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Bruxelles!

Off we go, Brussels, Belgium bound! Lots of people were traveling that morning, but in our specific car there were only a handful of people so we had our own four-seater with a table, nice! It reminded me a lot like Amtrak Acela business class trains, but better. We had decided to upgrade well worth it! The train ticket & upgrade came with a little breakfast/snack. Orange juice, hot tea with fresh lemon, yogurt and various breads and croissants, perfect to tide us over so we weren’t ravenous upon arrival.

delicious hot tea on the train

The seats were very comfortable and there were outlets to charge computers/electronics, which was convenient. The train ride was nice, a little under a three-hour ride. I tried to nap, but was too excited for the next adventure. As soon as we got to Belgium, we put our luggage in storage. If you’re traveling to a country and are only there for the day, why stress yourself out dragging luggage around everywhere?

For only a few euros for a 24-hour period, this is the way to go. Not surprising all of the huge storage lockers were taken, so we took it to what looked like an airport security room or when you leave luggage in a hotel, complete with bellhop. I think I felt a lot safer leaving it there since there was an actual person watching it. After dropping off our stuff, we went outside and saw there was a cute little outdoor bazaar right next to the station. It was PACKED. We hailed a cab and headed for the downtown Brussels area. I have a couple friends who helped with our mini-itinerary. [Thanks Maria & Dana!] First stop? The Mannequin-Pis. This was the most famous/popular attraction, if you want to call it that, in the city. Completely overrated, but worth the quick visit. Don’t expect it to be this enormous statue of epic proportions, far from that, but still, cool landmark and staple of the city. It was right by the Brussels Town Hall and the Grand Palace. It’s kind of hidden but located at the corner of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. When we got there we said…this is it?

Mannequin-Pis

It is only 24 inches tall in front of a small fountain with a huge fence around it. Apparently this original had apparently been stolen and this was a replica statue replaced in the mid 60s.

Translation of this statue: a little boy peeing. No, seriously, peeing. It is kind of gross if you think about it and not for the weary people really needing to use the restroom.

We found it hilarious how all these tourists were SO excited to see this. Some traditions with the statue include dressing it up in different little costumes.  Okay, moving on, taking a walk through each small street, the buildings were ornate and beautiful! The flat cobblestone streets had little cafés at every corner. Most people spoke French, which I loved, but there also were people that spoke Dutch and German as well.

We made our way to Grand-Place, a huge square of buildings that were so intricate and impressive only a few blocks away from the Mannequin-Pis. The Town Hall was probably the best to see up close. The outside of the building had hundreds of little statues that, upon researching later, represent the Dukes and Duchesses of Brabant who ruled between the years 580 and 1564.

 

Seeing all this history really makes buildings in California in 1956 kind of extraneous, doesn’t it? We happened to be there on the weekend of “Folklorissimo” The Festival of Folklore where there were actors on stilts, bands and music playing and little booths for food set up.

There was also a Mannequin-Pisstatue that was large that would shoot water which I think was attached to a motion sensor. Why little kids enjoyed this is beyond me, but it was pretty funny. We walked around the square, looking at the buildings and peeked in at some of the museums but didn’t go in. There were stores everywhere, all selling Mannequin-Pis merchandise. Total tourist traps, selling corkscrews (so inappropriate), mugs, glasses, t-shirts, the works. We went straight to Delirium Bar after attempting to lose our way amongst the crowd of people. “Look for the pink elephants”. I found out later they actually carry this beer in the States, but its realllllly expensive. RFD in downtown DC sells it for $11 a pop. Delirium Tremens was named the “best beer in the world” so of course we had to try it.

A quick note about these beers: The name Delirium Tremens is Latin meaning “trembling madness” and people say that when you have a withdrawal from alcohol abuse, you hallucinate and see pink elephants. Hmmm, I think I’ll stick to only seeing the elephants printed on a menu, thank you.

Nothing on the menu of seasonal strong ales were under 8% ABV…and with only a few pastries, juice and tea in our systems, you can only imagine what happened next…and I’m a lightweight! We ordered a couple to try and boy were they delicious. My favorite was the Delirium Red, which was a cherry beer and tasted like a jolly rancher…a.k.a. dangerous for me, haha. We sat outside of the bar and people watched. There were men playing the accordion and then going up to people asking for tips. I noticed that a lot of people did this in Europe; even coming up to people while they were eating lunch and dinner, odd. I also noticed the fashion. Bright colors, tailored…everything, matching shoes to scarves to belts and jackets. Couples walking both young and old were either holding hands or arm in arm; quite romantic and no two people looked or dressed the same. A couple beers down, we decide it’s probably best to eat something!

 There are six things that Belgium is probably best known for: chocolate, lace, waffles, beer, mussels, and Georges Lemaître, credited with proposing the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in 1927! (Okay, seven, if you include Jean Claude Van Damme!) I decided to save the mussels for my next trip, due to the limited time we had. We wanted to explore the city more than sit and waste time in a restaurant. There were lots of little stores with beautiful lace; everything from dresses and tops to shawls and doilies. Expensive, but beautiful and all hand crafted. Kevin had to pry me away from staring at all the chocolate fountains in the shoppes. I could easily waste all of my money on just buying and eating chocolate.

The true Belgian Waffle…Let me tell you something about these things…words cannot even describe how delicious. First, think of hot dog/food vendors in New York. Everywhere, right? Now think if they were just waffles, AMAZING! There were so many choices and varieties to choose from.  After a couple beers this was the most delicious thing ever. I wanted to get a hundred of them, but instead we made our way to another pub to taste more drinks and sitting inside we must have just missed a short rain shower because by the time we left the ground outside was wet. Lucky us!

absolute heaven.

With only a short time in Belgium, it was worth the layover. Brussels is very popular destination for tourists as it is located right in the middle between Amsterdam and London and right on the borders of France. People often take the same route we did to visit other cities. We were in the same waiting area leaving London as those going to Disneyland-Paris, talk about tempting…but nonetheless, Belgium was great even if we were there for just a few hours. I am excited to go back and see other parts of the city and definitely go back to see Antwerp and Bruges, which I hear is beautiful, also known as one of the cities labeled the “Venice of the North” because of its breathtaking canals. Next up, another city to explore, also known for its famous canals…Amsterdam! We almost didn’t make it, but that’s a story in and of itself! Can’t wait to share it with you!

London, Baby!

It’s hard to sum up visiting a country, even if it was just for a few days, in a page worth of words. Since our flight was an overnight, I had attempted to shift my sleeping schedule so I could try to pass out on the plane. Nope. Too excited. I slept maybe an hour or so, which was fine…we got a chance to take a quick nap once we arrived since it was early in the morning. Heathrow was beautiful, clean, bright and huge. There were walkways with the British accent blaring, “Mind your step” and “Face Direction of Travel”. Not sure why, but I loved this. Everything was more or less the same, but better. I won’t bore you of the details of my explorations in and around the airport but we took the Tube (London’s version of the Metro) to our hotel located in the heart of Covent Garden. We walked through midway during a street performance, but [I was just waiting for Eliza Doolittle to offer me a flower] something I noticed was that everything was on time, to the exact second of estimated arrival. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon how you look at it.

Our time in London, although short, was wonderful. Made up of little villages, each with its own points of interest. Since we stayed in one generalized location and could walk to most things, we didn’t ride the Tube much. We probably would have used the Tube/Underground a lot more if we had stayed longer and had the chance to explore other areas. Not many people actually used cabs. There is something called the Oyster Card, similar to DC’s SmartTrip, and worth it for the constant traveler. We did the typical touristy things, big red open top bus tour, and went into several museums. We ate the local fare, which was delicious, by the way, and tried to do as many “traditional” things as possible. This included attempts at drinking beer in the morning and a true English breakfast. Overall the breakfast was the same, eggs, toast, coffee, tea (tea tea tea, all about the tea), and no water, you had to ask for it. There was an endless supply of juice and freshly squeezed at that. Also included were meat pancakes, beans (think BBQ baked) and mushrooms. They were little rich for my tastes first thing in the morning, but still good. Each night we had tried different restaurants, the first at a local pub called Porter’s. It was charming inside. Paintings all over the walls of some famous writers and poets in a larger townhouse shaped building. It almost looked like someone’s basement that had been decked out with cool wallpaper, mirrors and refurbished wood. I’d hang out there often. We ordered pies and chips and let me tell you…deliciously fatty goodness.

lots of meat, gravy, cheese and a popover crust topping

so good

I’m pretty sure there are zero FDA regulations over there because everything was very rich. I had heard stories from many friends traveling to the UK that they didn’t like the food in general- I would have to disagree.  We topped it off with an amazing Banana, Cinnamon & Rum ice cream. I admit it…I was one of those people that took pictures of food on this trip. In London and Brussels alone, I took over 1,000 pictures. “Of what?” you ask? There is plenty, especially when you’re traveling for the first time. Who am I kidding, I take that many pictures when I’m back home, too.

Anyway, we took a walk down by Parliament and Big Ben. It is STUNNING at night…and during the day. I mean gorgeous. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. The London Eye was lit up all blue and enormous in comparison.

Kevin did a little research before the trip and found this bar we really wanted to go to called LAB. It stood for the London Academy of Bartending. It was off a little side street in the Soho area and it looks like a typical New York bar at first…and then you get the menu. This thing was at least a couple centimeters thick, about 60 or so pages, with every spirit and concoction you could think of.

The menu at LAB

just a couple of the drinks from LAB!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot of the locals were drinking beer since it was on special but of course we had to try some specialties. They were on the relatively reasonable price range, but definitely worth the trip because the drinks were amazing.

The next day we decided to take the original bus tour.  This you must do. It was definitely worth it. First off, it was beautiful outside, high 60s and sunny, and NO RAIN. We didn’t even need jackets during the day. We got a chance to see all the major places we wanted to. I enjoyed the hop-on-hop-off policy. The ticket was good for 24 hours so you could easily go tour around the places on your own and explore.

St. Paul's Cathedral

If you’re trying to figure out which bus tour is best for you, choose the tour with a human tour guide, they always have fun local facts to throw in here and there and much better than a generalized audio tour. There are two bus tours to choose from, yellow & red. Take the red. We ended up getting off right during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and that place was jam packed with people. They kept the main gates clear so carriages with white horses (what?) could pass through. The policemen and women allowed people to walk through but not stand, so I kept walking back and forth to get a good picture of the gate, haha.

Big Ben

Big Ben!

We ended up not waiting in the long lines to see inside the Palace…Even though Kate Middleton’s dress was on display through October, I wanted to see the other sights more.

We did go into Westminster Abby though and WOW. That’s all I can really say. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in any of the museums (but I did manage to swipe a few anyway). It was BEAUTIFUL inside, so ornate with a lot of history.

on the Original Bus Tour!

 

 

We went back to Trafalgar Square several times because it was in the middle of our route back towards the hotel. This is a great little area to hang out in and relax (and people watch). The London Olympics countdown was located there.

London Olympics 2012 Countdown

It’s always neat to see things that are only there for a limited time. What was also cool was the fact that London Fashion Week was going on the week we were there.

Everything is so advanced in terms of what people were wearing, etc. compared to the United States. Lots of stripes, bold, bright colors and heels for days!

look at those shoes...

London Eye! So this thing was pretty awesome… its official name is the EDF Energy London Eye or Millennium Wheel. Formerly called the Merlin Entertainments London Eye and before that the British Airways London Eye. It’s 443 feet tall and right on the River Thames. According to what I read, the EDF Energy deal is set to last three years, and started January of 2011. Interesting that landmarks have sponsorship deals, though I’m not surprised! It is a constant revolving ferris wheel that never stops. It goes slow enough where they cart a group of people on the flat platform kind of like a metro stop. “Mind the gap” and “Mind your head” were constantly used. It’s a huge bubble observation deck and the full “ride” rotation lasts about 30 minutes. Again, we were lucky that it wasn’t raining or had bad weather. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if it was gross and foggy and had poor visibility because you could see EVERYTHING. Even Wembley Stadium in the distance. I luckily brought my large lens with me and could see it pretty clearly.

Parliament, the Union Jack flag is up when the Queen isn't there

Wembley Stadium

amazing views

 

We had originally bought tickets to see Manchester City play Fulham on that Saturday, but they postponed the game to that Sunday and we were leaving early that morning. Although bummed out, we made the best of it and got a chance to explore London a little bit more! We had dinner at this place called Brown’s. Which, after talking to the concierge said that if you went to “Brown’s, I would have suggested Porter’s and visa versa” so I think we chose the right place. It was in the heart of the West End and we got a table right next to the window, perfect for people watching.

Dinner, drinks and dessert were all delicious, melt in your mouth, good. It was nice to sit and relax and just take in the atmosphere. This place had an eclectic group of people, definitely my style. Everything from the casual local to ones dressed up and ready to see a show. Many of the restaurants in the area have a pre-fixed menu for couples. They even had a countdown schedule clock to remind theater go-er’s of curtain up; I loved that. We unfortunately did not have time to go see a show, but definitely on my list next time I’m there! I did, however get to see Cole, a childhood friend of mine and went to this little nightclub called Zoo. It was in the Leicester Square (pronouced Lester, not lie-chester…had to be told this several times) area and was so fun!

Zoo Night Club

the famous red telephone booths!

The nightlife in London is thriving and being in the West End area over the weekend was awesome…we tried to do a little bit of everything, late night wine, high tea, and shopping. We ventured over to Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street areas at one point, which were packed with people, there is just so much to do and I can’t wait to go back.

We even managed to take a quick walk down to where the Royal Courts of Justice were and right near by was Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd!!) and I had to try the fish and chips. YUM. We were lucky that it didn’t rain a drop, until right before we left for the train station headed to country #2. I’ll have to post a London slideshow at some point…but next up…Brussels!