With available time becoming more of a factor in our sightseeing decisions, we took a short bus ride north-east to Brussels and arrived to the first real rain we’d seen on the trip. An indoor attraction was the obvious choice, so we made a beeline for the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts (Royal Museums of Fine Arts – everything in Brussels is labelled in both Flemish and French) and spent the majority of the day (with a break for lunch at a local sandwich shop) browsing a fine collection of paintings with the help of the audio guide. Despite the relatively small size of the galleries, the paintings were densely packed and we had our work cut out avoiding loud school groups and staying out of the way of sketchers.
In the evening, we met up with our Belgian couchsurfing host and discovered a wonderfully hip and diverse section of the city – a hard-to-find restaurant where we sampled delicious stoemp (mashed potatoes with vegetables and spices) and a beer bar with thousands of different kinds of beer (each with its own particular glass and temperature). We spent some time over the next couple of days walking around this area, discovering in the process that a local château isn’t open to the public due to it being the Russian embassy (all the razor wire, cameras and blacked-our cars should have tipped us off).
Also in the vicinity of the city centre was the European Parliament, mighty symbol of greed, corruption and the occasional person struggling to represent his/her constituents. As it turned out, we didn’t have time to get out there so a visit to Leopold Park is safe from my scathing remarks for the time being.
On our host’s advice, we decided to take a day trip out to Ghent (Gent/Gand) – less touristy and more picturesque than the other guidebook staples of Antwerp and Bruges, and easily accessible by train. Sadly the weather was still damp and cloudy, so we were denied the full majesty of the medieval buildings under sunlight but had a very informative and comprehensive self-guided walking tour nonetheless. As we followed the narrow streets, the colourful history of the craft guilds and various battles unfolded and we ended up back at the main square entertained and sweetened with some of Ghent’s Belgium-famous noses (raspberry flavoured nose-shaped sweets). The Saint Bavo (patron saint of falconry) cathedral was right ahead of us, so we took a walk around inside to see the famous altarpiece and other works for ourselves. I satisfied my curiosity with the copy out in the main hall, while Amy opted for the original and audio guide in the mini-museum and we returned to Brussels happy to have expanded our horizons a little.