I recently came back from a trip to Brussels in Belgium. While there, a friend who lived in the city asked if I knew what the universal symbol of Brussels was. I would have guessed Grand Place, but no. I was about to find out.
This was my third visit to Brussels, all for business. Even so, I try to find time when visiting cities to check them out. I love to walk around, sample the local cuisine and discover things that I'd never see back in my home town areas.
Usually I do this walking as part of a survival strategy. The typical flight to Europe is overnight and I rarely get very much sleep. By the time I arrive at the destination after night flights and a connection, I've usually been up for at least 18 hours. I know from experience that I'm in no real shape to do business on these days, so the objective is to get acclimated to the new time zone. For me, the time-tested approach is simple: do whatever it takes to stay awake. Hence, walking becomes a survival strategy. It keeps me away from the lure of the hotel bed and gets my body functioning again after 7-10 hours on a plane.
Often hotels don't allow checkin before late afternoon, but I lucked out. By just after 1:00 Brussels time, I'd checked in and gotten tidied up, so I decided to find a place to eat lunch. Here's where I ended up, a brasserie called Plattesteen:
I perused a menu from one of the tables out front. A few minutes later, my Salade Flair arrived. Copious portions of shrimp were laid out on top of fresh greens; the dish more than lived up to its name. I finished with a cup of strong cafe and then resumed my walk. I poked my head in a few shops, but the prices were way more than I wanted to spend.
A few minutes later, I entered Grand Place. Even if not the symbol of Brussels, it's a famous place and is lined with an ornate set of buildings. Here's how one side of it looked:
I had a few more adventures on my walk that day, but I'll jump ahead to the next evening. I'd been busy all day long in a series of meetings. Afterward, my friend suggested I needed to see the symbol of Brussels. She drove us about twenty minutes north of the center city. Suddenly, we caught a glimpse of a shape that looked like the first stage in an alien invasion -- a massive metal structure that looked like steel balls strung together by tinkertoys. The roads were cryptic, so we had to drive another ten minutes before we got closer to the Atomium. My friend explained that the original version had been built for the Brussels World Fair in 1958. I vaguely remembered that Brussels had hosted a world's fair, but knew very little about it -- before now. Finally, we reached the Atomium, which was even more impressive close up.
We got out of the car and got a closer look. Yep, massive stainless steel balls interconnected by matching rods and extending upwards about 15 stories high. My friend had mentioned a restaurant. We walked around the site and asked an attendant if the restaurant was open. Seating was theoretically available only by reservation, but on a quiet Thursday evening, there were openings. We entered the building, then stepped into an industrial style elevator, which whooshed us upwards.
The restaurant lived up to its billing, at least for its views. We had a spectacular 360 degree view not only of the original World's Fair grounds, but also of downtown Brussels to the south of us. Just next to us, we had the bird's eye view of mini-Europe, which was a petite version of the continent, complete with its own Eiffel Tower, an Arch de Triomphe and so on. Cute.
My friend and I ordered and ate while the sun set. We both began with white asparagus, a local specialty which was delicious. Our entrees were of varied styles. My friend had Osso Bucco and I had chicken over a risotto. I also sipped from a white table wine whose terroir offered a balance between fruit and minerals. By the time we finished it was dark.
After we took one more ride down the retro elevator, we stepped out of the structure and sidled back to the car. When we looked back, here's what the Atomium looked like at night.
Yes, Close Encounters of the Brussels kind, offering a final glimpse of a vision of Fifties futurism before we returned to center city of Brussels.