Brussels – the ugly jumper.

As it turns out I didn’t love Brussels. It kind of felt like when I was 14 and Mum still tried to buy me clothes. I could imagine someone somewhere that had no clothes at all might appreciate it, but that someone was not me.

Liv and I embarked on our first lovers weekend away to Brussels, for the most part because the flights were cheap (for me). I took the 7:50am flight out of Dublin* on Friday and arrived into the European Capital at around 10am on about 5 hours sleep, cold and flu tablets and sans lover. Ryanair dropped me at Charleroi airport which is about a 50 minute bus trip south of the city. I figure somewhere along my travelling adventures I’ve picked up a trick or two as I managed to weasel my way through a group of American girls looking at the automatic ticket machine as if it had just hurled on them, buy my ticket and stealthy nab myself a seat on the warm bus ahead of a queue of people who’d been waiting for 45 minutes already. I stuck my earphones in and feel asleep to Celine’s dulcet tones.

Bus trip over, I followed the directions to our hostel, which involved me getting the metro from Brussels Zuid-Midi train station. Enter Mum delicately opening a bag from ‘Shop here if you’ve been through menopause’ and leaning in my direction. Whilst waiting for the metro, I took a look around for the first time and it started. The sinking feeling. Then the metro itself pulled up. A yellowing, filthy, beast of a rail carriage came to a halt with a grunt and a homeless woman with her life in shopping bags hopped out and I boarded with my hyper alertness sensors suddenly raging. A cool calm exterior, I sat on a brown plastic chair next to a local and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. The busking accordion player and his kid wearing moth eaten jeans shoving a mouldy hat in my direction did little to ease my sudden reservations about the place.

With ‘I must not judge a book by its cover’ blaring in my ears, I alighted the train at our stop only to be greeted by a dark, dank corridor littered with beggars and a small light at the end of the tunnel. Little consideration for where the light would take me I took the first exit in sight. Up a gigantic escalator (a little known terror of mine), I finally reached the road and breathed in what I thought would be relief. And then, Mum removed the contents from the bag and handed it to me expectantly. Cue panic. Liv wouldn’t be arriving in Brussels until the following morning and suddenly I was presented with a factor I hadn’t ever even THOUGHT about considering. Brussels was ugly.

After a twenty minute walk in the wrong direction with an obese midget for a bag hanging on my now raw shoulder, I finally found the hostel. Sleep Well (I’d recommend it), was located 100 meters off Brussels largest commercial shopping street. I counted four H&M’s. The guy at reception kindly ignored my makeup free face, unwashed hair and the faint aroma of anxiety coming from my foot tapping under the desk and introduced Brussels to me in a frenzy of map highlighting and descriptions of mango chocolate. I tentatively took the map and retreated to our private twin suite. Slightly reassured for the moment, I flung open our windows to a beautiful grey sky and a concrete school block, with the weird coloured shapes of 5 year olds in its window providing the only visible colour. Less sure again, I closed the curtains. After a shower and attempted nap, I berated myself back onto the streets with my camera and the map.

On Saturday after a delay C/O Deutschebahn, Liv finally arrived in her beige floor length trench coat and slightly crazed by too much coffee too early. Braver, blonder and all together happy to be together (we’re not actually lovers) we took to finding food, wine and somewhere warm. The restaurants in the cobbled streets around the glorious square at the Grand Palace were rolling out their red felt carpets, polishing wine glasses and lighting candles in preparation for the incoming tourists at lunch time. In a bid to escape the rain and the incessant touting of various restaurateurs we took refuge in what resembled a Parisian styled eatery and were presented with a champagne flute of half white and half red wine. It was 11:45 am and it didn’t touch the sides.

Saturday disappeared behind glasses of red wine, giant waffles covered in chocolate and blonde Belgium beers. The evening took on a life of its own as we finally found our groove in O’Reily’s. Yes, I live in Dublin and yes I ended up in an Irish pub in Belgium. Which I think means I’m slowing earning my Irish stripes. A group of unruly, unholy, ridiculously intoxicated men on a stag weekend provided the entertainment, while Shania Twain provided the soundtrack.

Unsure of what Sunday might have to offer us, we tentatively rolled out of bed amongst grumbles of our ever fading youth and a lack of sleep. We gave Brussels another shot. This time, just walking. And ‘Beatling’ – that is being snapped while walking across a zebra crossing in the style of Paul, Ringo, John and George. The ferociously highlighted map took a back seat and camera in hand we found the beauty in the beast. With quiet streets, French styled buildings, old school cafes and pubs, oddly painted buildings, cartoon graphics on walls we found some charm, elegance even. Ending up in what appeared to be wealthier end of town, we stumbled across parks right out of Paris, gothic churches and the Cartier and Tiffany’s of chocolate shops.

Back at the train station to preparing to head back to our respective countries, Detective Mane and Sergeant Crop sat in a coffee shop only to be reminded again of Brussels ugly underbelly as we witnessed a series of scuffles with security and a urinating, pantsless drunk homeless man. The lovers parted ways, and with that long awaited sigh of relief I boarded a train for the airport.

Though somewhat begrudgingly I admit Brussels had a certain something. But like that item of clothing from Mum, I understand that some people might consider it to be beautiful. It just ain’t my style.

Brussels photo album is here .

*Whilst trying to get to Dublin Airport it struck me afresh the cruel irony that is the ridiculous public transport here. I can catch a flight at 6:00am if I want to, but the bust that takes me to the airport doesn’t start running until 7:00pm. Brilliant.


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