Let me get this out of the way, I expected absolutely nothing from Belgium. On the way from Rotterdam the train passed by Antwerp and I had nothing but a sense of dread and foreboding. The place just seemed evil. I’m not joking, the smog, the shape of the cathedrals, it just seemed like I was heading into Mordor. I had requested a couch in Brussels, but it wasn’t available, so I went to the emergency request group and put in another request. I didn’t expect much, after all, the other requests were from “Two Asian Girls”, and assorted other single women. I tried to make my request interesting though.
I got one response from a real nice guy named Rafael who said that while it wasn’t ideal timing since he had his two daughters with him and was working,he said that if I couldn’t find anything else he would hook me up because we had a shared interest in Tarot and several other things.
So I tried again, but with no luck and emailed Rafael before I left Rotterdam hoping to hear from him in time.
No such thing by the time I got on the train. So anyway, I arrived in Brussels with no plans, no idea of what the place was about (as usual) and no guidebook. My thought was that if I sensed the same thing I’d gotten from Antwerp, I would just get on the train and go to Cherleroi, where Ryan Air flies from about 60 km from Brussels itself.
I was in for a surprise though. Coming out of the station, which was nothing special by any standards I was faced with a beautiful day, a beautiful city, and a city that was anything but ugly. Since I didn’t have anyplace lined up and it was midafternoon, I almost got back on the train, but the vibes in this place were so good that I decided to wander around a bit and see if I could find an internet cafe.
I am so glad I did. As I wandered around I was in wonder. Finally, I was in a place that really fit what I had always imagined a city in Europe would be like. Laid back shops, guys playing happy music on accordions, coffee shops and restaurants with chairs and tables sprawling into squares. Old couples sitting next to fountains. It was relaxing, beautiful, and despite being almost Disney stereotypical, it was incredibly enjoyable.
I finally found an internet cafe and when I checked the internet, there was a message from Rafael. He gave me his address and phone number but wouldn’t be back home until around 6:30 so suggested that I wander the city.
I set out in the direction of his house with some help from some World Wildlife Fund guys who were canvassing in a public square and when I got there was pleased to see a hostel nearby where I thought I might stash my bags.
No way. They were not even friendly about it. I even offered to pay. So then I went across the street to a big fancy hotel, The Queen Anne, and asked the clerk. He said no problem, put my bags in their storeroom and refused to accept a tip. I think I am through with hostels unless I really have to deal with them.
Then, free of bags I wandered a beautiful little city filled with bookshops (English, Dutch, French, and more languages with many choices).
I was slightly confused by the many many statues of small children pissing that I saw in all the shops.
I ate a Belgian waffle with strawberries, whipped cream, and extra chocolate just like the all the other tourists. Hands down it was the best waffle I ever had.
And then I ate pizza at Coliseum Pizza which I was later told by Rafael has the best pizza in Belgium. I believe it, it was fantastic.
I picked up my bags and headed to Rafael’s where I was once again reminded of how great couchsurfing can be. We had coffee, great conversations about our mutual adventures and spiitual matters, and then took a long walk through an amazing city.
This is the only city in Europe where not only can you piss on a church, but you are encouraged to do so.
It turns out the pissing child statue is a famous statue with several legends attached to it that people from all over the world come to Brussels to see and snap pictures of.
On occasion, the statue is hooked up to a keg of beer. Cups will be filled up with the beer flowing from the statue and given out to people passing by.
One legend goes like this: In the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held their ground for quite some time. The attackers had thought of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Juliaanske from Brussels happened to be spying on them as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.
Note the hat, sticks, and satchel on the door of this church! Vagabonding is respectable as both I (Vago) and Le Mat can tell you.The shell is the symbol of this pilgrimage.
The Notre Dame church is the Belgian starting point for a very famous Vagabond/Pilgrim trail that runs all the way to Santiago Spain.
The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. Its a route that writer James Michener no stranger to world travel”calls the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world. He did it three times and mentions passing through landscapes of exquisite beauty. The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendoms great pilgrim destinations.
The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to lands end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the areas gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on todays Camino.
There is a bar that never plays music where the patrons always play chess and a massive covered arcade/mall that was relaxing and anything but pretentious.
I can go on and on, but you will have to read the book later for more. In short Rafael, his daughter Laura, and I took a delightful night walk where around every bend he was able to show me something else exciting and interesting.
Instead of a creepy city (by the way, Rafael told me that Antwerp is roughly 1/4 fascist…hows that for feeling the vibes!) I found Brussels to be a laid back, intellectual, unpretentious, and totally livable place. In terms of the cities I’ve seen, I think it moves right to the top of the list.
Not only is there great graffiti, but there is a great culture of comic book art in Belgium that is encouraged by the city by putting art up on corners from great comic books.
In the morning, Rafael made sure I knew how to get to the airport, walked me to the tube station, and I left knowing that I had made another friend through couchsurfing that I will no doubt see again someday.
(Originally posted 24 April 2009)