After two and a half weeks in Portugal, with a mixture of excitement and sadness we boarded a plane to Brussels. We were excited to explore a new place but also sad to leave Portugal. Our hotel was located in the historic heart of the city. After settling in, we headed out to Brussels' famous Grand Place just a block away, to find some dinner. Our first glimpses of Grand Place were in the dark but, the square itself, truly lived up to its name. The crowded square is surrounded with beautiful late seventeenth century buildings complete with gold-guilded accents and waffle-filled, french-fry-and-chocolate-eating, beer-drinking tourists all striking a pose in Brussels' most famous and iconic attraction. The streets leading away from the square are lined with alternating waffle shops, chocolate stores, beer shops, taverns, and shops selling tourist junk, mainly statues of a little boy peeing. We call him the little peeing boy, but he is formally known as Manequin Pis and he is also, we learned, iconic to Brussels. After soaking up the surroundings, we settled into La Bruette, a cozy brasserie, for dinner where I was delighted to see salad options on the menu, a welcome sight, after the all-meat, all-the-time menus of Portugal. Our dinner was delicious and our initial assessment of Belgian food was positive as it is very heavily influenced by France, and the beer is world class.
The following day Jason headed to his meetings as the boys and I sat down to breakfast where they officially tasted their first Belgian waffles. Both boys gave the waffles very high marks. With stomachs full of waffles and French pastries, we headed out to explore in the daylight. After a bit of wandering, through beautiful northern European architecture reminiscent of a mixture of Amsterdam and Paris, Isaac lamented that he already missed Portugal. When I asked him why, he replied that the sidewalks were too wide, the buildings too clean, and the area was entirely too touristy. He continued, adding that at least the tourist shops in Portugal had better taste...they sell roosters instead of little peeing boys. At this point, we happened upon the national cathedral, the cathedral of St. Michel and St. Gudula, so we went in. The cathedral was huge and I know we should have been awe-inspired but we weren't. It turns out that we are quite partial to Portuguese architecture and the cathedrals of the north do not speak to our hearts like the ones in Portugal. It is interesting nonetheless to see the difference. The feeling, to me, was much darker and colder. The dark images and statues against the stark, light grey structure of the church felt oppressive and foreboding.
In the days following, the boys and I continued our typical Belgian day starting with the waffle ritual in the morning followed by city exploration in the rain, and, of course, a chocolate after every meal. We walked, clutching our umbrellas in the wind, to the bigger-than-St.-Peters-Basilica Justice Palace basilica where we goggled over its sheer hugeness. We walked to the Royal Palace where we came around a corner to find the street blocked by barbed-wire fences and police vans manned with officers in full riot gear. Though they were still letting pedestrians through, Aaron showed that he is wise beyond his years, and declared that maybe we shouldn't continue on this path, so we turned around and retraced our steps. We found out later that there was a protest over an iron mine closure and shortly after we vacated the scene the police unleashed fire hoses on the protesters. Good call, Aaron.
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