Today was surprisingly easy. We had a late check-out from our Paris hostel, and a leisurely 11:25am train at a station that was only ten minutes away. Paris flew by - we really only had a day there, excluding the night of our arrival - and before we knew it we had boarded and were settling in for a pleasant hour and a half ride north. It feels like we've hit the middle third of our journey now that we're done with eastern Europe. Paris always heralded a new section of the trip but it only felt like it once we arrived here. Plus, tomorrow, Wednesday, makes it four weeks since we left. That's a bit surreal.
Brussels feels like what I imagined Prague to be. It has that historic European feel, with resplendent buildings, street atmosphere and bustling activity, but without the seediness or grime of lesser cities. It was a beautiful day when we arrived - two in a row, actually, and tomorrow looks to be a balmy 28C too - which instantly makes a city look better. We coasted in by train, bought a three day public transport ticket and soon were rattling our way along in a tram to the hotel. Getting off one stop too early turned out nicely, as we got to get a feel of the city en route to our accomodation.
And what accomodation! We'd designed the trip to alternate between good and lesser places, with shitty hostels at the little transitionary cities, and nicer accomodation for the longer stays. The EastSeven Berlin hostel was a fantastic find, with friendly staff, good facilities, cheap breakfast and washing and private rooms. The Village hostel in Paris was well-located but pretty dingy, with mould in the shower, lights out in the room and some unpleasant staff. Plus, we'd been sharing a double bed in both, so it had been nearly a week without a separate bed. Now I'm sitting on a lovely king single, fully kitted out with linen, in an air-conditioned Sheraton room beneath the gym and sauna. Fucking ace.
I like to do a lap of the local area upon arrival to get a feel for the place and get my bearings. After we caught up with some free wi-fi - unusual for hotels, really - we headed out, scouting breakfast locations and potential tourist sites. I noticed a lake on the map and steered us there. In the shade around the water people were relaxing, while others sunbaked nearby. I don't know what it is they do that lets so many spend a Tuesday afternoon in the park, but I want that job.
I had prepared a detailed itinerary before leaving that included for every stop a language cheat sheet, expected weather, directions upon arrival to our accomodation, and sightseeing ideas. I firmly believe that the worst part of travel is the travel itself, and having done the hard work of grappling with international public transport ahead of time, it's lovely to be able to just follow step by step directions and get there. No freak outs, no communication problems, no stress. On the list was a natural history museum and I figured since we were in the area I would wander past to see what its opening hours were.
Sam departed to sort out his breakfast options and plan for tonight's dinner and dessert, so I pushed on alone. It really is a beautiful city. Just five minutes out of the transport hub, I was practically alone on the street at 4:30pm. Grocers offered fruit on the footpath, women walked their dogs, and cyclists breezed past. I found the museum, lodged just behind an European Union hub with many political buildings, but from the looks of things it was either closed permanently or doing a good job of pretending. I'll check tomorrow. Behind the museum was Leopold Park, with sunbakers, basketballers, and whistlers by the pond.
As it was such a pleasant afernoon, I kept strolling in the direction of yet another park. Brussels certainly has a lovely balance of greenery in the city, with actual tree-lined avenues and a plenitude of open spaces. This one, Parc du Cinquantenaire, was truly fantastic, with a Central Park meets Luxembourg Palace feel thanks to many little sections and interweaving paths. The monumental triumphal arch is an astounding piece of architecture that dominates one end. Walking through its gate you are simply in awe at the size and scale of the magnificent building, only relatively recently contructed in 1905.
A quick metro ride back towards the hotel, an easy amble down the avenue, and I was back, happy that I'd seen a bit of the city on such a glorious day. I'd barely sat down for ten minutes, though, when Sam announced we needed to leave given dinner was a bit of a trek. So out we went again, catching a bus up to the centre and discovering a bar and restaurant strip. The homely, hearty lamb and rabbit mains were simple but filling. The waffles, a further walk that coincidentally took us to the Manneken Pis, were lovely but a struggle to eat with just a tiny plastic fork. As Sam struggled to avoid getting it all over his hands, eventually resorting to borrowing a knife from a nearby restaurant, I sat on a kerbside table in the warm dusk glow. It's the simple things, after all.