-do list. The day began at the Bozar Museum of Fine Arts. Inside the beautiful architectural masterpiece of Victor Horta, there are hundreds of paintings from Flemish, Venetian, and various other artists from the High Renaissance. Although I knew few of the painters, the subjects of the paintings were very familiar: the Crucifixion, the Madonna and Child, and the Holy Family. Amidst the dozens of religious works, there are also many beautiful landscapes and still life images of plants and fruits. Interestingly, however, my favorite painting was one that I saw immediately when I entered the museum: The Fountain of Inspiration, 1907.
Two and half hours later, it was off to the local flea market. I had read that one could expect to find almost anything imaginable, and indeed that statement was accurate. It seemed as if those selling at the market were selling their lives away: boxes of family pictures, old postcards, silverware, china, and worn-down shoes. You name it, it could be yours to purchase. It was one of those places where a treasure lurked in the most unexpected places. Although I did not buy anything that afternoon, had I had more time, I imagine spending an entire afternoon rummaging through the aisles of stuff for that perfect Belgian souvenir.
Having explored the museum and the market, we had certainly worked up an appetite; therefore it was time for some food, more specifically chocolate and waffles. I believe the following pictures speak for themselves:
[Hint: When exploring Brussels, although one might be tempted to buy chocolates to satisfy a craving, there really is no need. Unless you are intent are bringing some back after the trip is over, all one needs to do to enjoy the chocolate made with 100% cocoa butter is to walk into the various chocolate shops and take advantage of their free samples; your stomach and wallet will appreciate it.]
Essentially, the later part of the afternoon was spent exploring the various shops along the Brussels streets. By five o’clock, we checked out a highly recommended jazz club where Emily and I enjoyed a Belgian creation of half Spumante, half white wine, known as a half-half, and the excellent Belgian beers. If only all college parties could serve beer as good as that in Belgium…
Such a day would not have been complete without something sweet to finish it off. My dinner was a warm, sweet apple crepe that was the perfect ending to a chilly, wearying day in Brussels. Although I never did get to sample the moules frites or the fries with Cognac mayonnaise, my thirty-six hours in Belgium’s capital were an eye-opening look into an eclectic city combining French and German cultures into a hub of political, cultural, and gastronomic activity.