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Spring in Brussels
Rating: (5.0) (1 vote)

Brussels, Belgium
May 06, 2005

Pros: The scent (once you got away from all the cars) was intoxicating.
Cons: None

Daina and I spent the last weekend of April in Brussels. Daina celebrates her 18th birthday in May so as a special birthday present, I took her to the capital of Europe. Her birthday falls right at the beginning of exam time, and Daina decided that probably isn’t the best time to relax and go touring. So we booked one of the cheaper flights available in Europe and flew off to Belgium.

As some of you may know, I spent my last year of high school in Germany at the Lettisches Gymnasium Muenster. It was the only full-time Latvian school outside Latvia and many students spent some time there learning math, science, and other stuff in Latvian. I still maintain contact with some of my classmates from that time so long ago (yes – it was a long time ago) and one of my classmates, Birgita lives in Brussels. She welcomed Daina and me with open arms and lovely accommodations.

We had an early morning flight out of Riga and landed in Brussels just in time for breakfast. Birgita picked us up at the airport and we took the scenic route around the city to avoid rush hour. I was instantly struck by the amount of cars in this city of about one million people. The ring road around Brussels is beautiful – quite green and picturesque. Belgium has had much more rain than Latvia, so consequently, the country is in full spring bloom. All the trees are in bloom as are the lilacs and other assorted bushes and flowers. The scent (once you got away from all the cars) was intoxicating.

We headed to the southern part of Brussels where Birgita has a very nice apartment just a few blocks from embassy row for nations not in the G7 – Rue Molliere. Having stopped at a boulangerie for an assortment of croissants and baguettes, we headed back home for a marvelous breakfast that included the aforementioned bread plus marvelous pates and cheeses. You’d think a milk and meat loving country such as Latvia would have an abundance of such goodies, but, alas, no.

After breakfast we headed off to the old town to do the obligatory in town touristy stuff. Fortunately for us, Birgita drove so she could show us all kinds of stuff in a quick drive by. The most notably ugly architecture in Brussels has to be the EU stuff going up on every corner in the downtown area. What were they thinking? However, next to all this ugly architecure is the beautiful Cathedrale des Sts Michel et Gudule where we listened to the organist practice on the new organ. The old town, Grand Place and surrounding areas are so charming, as are the residential neighborhoods that abound. I don’t get how they can manage to build charming new apartment buildings in already established neighborhoods and they can’t build something esthetically pleasing in the city center.

We visited the obligatory sites in the old town (read about them in the Lonely Planet guide), had some Belgian waffles and excellent Belgian beer. Fortunately, Birgita also enjoys beer so she could not only suggest the best local brews, but she also had some at home which is where we headed after an afternoon of sightseeing.

We had dinner at home and then headed out for a walk through her neighborhood. We like doing this in Toronto too – go for a walk in the evening when the lights are on so you can see into people’s homes to check out some new decorating ideas. She lives in a charming neighborhood and we picked out the house we’d ideally love to live in if we had to live in Brussels.

The next morning we repeated our wonderful Belgian morning breakfast routine after which Birgita suggested we drive to Waterloo! I had not realized this was so close to Brussels, so I jumped at the chance to see this historical site. The day was sunny and warm enough for sandals! While Brussels suburbs are incredibly charming, driving through Waterloo was a bit disappointing. Apparently, the area is inundated with Swedes whose children attend various local private schools. The town looks like an upscale New England town with many street signs in English and mini-strip malls on the sides of the road.

The historical sight itself is marvelously kitchy. There are a few taverns to serve tourists as well as a cute museum, movies of the battle of Waterloo and obligatorily over-priced tourist shop. Daina and I climbed the 229 stairs to the top of Butte de Lion to view the surrounding area where over 100,000 men fought. I could hardly imagine the blood bath that occurred there. Men should be forced to fight like that again. Maybe they would rethink the whole process. I think I pulled a muscle climbing down those many stairs. I’ve been having a weird spasm in my right leg since.

After Waterloo, we headed back into Brussels for mussels. Before heading back to downtown, however, we visited the area of Brussels known as Tervuren where Birgita once lived. We happened upon the local flower market and walked around enjoying the sights, smells, and warmth (25 degrees) of the wonderful weather. We then strolled the grounds surrounding the African Museum (too large to do in an hour or two) and started off toward the old town for mussels.

Birgita just rolled her eyes at the thought of mussels (she is a local, you see!) but indulged the tourists and brought us to the most reputable restaurant, Leon, on the tourist rip-off strip. The food was great and ridiculously expensive by Latvian standards, but how often do we eat mussels in Brussels!? We shopped for some cheese and chocolate in the old town and headed back home for another fabulous home-cooked meal a la Birgita, but not before we stopped at another aoutdoor care for some refreshments. In the evening we talked as long as our eyes would stay open and went to bed not relishing the thought of returning to cold Riga.

Birgita took us to the airport (after another marvelous breakfast) via the NATO centre where the ugliness of the architecture rivals that of the EU buildings. We will be returning to Brussels sometime because both Daina and I left some non-essentials at Birgita’s apartment. C’est une belle vie!