Brussels, Belgium, where I turn 60.

Monday 19 September 2022 – Brussels, Belgium.

I was 60 on Saturday 17 September, a milestone that pretty much snuck up on me. I don’t feel 60, it sounds old and most of the time I don’t feel old; I feel like a young 59. This trip was primarily to celebrate my birthday and I wanted to, and should have, spend more time on planning it. I’m good at planning holidays and get almost as much pleasure from the planning as I do from trip.

I struggled with organising this trip, possibly due to being too busy, but I mainly think it’s a Covid hangover; a lack of trust that we will actually be able to go mixed with a nervousness about being in crowds again and not being in the mood to ‘have fun’. I had a few attempts at making a trip work but couldn’t get time, location and budget to fit. In the end I just thought ‘fuck it, let’s go to Brussels’. I chose Brussels as it isn’t Berlin or Amsterdam, Rome or Paris; it’s not a city you go to celebrate something and it’s the centre of the ‘hated’ EU. It sounded perfect, and I don’t hate the EU by the way. I would rejoin tomorrow if it was my choice.

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We arrived in Brussels after two great days in Gent on Friday afternoon, it wasn’t raining then, it saved that for my birthday. Not that rain put us off roaming the streets to check a place out. As with Gent we stayed a little off the beaten track in what seemed to be a largely residential area in the suburb of Ixelles, a thirty minute walk from the old centre and a similar distance from the EU Parliament sector. It was a great spot, close to some good places to eat; a critical consideration when I book a holiday. We had three great meals in Ixelles, all different; including a very nice birthday dinner I had booked before we left London.

We enjoyed Brussels; of course it’s a big city, and it isn’t particularly touristy though it has a number of interesting attractions. I took a few photos, as you would expect.

On Saturday, we took a walk into the centre, it rained off and on during the morning, getting quite heavy at times. It didn’t put us off too much; it also kept the crowds down.

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We took a break from the drizzle over beer and cider in a small  bar before visiting the Magritte Museum, an adjunct to the art gallery. I quite like some of his work; especially his later ‘apple’ series.

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There is a bit of art around the place, both modern street and the more traditional sculpture, including Brussels number one tourist attraction, the Manneken Pis fountain.

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I especially liked this terrible statue of Jacques Brel.

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We went into a couple of churches, one had the most amazing modern abstract stained glass windows, which is very difficult to see in this photo.

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I was really surprised to find a Phlegm painting in the city; one of my favourite British street artists.

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We spent Sunday walking to and then around the European Parliament area and up to the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the Triumphal Arc. The walk through the lovely old cobbled streets of Ixelles towards the EU Centre was so quiet and pleasant and we wondered at the absence of cars and the abundance of pedestrians and families on bikes.

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It was not till we were in the centre that we realised it was Brussels annual car free day… It explained a lot, we thought this bit of Brussels was just like this all the time; a dream for me is a mostly car free city.

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Sadly the Royal Court of Justice was covered in scaffold.

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I want trams back in London.

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A 60th birthday treat to Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Wednesday 23 September 2022 – Gent, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Theoretically there’ll be individual blog posts with photos from all three places, though I can’t promise anything as I’m not enjoying the blog that much anymore. I feel it’s time is done, so we will have to see how it goes over the next few weeks. This could be the last one for a while, but then again it might not who knows.

I’m in a small neighbourhood bar a short way off the beaten track in Amsterdam as I type these first words into the laptop I’ve been lugging around for a week and not used until now. I like this bar, it’s small and dark, other than the Heineken the tap beer is all new to me so there is plenty of choice and the music playing at a sociable volume is some obscure (to me anyway) reggae. It’s all quite conducive to scribbling a few notes. In fact we haven’t been into a bad bar in the three cities we’ve visited on this, my 60 birthday trip away and the first time we’ve been to Europe since July 2018 when we last visited Valencia, a situation we have to change this coming year. I love and miss Europe, especially places off the beaten track like this small backstreet bar. Experience says bars in Europe are different to bars in the English speaking world, and different in a good way.

I spent far too much time to work out an affordable and sensible break for my birthday, initially trying to link a stay in a town to a concert by a band I liked. Nothing really made economic or time sense so I stopped trying and chose a simple train based trip to three towns in close proximity (read cheap) to England. I’ve not been to Gent (Ghent) or Brussels and last visited in Amsterdam almost exactly 35 years ago, very close to my 25 birthday. Eleanor’s experience of these places closely mirrors mine; she’s been to Amsterdam but not Gent or Brussels.

It’s now a number of days later and we’re back in London, Eleanor’s house sale and purchase is getting close to being finalised and we had a good weekend down at my flat. Work has been as busy as you would expect after two weeks away and I’m just getting my head back into writing a bit more of this post. Thankfully all the photo editing is done. I still stand by my earlier thought of winding the blog writing down, but aim to at least upload some of the edited photos I took in each city. There isn’t a lot of point in taking photos if they just stay on a hard drive in a dark drawer somewhere. Anyway….

It was a fabulous, awesome, wonderful holiday. It was so nice to be out of the UK for a few days and to spend that time in three great cities. We had nothing planned, other than the train back to London and a birthday meal in a restaurant in Brussels. We could do what we wanted, when we wanted; perfect.

It’s impossible to name a particular highlight and there is no way I can nominate one city over each of the others, I liked them all. So, here are some overall impressions and things I learned.

Cities with lots of cycling and walking and fewer cars are so much more pleasant than cities dominated by cars. In all three places non-car based transport was king.
I like trams.
Lots of young people smoke cigarettes in NW Europe; there was very little vaping going on. I was surprised.
The music in all the bars we went into was way better than most bars in London and Auckland.
The gin in Gent is lovely, as were the bars we drank gin in.
Every bar we visited I felt like I could rock up on my own, order a small beer and read a book in a corner on my own and the other customers would not make me feel like I was weird.
Canals are awesome.
Walking 20,000 + steps a day seven days in a row is tiring; though not walking up steps meant my knee survived the trip.
Neither Gent nor Brussels are dead flat.
Brussels had a car free day on the Sunday and I loved it.
Everyone speaks English; my constant shame is not speaking another language.
Good coffee can easily be found everywhere.
Excellent vegan food is easy to find.
The trains in Europe are cheaper than the UK by a long way.
In Amsterdam vans park on canal bridges.
I still love castles and cathedrals and cobbled street and anything that is a bit old.
I still love mainland Europe a lot and feel I’ve wasted years not coming here as much as I should have.

A favourite photo from each city; not for the quality of the photo, just for the memories.

Gent
Gravensteen Castle and the lovely Le Alchemist, a gin bar over the road from the castle that we nipped into as it was raining.

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Brussels
Car free Sunday

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Amsterdam
Vans parked on photogenic bridges over equally photogenic canals.

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