Wednesday, 25 May 2016

europe 2016, day 8: brussels (may 5)

All a little laggy this morning after our late night last night and definitely overslept past our planned 10am departure time. Impressively enough, we made it out the door at 10:30am, and walked a way into the city to catch a bus to the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. We ran into the minor problem along the way of not being able to find the bus stop anywhere, though, despite the best efforts of the concierge - whose name was Edwin - at the Sheraton Hotel to help us. Such lost tourists as us cannot be helped, I suppose.

Eventually we gave up looking for the bus stop that would not be found, and opted for the metro instead. We jumped on the first train that pulled into our platform, but Tiff, who'd been examining the metro map, decided that it wasn't, in fact, the right train (for the record: we later confirmed that it was), and walked off it and back onto the platform, saying over her shoulder, "I don't think this is the right train." Judy and I didn't follow her fast enough, however, and the doors shut between us, leaving Tiff alone on the platform and Judy and I still on the train.

On the second day of our trip, while we were on the metro in Stockholm, I had half-seriously, half-jokingly proposed that we come up with a plan for what to do if we ever got separated on public transport, which Judy and Tiff had agreed to. What nobody had been expecting was for this to actually happen, so when the doors shut between us on that platform in Brussels, we looked at each other with something akin to amused consternation, and, emergency plan clean forgotten, Judy and I gestured wildly to Tiff to stay put, since we would come back to get her. Tiff gestured wildly back that she would stay right where she was, so we could go back and meet her there. At least, this is what I was going for with my vigorous pointing and waving, and how Judy and I interpreted Tiff's gesticulations in response.

Fortunately, we all seemed to have been on the same page with our sign language, as Judy and I got off at the next stop, crossed the platform for the opposite train, and returned and met up with Tiff without any problem. After that little misadventure, we got on the next train toward Bockstael, and from there took a bus to the greenhouses without any further hiccups.

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are within the park of the Royal Palace of Laeken, and are usually not open for visitors, being a private garden. They are made open to the public for two weeks out of the year, however, and today was the second-to-last day of that two week period, so we were incredibly lucky.

The gardens date back to the 18th century, but a new complex of greenhouses was commissioned by King Leopold II in the late 19th century, changing the architecture of the gardens entirely and giving us what we saw today. Apparently they're world-famous (although if they are, how come I'd never heard of them before?), which makes me even more appreciative that we got to see them.

Once we entered onto the main grounds, we found ourselves starting on the one set path marked off through the greenhouses which ensures that everyone sees everything and in a somewhat orderly fashion - great for people like me who want to make sure they've seen everything and are prone to panicking if they feel like they've missed something.

We followed an adorably stylish family with a precious little girl and boy for the first half hour, hoping they wouldn't notice or find it odd that the same three Asian girls were somehow always just behind them. (Almost unnecessary to record, but Judy took multiple pictures of the children the whole time we were behind them - without getting caught, for once.)

The greenhouses were huge, warm, and just soaked in sunlight. There were any number of serene landscapes on all sides: a big blue lake, huge fluffy pink blossoms, and softly rolling greens which unfortunately I was prohibited from rolling down by signs forbidding people to walk on the grass and by my own moderate sense of decorum.

The walk through the greenhouses slowed down for a good while about halfway through because people moved slowly through the major ones that were filled to overflowing with flowers, so there was a lot of standing and waiting at one point.

"What's the bottleneck?" Tiff asked, after about half an hour of inching forward in a neverending line to get into the first of this complex of greenhouses. There was a little boy restlessly fidgeting and yowling to his mother a few places ahead of us. Expressing just what we were all feeling.

"Probably just everyone stopping for five seconds at each point to take pictures," I guessed - and I was right,  as we discovered once we finally stepped inside. But you couldn't blame everyone (including ourselves) for all the picture-taking - it really was stunning. Unbelievable array of flowers and plants they'd cultivated there, from all over the world. Pinks and whites and oranges and greens everywhere you looked, every corner you turned, a new explosion of colourful blossoms and baskets flowing over with petals.

We traveled through pleasantly and just as slowly as the people before us, and emerged back at the entrance to the greenhouses at around 2 something. The bus back to the city center wasn't coming for a while, so we passed the time with some waffles and ice cream from nearby vans, and arrived back in central Brussels a little after 3. Headed promptly for the restaurant recommended to us by Mariano, Fin de Siecle, as a popular Belgian restaurant, and there we had what I consider to be the best meal of the trip so far. Some kind of special magical sausages with mashed potatoes made with leeks, and their salade maison, which had fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto, parmesan, lettuce and olives - both dishes which sound deceivingly ordinary but were anything but. And it was lovely to just sit and talk for such a long time as well, take it easy for a short period after a whirlwind past week during which we were constantly on the go.

After our afternoon lunch, we walked back to Grand Place to do some chocolate shopping (most important activity in Belgium, if we're being real). Found ourselves on one street leading into Grand Place that was just lined with chocolate shops, and we darted into one after the other, sampling and buying various chocolates, which totally sucked. Kidding. Hugely enjoyable, more like.

Spent a good bit of time at one shop called Elisabeth, where the packaging was just amazingly pretty. Bought a couple of small gifts there, then headed back to Neuhaus, which we had planned to do the bulk of our shopping at. After Elisabeth, though, we all unanimously decided that Neuhaus couldn't hold a candle to their presentation - and their actual chocolates were yummier too - so we turned heel and back we went, and the lady there laughed to see us back so soon. We assured her that it was her giving us free earl grey truffles on our first visit that had won our hearts completely. We then proceeded to collectively spend over $100 on chocolate, which is an appalling sum, but it's Belgium, so how can you blame us, and I argue it was acceptable given that it was mostly for other people.

One hundred dollars' worth of chocolate in hand, we went back to Grand Place again, and I discovered a Laduree, which sent me into fits of rapture.

Pit stop for a couple of macarons, and then we plopped ourselves down at an outdoor cafe/bar a couple of streets over for some more of Tiff's favourite activity, namely, sitting and eating. Tiff and Judy then proceeded to astonish me with their seemingly endless capacity for eating french fries (mine had been exhausted a few meals ago), while I contented myself with my second strawberry juice in two hours. This one arrived with a little kebab of gummy candies on a toothpick lying across the top of the cup, which was somewhat perplexing, but lovely and whimsical.

We sat and ate/drank very contentedly while people strolled around the little square area behind us, haggled at the market stands, and rolled past on skateboards. Left around 7 and headed in the vague direction of home, but the sunny weather was too good not to make some more of it, so we sat on the steps near the royal library with a nice view over the city skyline, joining various groups of friends and canoodling couples scattered about.

Once the sun moved down a bit we actually pointed ourselves toward home, stopping, miraculously, only one more time to buy snacks for tomorrow. Came back a little before 9, and packed up for the last leg of our trip in Greece, for which we are leaving tomorrow morning. All carefully rearranged our packs so it's all our warm clothes at the bottom and summer clothes on top, with our $100 worth of chocolate stored away safely as well. Precious cargo, as Judy refers to it. If I get stopped at the airport because my pack is too heavy, the last thing to go will be the chocolates. Will happily chuck half my clothes if need be, but I defy any TSA agent to throw out the chocolate.

Leaving our lovely Belgian vintage nest home at 6:45am tomorrow. Not looking forward to the early start, but can't wait to be in Greece, a country that's always been high on my wish list of countries to visit before I die.

Bye beautiful Belgium - thanks for having us!

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