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A Last Hurrah Pt. 2

semi-overcast

Let’s see, where did I leave off? Oh, right! So, there I was teamed up with Peter Parker, and we were about to fight…. wait, wrong story. It was the next day (Sunday by now) and this time I slept in to the late hour of 6:45am! I guess walking fifteen plus miles in a day kinda does that to you. I did the similar routine: stagger into the shower to get some hot water on me, put on an assortment of clothes that may or may not have already been worn the day prior, and snack on some grocery store food in the living room while I read my book. The others got up around 8:00am, which gave me plenty of time to lounge around.

Today, we would be doing one of my favorite things: splitting up and going in different directions! (There’s a backstory behind that, I promise) While some people wanted to go visit The Hague, which is famous for its importance with the European Union, I would stay behind in Brussels with my friend and go see some museums. Later, everyone would meet up in Antwerp for the afternoon to explore. That’s the beauty of having the Eurrail pass and a free weekend.

The two museums that we would be checking out were the Museum of Modern Instruments and the Toy Museum. I was particularly excited for our second stop, because c’mon, you’re never too old to love toys. I had even read that there was an interactive section of it where you could play with some! Now, I know what you’re already saying and I totally agree: no, it wouldn’t be weird at all for a 20-year-old to go play with toys in a museum obviously meant for kids. As my friend is a music connoisseur (he loves going to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and is in chamber choir), he was more excited for the Modern Instruments Museum.

During the walk there, we stopped for breakfast and ate some Belgian waffles while we took in the view of downtown. You could even make out the location of the world fair in Brussles a couple miles in the distance. It was marked by a giant structure in the shape of FCC Iron (a certain cell structure that I learned about in MSE). The museum opened at 10am, so we walked for another twenty minutes and got there right as they were unlocking the doors. Going inside, we tried to get the student discount, but they would only give it to students studying arts and music (for once it was a bad thing to study engineering!). The museum was comprised of 4 floors, complete with a library, music hall, and a gift shop. We worked our way up to the top and then back down to the basement. There were instruments of every persuasion bathed in light behind imposing glass walls. Unfortunately, all of the inscriptions were in French or Flemish, so we had to make up our own stories for each instrument. Some were so funky that we couldn’t even figure out how they might be played. Others were a Frankenstein of three or more instruments combined into one. The belle of the ball was a massive machine housed in the basement. It was an entire band put into one: the equivalent of an 18th century juke box. Large rolls with grooves on them could be loaded into the machine and then a crank would power it all. The grooves were essential, as they would make certain instruments on the machine start playing. It was quite impressive and easily our favorite instrument of the lot.

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We spent an hour and a half inside the first museum before beginning the walk to the Toy Museum. It was only a half an hour away, and the walk took us through a neighborhood that we hadn’t yet seen. When we arrived, we were met by the owner, who was just beginning to close shop. Unfortunately, he said that the place was closed for renovations over the next couple of days! We were both pretty sad when we heard this, but decided that we would just get into Antwerp a little earlier than expected. Ducking through pockets of shade, we made the short walk to the train station through a park and hopped the next train. All in all, we had a relaxing morning in Brussels together. One of the nice things about using the entire weekend to travel is being able to sightsee at a pace that’s a little slower than usual (which is to say, maximum overdrive).

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The ride to Antwerp was uneventful and took us about an hour. When we got in it was almost noon, which meant one of the three best times of the day: lunchtime. Leaving the station, we made our way down a large promenade with three story buildings on each side. This area was clearly made for tourists like ourselves. The shops were filled with fancy designer apparel and the wide road was blocked off from cars. We followed its winding mile-long route past bakeries and restaurants of all sizes until we were deposited in a large open-air square with rows of tents filling the area. I had found a highly rated Portuguese restaurant to eat at, but when got there it was closed! That was the third time TripAdvisor had failed me. With our hungry stomachs, we didn’t waste time looking for places and settled on the first one we saw across the street. It sold home on a plate. That is to say, it boasted its classic American hamburgers and was in the theme of Manhattan from the 1920’s. Satisfied and with stomachs full, we waddled out of there and over to the market. It seemed like the featured product was cloth, because the vendors sold cloth in all forms: rugs, blankets, scarfs, curtains, and of course, straight up plain. Some of the rugs were beautiful, but most definitely would not have fit within our suitcases.

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After our market excursion, we followed our natural instincts, which told us to go towards the biggest thing in the sky. Towering over the surrounding buildings was a steeple that pierced the sky. Directly adjacent to it was our next stop: the office of tourism. Despite suffering the humiliation of becoming a “tourist” (eegads), they did give us some great maps specifically made for young people and some helpful advice. We set out from there and made our way to the water. Along the way, we passed through a square with an intricate fountain that stole the attention from everything else. With the heat of the day, I had my friend hold my belongings while I took a quick bath in the fountains spray. Then we walked over to the wide canal and followed a path along the water for a mile or so. There was a covered boathouse that featured boats from every era there, but not much else to see besides that. We backtracked through the confusing streets of the city, which made no sense at all in terms of direction. It was quite easy to get lost here, and with my phone battery below 50%, we had to resort to our good ol’ fashioned maps that we had picked up to make our way back to the fountain. (Now we really WERE tourists). Once we did get there, we poked our noses inside the church that cornered the square, but turned away when we saw there was a fee to walk around. After that disappointing find, we went back to the main street we had initially started on. The others were expecting to get in around 4:30pm, and as it was only 2pm, we still had a good chunk of time to kill. We went into one of the bakeries that had caught my eye earlier and camped out there for an hour. A comfy booth, strong air conditioning, and a free bathroom was a great deal for suffering through having to eat a chocolate croissant. While there, I finished up my book on Hiroshima (finally!) and ended up napping for a bit. I suppose the heat had finally gotten to me. My friend enjoyed the time off his feet as much as I did.

The hour passed and we were back at it again on the streets. Not far from us was a large green rectangle on the map that we figured must be a park (and maybe because it was labelled “park”). We took the fifteen-minute walk down to Southern Antwerp and were met by signs advertising a music festival. Going some ways into the park, we began to hear the notes of a band drift through the trees towards us. Rounding a corner and passing through a grove of trees, the scene opened up to feature a large stage with groups of people clustered around it in the grass. It was a concert intended for younger audiences, so this wasn’t any death metal or anything. It was more of classic rock kind of sound.

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Moving on past the stage, we made our way to the far end of the park. Out here were rows of tables in what essentially surmounted to being a large garage sale. Boxes of old records sat on the ground and clothes that hadn’t seen wear in decades hung from racks. In the spirit of it all, I even picked up some free dishes from one vendor, but would ditch them later on once I realized them for what they truly were: grimy, old, dirty, dishes. It was getting near 4pm now, so we began to make our way from Southern Antwerp back to the train station. We traveled through a highly Jewish section of town and followed the rails back to the central station. We got lost for a short while and had to backtrack a couple of times to make sure we were going the right way. The entrance to the station was directly adjacent to a zoo, which the other half of our group would be joining us for when they got in. Sitting on the steps outside the zoo, we listened to a group of older musicians strumming away on their instruments. For the second time that day, we enjoyed the peace of the moment and took it all in.

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We saw the others approaching just after 4:30pm and went up to meet them. Everyone wanted to see the zoo, but I said that I would stay behind and explore Antwerp some more (plus, tickets were a bit expensive). Before they went inside, we agreed to meet at the same spot at 5:30pm. I set out from the central station and moved towards what looked like “Little China” of Antwerp. This was made evident by a giant Chinese gate framing the entrance to the neighborhood. I followed the street down past some sketchy looking stores and eventually found a grocery store where I could buy some snacks to hold me over until dinner. Moving through Northern Antwerp, I stumbled upon a college campus. Although I tried to get inside its walls to check out the library and see some of its buildings, all of the doors were locked. I continued on and made my way back to the fountain where I had had my bath. There were still several streets that we hadn’t seen in this area, so I spent some time shopping for gifts and finding dessert shops that seemed to get increasingly better looking the hungrier I got. The hour went by pretty fast after this. When I got back to the zoo, I showed up just as my friends were exiting. We regrouped and swapped stories about our adventures for the past hour and began to brainstorm dinner ideas.

Remember how I had been longing for ribs over the past couple of weeks? Well, it looked like my wish was going to come true tonight! Down near my bathing fountain (that’s just what I’ll call it now), was a place that claimed to have the “best ribs in Belgium.” More importantly, they boasted that it was all you can eat, which I took as a direct challenge. We took the mile walk there and showed up shortly after 6pm. The place wasn’t very crowded and was yet again decorated with a 1920’s interior. The interior was extremely dark, but as your eyes adjusted, the walls began to reassemble into fascinating pictures and bookshelves with dusty old tomes that made the place innately fascinating. The service was slow, but we didn’t much mind the long wait. We were all pretty tired after having walked 11 or so miles already. The ribs were good, but….. they just weren’t great. I’m probably spoiled from my Dad’s ribs and eating at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, but these weren’t the best ever. They had a sweet quality to them that was unusual for me and there was a good amount of fat on them. Overall, though, after not having had ribs for the better part of four months, these still tasted delicious and a little fat didn’t stop me from cleaning my plate. We got out of there at 8pm, which gave us just enough time to go back to the water and see the sun going down over the river as we stood on the pier. The entire evening was a nice last hurrah, as I anticipated this to be my last weekend traveling. The subsequent weekends I would be bombarded with tests and getting ready for Field Training (bleh).

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Once the sun started to set, we began to go back down main street towards the central station. We were able to catch the 8:40pm train to Brussels, which got us in at 9:45pm. Then, becoming natural pros at it by now, we trudged the mile uphill to our Airbnb in record time. We all promptly fell asleep at 10:30pm and got ready for tomorrow’s adventure.

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We had reached Monday, the last day of our travel. The day’s roster included visiting the site of the 1958 World Fair. We had read that there were various attractions clustered inside the park, and a large monument of a BCC iron cell structure that presided over the entire area. Cleaning up the apartment was a bit like cleaning up a war zone: pillows lay askew on the floor, clothes were found in all corners, and trash had to be collected from every room. It’s not that we were messy people, we just settled in over the past few days and marked the place as ours. We departed at 9:00am and walked a mile and a half to the appropriate subway station that would take us to the World Fair. The subway ride was an uneventful forty-five minutes to reach our destination. One cool thing I will note: the train would go up and down and take curves that made it feel like it was on a roller coaster track, so that added an element of excitement for riders.

When we got off at our destination, the place looked like a ghost town. Closed signs hung in every window and only a few other people milled around the empty parking lot. It turns out almost everything opened at 10am, and it being a weekday, there weren’t many families coming to “kiddie fun land”. In the meanwhile, we searched the attractions up on TripAdvisor and decided that for the cost of them, the only one worth seeing was the “Mini Europe” exhibit. It was essentially walk-through exhibit that had a mini-building from every European Union country on its path.

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Compared to, say, climbing the Eiffel Tower, this was definitely a much more lackluster attraction. Despite it all, I scrounged out the 15 or so overpriced euros for it and made the most of my time walking through. Upon walking in, I was assaulted by a giant, orange, turtle who tried to take a picture with me. It was pretty unnerving, but I mostly felt bad for whatever poor sap had to don a turtle costume every morning and have to hug tourists. I’m not biased or anything, but the coolest parts of the exhibit were those from Latvia and Lithuania. For Latvia, they had a mini monument of the statue known as the “Freedom Monument”, which I used to walk past every day on my way to school last summer. For Lithuania, they had a mini “Vilnius University”, which is where I took my classes for the other half of the summer! I even tried to find my exact classroom to see if they had a mini-me sitting in a chair in a classroom. The rest of it was a solid 2 out of 10 in terms of excitement, but we moved through it fast enough that it was bearable. In the distance, we were able to see the “Atominium”, which is a monument based on the BCC Iron Cell Structure (thank you, MSE, for teaching me that). After an hour and a half of it, we finally determined that we had paid our time for the cost of entrance and moved on out. We weren’t willing to spend any more money, and the Atominium was a bit of a walk away, so we went back to the subway and to the heart of Brussels once again.

With our extra time, we picked up breakfast and scouted out the local area for any promising chocolate stores. We happened across a very high-end place that I snagged a few free samples from. Luckily, I was able to duck out before the guilt dragged me down and I bought something. Spending an hour in the square, we enjoyed our final moments in Belgium before heading back to the central train station. As a nice send off, there was a pepsi vendor giving away free samples to us before we got on our train. The ride back was 4 hours of peace and quiet. I had gotten a jump on my Def Bods homework, so it wasn’t looming over my head like it was for some other people.

Overall, I met some great people and made new friends. Originally, I didn’t think Belgium had much to offer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Belgium has a very classical European style that you see in postcards and the like. The people there are friendly and proud of their culture. Moreso, they excel at chocolate-making, waffles, and beer, so what more could you ask for, really? Everything from the people I traveled with, to the food, to the winning of the world-cup game made for an excellent adventure. For anyone thinking about visiting Belgium, it is certainly worth a 3 or 4-day visit.

Posted by oklempay 18:16 Archived in Belgium Tagged antwerp museum waffle instruments brussels ribs toy_museum world_fair bcc atominium Comments (0)

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