We were nearing the end of our house sit in Walton on Thames with a 2 week break before the next commitment in Pekham. We love house sitting and caring for the gorgeous pets, however it is an enormous responsibility and a level of pressure and concern, so it would be good to have some time without any cares other than for ourselves. Or so we thought.
We tossed around ideas: southern Italy, Germany, and we still haven’t been to Venice. We had considered Paris and Dave’s always been interested in the Isle of Wight.
In the end we chose Brussels because the train fares further into Europe were a lot higher than we wanted to pay and I didn’t want to fly. So it was that we booked Eurostar tickets to Brussels and then found this airbnb flat for 1 week. No decisions yet for the 2nd week, we’d make that up as we go.
Then we awoke Saturday morning to the news of the horrific Paris attacks. We had little choice, and there was no real reason to not go ahead with our visit to Belgium.
Onward with our plans regardless, we made the train journeys from Walton on Thames to St Pancras International Station in London. First priority, the customary pre-transit refreshments.
I don’t like tunnels and I especially avoid tunnels under major bodies of water wherever possible. But the underground part lasted only around 20 minutes and I chatted with Dave most of the way and we had some wine so all was good.
Transit days are always huge days for us. By the time we got off the Eurostar, found our way on a couple of Metro changes to St Catherine station, and then walking in the wrong direction in the dark a few times, we finally made it to our airbnb apartment.
After some initial miscommunication with our host (she doesn’t speak any English and likewise for us with French), we finally made it up to the 3rd level with our too-large luggage to our home for the week. A package of bread, butter and jams welcomed us and we were very appreciative of this personal touch. Oh, and a coffee machine complete with a few pods.
We try to settle in fairly quickly to our new accommodation so we can get on with the business of relaxing and exploring. Our main boxes of clean, comfortable, warm and well-connected were all ticked. WIFI is vital and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the host we had it working.
Straight across from our apartment stood the magnificent St Catherine’s church, built in the late 19th century and in the process of being cleaned. I read that several years ago Brussels Council talked of desecrating the site and turning the building into an indoor fruit & veg market. Of course there was an outcry and people started using the church but still only around 100 faithful turn up each Sunday.
On our first morning I could hear a noise outside and looked out see a man using a spray bottle and a high pressure cleaner. I imagined that he was cleaning off the graffiti. I watched for a while because I couldn’t see any paint coming off. Then I looked closer. Yes, it was a urinal built into the side of this beautiful church for the convenience of passing blokes! Right outside our window. I couldn’t believe it. This cleaning ritual played out each morning and because the street is one-way and narrow there would be the sounds of car horns blowing as the drivers couldn’t pass the cleaning truck. Europe, incredible!
After that initial shock welcome to Brussels we headed out and walked the streets, got a bit lost which always helps to get a feel for a place. Our flat was brilliantly located, really close to everything, yet far enough to be out of the rush and crush of the major sites.
There was no way to avoid chocolate shops and with Christmas approaching it is a great time for the celebration of chocolate. Oh the chocolate….
As always there were the ubiquitous fresh markets. We bought yummy meats, cheese, bread and veges, just across in our local square.
So we could make up our picnic dinners.
And there is, of course, always Belgian beer to sample!
But really, the big item for our week in Brussels was the Level 4 security alert placed on the city. Fortunately we’d already had a few days of relative carefree access to all that this beautiful city provides, albeit not always in the best weather.
By Friday we started to see an increased military and police presence. We found barricades in the alleyways leading to the magnificent Grand Place, bags randomly checked before allowing access. The main streets were closed to traffic in preparation of the Christmas parades and markets. Military vehicles were parked at each intersection (note the temperature).
Only the day before I remarked to Dave that I wondered how busy it must be in the Summer, as it was crowded with visitors on this cold wet day. From Friday the town was almost empty, with more guards than pedestrians. Certainly very few cars on the roads.
Where on Thursday the restaurants were pumping, crowded with happy eaters and busy waiters, from Saturday they were virtually empty and they were forced to close by 6pm as part of the “lock down”. So bad for so many business.
By Friday night the little square across from our apartment was being patrolled by military and police. We were Facetiming with my sister Robyn back in Queensland, when the sound of sirens came from our street. We looked out the window and there were 6 police trucks with sirens, escorting military vehicles.
We felt concern for these men and women. It was cold, wet, windy and dangerous work for them. Sub-zero temperatures overnight, and probably boring and lonely. In the morning we’d look out and they were still there. Then how lovely it was to see staff from one of the local cafes heading over to them from time to time with hot drinks!
The weather was pretty miserable so we were not too worried about staying in our flat, but we had to get out for groceries and other supplies. Cabin fever set in so we’d go for a stroll through the empty streets and find a quiet place for a beer.
This pub is very popular and always packed. We were able to sit wherever we wanted. There was one other group of guys buying pints. Mind you we knocked back the beer and headed out without hanging around. Felt strange.
Overall we did enjoy our time in Brussels and I’m glad we went. I have to say we thought it one of the most confounding places to understand. The locals speak either French, Dutch or Flemish. Sometimes it seemed like all at the same time. We struggled with the street and direction signs but made our way around pretty well.
Can you believe though, we caught the wrong train, supposed to be going to Brugge for the day but ended up at the airport! We had trouble with the train signs. That was a “funny” day.
We’re in Antwerp now until Sunday 29th, when we will return to London on the Eurostar to start our house sit in Pekham. We’re looking forward to having a little kitty to care for.