Exploring Belgium’s Capital

We were up at 7.30 this morning as we had to assemble in the Neptune Lounge at 8.45am to be allocated a bus number for today’s excursion, which was a half-day visit to Brussels.  I had never been to Brussels before, although Trevor had been many years ago.

We enjoyed our breakfast up in the Avon Restaurant, then made our way in good time to the Neptune Lounge.  On the way, we encountered a very special guest on board the Balmoral; Fred, the Assistance Dog.  Fred is a lovely Chocolate Labrador and is the constant companion to a wheelchair-bound gentleman who is an ex-armed forces veteran.

A message in the “Daily Times” respectfully advised all passengers not to stroke or pat Fred and distract him from his designated duties.  He was a handsome chap in his green jacket proclaiming ASSISTANCE DOG in large white letters.  😊

We hadn’t been in the Neptune Lounge very long before our coach number was called and we proceeded once again down the steep gangplank to the coaches parked nearby.  Our guide was a tall, fair-haired bloke called Marc and he advised us it would take about 50 minutes to reach our first landmark, the impressive and unusual Atomium.

On the way, we looked out of the windows at the attractive Belgian countryside and passed through gorgeous little towns with their picturesque architecture and little chocolate-box houses.

After pulling up in a pleasant tree-lined avenue, we could see the Atomium in the near distance, with the blue sky, fluffy cumulus clouds, and glinting sunlight reflecting off its distinctive spheres.

The Atomium was originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo (Expo 58). It is located on the Heysel Plateau, where the exhibition took place. It is now a museum.

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102m (335 ft) tall. Its nine 18m (60 ft) diameter stainless steel clad spheres are connected, so that the whole forms the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Tubes of 3m (10 ft) diameter connect the spheres along the 12 edges of the cube and all eight vertices to the centre. They enclose stairs, escalators and a lift (in the central, vertical tube) to allow access to the five habitable spheres, which contain exhibit halls and other public spaces. The top sphere includes a restaurant which has a panoramic view of Brussels and the Belgian flag flies high from the centre of the top sphere.

It was quite an amazing sight, and we would have loved to have had the chance to go up inside it, but we didn’t have the time.  In any case, the museum was not quite open yet, although some queues were starting to form for its opening at 10 o’clock.  I took loads of photos from various angles, and it is one more famous landmark I can cross off my “been there, seen that” list.  😊

After we’d had about 20 minutes looking around, we were all rounded up back on the coach to continue into Brussels main town centre.  The coach dropped us off and we followed Marc into the impressive Grand-Place de Bruxelles, with its large cobbled square and its opulent old buildings, dominated by the incredible 15th century Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall).

The Grand-Place is considered one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe, and it was granted UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1998.

The buildings were all very intricately built, some of them with gilded facades.  Among the historic buildings were tucked away charming little canopy-covered pavement cafés and brasseries, and of course the ubiquitous artisan chocolate and lace shops.

Our next visit was to the historic Galéries Royales Saint-Hubert, which were built in 1846-47.  The galleries consist of two major sections, each more than 100 metres in length (respectively called Galerie du Roi/Koningsgalerij, meaning “King’s Gallery”, and Galerie de la Reine/Koninginnegalerij, meaning “Queen’s Gallery”), and a smaller side gallery (Galerie des Princes/Prinsengalerij, meaning “Princes’ Gallery”). The main sections (King and Queen’s Gallery) are separated by a colonnade at the point where Rue des Bouchers/Beenhouwersstraat crosses the gallery complex.

At this point, there is a discontinuity in the straight perspective of the galleries. This “bend” was introduced purposefully in order to make the long perspective of the galleries, with its repetition of arches, pilasters and windows, less tedious.

Inside the Galérie we stopped outside the Neuhaus chocolate shop, which was billed as the birthplace of the Belgian praline.  It was Jean Neuhaus who first put Belgian chocolate on the map. In 1857, he moved into a pharmacy-cum-sweet shop in the Galérie de la Reines, where he sold plaques of dark chocolate. Gradually, the apothecary transformed into a real sweet shop, and the first praline was created there in 1912. The hollow chocolate shell with a sweet filling was invented by Jean’s grandson (also named Jean) who also invented the Ballotin, the box in which pralines are wrapped.  It was all most interesting.

We followed Marc through the gorgeous streets and eventually came to another one of Belgium’s famous (probably the most famous) sites, the statue of the little naked boy urinating, known as the Manneken Pis, or the “little pissing man”.  It was quite a bit smaller than I had expected and was surrounded by camera-wielding Japanese tourists.

There are several legends associated with the Manneken Pis and the one Marc told us stated that, in the 14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held its ground for some time, so the attackers conceived of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Julianske happened to be spying on them, as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.  😊

Manneken Pis, Brussels

Afterwards Marc said we had some free time to spend as we pleased, and we were all to meet under the Town Hall clock at 12.15pm to return to the coach.  It was half-eleven now, so we had about 45 minutes.

As Trevor and I walked along, we spotted a shop from which an appetising smell was emanating, and in the window was displayed the most mouth-watering array of Belgian waffles and their various toppings.  We decided to go in and buy a couple, and we chose a freshly made warm waffle topped with sliced strawberries and smothered in fresh piped cream over which was drizzled a vanilla sauce.  We went outside to eat them (yum yum!) while looking in the windows of the nearby shops.  One of them was selling boxes of chocolates, buy-four-get-one-free for 20 Euros, so after we’d finished our waffles we went in buy some, thereby resolving the problem of what to bring back home for presents.  😊

Scrummy Belgian waffles

Looking at our watches we saw that we had about 20 minutes before we had to be back so that gave us just enough time to have a freezing cold Belgian beer at one of the pavement cafés.  We therefore ordered a Stella Artois each, and enjoyed them while sitting people-watching.  The weather was much improved and, although still a little cloudy, when the sun did appear it was warm on our backs.

Finally we met up with the rest of our coach party and followed Marc through the square and along the streets, back to the coach.  On the way we saw several horse-drawn carriages with their horses wearing the distinctive leather chutes under their tails leading into a sort of sling, ensuring that the streets of Brussels remain horse-muck free.  😊

It took us about 90 minutes to get back to Antwerp, and we boarded the Balmoral around two o’clock.  We weren’t too hungry because of the massive waffle we’d eaten, so we just enjoyed some salad sitting in the poolside part of the Palms Café and enjoying another cold beer.  Around three o’clock the Balmoral weighed anchor and set off along the river en route to the English Channel and the mouth of the Seine.

At 3.45pm we continued the daily ritual of going along to the Morning Light pub for the afternoon trivia.  There was no sign of any of our regular team-mates and we did appallingly, only scoring 9/20.

Then we just enjoyed a power-nap and pottered about in our cabin until it was time to start getting ready for dinner.

Tonight was Red, White and Blue – or British – night and because my costume on the Boudicca in January had had such a positive reaction, I’d brought it with me again this time.  So while Trevor dressed in his John Bull outfit of Union Jack waistcoat, crisp white shirt and Union Jack bow-tie, I took my time getting ready in a long white dress, Union Jack cape and long dark wig, complete with Roman helmet, Union Jack shield and trident.  Rule Britannia!  😊

As we swept regally along the corridors on our way to the Ballindalloch, our costumes predictably attracted a lot of attention, and one or two people stopped me for a photograph.  We arrived in the restaurant and I placed my shield and trident on the windowsill out of the way, and we perused the British-themed menu.  It was full of dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, chicken tikka masala, bangers and mash, and other such delights of the British culinary palate.

As ever, the wine and the conversation and the laughs flowed, and afterwards we ensured we were along to the Neptune Lounge in good time for tonight’s Great British Sing-along, which preceded the show company’s performance of British Invasion.

Even though we’ve seen the show and the sing-along many times before, we still enjoyed it immensely; the entertainment team performed with exuberance and the passengers all joined in with gusto.  It was, as ever, a really great show.

Afterwards we went up to the Observatory to do the quiz; there was no sign of John and Linda so Trevor and I just did it on our own.  Needless to say, we didn’t win.  However, all was not lost – after the quiz there was a music challenge in the Lido Lounge called “What’s the next line” where they played excerpts from 10 well-known songs and you had to say what the next line of lyrics was.  We were joined by Gill and Carl and Barry and Bev from our table in the restaurant, and this time we scored 10/10 and were the outright winners.  Yay!  We received a bottle of cava which we decided we’d keep until the last night of the cruise.  😊

After Barry and Bev left, and Gill and Carl had gone to get their late supper, we were joined by Ron and Kath, and we sat and had a few more drinks and enjoyed the conversation and the background music until our usual late time of about 1.00am.  We didn’t have to be up early in the morning as the Balmoral was not due to arrive at Honfleur, France, until lunchtime tomorrow, so we could have a lie-in in the morning.  After another really enjoyable and interesting day, we slept very well.

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