Monday, April 24, 2006

Daytrip to Brussels

I had this wonderful idea to visit a different city each month this year. In January I went to Dublin for the weekend, I failed to go any in February due to work commitments, in March I visited Amsterdam, and this month it was the turn to go to Brussels to see the Atomium building.

It nearly didn't happen at all when I managed to sleep in. I had set the alarm to the right time, just forgot to turn it on. Fortunately I'm a stickler for adding contingency into my trip arrangements and boy did I need it on this occasion. I was out the door within 10 minutes of having realised the time. It did mean however that I didn't have time for a decent shower and I having not shaved was visiting a foreign country looking rough. Ah well!

I was travelling by Eurostar which would get me there in around two and a half hours. For fifty pounds each way I got treated like a first class passenger being offered as much alcohol as I could drink and a very nice 3 course meal. No idea how I did that but I wasn't going to complain and I think it was the first ever champagne breakfast I'd ever had.

This is Gard du Midi station a little South of the main city centre, it's where the Eurostar stops and from here on it's time to travel on foot, and boy was I going to do a lot of walking today. The station also contains plenty of chocolate shops for buying souvenirs to take home.

This is a back street just inside the main city with the Palais de Justice in the background. Brussels has a big history in cartoon art, being the country of origin of popular works such as Tintin. In honour of this the city has a cartoon museum and a cartoon tour around the city with pieces of art painted onto the sides of buildings. It looks like I'd stumbled on one of the pieces here.

Built in the mid-19th century at the request of King Leopold, the Palais de Justice dominates the skyline in the southern half of the capital. For those walking around without a map, like myself, it offers both a great landmark to navigate from and being atop a hill, a perfect opportunity to see over the city. The square that it sits in is called Poelaert Square in honour of the architect that designed it.

Also in the square is this monument to the infantry, which I think was sculpted by Edouard Vereycken. It commemorates the losses of those soliders in both world wars.

A view from the Palais de Justice overlooking the city, which for the most part is pretty flat, the larger buildings stealing the skyline.

I think this is the Royal Music college on the Rue de la Regence, the road that joins the Palais de Justice and the Royal Palace.

This is Lady of Sablon's Church, which considering it was built in the 15th Century is one of the better looking churches around the city. I love gothic architecture and there are some great touches of it here.

Another recently white-washed buildings close to the Royal Palace. I can only guess that this is used for some sort of administration. It certainly looks like a serious building.

I would hazard a guess that this building is the Palace of Congress. Certainly a more modern building but still designed to fit in with the feel of the city. I was impressed with the sculpture outside, that's some balancing feat!

This is the Royal Palace which sits on the Southern Edge of the Royal Park. This is the official residence of the Royal Family but they don't actually live here, choosing to reside in Laeken, a district close by.

The Royal Park is actually quite small, you could easily walk from one side to the other in a few minutes. Like most parks its a great place to relax and there are plenty of trees around to block out the sound of traffic.

On the northern side of the park is the Belgian Parliament building, hidden behind a massive security fence that couldn't be passed. Funny how security is always beefed up around these places.

To the North-West of the Parliament building is the Colonne du Congres, a monument designed by Poelaert to commemorate the wars again. This one houses the eternal flame. This Poelaert really had the monopoly on tributes to the war-dead. It was built in the mid 1850s. The statue at the top is King Leopold.

This was hidden behind the column, and I thought it quite odd that of all the things to choose to decorate the side of a building, a picture of horses on a beach would be chosen.

Not really having a clue where I was going I thought using buildings as landmarks might be a good way to get around. Fortunately the city is laid out with large churches at the main intersections, perfect for navigation. In the background is the Church of St. Marie and I'd be heading off this way first.

These are the main botanical gardens. It looked like they were getting ready for some sort of festival so I didn't hang around.

Some more painted buildings. Its also worth mentioning the bottle bank, they seemed to be everywhere and its obvious that there is a major recycling initiative taking place here.

The church of St. Marie. From here I headed North West.

This the monument to Labour, opened to the public in 1950, sits on the side of the River Senne that runs through the city. It was designed by Constantin Meunier.

I loved this painted building, which I passed on the way to the next big church. It's a shame the graffiti was sprayed on here though, it's not even that good.

This is Brussel's Notre-Dame cathedral, burial place to several rulers of the country. This is actually the back-end of the church, the front was covered in scaffolding and safety netting.

Here is the Royal residence. I didn't know what it was until I'd paid my 2 euros and followed the crowd into the grounds. Security was tight here, if you so much as stepped on the grass you'd have men blowing their whistles and running at you.

The Royal Gardens were open today so I took the opportunity to walk around them, well I had paid to do so. This went on longer than I thought, the buildings went on everywhere, and the plants were much the same from one room to the next. This was built in in the late 19th Century, again at the request of King Leopold.

This is the main monument in Laeken built in 1878. Built to honour Belgium's first King, Leopold the 1st who stands in its centre.

In the Laeken grounds is this statue to the victims of the Battle of Britain. I have no idea what its doing in Belgium, but this country does seem to like it's war memorials.

This was where I wanted to end up, the Atomium building which was miles out of the city and much further away than I'd have liked. I could have caught a tram or train but I figured I'd see more of the city on foot so had no regrets.

Built in the 50's as part of the '58 Expo that took place here, the Atomium is now the weirdest looking exhibition centre I'd ever seen. Consisting of 8 spheres a lift takes you to the observation tower in the top most one and you then move from room to room making your way back down.

I'm guessing that is how it operates, after queueing for half an hour I got into the entrance hall to find a queue of at least one hour continuing inside it. Not having that much time left before having to catch my train I gave up and made my way back.

Built in the shadow of the structure is Belle-Vue, a small tourist complex that houses a small water park, miniature world and a themed parade of shops and eating establishments.

I did check to see if Mini-Europe had any coasters, but it did not. If it had it would have been an unplanned surprise. The trip wasn't about riding coasters, just going away for the day.

This is the Heysel stadium, which is unfortunately known for the wrong reasons. Some Liverpool fans were killed in a crush that happened here following a riot that broke out between their fans and those of Juventus. I didn't even know it was in Belgium, shows what I know...

I tried to travel back a slightly different route, heading back across the Senne and then following the train line down towards the station. On the way I passed through what had to be the commercial district.

The Gard du Nord station contains some stunning murals on the walls of the underpass. They were advertising some sort of tolerance campaign.

Another picture taken in the commercial district. Quite a nice sculpture I thought.

And another, this one was just a little bit odd and reminded me of something in a They Might Be Giants Video.

It was obvious that the on the route back I was travelling through busier and more commerical areas than the quieter more touristy bits. This is one of the smaller squares with the museum in the background and some native Belgian Indians playing their flutes outside. I'm sure this is some sort of scam, they seem to be everywhere!

A walk through some shopping streets, and a chance to eat some waffles and I was nearly back at the station.

A quick stock up of some cherry beer, chocolates for the workmates and a sandwich to eat whilst waiting for my train (I got back with about half an hour to spare) and I was soon on my way back home, with more first class pampering on the way home.

So did I enjoy Belgium? Considering it nearly never happened I am glad I made it. The city is very quiet with the crowds pulled towards a couple of main streets. I didn't get to do any exhibitions and I was a bit upset I didn't get up the Atomium, but I still enjoyed the day even if I did walk 15 miles altogether.
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