As I mentioned back in December, D and I decided to backpack around Europe for two weeks over our winter break. We'd been planning for a while to take advantage of the two weeks off we each get over Christmas and New Years (D is a graduate student so he doesn't get official vacation time) but could not decide on where to go. I had been campaigning for somewhere warm, namely South America, but flights were very expensive, so I started branching out. As in past years, my main criteria was somewhere neat that I hadn't been before. Which is how we found ourselves headed to Europe.
We flew into Brussels and spent 3 full days there, days which happened to include Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I was a little worried the entire city would be shut down and we wouldn't have anything to do for two of those three days, so I researched the heck out of what attractions would be open, and then splurged and got us a slightly nicer hotel for our time in Brussels in case we ended up spending a lot of time there. I needn't have worried. Brussels was teeming with tourists and we found so much fun stuff to do.
One of the things I wanted to do that was not going to be open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was visit the Cantillon Brewery. It's a small Belgian traditional family brewery founded in 1900 and notable for its lambic beers. The tours, which cost all of 7 euros each, were self-guided. We made our way through the brewery and read the info sheet along the way, all while taking about a million pictures. We were there on a brewing day, lucky us, so we got to see a lot of behind-the-scenes action, which was cool. We also got to try two lambic beers each. Lambic is...interesting. It's realllly sour, and tastes kind of...well...it was unlike any other beer I've ever tasted. D liked it though, and the experience was well worth it.
In addition to drinking beer, we spent a lot of time in the Grand Place, which was just a few minutes' walk from our hotel, and absolutely stunning. They had the best christkindlmarkt I've ever seen, which included food booths, drink booths, a skating rink, lots and lots and LOTS of Christmas lights, a nativity scene with live animals that they fed at various times during the day, booths selling little gifts and trinkets, you name it. We actually ate there several times over the course of those three days and all the food and drink we tried was top notch.
We also did several walking tours out of our guidebook, which I highly recommend (both the walking tours and the book, which was this one). On Christmas Day we did an epic two-hour tour that took us through a trendy up-and-coming neighborhood, to a flea market that was, surprisingly, in full swing, through two different churches, and to the Palais de Justice, picture above, which is the largest building constructed in the 19th century and as far as we could tell, almost totally empty and abandoned save a few homeless people. According to the internet, the scaffolding on the exterior has been in place for over 10 years and is now in need of being replaced itself. The inside looks like marble but is actually plaster, which you learn from examining in places where it is falling away, if you are nosy and kind of fascinated by abandoned buildings like yours truly. The city of Brussels still pays to keep the lights on, but we came across trash, broken windows, a few squatters' camps, and LOTS of pigeon poop. Perhaps that's more expensive to deal with than electricity.
We heard from a few different people that Brussels was only ok and that we didn't need to spend more than a day or two there. We were flying into and out of the city because it was the cheapest destination in Western Europe for our travel dates, but I'm so glad we had a few full days there and we definitely could have filled up three more on that city alone.