A week in Brussels: one traveler’s perspective

While a thorough, old-fashioned mystery is still one of my favorite genres, this time, the title reveals all the spoilers at once: you know exactly what to expect before clicking into the post. Do kindly click, however, as all of your pretty people’s opinions mean the world to me! Especially, given my absence and tardiness on this and many other current topics. Let’s leave the intro at this: it’s time to rush into the story itself!

In the beginning of October, after just 1 month of being at a new job, yours truly was offered an opportunity to travel to Brussels for knowledge exchange and training purposes. The idea itself was compelling enough for me to agree on the spot and, despite some of road bumps and travel arrangement challenges (me being a contractor, for once), everything went smoothly and according to the plan, so I boarded a plane to Brussels on a beautiful (in San Francisco, CA) morning of October 22nd with a goal to land in Brussels the next day, 10am on October 23rd local (CET) time. The below narration describes details of my travel experiences, minus the office hours and routine tasks.

Day 1: BRU => Novotel Hotel => Grand Place

After taking a train to the SFO international airport, flying to Chicago as my layover destination, and landing in Brussels the next morning (total travel time: 12.5 hours), I took a shuttle to the Novotel Hotel, conveniently located only 10 mins away (by car) from the airport and 2 minutes away (on foot) from our Brussels Levi Strauss & Co. office. Despite an early arrival, the hotel clerk provided me the keys to the room before the official noon check-in time, and I was making tea using room’s mini bar by 11am. Despite the lack of sleep and sore from the long flight muscles, I didn’t feel tired enough to go into hibernation. After watching 2 movies during the overnight flight (The man who knew infinity and Me before you – both incredibly dramatic in a good way features), my mind was wide awake. Besides, once I was able to access wi-fi and call the loved ones, my old friend confirmed he was coming over, so my first day was already looking good! After taking a quick shower and getting ready for the Brussels cold – it was 40° F, or 4.5° C – we met in the hotel lobby and went to the Grand Place, one of the most iconic squares in Brussels.

Thanks to my friend’s driving, efficient navigation in German and light Sunday traffic, we made it to the Grand Place fairly quickly. Despite the fact it was still a weekend, parking wasn’t a problem. We chose the closest to the center garage and walked into a cobbled, symmetrical, proportional architectural perfection:

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Each turn brought more eye candy:

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Besides multiple chocolate shops and eateries, there was, of course, a

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which was, unfortunately, closed at the time. The name though was explanatory enough and I’d make it to a similar establishment later on.

Besides all the touristy shops and a Starbucks (where on earth can one escape that?), we encountered a pretty used bookstore, located right behind centuries-old monuments:

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As most info posts in Belgium, books there were in French, English, Dutch, and German.

In a very close proximity of the Grand Place / Grote Markt, guarded by a bronze fence, stands the legendary Mannequin Pis:

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Around the plaza, we found multiple waffle shops, card / souvenir stores, and many of the famous Art galleries – all, of course, closed on Sunday:

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In the end of this journey, I couldn’t leave the Grand Place without this visual map:

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Day 2: Zaventem

After a busy first day in the office (which, by any means, is amazing with all its modern minimal furniture and LED lighting), I walked to the hotel’s neighboring Zaventem plaza to explore the “real” and get some groceries for breakfast(s). Such walk was very pleasant with all its quiet and neat streets – tiled sidewalks and driveways alike, trimmed vegetation and open intersections.

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Within a couple of blocks, I found a fountain in a center of a roundabout, a few restaurants, a kindergarten, and 2 tiny grocery shops. With its compact fixtures and assortments, this Louis Del Haze shop reminded me of home:

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That day, I scored a red organic apple, a pack of salami bites (better than most salami here in the US), a wholegrain seedy baguette, a pack of herbal tea, Nutella, Milka chocolate bars, and soft, creamy Swiss cheese.
BTW, most fruits and vegetables were not labeled as Organic (meaning, there was no price discrepancy between the varieties), but each of the apples had a tiny note on the sticker barcode, indicating it was indeed organic. It tasted delicious and made a perfect late-night meal.

Day 3: Anton Pieck

On day 3, which was a Tuesday, my team mates have booked a surprise dinner at one of Zaventem’s classic restaurants, Anton Pieck. Located just a few blocks away from the hotel and our European office, it was a perfect choice for a midweek get together. Upon leaving the office at around 6pm, I walked to the hotel, got ready for the dinner, and was picked up by my coworker at 6:50pm. Even though the restaurant was so close, she thought it was too cold for me to walk, even though by Tuesday the weather has improved by at least 15° F.
Once at the restaurant, my coworker and I were greeted by 2 more people waiting outside. We all walked in and were seated at one of the tables in the center of the venue. A few minutes after, 2 more of our coworkers joined, and we proceeded with ordering and storytelling.
At Anton Pieck, a very nice gentleman greeted us with a short intro to the restaurant’s kitchen, as well as their seasonal menu and drink recommendations. Since it was a game season (a term, usually reserved for something sport-related in the US), they had a menu with all of the seasonal game dishes offered. The pheasant croquettes specifically caught my attention, and I couldn’t help it. Everyone else in the group ordered croquettes as starters as well, and, thanks to the many options on the menu, we all got something special.
On the game menu, they also had a Deer steak, and someone asked what that may’ve tasted like. The waiter commented it would be “just like eating a Bambi”, and we decided to skip that option.
Since I was in Brussels, I decided to order foods that had the city or the country reference in the name, so my choice was a Brussels steak. When I did place an order though, there was a slight sigh form the person sitting next to me. I was asked,”Have you ever seen a Belgian cow?”
Naturally, my response was “No”, and then, “Is there anything wrong with them?”
“Depending on your perspective”, my coworker winked,”It only makes sense if I show you one”. In a second, he pulled out his smartphone and googled an image for a better interpretation. On the screen, i saw this (image from the internet):

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As you can see, this “beast” is not your traditional North-American / European cow you see while driving on the freeway. “This cow looks like a wrestler!” – I gasped, and was supported in that comparison. Turned out, they started breeding cows of this kind in Belgium during the 80’s, to increase the meat production by sacrificing its quality. In reality though, the steak wasn’t as tough and chewy, as they warned me it would be. The below is a similar Belgian steak I ordered 2 days later at a hotel restaurant:

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Day 4: Madou

For anyone who’s been to Brussels, Madou doesn’t sound very attractive. Compared to Woluwe or Diegem neighborhoods, Madou loses by all parameters. Locals try to avoid it, unless they have to visit one of businesses (IBM, Philips, P & G) located there. Little did I know any of the prehistory before actually getting into the area, unknowingly. The next day, I learned a lot by chatting with a coworker, who promised to take me out at some point, so I don’t end up in Madou or the like again.

On that Wednesday though, my goal was to visit the Atomium – Brussel’s world-famous center of ingenuity and industrial creativity. I knew, however, that there was no easy way of getting there via public transportation, so I decided to re-visit the Grand Place, as much of it was still unseen. With a quick research, I sketched a map to get there via hotel shuttle + Bus #659. Without cell connection or wi-fi outside the office, it was very hard to travel, given the fact my spoiled self used to rely on technology and navigation so much. I felt robbed of my most trustworthy advisors: GPS or Google maps, safely taking me to places when I was back home. So, before leaving the office (which didn’t happen until much later than I initially anticipated), I drafted a route to take in order to get to Grand Place, along with the bus schedules and stops. En route on bus #659, however, I started noticing sketchy-looking streets and crowds: streets getting narrower, crowds – louder. I remained on the bus even upon realizing it wouldn’t take me to the Grand place, and decided to exit and take the same bus on the opposite side of the street to go back to the hotel. Then, I saw a tiny grocery shop that was still open (many of the businesses in Brussels close by 6pm on weekdays), and decided to go there to get some snacks, and, if lucky, a book or a magazine. I pressed a stop button, hoping the bus would actually pull over nearby. On the opposite, it went down the street for at least 2 more blocks, turning in left and right all the time. Getting back to that corner / intersection turned out to be more complicated that I thought it would be, plus, by 7:30pm, it was pretty dark outside. I got off the bus, found some kind of government-looking building, and took a few photos to capture the scenery:

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At the moment, I decided to save my camera for a better day, and started looking for a local store or a restaurant to call a taxi from. While walking, there were people in the street who tried to approach me, so my goal was to stay as close to the well-lit areas as it was possible. Once inside a little “night shop”, I asked the shop owner if he could call a taxi for me, which he did, very nicely, without asking any questions. We chatted a little, and, after hearing my excitement about Brussels and Belgium so far, he commented: “It’s nice you have this perspective. All we do here, is work”.

Day 5: Atomium

The very next day, my coworker and awesome work buddy did exactly what she promised: we were on our way to Atomium! The structure itself is breathtaking, and seeing it in person is overwhelmingly impressive. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it – the shiny chromed spheres were glistening, even in the semi-foggy, gloomy brussels air. We were at the location at around 6pm, and the area was very lively with tourists. No more words – here are the photos to do the talking:

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I enjoyed taking photos of Atomium’s details: so impressive indeed!

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Once we were done aahing and oohing over these awesome “metal balls”, my coworker offered to visit the Woluwe shopping center, located in another beautiful and prominent neighborhood. If you know my opinion on consumerism and retail, you may think I wasn’t all that excited. Wrong! Anything, located in a different county / state / city compared to what I’m used to, excites me a lot! I was glad to see the neat and clean parking lot, compact corridors, tiny organized shops, and beautiful chocolate stores everywhere. Once we entered the mall, we both got fresh fruit smoothies and went to explore. Given that my coworker has been there before, for me it was all new. Even a small beauty store, which we didn’t go in, boasted this window display:

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My main goal was to find a bookstore to get a reading material for my return trip, and, luckily, there were 3 little press shops:

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The problem was, none of the books there were in English. Technically, that was not a problem, since I wanted to expand my reach anyway, but finding a good travel read was a challenge. I ended up getting a Tin Tin hardcover (written by Belgium’s most acclaimed author, Hergé), a copy of Marie Claire in French, and a bunch of Holiday cards in French and Dutch. Here’s to a fun holiday season ahead!

Day 6: Rio Plaza

On my last day in Brussels, I decided to walk around the office / hotel neighborhood to gather more graphic material to take home with me. I recorded videos outside the hotel lobby, on my way to the office, a view around the plaza… This post is all about photography though, and below is a Friday story!

Levi Strauss & Co. building:

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Levi Strauss & Co. lobby:

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Beautiful Olmenstraat:

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Another view:

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And yet, another (the only Oracle office in the city was pretty far from there):

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Tiny pharmacy in the residential neighborhood:

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Another view:

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Once my walk was over, I came back to the hotel, packed the bags, and read paragraphs from my newly-acquired French lore.

Day 7: Back to the States

By 9am on Saturday, I was up and ready and on my way to the airport. The flight was at 10:30am, and I was glad to have 90 minutes prior. The airport was crowded and noisy, the lines were long, but I was excited to go home via Toronto:

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All the gnarly details aside, my flight back was a pleasant one. In Toronto, I had lunch at the airport, bought a business magazine in English, and, finally, scored a plane seat by the window. The result was stunning. After reading the magazine, watching 2 more movies, and caffeinating myself throughly, I was back to San Francisco the same day local PST time.

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