Europe 2013: Brussels, Belguim

Over the Easter bank-holiday weekend I went to Belgium for 4 days with a friend from university.

Leaving Watford at far too early an hour we met at Kings Cross St Pancras and took the Eurostar to Brussels, famous for a statue of a boy urinating in public, waffles and the European parliament.

Brussels Metro

We took the Metro to get from the Eurostar terminus towards the Grand-Place, the main tourist square in the city centre.  Brussels has a quite comprehensive public transport system consisting of metro lines, trams (which sometimes run underground in the city centre) and buses.

The Oyster-style MoBIB card provided as part of our Brussels Card city pass enables touch in access to the network and we made use of all three mode of transport to get around the city – which was relatively smooth except for one delay for which we were able to use an alternate route.

A few mildly interesting observations and differences between the Brussels Metro and the London Underground.

Firstly ticketing. Like many stations in Europe paper tickets don’t aren’t actually inserted into the barrier gates as in the United Kingdom, but are instead stuck up into a scanning device just before the gate. Another difference from the Tube is that most stations in Brussels had agate line on each approach to a platform rather than at station entrances. Finally you don’t always have to scan your ticket to get out of the network – some barriers simply open to let you through as you approach (walk quickly and hope they do!).

At Heysel/Heizel the northernmost terminus on the network STIB, the Brussels equivalent of TfL, had seemingly neglected to consider that some people exiting the station might not be using the contactless MoBIB smartcard. Rather bizarrely all 6 paper ticket readers were placed on the outside of the gateline, great for those entering the network but utterly useless for those looking to exit. Thankfully the airlock style wider disabled access gate accepts paper tickets.

The network is extremely minimally staffed compared to the London Underground (where all underground stations are staffed and many central London stations have platform dispatchers at peak times). At most Brussells underground stations there did not appear to be any staff in the station at all.

Once nice feature missing from the UK is that most platforms had light up indicators representing the location of all trains on the line as they move through the system. Great for seeing how far away your next train is instead of the standard “2 minutes” or “just behind” back home.

Anomalily (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Anomalily (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Unlike the narrow tunnel-bored tube platforms in the UK the entire Brussels network seemed to of be cut-and-cover construction with stations placed in large, wide square boxes enabling them to have wide platforms on both sides and in some cases even a third central Island platform. Yes, this is a Metro system that makes ample use of two-sided door opening at interchange stations – the likes of which I am only aware of in the UK at Stratford platform 3/3a.

William Murphy (CC BY-SA 2.0)
William Murphy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The trains themselves were a mixture. Some of the older tube trains still have manually opening doors (although they automatically close prior to departure!). And many trams have high-floors requiring you to climb up several steps to enter – not at all disabled friendly!

Mannequin Pis

A strange tourist attraction. A sign reminds visitors that they are on CCTV…

We had a Croque-monsieur in a nearby cafe (mmmm) and I was quite impressed to find that my French was actually better than the waiters English, well at least when it came to ordering pineapple juice. His fault for wanting to take my order in English.

Waffles

Most of the narrow side streets have narrow waffle shops –  €1 Euro Waffles proclaim large banners hanging above them.  The seemingly never ending stream of tourists, queue up to sample the warm sweet crispy delights with most paying considerably more than the advertised price for waffles topped with cream, fruit and chocolate.  Good business model. Nice, but a bit too sweet I think and hard to eat with the flimsy plastic forks provided.

Waffles Belgium
Waffles. Not €1.

Mini Europe

Belgium is the heart of Europe, perhaps not geographically any more as expansion crosses the iron curtain but certainly in political terms. The Belgians are big fans and at about the time that the Berlin wall came down they opened Mini Europe a kind of European model village showing off a few buildings from each of the member states. It’s had to be expanded a few times…

The weather went we went wasn’t brilliant and there were quite a few Belgian school children there but still a good way to spend a couple of hours. Some of the exhibits are interactive such as the Mount Vesuvius which releases steam and shakes the ground as it erupts. I have to say the Channel Tunnel was a bit of a disappointment though!

The Channel Tunnel.  Apparently.
The Channel Tunnel. Apparently.

Delirium

A large and busy multi-story bar with over 2,000 different beers on sale. Hidden down an alleyway.

Mondays

After a trip to Bruges, we returned to Brussels for a final day and a half.

A lot of things are closed on Mondays. Especially bank holiday Mondays (our last day in Brussels). Armed with a print out of what was open and what wasn’t on the Sunday and Monday, provided by the man in the tourist booth inside the main city station, we headed back to visit what we could.

Coudenberg

The Coundeberg is the former palace of Brussels. Some of the remains can still be seen in an underground archaeological site.

Motor Museum

A museum of old cars. Quite interesting.

European Parliament

Part of our €11,000,000,000 contribution to the EU budget has gone into providing free entrance to the European Parliament visitor centre in Brussels a couple of hundred metres away from the main parliament building. It’s well worth a visit.

As you enter through airport style security gates you are handed an audio-video tour accompnyment (an ipod wrapped in a protective casing). Walking through the exhibition you can scan various signs around the centre to launch new sections of the audio tour and use the iPod screen to control exactly what you want to listen to. Signs in all 23 official languages on the EU would be a tad excessive I think you’ll agree!

First there is an introduction outlining what the EU is and explaining the presence of its various buildings across Europe, then comes a long section on the history of Europe and the European Union including its enlargement over the years and other events that have taken place in various member states and around the world during that time. This is followed by more interactive sections where you can learn more about each member state, see all the MEPs and how unrepresentative they are of the EU (66% are male and only 1% are aged under 30), and sit in a pretend European Parliament surrounded by 360 degrees of video.

Pretending to sit in the European Parliament
Pretending to sit in the European Parliament

Just before the exit of the visitor centre there are a series of television screens where MEPs from different European countries and of different political persuasions have been asked to talk about one item which they feels represents the European Union. Nigel Farrage is one them, he doesn’t mince his words.

There was a sad looking café and gift shop as we left – not really a fitting celebration of European cuisine! The European Parliament Visitor Centre is not really interesting enough small children (although there is a children’s audio tour) but is worth doing.

Natural Sciences Museum

The equivalent of the Natural History Museum, except you’d have to pay to enter (free Entry on the Brussels Card). They do have signs in English (& French, German and Dutch) once you get into the proper exhibition, don’t let the lack of them in the geology-heavy lobby scare you off.

Free entry to most of the museum on the Brussels card although some exhibitions are extra. We only managed to see around half of the free exhibits though before we had to head off to our next stop. You’d need a good half day or longer to go around properly. Great food in the café! Don’t think they served dinosaur burgers.

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