28 June 2007

Day 1: Brussels

First of all, before I do some complaining about travel, let me just tell you that Brussels is an amazing city. There.

Hell, this was two of the most difficult traveling days of my life. A nightmare of discomfort and rattled nerves. Already exhausted after a red-eye flight to Atlanta and an eight-hour layover in the city's sweltering heat, our family then went through the most aggravating security check I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing at the Atlanta airport. I thought the L.A. security check was bad in my last post, but that tempted fate far too much. After a wait in line this long, I think should be entitled to go on a ride like Splash Mountain at the conclusion. Instead, I get the "shuck off everything but the boxers" routine. And whoever administers the crowds at the Atlanta airport needs to rethink their paradigm.

And then there was New York. Loaded onto our 767-300 for Brussels, we then waited on the runway for three hours as a huge lightning storm kept the plane grounded. In don't fly easily, and this long wait while gazing at a threatening lightning show did not help at all. All that tension did exhausted me enough that I slept through most of the eight hour flight. At least that part was easy.

And then, they lost my luggage. Sounds like the end of a bad joke, right? But it's true. I did pack an extra set of clothes in my carry-on in case of this event, however. My suitcase will arrive tomorrow, and we'll pick it up at the airport on the way to Munich. So it didn't end up that awful. But it was the big topper of a horrendously long transit period.

Enough griping.

Ah, what a city this Brussels is, the unofficial "Capital of Europe." The classic Western European model city, with twisty flagstone streets and buildings two to three hundred years old crowding against each other. Each restaurant has a busy outside café area, and the melding of the country's two languages (Brussels Capital Region is officially bilingual) French and Dutch on the streets is euphonious.

The train dropped us at the city center, only a few blocks from our hotel, Hotel Mozart. Figuring out the pretzel of tiny streets was at first confounding, until we learn to recognize where street names are posted (on blue signs bolted against walls, with both French and Dutch names, and smaller than a optometrist’s chart). Hotel Mozart stands on a tiny street, blocked to cars, and busy with Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine restaurants. I grabbed a Red Bull at the snack stand once we got to the hotel so I could power through the rest of the day and wipe out the jet-lag. (Apparently, eliminating jet-lag was one of the first purposes of Red Bull, long before someone discovered it was the best way to get through a marathon session of Halo.)

The hotel is typical of many downtown old European hotels: elegant but cramped. The elevator is essentially a closet that moves up and down, and the hotel was built through three separate older buildings and is therefore tricky to maneuver though.

Immediately after arriving (and showering), I headed for Brussel's #1 attraction, which was but two blocks away: Grote Markt, “The Great Plaza,” (Grand Place in French) an immense market square surrounded by the titanic City Hall (built 1415 and expanded in later centuries), the old Palace of the King (built 1823), and the lavish guild halls, most of which were constructed after the French mortared the city in 1695 during the Franco-Spanish War. The Grote Markt is the sort of place for which the word “awesome” should be reserved. The size of it and the European elegance is overwhelming. This is the City Hall (you can see Reed in the lower left corner):
Because of the power of the guilds, it is also one of the birthplaces of the corporation. We took a tour of the Brewer’s Guild, and the overly friendly barkeep there kept us well supplied with the local Belgian brew—which is outstanding, and I'm saying that as someone who doesn't usually like beer.
We also went around the City Hall and looked through the many restaurants that now sit in the old Guild Houses. We ate at a restaurant housed in the former Tailor's Guild. Mom found herself at war with the toadish lady who charged .25 Euros to enter the bathroom; Mom went up with a .20 piece by mistake and found that forgiveness dwells not in the heart of Flemish bathroom guardians. More beer was consumed at this meal (a delicious cherry beer—never imagined I would like this) along with the Belgian specialty of beef in a dark beer sauce.

The walking tour of the area also took us past the Royal Palace, through Brussels Park, where an MBA school was holding its graduation ceremony, in front of the Belgian Parliament building, and down to the first of many cathedrals I'm sure I'll see on the trip, the Sint-Michiels en Sint-Goedelekathedraal (St. Michael and Gudula Cathedral, usually shortened to "Sint-Goedele"—aren’t you glad?). Smaller than some of the great cathedrals of Europe, but still stunningly designed, especially this 1538 stained-glass window:
How this survived the French cannoning the hell out the city in 1695 is beyond me.

All this, and I was able to eat a Belgian waffle—in Belgium! What a feat. (We usually think of the Belgian waffle as a breakfast item, but here it’s a desert, and is often served in specialty shops much like ice cream stores.)

It’s getting close to 10 p.m., and it’s still light outside, but I’m crashing—it’s been a long two days. But at last I’m in Europe, and I’ll be here for another three weeks.