If I had to use one word to describe Brussels it would be eclectic. While not one of the great European capitals, it is nevertheless the capital of the European Union, with a population slightly over one million.

The architecture covers many styles from Gothic and Baroque to Flemish Renaissance and Art Nouveau, not to mention many modern atrocities interspersed throughout. Highlights span the gamut from comic strips to architecture to beers and chocolate, and famous Belgians include Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone), René Magritte (surrealist painter), Hergé (creator of the comic strip Tintin) and singer Jacques Brel.

Brussels is also a bilingual city (French/Flemish) and I could once again read the menus and be understood. I just addressed everyone in French. People in the service industry have to speak both languages plus English because of the large number of tourists. Everything was written in both French and Flemish, and sometimes even English. English is a third language for many people here.

The weather was nice on Monday night when I arrived on the train from Herentals. Finding my AirBnB host was not too difficult once I got orientated to the metro system. I had a nice room on the top floor of a house, with a slanted ceiling and two large windows, a futon, and my own private bathroom. It was very quiet at night and I could sleep without earplugs, which is rather rare for a light sleeper like me.

On my first night here I went exploring my neighbourhood (St-Gilles), and had my first real Belgian meal at a cafe called La Boule d’Or: blanquette de veau (a kind of veal stew) with fries and a blond organic beer called Bufo. St-Gilles seems to be a working class neighbourhood with a fair share of immigrants, both from the Middle-East and Africa.

I had two more days in Brussels but the weather wasn’t great. Tuesday started out quite overcast, then turned sunny, then rainy, and back and forth a few times. Wednesday was just non-stop rain. Despite this less-than-ideal weather, I still managed to see a lot.

Day 1

After a coffee and croissant breakfast I started my visit at the Grand Place, Brussel’s beautiful central square. The first thing I saw was the City Hall, a massive gothic building that I first mistook for a church. Across from it is the Maison du Roi, now housing the city museum. Between those two, many old guild houses in the Flemish style and accented with gold vie for the visitor’s attention.

It didn’t take long for the tour groups to arrive despite the cold and cloudy day. Unlike Herentals, Brussels attracts a lot of tourists, but they all seem to limit themselves to the main sights.

Next I walked around the small streets surrounding Grand Place, and then down the impressive Galleries du Roi and Galleries de la Reine, two sections of a long covered mall lined with chocolate shops and upscale boutiques.

As recommended by my guidebooks, I didn’t have lunch in this over-touristy centre, but walked to the Sainte-Catherine area instead, which links the city to the ocean via a canal and used to serve as the city’s port. As such, many seafood restaurants have remained and offer good value meals, such as the three-course lunch I had at Les Crustacés for 16 Euros.

In the afternoon I met up with Freddy, a local volunteer who had been assigned to me by Brussels Greeters, a branch of the Local Greeter Network. This association matches volunteers passionate about their city to visitors who want to experience it through local eyes for a few hours. I spent a great afternoon and part of the evening with Freddy. He showed me an area of the city called Les Marolles, traditionally a blue-collar district where social housing rubs shoulders with Art Nouveau buildings and small bars/cafes.

Freddy displayed a great knowledge of his city’s architecture and history, and tried to answer all my questions. Between stops at cafés for coffee and to sample local beers, he showed me the “forever scaffolded” Court House (the largest in Europe), the upscale Sablon area, and the Museum district. I got to see Grand Place again with him, before a final stop at a whimsical cafe called La Fleur en Papier Doré, which used to be the meeting place of surrealist artists such as Magritte.

We talked about everything under the sun from early Communism, to artistic movements, to chocolate and beer, and to how Belgium became a country. I highly recommend the Local Greeter Network and will definitely make use of their services again when visiting cities that offer them.

Day 2

The following day happened to be the first Wednesday of the month, which meant that several of Brussels great museums were free. (This was just perfect as it rained almost non-stop on Wednesday.) I managed to squeeze in both the MIM (Museum of Musical Instruments) and the Magritte Museum (surrealist Belgian painter of the 20th century).

But first I got wet making my way to the obligatory, albeit diminutive, Brussels symbol: Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy urinating. I’m not sure why this has become such a famous attraction, but rain or shine, it is always surrounded by camera-clicking tourists!

I had lunch at another whimsically decorated cafe: Le Cercle des Voyageurs. The whole back wall was lined with shelves crammed full of old suitcases, and the ceiling had two medallions showing old world maps.

After visiting the museums I stopped for a coffee and bought some chocolate at Laurent Gerbauld chocolate shop (all natural, no sugar-added) then dropped by Brussels’ Cathedral before the 6 PM closing time.

Feeling pretty exhausted from my day, I had dinner at a small restaurant near my accommodation called Le Waterloo. My “small” serving of Cordon Bleu pork in mushroom sauce with fries cost only 8 Euros. I washed it down with a beer called Jupiler, and for a total of 10 Euros, came out of there feeling quite full and content.

My earlier theory about the rich meat and potato food of Belgium has been confirmed in Brussels. Add to that the many delicious beers and chocolate, and this is not a country where you can expect to lose weight!

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