Through most cities and circumstances on our trip, I rarely felt uncomfortable. I felt uneasy in Brussels much of the visit, and I will do my best to explain why. The city had an ominous foreboding feeling to it. It was the site of 3 coordinated terrorist bombings in 2016, killing 32 civilians and injuring 300. Knowing this, I found myself very alert and on constant watch. Any time there was a significant crowd or open slab of sidewalk for a car to mow people down, we steered clear or hurried through it. Hannah and I discussed this uneasiness and wondered if perhaps it was in our head and just merely us being overly precautious.
Other cities we visited were also the site of awful tragedies at the hands of terrorism, but Brussels just “felt” different. The local police and military were also taking precaution. One evening, as I ran through the City Park, 4 fully outfitted soldiers with service rifles walked in a group on the outskirts with eyes scanning the people and scene around them. Police sirens were an almost constant noise within the city as well. Another day, another pack of soldiers walked past us on a sidewalk, leaving Hannah and I to exchange uncertain glances and a faster paced walk home. The air seemed heavy with tension and distrust, truthfully I was ready to leave almost as soon as we arrived.
Despite this, Brussels was full of history and a major hub of business and government related industry within Europe. Its skyline mixed the occasional skyscraper with looming towers of grey stone cathedrals. The European Union is headquartered in Brussels. Its exhibit, the Parliamentarium, was a stop on our visit. It is a free exhibit explaining the creation and present use of the European Union and Parliament. As Americans, it was both enlightening and thought provoking on how it relates to current topics such as Brexit. International cooperation takes on everything from trade to disputes to social change. The exhibit explained the early benefits of the EU well. The European Union brought unity directly post-WW2 when the devastation of war was fresh in the minds and hearts of all its constituents. Much like the United Nations, the overall cooperative body seemed to pose a significant number of benefits and an open dialogue for countries to tackle issues together.
One interesting fact is that, inside the European Union, a person has the right to work in any member country. For example, a citizen of Latvia is eligible for work in Spain or a citizen of Croatia can work in France. The downside that Hannah and I discussed is that the wealthy member countries with good jobs will absolutely attract more interest (and more burden) from a more disadvantaged state. This also means tackling the repatriotization of money. Someone in a less well-off country such as Estonia might send back their earnings from working in Netherlands. Hannah said this might be the price of peace. Nevertheless, the tour and history behind it were fascinating.
Belgium is known for 3 culinary things: beer, chocolate, and waffles. Hannah and I researched a chocolate tour and they were outrageous ($80 each) for our budget. Instead, we noted what shops and chocolates that the tours boasted on their websites and traipsed over to said stores for our own self-guided tour. With a disarming smile and some charm, I asked the worker in each store what they were known for and we soon had samples of Neuhaus and Galler chocolate pralines in our hands. We selected a few and found an empty bench to watch the locals. A man threw a stick into a thicket of bushes. His athletic dog bounded over them like an equestrian jumping show, determined to retrieve. Youths blasted the latest hip hop track from a portable stereo on the other side of the park. A few tourists milled about taking pictures of the architecture. Meanwhile, Hannah and I indulged. My favorite, by far, was a dark chocolate, lavender infused piece. Hannah was adamant that she should start her day off with a dark chocolate, coffee one since she doesn’t drink coffee.
Belgium is split into three regions: Flanders (Flemish), Brussels capital area, and Wallonia. We took a day trip to visit two cities in the Walloon southern region. It really could not have seemed more different than Brussels. The landscape was rolling and empty. We arrived at a 3 platform train station where we walked right off the platform into the city.
Tall narrow buildings of differing heights and traditional Belgian façade funneled us to the riverside. A tribute statue to Charles de Gaulle (a major figure in both WW1 and WW2 French history) stood near the accompanying bridge also named in his honor. On top of it, eclectic saxophones adorned with flags and art from different cultures lined the walkway. Ghent is where the saxophone was invented, and they are very proud of this fact. A number of street lights bore informational placards about the various types of saxophone. A free museum explained the makers invention and legacy.
It was a small, quiet town that a gorgeous riverfront. The citadel protectively stood, situated above the city. Below, a massive Romanesque style cathedral dwarfed the nearby buildings and almost blended with the craggy rock face behind it. Visitors young and old sipped coffee, drank beer, or enjoyed lunch as they soaked in the quiet ambience.
Hannah and I originally had a 5 minute train change and planned for the worst in case we missed the connection (the train only ran every 2 hours on Sunday). Because Dinant was a short visit, we decided to take that 2 hours and enjoy another stop. Namur also boasted a hilltop citadel overlooking its river, providing the best vantage point for decades past military defense. The riverfront displayed signs of autumn with red, orange, and yellow leafed trees clumped in a row. A beautiful Jesuit church was an attraction with a decadent inside. We enjoyed the quick run through of the city and an interesting sweet treat from Galler confectionary. I termed it “a fat person’s breakfast bar” because it reminded me of the texture of a Nutri-Grain bar, but full of rich chocolate on the inside.