In Bruges…

We awoke from a restful sleep with enough time for a leisurely walk to the train station.  July 7th marked the start of our 1 month (plus 5 free day) Eurail Pass.  Our inaugural journey would take us to the highly anticipated city of Bruges. 

We purchased the Eurail pass a few months earlier after some careful research, mostly credited to Rachel.  We wanted the cheapest, most flexible, and fastest mode of travel through Europe.  I had always associated European travel with train passes, so I initially assumed this was the obvious way to go. However, thanks to Rachel, I quickly learned this was not necessarily the case.  

The Eurail pass is expensive.  A one month first class pass would cost us each 788€ ($1230 CAD).  This was much more than we expected and with countless blogs insisting European travel by rail is no longer a foregone conclusion, we realized we had a lot to consider.  How much is a single train ticket?  How many countries do we actually intend to visit?  More importantly, how many cities do we actually think we’ll visit?  How much is a car rental?  How much is a typical airfare within Europe?  Etc.  Etc. 

Indeed, a lot to consider.  Airfare can be surprisingly cheap within Europe, especially through low cost airlines like Ryanair.  We could buy a lot of flights for 788€.  However, while the flight itself is reasonably cheap and fast, we’d still have to get to and from the airport, which is often a good distance from the city centre.  We would also need sufficient time to get through security, etc..  In other words, there is a lot of added time and cost associated with flying that we don’t always consider. 

Driving would likely be most flexible, but renting a car is expensive, especially for such a long duration and starting and ending in different places.  Also, since we intended to stay in cities mostly, parking and traffic would be a nightmare. 

Finally, the rail option.  With quick access to train stations and no time required for security and check in, traveling by rail is fairly fast.  It would come down to cost and flexibility. When we looked at the cost of individual train tickets for July and August, they were quite cheap…definitely cheaper than buying a pass.  However, we were looking in March.  The cost skyrocketed for tickets only a couple days ahead, and this would surely be worse in the peak season of summer.  We knew we didn’t want to plan out our trip day by day so far in advance. So, for maximum flexibility, the rail pass would be cheapest, even when you add the cost of reservations, which are generally required to secure seats on busy routes.  

After much deliberation, we finally decided the Eurail pass was right for us.  For sure, travel by rail is not cheap and no longer a foregone conclusion in Europe.  Cost is now extremely competitive among trains, planes, and automobiles, and all other considerations are really dependent upon one’s individual travel plans.

Anyway, back to the train station in Brussels.  After initiating our pass at the ticket office, we bought breakfast and headed for the train.  We found our seats and sat comfortably with our coffee and croissants.  The train began to pull away  at 8:51am, right on time.

(Breakfast on the train en route to Bruges)

We arrived at Bruges Station a little over an hour later.  Across a busy ring road and over a tree lined canal that encircles the old city, we quickly entered a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and medieval brick buildings.  Flowered windowsills, courtyards, archways, and tranquil canals staged postcard views at every turn. 

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(Stopping to smell the flowers)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

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(First impressions of Bruges)

We were in search of Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend from home, Dirk.  An avid traveller, Dirk gave us many great recommendations leading up to our trip.  We came to Oud Sint Jan, which was the city’s hospital until about 25 years ago.

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the birthplace of our friend, Dirk)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

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(Oud Sint Jan Museum, the old hospital of Bruges)

Through more archways, we walked passed The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch.

(One of many medieval looking archways)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

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(The Church of Our Lady, or Onze Lieve Vruow in Dutch)

We came to Grote Markt in the centre of the city.  It is a large square full of tourists and surrounded by historic buildings, most of which are now museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants.  The Belfry of Bruges towers over the city from the south side of the square.  It is a must see. 

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking east)

(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges – looking west)

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(Grote Markt in the centre of Bruges)

It was time for breakfast round 2.  We sat outside in the market square at one of the many restaurants and ordered pannekoeken (pancakes) and a waffle.  When we asked the waiter if the restaurant has wifi, he responded, “No. Sorry, you will have to talk to each other today.”  I still haven’t decided if this was merely rude or perhaps a reasonable criticism of our generations’ ADHD.  Anyway, the waffle and pancakes were decidedly better than the service.  

(Breakfast #2 beneath the Belfry of Bruges)

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(Pannekoeken with icing sugar and a side of brown sugar)

(Belgian waffle with icing sugar and whipped cream)

We wandered into the Belfry, a medieval bell tower.  This is probably the most iconic symbol of Bruges and definitely worth a visit.  It was built in 1240 on the north end of the old market square and served as a lookout.  The connected building enclosing the market square once housed the city’s treasury and was the centre of municipal affairs.  We opted not to pay 10€ each to climb the 366 steps to the top mainly due to the heavy stream of tourists all vying for the best views of the city.  Bruges is pretty enough from street level. 

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(The iconic Belfry of Bruges)

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(Inside the old market square and Belfry of Bruges)

Instead we walked around the square, in and out of a number of art galleries before heading to the Bruges Beer Museum just down the street.  It was very informative with displays about the history of beer and the processes used to brew it. Of course there was no shortage of trivia.  For instance, cenosilicaphobia is the fear of an empty glass.  An interesting story is that of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers. He is credited with saving his parish from the plague.  In reality, he just encouraged them to drink beer instead of water.  Contaminated water had been spreading the infection, but since it is boiled in the brewing process, beer was miraculously free of the deadly pathogen.  Parish numbers grew and Arnold was immortalized.  His statues, which depict him with a mashing rake, still commonly adorn breweries all over Belgium.  Above all, I learned that my interest in beer is mainly in drinking it.  Fortunately the tickets came with a tasting. 

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(The Beer Museum of Bruge)

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(Rachel learning more than she cared to know about the history of beer)

(Learning more than I cared to know about brewing beer)

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[Beer tasting.  From Left:  Rodenbach Foederbier – A flat beer, straight from the oak casks at Rodenbach Breweries  (mixed fermentation, 5-6%), Steenbrugge Dubbel Bruin – A brown abbey beer with a malty caramel character and a fruity, lightly smoked yeast aroma (top fermentation, 6.5% alcohol),  Palm Hop Select – A balanced connoisseurs beer with a hoppy taste and a touch of caramel (top fermentation, 6% alcohol)]

  The full feeling from our second breakfast was threatening to flee, so we quickly found a restaurant that served mussels and chips, another Bruges specialty.  We settled on Bistro den Huzaar. We (I) also couldn’t pass up the beer tasting and fish soup that seemed to leap off the pages of the menu. These were without a doubt the best mussels either of us had ever tasted. They were very simply steamed in water and white wine and garnished with some spring onion.  The magic was in the freshness of the mussels. Talking to the waiter, who was also the owner, we learned that although Belgium is famous for the dish, nearly all of the mussels served in the country are actually harvested from the coast of the Netherlands.  Apparently mussels just aren’t as popular in Holland.  The beers went surprisingly well with the mussels. We were less impressed with the fish soup, which came with a little flat bread, but overall, this mussel experience was THE highlight of Bruges.  

(Amuse bouche)

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(Belgian sausage – very nice)

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(Beer sampling – by this point i wasn’t keeping track of the types)

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(Showing off my mussels)

(Best mussels to date!)

(Fish soup and flat bread)

Having recovered the full feeling in our bellies, we continued to explore the old city, stopping to watch swans play in the canals and checking out various shops.  There was a perfume store that offers to pair a scent to your personality.  Unfortunately, one needs an appointment for this.  In another store, Rachel found a light down jacket that squishes into a tiny featherweight ball. Her heavy travel jacket’s days of weighing down her backpack were over. 

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(A beautiful girl on a beautiful street in Bruges)

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(A very peaceful canal in Bruges)

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(Another gorgeous canal in Bruges)

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(One of many swans swimming in the canals of Bruges)

We reached the outer perimeter of the old city, a narrow band of green space that follows the canal moat.  To the north was a windmill that begged for a photo op.

(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

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(Random windmill on outer perimeter of Bruges)

Despite having seen only a fraction of the quaint old city, a walk along the tranquil ‘moat’ was too inviting. We walked slowly around the city back toward the train station. Although one could easily spend several days in Bruges, we were satisfied with our first day trip in Europe.  We caught the next train back to Brussels determined to find waterzooi before leaving Belgium. 

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(The tranquil moat encircling Bruges)

We settled on a restaurant right across the street from our apartment in St. Giles, La Porteuse d’Eau. It offered a variety of local dishes including waterzooi, the famed soup Dirk had recommended.  It was quintessential comfort food.  A creamy chicken and vegetable soup. Very simple, but quite tasty, especially with several different Belgian beers. 

(More Belgian beer at La Porteuse d’Eau in Brussels)

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(First time Rachel finished her drink before me!)

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(Thirsty Rachel connecting with her Belgian roots.)

(Waterzooi – a creamy chicken and vegetable soup)

It was another early night for us as we had to pack for Amsterdam. Our short time in Belgium was coming to an end. 

For breakfast the next morning we had croissants from one of several patisseries right downstairs…so convenient.  We ate quickly because we had to stop at the post office on the way to the station.  We badly underestimated how long this would take and how uncomfortable it would be to pack a parcel wearing our heavy backpacks.  We finished with 9 minutes to spare so we ran to the station.  We made it there in 7 minutes but lost 3 trying to determine the track.  That’s right, we missed our train.  Oh well, there was another train 90 minutes later…plenty of time for another breakfast before heading to the Venice of the North. 

(Vaarwel Belgie!  Bedankt voor alle chocolade!)

Brussels – mmm…The Land of Chocolate

At about a quarter passed six on the evening of July 5th, Thalys high speed train number 9365 slowed to a stop at the Brussels MIDI station.  The platform was lined with a welcome party of about a dozen military servicemen wearing full fatigues and body armour, each carrying a heavy assault rifle. It was an appropriate show of force in the wake of the horrific airport bombing less than 4 months prior.

(Bienvenue à Bruxelles/Welkom bij Brussels)

I don’t know what we expected of Belgium other than a diverse population, old buildings, amazing chocolate, delicious mussels, and, of course, beer.  I’m not going to lie, the following vision played through my head more than once before we arrived…

(Expectations of Belgium.  For Simpson’s fanatics, I realize this scene was referring to Germany.  Humour me.)

While in Paris, my good friend, Bhupinder, made the ominous comment, “I’ll feel better when you’re out of Brussels.”  I couldn’t help but think of his looming concern as our train pulled in beside all those armed guards.  On the other hand, police and military presence gives the reassuring impression of security and control, at least in civilized countries. Surely, that is the intent. This was the case when I was with Bhupinder in Israel years ago, and it quickly became the case as we arrived in Brussels central train station.  Our impressions of Belgium were slowly taking shape.

The heavy foot traffic within and outside the train station confirmed the expectation of diversity.  It was noticeably heterogeneous.  Not in a negative or imposing way, but an apparent contrast to the diversity of Canadian cities, Paris, and London (maybe with the exception of Heathrow Airport).  It was a first impression that was difficult to articulate.

We walked about 10-15 minutes to our apartment in St. Gilles, a pleasant neighbourhood just south of the old city centre.  Everywhere, the streets were lined with elegant six to eight story buildings, as it was in Paris.  It was quiet yet lively at the same time with people walking and cycling home from work or out to the restaurants and bars.  Old men sat on benches watching the pedestrians.  The sun was bright and hot, but it was refreshingly cool in the shade as we walked with our heavy back packs.

Our host, Jonathan, buzzed us in and advised us to take the elevator straight ahead.  We squeezed into the old brass and iron contraption, which we would later learn was installed in 1907.  It still worked smoothly, likely as well as it did over a hundred years earlier.

(Antiquated but reliable lift)

Jonathan welcomed us to his deceptively big apartment with high ceilings, crown mouldings and frosted glass paneled doors.  Such a welcome upgrade from our Paris accommodation.

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(Home away from home)

 

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(A room with a view)

After our tour, Jonathan gave us an overview of Brussels on a large coffee coloured map hanging in the hallway.  It was very old, but we were mainly concerned with the old town, for which it was still perfectly accurate.  He gave us some recommendations and had to run to meet his father for dinner. We freshened up and did laundry.  Ahhh, a proper shower!  No need to squat in a shoe box tub!  Heaven!

We wandered around the corner in search of the recommended restaurant, Brasserie de L’Union, for dinner.  The quiet neighbourhood opened up to a wide street of restaurants, bars, and a sea of outdoor tables garrisoned by thirsty Belgians.  It was dusk and a chilly breeze blew between the buildings so we opted for a table inside.  The beer list was enormous.  I had a Brugs Witbiere, and Rachel had a Kriek Boon, a cherry beer.  Both were great, although fruity beers are too sweet for me.  My white beer was nice and refreshing.

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(Rachel’s Cherry Beer)

(My White Beer)

The food menu was less extensive.  I had a hamburger, interested mainly in the french fries dressed in mayonnaise.  Rachel had pasta in a cream sauce with ham and cheese…a lot of cheese.  The fries were much better than the burger, especially with the mayo.  The pasta was quite tasty too, surprisingly lighter than it looked.

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(My first Belgian dinner, pre-mayo.)

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(Rachel’s light dinner)

The table of 4 girls sitting next to us took interest in us, inferring that we were Canadian. One of them had recently moved to Vancouver and was just home for a visit.  The rest were locals.  We talked about many things as we ate and drank our beer.

They confirmed the heavy security presence had followed the airport attack, noting that the state of emergency had been lifted only recently.  One of the girls was particularly vocal on the subject. She was a social worker in Brussels, primarily dealing with migrants.  Her perspective was intriguing so I’ll try to convey it here.

She argued that the recent attacks throughout Europe were inevitable and primarily due to the lack of integration of an increasing number of migrants. So many people come to Brussels and other European cities with the promise of opportunity and simply do not find it.  Basic services, such as healthcare, are provided, but the government does little to curb discrimination, which is widespread and often blatant.  Migrants are regularly at a disadvantage competing for work and peoples’ attitudes discourage assimilation, especially in Brussels.  As a result, ethnicities remain largely segregated.  Right or wrong, this really aligned with our first impression of the diversity in Brussels…a very apparent lack of assimilation.

She went on to describe how many migrants who are unable to succeed are too proud to reveal their struggles to their families and friends at home. Instead many often boast of newfound success and wealth, propelling the exaggerated perception of opportunity in Europe, and thus motivating more people to come.  A vicious cycle.

The frustration with this situation easily turns to anger and despair, leaving weak minded, disillusioned people vulnerable to extremism.  She clearly wasn’t absolving the attackers of responsibility, but acknowledged there is a very real problem that is deeper than just a bunch of crazy Muslims.  A vulnerability that must be addressed, regardless of who or what group is currently exploiting it.  A compelling argument.

We went on to talk about the influence of the European Union being seated in Brussels. Apparently this is mostly a nuisance for the locals as the city essentially shuts down each time the European Parliament is in session.  However, they are amused by the common rhetoric from other countries denunciating   “the power of Brussels.”  This was especially so throughout the Brexit campaigns where politicians railed against the decisions made in Brussels on behalf of the U.K.  They joked of the awful burden it is to wield such power over Europe.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom about disenfranchised people, despite how this may sound.  It was actually a fun conversation with a lot of laughs. The heavy stuff was just memorable and particularly worthy of sharing.

Full of Belgian beer, pasta and french fries,  we said goodbye to our new friends and walked home to find Jonathan had returned.  We learned that our host was quite interesting.  He is a high school philosophy teacher, Aikido instructor, and magician.  Quite a unique set of skills!

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(Aikido Master of Brussels)

Jonathan offered to show us an example of his magic.  He withdrew two red casino dice from his pocket, apparently ever ready to perform.  He began explaining the dice in elaborate detail and thoroughly demonstrated their authenticity.  He highlighted that the sum of two opposing sides always equals seven and offered several examples to prove it.  However, this rule can be easily broken and any requested number can be made to appear by simply blowing on the dice.  He proceeded to do this, quite convincingly transforming the dice at our command. Amazing slight of hand.

He performed several more tricks with the dice, which have since escaped my memory. We continued to chat and made plans for a late dinner the next night before heading to bed.

The next morning we walked into the Old Town and stopped for breakfast at Cafe Chaff, next to the Marolles Flea Market.  Bacon and eggs with a lightly dressed salad, warm bread, and freshly squeezed orange juice…a good start to the day.  A guitarist strolled by serenading us and the other outdoor diners as we ate.  He was in search of tips, which is common in European cities.  Although we enjoyed his music, he left disappointed.  It’s tempting, but you can’t please everyone so we reserve our tips for the exceptional performers, and those we stop to see.

(Waking up at Cafe Chaff)

(Healthy start to the day)

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(If the coffee doesn’t wake you, the stairs to the washroom will.)

We wandered through the flea market hoping to find some buried treasures, but we had no such luck.  One man’s garbage is another man’s trash…at least on that particular day.

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(Marolles Flea Market)

We explored further, enjoying the buildings, statues, and cobblestone streets.  We came to a busy bar and couldn’t resist a stop for a drink at Cafe Leffe.  As we sipped our beer, we began to notice the tantalizing baskets of crispy fries on all the tables around us.  One of those tables was not like the others, so to fit in we ordered a basket of our own and were soon very glad we did.

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(Morning beer at Cafe Leffe)

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(Irresistable snack)

It turned out that the chocolatier, Frederic Blondeel, which our friends from the night before had unanimously recommended, was just around the corner.  We were excited for this.  Leading up to this trip, so many people had insisted that we try Belgian chocolate as it is supposedly the best in the world.  Our expectations were high.  We walked over and browsed the lavish display of truffles, and chocolates and resisted the urge to try them all.  We bought a generous sampling and carried on, saving the tasting for later.  Prepare to be overwhelmed…

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(mmm…the land of chocolate, Frederic Blondeel Chocolatier)

We came to the famous Manneken Pis, peeing boy fountain. It was significantly smaller than expected….the fountain, that is.  The area was crawling with tourists and pricey waffles drenched with chocolate sauce and ice cream, which was not particularly appetizing.

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(Obligatory Mannekin Pis pics)

Then we came to a large square, Grand Place, surrounded by beautiful hotels, museums and other ornate buildings.

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(Grand Place, Brussels)

The square led to a labyrinth of narrow streets full of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and art galleries.  It was also teeming with tourists but it made for a nice stroll as we walked on toward the Théâtre Des Galeries, covered shops.

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(Covered shops at Théâtre Des Galeries)

There we found Mokafé, where we would find the best Belgian waffle in Brussels, according to Jonathon.  I don’t know if it’s the best in Brussels, but it was probably the best waffle I’ve ever had.  A very thin, crispy outer shell with a soft, fluffy batter inside. Dusted generously with powdered sugar and paired with copious amounts of creamy butter, it was beautiful.

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(Mokafe, home of the best waffle in Brussels)

Even better was the little old lady sitting next to us.  All alone, she ordered a giant ice cream sundae about the size of her head and slowly devoured it one tiny bite at a time.  Although her expression scarcely changed, we could hear her heart singing with joy.

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(Too cute)

We perused through a couple shops and galleries within the covered shops.  One gallery showcased an artist who specializes in photo mosaics, and uses closeup photos of women’s skimpy bikini clad bottoms to compose a larger image of various conservative themes. I studied his work carefully.

Along the way toward the Royal Palace, we came upon a small market, where Rachel bought a dress for her next semester at Hogwartz (actually, quite a nice dress).  She also bought a thin brown Moroccan leather belt to complete the ensemble.  Funnily though, when we got home later, we realized that the belt actually smelled quite bad.  It turns out a common technique to soften leather in Morocco is to soak it in pigeon poop.  Evidently, this had been done to her new belt.  I don’t know how we missed this in the market, but in any case, the belt found itself in a sealed bag full of baking soda, where it will remain for the next 8 months to hopefully kill the disgusting odour.  Leather has since fallen off our list of things to buy when we visit Morocco in October.

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(Hermione’s Rachel’s new dress)

We walked on under the intense heat of the sun and finally came to the Royal Palace, followed closely by the Law Courts of Brussels, both very impressive buildings.

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(Royal Palace of Brussels)

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(Law Courts of Brussels)

Next to the Law Courts is a ridge, from which there is a very good view of Brussels as well as a memorial to the unknown soldiers of the World Wars.  An elevator called, Ascenseur des Marolles, offers a quick and easy descent down the ridge.

(Memorial to the unknown soldiers of the world wars)

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(View from the Ascenseur des Marolles)

We took the elevator down and wandered back in the direction of home.  We stopped for my first European haircut, likely the most meticulous buzz cut I’ve ever enjoyed.

(My first European haircut)

It was still too early to go home so we got a drink at the square around the corner from home and tried the first of our chocolates.  Simply put, Belgian chocolate deserves its reputation!  It was incredible.

(Beer and chocolate – a winning combo)

We went home to freshen up and relax. Jonathan came home shortly after 9pm.  He had just finished a magic show for a large group, which he obviously enjoyed immensely. We set out to find a restaurant.   Everywhere was packed with people watching the Eurocup semifinals. We settled on a small Moroccan restaurant with no TVs and consequently open tables.

Soon plates and pots of aromatic food began filling the table. Cumin scented carrots with salty olives, one tagine of chicken, dates and cashews, and another of mergez meatballs with mixed vegetables.  There was a plate of skewered lamb over fluffy cous cous, and another pot of stewed vegetables. Finally, a basket of crispy flatbread with marinated chick peas and an amazing chili paste.  I didn’t want it to end but we filled up quickly, sipping rosé wine and enjoying good conversation.

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(Delicious Moroccan dinner with Jonathan)

After the meal we continued drinking our wine and Jonathan shared more magic tricks, this time using a deck of playing cards.  Determined to catch his slight of hand, we were startled when the streets suddenly erupted with cheering, banging and the sound of car horns.  Portugal had won the semifinals and evidently the neighbourhood was more Portuguese than Welsh.

We settled our bill and wandered home through the ongoing celebrations of the football fans (soccer fans, for those of you in North America).  We bid farewell to our new friend since Jonathan was leaving for France early the next morning.  We enjoyed our short time with him and wish we could have seen more of his magic skills.  Off to bed, we set our alarms so we could catch the relatively early train to Bruges the next day!