16 Apr Trip Diary – Brussels
I’ve never been to Brussels before and knew very little about the place other than it was the home of European bureaucracy, where a lot of many important people decide the laws and fates of millions of Europeans. Seeing as it was on my route through Belgium, I just had to stop and explore the city a little.
Normally, I try and avoid large cities and towns for a number of reasons. They are often difficult to navigate and although there is a certain charm getting lost in a beautiful place like Brussels, I tend to cycle around in circles, riding the wrong way down one-way systems, unintentionally annoying most other pedestrians and road users, not to mention myself. Another reason is they tend to be very costly; just having a pee in Brussels cost me €1, and that’s 10% of my daily budget gone – quite literally flushed down the toilet. The prices for such luxuries as a decent coffee are high enough to make me sit there licking the cup for every ounce of caffeinated goodness and stuff my pockets with any sugar/milk/napkins or anything else not securely fastened down in a bid to feel as though I’ve had my money’s worth. Lastly, it’s very hard to find somewhere to put up a tent in a city or stay for free. Yes, websites such as Couchsurfing are good but, in my experience, a little pre-planning is needed to use these, something I hadn’t done by the time I rolled into downtown Brussels late last Thursday afternoon.
Lost in the city
I spent around two hours either riding or pushing my bike around the city trying to find the tourist information office. Brussels, like the rest of Belgium, is very used to seeing cyclists but judging by the constant stares I received, they’re not so used to seeing heavily-laden touring bikes. Now I think of it, they may have been judging my dishevelled state. I certainly felt as though I stood out, pushing my bike down the main pedestrianised shopping streets. I was dressed in the same clothes I’d been in for three days now, whilst the thousands of immaculately turned out and sweet smelling locals hurried about the shops. Not one map I found had the tourist information marked. The signs proudly displaying the layout of the city had nearly everything else you can imagine, from museums to churches to rivers and even down to the smallest little tourist shops, with the usual hats and t-shirts with ‘I ❤️ Brussels’. Eventually, I tracked it down but only through sheer luck more than anything. For those thinking of visiting, it’s located in the ‘Grand Plaza’ but apparently it’s a secret so don’t tell them I told you. It turns out the ‘Grand Plaza’ very much lives up to its name. It’s very big and very grand, surrounded on all sides by very old and immensely impressive buildings with the most decorative stonework you can imagine.
However, my awe of my surroundings quickly faded as I learned that the one campsite in town was closed until July, but was pointed to all the wonderful hotels in the area. I knew I’d probably end up leaving with the entire contents of the hotel room strapped to my back so I got a list of hostels in the area and started trying to work out the location of at least one of them.
By 5 pm, I was at the door of the Sleep Easy hostel. Sleeping easy is not something I associate with a hostel, as it’s normally the last thing possible when sharing a room with other people who inevitably end up being much younger than me, snoring the night away. I’ve been one of them, but I’m not anymore. I’m now an exhausted cyclist in dire need of rest and a quiet night’s sleep, and I don’t care if that makes me sound old or a ‘party pooper’!
After booking in, finding my room and securing the bike to the stairwell next to the reception desk, I headed out into the city, free from the burdens of the cumbersome bike and took a look around. Within minutes I was lost but I didn’t care. Around every corner was another beautiful building or little park and I spent the evening idling around in appreciation. Everywhere I went, throngs of people swarmed around the place, busy shopping away their evenings or searching for a good meal or just, as I was, enjoying being in a city like Brussels. Evidently, a football match had just finished and I guessed by the team shirts and flags that Manchester United had been involved. I turned a corner on to one of the main shopping streets to be greeted by a scene from one of those football hooligan movies. A pub had been invaded by hundreds of excited Manchester United fans, proudly wearing their team colours. They were standing on tables outside, hanging out of upstairs’ windows, cramped on to balconies and in full voice, shouting songs, letting off flares and generally making it known that Manchester United was the best team around. If you happen to disagree, I’ve no doubt they would have a pleasant song to sing/shout at you. The beer had clearly been flowing for some time as it looked like someone would come crashing off the balcony into their fellow supporters below, but no. The police were in attendance with big Alsatian dogs by their sides, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. I didn’t stick around long enough to see anyone get mauled by a police dog or dragged into one of the waiting police vans, but I’m sure the night went peacefully…maybe.
One thing that did strike me about Brussels, at least at first, was the sheer number of police. On every corner, at every turn in the main shopping areas, a police car was parked. Either the police were inside or standing close by. At banks, museums, railway stations or any other building that attracted large numbers of people, whole squadrons were in attendance, heavily armed and highly alert. The more I walked the more I saw until it wasn’t only the police but more heavily armed soldiers, dressed in full combat uniform – bulletproof vests, multiple guns strapped to their bodies and with radios cracklings away. It then all made sense. After the horrendous terrorist bombings Brussels suffered in 2016, this was a city not so much on edge, but on guard.
By dusk, my feet hurt and I was ready for a Sleep Easy kinda night. Turns out for the price tag of €25, I got to share a three-person room with two Spanish guys who spoke little English and who promptly passed out in their beds when they returned at 1 am. I may not have slept easy but I did sleep and that’s about as much as I could ask for in a hostel. I’ve certainly had far worse experiences.
I awoke early, enjoyed the second shower of my stay and crept out of the room to my free breakfast that awaited me downstairs. I’m not sure I needed to be so silent on leaving the room, as the Spanish guys appeared more unconscious than asleep. Cheap Belgium beer will do that. My breakfast can be best described as a cross between a fry up and a roast dinner. On offer were scrambled eggs, steak, green beans, a bacon and ham diced combo along with cereal and bread. It wasn’t at all bad and I made full use of the fact I could help myself. I drank enough coffee to fuel an army and after an hour or so I waddled out of the dining hall, cradling my belly and stifling small burps, feeling pleased I’d at least got value for money. In fact, I was so full that just getting to the top of stairs made my belly hurt and I had a little sit-down. The boys were still fast asleep as I packed my bags and left to sign out.
I was right, cities are expensive but ones such as Brussels are beautiful and even, dare I say it, worth the expense. Just be sure to get your money’s worth!
You can see more photos from my time in Brussels on the gallery page or by clicking here
Edited by – Emer Garry