This morning we grabbed a last breakfast at the breakfast bus - eggs, toast, and tea - before taking the metro one final time to our Megabus station. Megabus journey itself was largely uneventful (a good thing), but it did give me a good three hours to finally get into "The History of Love," after several failed attempts in the past. The first two or three times I tried to read it, I thought it a pretentious book. This time, though, the character of Alma pulled me in, and I gave myself over to the story in surrender.
Three hours, 125 pages, and one half a salmon sandwich later, we arrived in Brussels at the Gare du Nord. We slung our backpacks on and set off for the 15 minute walk to our Airbnb - mostly all uphill, which is no fun in heeled boots and a 20-pound pack in unexpectedly hot weather. It was a big relief all around when we arrived at Rue du Moulin and were let into our apartment by our host, Mariano. He led us up a few flights of stairs and opened the door to his "vintage nest" to a lot of oohs and aahs and wows from the three of us. It's just as the pictures showed - flooded with natural light (every Instagrammer's dream), with a tasteful purple colour scheme, a spacious kitchen, soft white curtains, a cosy dining table and living room, and most attractive of all, a large double bed with three piles of clean white towels and a wrapped Belgian waffle perched on top of each. Clearly, Mariano is one of Airbnb's finest hosts.
He gave us a very thorough tour of the little place, and then sat down with us at the dining table to give us an even more thorough walk through of the best routes for sightseeing in the city, with highlights of the best restaurants, museums and sights, punctuated with funny little comments about Belgians and Brussels. All much, much appreciated, but also rather hard to sit through with an extremely full bladder.
Once Mariano left, with many profuse expressions of thanks on our side, we settled in, ran through the plan for the rest of the day, taking into account Mariano's tips, and headed out to explore the city.
Brussels is a very walkable city - in terms of size, that is, not terrain, being almost entirely cobbled streets - so we made our way pleasantly and quickly enough from Rue du Moulin to our first stop in central Brussels, the Cathedrale de St-Michel. Not particularly impressive to look at from the outside, especially if you've seen the Notre Dame in Paris, but once inside, I felt hit in the face by the grandeur. Not even necessarily that of the St-Michel itself, per se, but of all cathedrals. It struck me as I walked slowly down the main hall, just how magnificent cathedrals are in all that they represent. Looking at the gigantically tall stone pillars, and running my hand over them, I wondered how much human effort it took to build just one pillar. And to have been built in the 11th and 12th centuries, before we had construction cranes and vehicles and machines... it's staggering to think of it.
While I was standing around in the cathedral thinking about the sheer effort behind the building of it, my mind went randomly to a social studies project I had to do in seventh grade. The assignment was to use only natural materials - things found outdoors - to build a model of a human habitation or shelter. I was in a group with Kevin and Claire and it was all sorts of awkward because Kevin liked Claire but she didn't like him and he was all weird about it so overall it wasn't a very comfortable group for a project. Middle school is a weird time. Anyway, we ended up making some type of hut - or something that could reasonably be called a hut - from leaves, sticks, dirt, and some more leaves, and I remember thinking how difficult it was to build something (or something that wouldn't topple over, at least) out of practically nothing.
Now, to scale that puny seventh grade effort to what it takes to build a giant cathedral - well. One millionth of the effort, one billionth. It left me floored to just try and imagine it.
As I walked out, passing a couple of people who were praying, and many more people who were taking pictures and joking loudly with friends, I wondered what the 11th century Roman Catholic priests might think if they could see the St-Michel today and all the tourists - like myself - casually traipsing through. Would it signify, what they thought? Likely not. What force is powerful enough to grapple against the tide of the tourism industry and win?
We left the cathedral and headed next to the Parc de Bruxelles - pleasant enough, but again, my mind made the unfortunate comparison to the parks of Paris and Bruxelles emerged defeated. We strolled through to the other side and to the Royal Palace, which prompted the inevitable wistful daydreaming about what it would be like to be royal and live in a palace, and how exciting hide and seek would be, and didn't Prince William and Prince Harry live fairly normal lives growing up royal and but wasn't Harry a rebel and well I think he was when he was younger but he seems to be pretty solid now?
We then wended our way through more streets to the heart of the city, stopping at one of the famous Neuhaus chocolate shops for one truffle apiece. Also had our first Belgian waffle along the way - delicious, chewy, topped with a lovely light creme fraiche - which has ruined me for all other waffles for life.
From Neuhaus on to Grand Place, a square in the central city surrounded on all sides with beautiful, opulent buildings, including the city's Town Hall. Lots of tourists, lots of cameras, and lots of scattered groups of people sitting on the ground, eating and laughing.
Next stop was the Mannekin-Pis, or the statue of the little boy peeing - the "cultural symbol of Brussels," as the plaque in front of it described it. Not sure how I would feel if the cultural symbol of my city was a little boy peeing, but Belgians seem to be totally happy about it. Apparently it's become the "image of Brussels' folklore, the joy of the inhabitants. and their capacity for self-mockery," so there you go. More attractive to us than the statue, if I'm being very honest, were the many waffle and ice cream and chocolate shops in its immediate vicinity, where Judy got her first waffle and I polished off some very rusty French to order an ice cream.
Then a longer trek - involving more hills - until we arrived at the Palais de Justice, where we made the briefest of stops essentially just to be able to say we saw it, and then, finally, oh blessed heavens, we headed off to dinner.
Our first full meal in Brussels was at a lovely place with a great Tripadvisor rating bearing the simple name of Le Bistro. Lost no time in ordering two orders of mussels and fries, which Judy had not been able to stop talking about in the first five days of the trip. We were served by the friendliest and jolliest server imaginable, who told us we had come to the right place for mussels, explained the differences between the populations of Bruges and Brussels, showed us how to eat mussels "like a true Belgian," and offered to take a picture of all three of us and our mussels. We left very happy and very full. I felt not unlike the Walrus and the Carpenter from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" once they had eaten their fill of all the poor little trusting mussels, but with none of the guilt. Come to think of it, I don't think they felt all that guilty either.
After dinner we - for once - called it an early night - really, truly - and hopped on the metro to Botanique Kruidtuin, the station nearest our vintage nest home. Stopped at a convenience store to pick up snacks, and I gave a worker there a heart attack while he was in the middle of stocking shelves with my excited gasp upon catching sight of the Hula Hoops; he jumped about a foot and I meekly apologized and tried to explain that I got too excited by the excellent snack selection, which he seemed to understand.