When we first planned a trip to Belgium, I was not the most excited. It was our first weekend of free travel, and after plans fell through for a visit to Copenhagen and a forecast of rain and clouds for the entirety of the weekend, Belgium was not topping the list of places I was optimistic to see. Arriving in Brussels at 8:30 in the morning on a Friday covered by a slight drizzle, our prospects seemed grey, literally and figuratively. I am so thankful that that is not what they turned out to be.
Brussels was certainly not what I had expected in the slightest. I’ll admit, I bought into the stereotype that Belgium would be completely cobblestones and fields, but the city we entered was anything but (okay, I lied, there were cobblestones). The first building we came upon was a cathedral. Medieval and massive, it stretched beyond the cumulus blocking our warmth. It was strange, seeing such an old historical building nestled right near a bustling train and bus station. A metaphor for Brussels, really.
We set out on the city, our only real plan to explore as much as we possibly could. We walked for what seemed like hours, carrying our hiking packs on our backs and hiding from the rain when we could. In an attempt to avoid a sudden downpour, we took refuge in a church near the city center. The inside was decorated with some of the most beautiful artwork I had ever seen (and this means something coming from a former art major!). Massive frescoes adorned the walls, with wood carvings of the Virgin Mary, various saints, and the Pieta placed strategically throughout. The altar towards the back center of the church was lined in delicate gold, subtly reminding me of the great works by Bernini. We all scattered about the church, taking our time to reflect and pray. It was a moment completely separated from time and space; one that hung amongst our little group and our Lord, likely to never leave our memories. We left the space in humble reverence, thankful and happy to explore in what was now a drizzle.
After stumbling around for a bit, we ended up walking to Grote Market and booking a free walking tour of the city. We were shown historical buildings and churches, walked along next to some of the locals’ favorite restaurants, and even had a laugh next to the Pissing Boy, Brussels’s famous statue. Our tour guide, Adrian, walked us next to opera house, where the revolution that gained Belgium its independence began all because someone didn’t like a show. He spoke fondly of the river, the special quirks of town squares, and of the people, like Victor Hugo, who helped shape the city. We were able to see the historical side, but also the very modern aspects. Murals of classic comic book characters were hidden behind corners, artful graffiti concealed onto the side of buildings. Did you know that the city was built over the river, to avoid disease and illness and move out poorer citizens? The more modern landscape in some parts gave no hint to what lay below, only the cobblestones in some places showing the magnificent history of the place.
The most surprising part, in my opinion, was the authenticity of the city. Not only did they show their present and future, with beautiful buildings and art scattered on the streets, but they respected and learned from their past, be it disease or being leaders in the slave trade. Brussels was a vision, a beautiful mix of past, present, and future. I wasn’t too proud to admit that I was wrong in expecting the worst. We departed from Brussels the next day, feeling fulfilled and optimistic about our next stop in Brugge.