Back in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

It’s always fun coming back to a foreign city that you’ve already visited. My last trip to Brussels was a little more than two years ago. A lot has happened in my life since then but this city looks and feels about the same. In some ways, it’s comforting.

After a coffee and chocolate filled croissant, it was time to brave the masses and head onto Grand Place, the city’s tourist-clogged central square. It’s the top attraction for a reason though. The buildings, including the Town Hall, date back to the early 15th century and have been lovingly maintained; the entire area is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Somehow, despite the disgusting crowds, it’s still difficult not to be completely struck by this place.

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Even after multiple visits, I’m still trying to figure out how the train and subway ticket systems effectively work in Europe. It’s essentially all on an honor system – you buy tickets, self-stamp them and board the cars. Apparently, tickets can be checked at any point although that probably never happens. Could this ever work in the States? And if not, why?

By the time I’d come up with an answer, my subway doors opened and I’d arrived at the Atomium. This wild looking monument was constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The interconnected spheres form a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.

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The line to get in was long but moved quickly. Escalators and stairs allowed visitors to move between the various pods in which exhibits had been set up.

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Soon, a steady rain started to fall — signaling my time to head home. Back at the hotel, there was massive consumption of free Wi-Fi and sauna, as well as some sink laundry. With a big day of travel in front of me, it was an early night.

Tomorrow, it’s onward to Russia.

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From the diamond capital to Europe’s capital

Brussels, Belgium

Even a giant Nespresso couldn’t get me out of bed this morning. Thankfully, listening to the BBC techno introduction several times got me pumped up and ready to move.

There wasn’t much of a plan for today. So, map in hand, it was off to the Old Town, which was one of the most impressive that I’ve seen. The City Hall dates back over 400 years to 1576; the Grote Markt was in equally pristine shape with beautifully designed and maintained buildings surrounding the central square. Towering overhead was the 16th century Cathedral of our Lady.

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The waterfront area, bordering the Schelde River, was only a few blocks away. The promenade was deserted, offering picturesque views of the old city juxtaposed against the working port.

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After some lunch, it was time to move onto Brussels, a short 30-minute commuter train ride west. Home to the European Union, this city has been coined the “Capital of Europe.” A lousy cab driver brought me to my accommodation here, the Dominican, a small boutique hotel across from the Opera House and within a few minutes walk to the Grand Place.

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For dinner, a small bistro down the street served up a tasty bowl of mussels in a white wine, garlic herb broth. And unlike last night’s fries, none remained.

The world’s diamond capital

Antwerp, Belgium

After seeing Alex and Peter off this morning from Schipol Airport — which was a madhouse in the wake of the security scare earlier this week — it was off to book a train ticket to Belgium. My first stop in this country was Antwerp, perhaps best known as the “Diamond Center of the World.” It rings about $23 billion annually and is second only to London as an outlet for raw and industrial diamonds.

It was about an hour and half ride here into the glittering train station. Generally, Europe showcases some pretty remarkable train stations. Antwerp, however, really pushes the envelope. The building rises high in the sky and features ornately carved marble walls. Its quite the introduction to showy Antwerp.

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My hotel, the Park Inn, was just across the square. It was a relatively new modern and quiet hotel with an unbeatable location and price — just $70 bucks for the night.

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Post-nap, it was getting late but there was still time to visit Rubenshuis, the former home of painter Peter Paul Rubens. The rooms had been reconstructed as they would have appeared in the late 16th century; it turns out also that Rubens, far from being a starving artist, actually amassed a nice little fortune by selling his paintings. And his pad, stuffed with tons of art and beautiful ornamental gardens, reflected his success.

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Back at the hotel, it was time to hit to the gym and sauna. Post work-out, there was only one thing on my mind: fries. A place on the corner dished up a huge plate covered in ketchup, mayo and sweet onions.

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Delicious as they were, it was hard to even put a dent in them.