We thought we had a lot of time built into our last couple of days in Charlotte, but the number of small tasks that needed completing in order for us to leave the house and our affairs in order for six months took care of the entirety of Monday and had us hustling Tuesday morning. Joanna and I did get a nice bike ride in on Monday morning, one that spoke of the promise of this concept of retirement, our time being our own.
We enjoyed yet another very nice dining experience at Bonterra with Jessica. They have a new chef since our last time there and I found the new menu to be more to my liking. Service as always is spot on and their wine selection by the glass is unmatched. We scrambled to complete our Tuesday morning tasks as Joanna’s sister Debi dropped by for one last chat. Her daughter Kristen, our ride to the airport came just before noon and so we bade farewell to our house, to our little dinky dog, and took off for the journey.
Our flights went smoothly and we benefited from being able to upgrade to Economy Plus for the Atlantic crossing, the extra legroom making quite a bit of difference in our comfort level. We actually managed a few hours sleep, although I will say that airplane seats make my rear-end hurt like the dickens after an extended period of time. A bonus was electrical power in our row that we ended up not needing as each seat had its own entertainment center featuring recent movies and TV programming.
Upon landing we cleared passport control, claimed our luggage, breezed through customs and then hit our first snag, one that would plague us through these first few days, trying to find a credit or debit card that would work in the ticket machine for the train to Brussels Central. Fortunately, the ticket machines can display instructions in English, but it was of no avail as none of our cards would work. We went to the ticket counter and purchased our fare, 8.50 euros using one of the cards which now worked at a different terminal, boarded the train and arrived at Brussels Central station about 20 minutes later. We ran into the same issue at the metro terminal, but again purchased from the ticket window, took the number one line two stops to the St. Catherine station where we disembarked and made our way to Maison Noble, our home for the next four nights.
Brussels can be an expensive place for lodging, particularly on weekdays. Our primary resource for recommendations is Rick Steves (we’ve used his guidebooks for many years) and Trip Advisor. I found Maison Noble in the Steves guidebook Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels at a reasonable for a big city rate of 119 Euros. We arrived around 9:00 am, way to early for check in, and were greeted by Brendon, one of the owners who helped us with our bags up a flight of stairs to the office, checked us in for the remaining nights (we had prepaid a night), advised that for our four night stay, they would through in breakfast (normally 10 Euro per night), and that once the housekeeper finished with the room we could occupy it in a couple of hours.
We went back outside into a slightly cool but comfortable May morning and made our way to a small café called Snack A Pat. Here is my review posted to Trip Advisor:
We arrived in Brussels at 7:30 am and by the time we got to our B&B it was not quite 10am. Not able to check in, we dropped off our luggage and went in search of a bite to eat and a place to spend some time. We checked out the menu at Snack A Pat and noting a good sized crowd eating, stopped in for breakfast. We were not disappointed. Service was quick and friendly and we both opted for the two egg and bacon with coffee breakfast for 6 euros, including a nice sized basket of fresh French bread. We’ll be staying in the area for the next four nights and I think this is a place we’ll make good use of.
We then wandered the streets, looking for an ATM, a surprisingly hard challenge for a city this large, finally finding one at Europa Bank at the top of the Rue Neuve, a long pedestrian only shopping street and directly across from the City 2 Mall. We pulled out 500 Euros, as a good strategy is to take larger amounts to minimize the effect of the ATM fee, which is generally about $5. There is also a transaction fee laid on top of about 4%, which as of today effectively raises the overall exchange rate from 1.37 (what we’ve been getting on charges free of a transaction fee on our B of A Travel Visa card) to 1.43. The key here is to push your purchases to a mode where the transaction fee on the exchange is minimized.
We returned to our room, nicely sized with a small balcony, a small refrigerator, gorgeous upgraded bathroom, and flat panel TV with access to 5-6 English language channels. The best feature of all for Joanna is the heated towel rack, which not only dries towels but also warms up the bathroom nicely. We took a 2-3 hour nap to begin our recovery from jet lag, then made our way to the local Carrefour Express to stock up on a supply of beer and purchase a SIM card for Belgium for the European phone that Jessica gave us (she’d used it when she studied abroad in Sienna a few years back).
We ventured out a little later down the street for dinner; this area being populated by a number of moderately priced restaurants. After a decent but uninspiring meal, we returned to our room for a good night’s sleep. Up for breakfast the next morning we were pleased with the quality of the offering, three types of bread, ham, two cheeses (they change each day), yoghurt, croissants, fruit, fresh squeezed juice, and coffee or espresso.
Our hosts, Matthieu and Brendon made us feel very welcome, taking extra time to help us out with some of our technology, answering questions about Brussels, and making suggestions for the day. Suitably fortified by breakfast, we walked a mile or so to the Grand Place to begin a walking tour outlined in our Rick Steves guidebook. The site of the City’s Town Hall and other significant building’s, it dates back to the 10th century when it started out as a market place and is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The square was crowded with trucks and other equipment being set up for some type of Diversity rally featuring lots of media. It speaks of a theme we will witness throughout our journey, how modern day activities take place inside or next to historical buildings and structures. From there we walked down to the famous Manneken- Pis statue, then over to the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, which was built in the mid 1800’s and is Europe’s oldest indoor shopping mall.
We stopped at an outlet for one of the cities well known chocolatiers, Neuhaus, for a refreshing pot of hot chocolate, then made our way a mile or so uphill to begin a tour of the area known as Upper Town. Here you will find the Royal Palace (home to Belgium’s king), the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (which contains the separate Magritte Museum), the Notre-Dame du Sablon Church and at the end of the boulevard, the immense Palace of Justice. We stopped for a few moments at the Place Poelaert, a viewpoint of the city to catch our breath and make plans for the rest of the day.
On the way back to our room we stopped briefly at the Tour d’Angle, a small remaining section of the 2.5-mile wall that surrounded 13th century Brussels. It sat in the middle of a construction site, with a building being put up that would include the section as a stylistic accompaniment.
From there we made our way back towards the Grand Place, stopping at a local shop for our first waffle (Brussels is known for frites and waffles) and then repaired to the Delirium Cafe (recommended by Jessica) which boasts the 2004 Guinness record for “the most varieties of beer commercially available”.
Later that evening, after another simple but filling meal we returned to the room to read and make preparations for the next day when we would venture to Antwerp to pick up the Highlander, having received the news that the customs paperwork was complete and shipping agent was ready for us. Hoping it would go smoothly we went to sleep not knowing what to expect the next day. Fortunately, what anxiety we might have felt didn’t get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
Belgian Railways: https://www.belgianrail.be/
Brussels Metro: http://www.brussels.be/artdet.cfm/4353
Grand Place: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Place
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert: http://www.grsh.be/
Delirium Cafe: http://deliriumcafe.be/