Typically, an extended layover means occupying oneself while captive, in an environment about as inviting as the hospital. Fluorescent lighting, bad food, and lots of waiting.
During my travels to and from Sweden, thanks to the policy of Brussels Airlines to accept one checked bag for free, I was mostly mobile except for a small bag, and so when I was faced with six hours in Brussels on the return journey, I decided to take the train into the center of the city to have lunch and get a peek at the ‘capital of the EU.’
To be honest, I had no expectations and what I found was fascinating, at least from an urban planning perspective. While the city dates from around 1000 A.D., it is vastly modern in many parts, with glass skyscrapers and construction cranes crowding its airspace.
In the original city settlement, buildings and spaces are predictably dense and ornate. Just a few hundred meters away, however, are grand gardens and palaces reminiscent of Paris, streets that look as if they go on forever, and then new buildings housing the multitude of foreign entities, agencies, bodies, and secondary services.
Brussels hasÂ long held a place inside Belgium as the neutral federal district between the two regions of the country (Flanders and Wallonia), much like Washington D.C. was carved out from Virginia and Maryland. To make matters more interesting however, Flanders’ official language is Dutch, while Wallonians speak French. This means the seat of national government has to speak both and nearly every place you go (like the Starbucks in the train station), they speak Dutch, French, and English.
From what I have read, the politics in Brussels are challenging. While national gridlock is common in disputes between the two language communities, the capital region is also subdivided into 19 municipalities, which have power similar to any incorporated city in the U.S. In other words, ability to make laws and ordinances, use tax funds differently, etc.
My conclusion after an afternoon in Brussels was “it’s complicated.”
Nevertheless, walking around was great fun. The city feels very busy and cosmopolitan, if not quite to the level of London or Rome. It was, after all, the hours between 3pm and 6pm.
I drank a Belgian beer, ate a delicious beef tartare sandwich. And I took lots of pictures!
Delvaux is a Belgian leather goods brand (perhaps the only?), though their bags are produced in France. Not completely my aesthetic, but they areÂ very pricey and niche, so I had to see the store.
I don’t know that I would come back to Brussels, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Not that it was so charming, but that it does seem like it has lots of offer. I would be curious to know what the nightlife and social scene is like.
As a sidebar, the Brussels Airport is newish but bland, in fact quite underwhelming compared to say, Tampa’s. It is U-shaped and from the ends of the U to the main terminal, one can walk for ten minutes, actually quite a long walk for modern airports. The terminal wayfinding and layout is inefficient, though the train to the center runs frequently and only takes 20 minutes.
The food and beverage options aren’t too diverse either, while there are plenty of bathrooms. My favorite part were the automotive displays along the boarding gates…