I wasn't sure if I was going to like Brussels or not -- I had heard a lot of mixed reviews. Several people even recommended skipping it. I am really glad I didn't, because I loved it! It was such a great city, and a really comfortable place to walk around.
Belgium is a really intesting country. It is fairly small, but central to most of Europe. Brussels is the seat of the European Union Parliament, as well as several other major parts of the EU. There are actually 3 official languages of Belgium: Flemish (a version of Dutch), French and German. Add in the official language of the EU and English is spoken quite often. While in Dublin, I met a Belgian girl (Isabella) in the hostel. She explained quite a bit about Belgium to me. Apparently there is a big separatist movement going on right now. Besides language, there are numerous cultural differences between the Flanders region and Wallonia (the French-speaking region). Apparently, many Belgians feel they don't have enough in common to remain in the same country. Isabella explained that she really can only get employment in Wallonia, because she speaks French but not Flemish. An interesting dilemma for a country to deal with.
Brussels really felt like an amalgam of all of Europe. I am glad that I visited Brussels towards the end of my trip or I wouldn't have really appreciated this. There is the culture and food of the French, the industriousness of the Germans, the laid back feeling of the Dutch, the appreciation of the good life of the Italians, the love of music and culture of Vienna and even the art nouveau architcture of Slovenia. While some Begians might be insulted by this description, it is really a compliment. Somehow the Belgians have found how to take the best of their European neighbors without the accompanying bad stuff. It makes sense to me that the EU is based in Brussels. It just seems to fit.
I took a hop on-hop off bus tour of the city. I have really grown to like these tours. There are fun, informative, and a very relaxing way to see a lot of places in a short amount of time. They are especially good in places like Brussels and London where the sights are spread out. One of the highlights was seeing the European Union Parliament. Brussels has found a way to incorporate really old buildings, art nouveau architecture, and modern glass and steel structures seamlessly. It makes for a very pretty city that feels both old and modern at the same time. I also really enjoyed the Laeken park area, the current home to the Belgian royal family.
The old part of Brussels is really beautiful and better explored on foot. I especially liked the Grand Place/Grote Markt area. The Grote Markt (or Market Square) is easily one of the prettiest plazas I have seen in Europe. I had a great meal sitting outside in the square and visiting with a Norweigan family on their summer holidays. It was fun to see their perspectives of Paris and Brussels and to discuss how Norway is different. Norway and Switzerland are the only countries considered to be in Western Europe that are not in the EU (by their own choice). I learned a lot about Norway and enjoyed talking with the parents and their three beautiful blond daughters. Their fifteen year old is completely bored with Europe and can't wait to visit New York to go shopping!
One of the things I loved best about Belgium was the food and drink. Belgians are renowned for their beer and it seemed like each restaurant/bar had a beer list at least 5 pages long! And the beer is so good. Two of my all time favorite beers are Belgian: Stella Artois and Hoegaarden. I also enjoyed trying various local beers, including Kriek, a cherry-flavored beer. Very sweet but very good. In addition to beer, Belgium is also known for chocolate and waffles (I think I am figuring out why they are all so happy all the time!). The chocolate was amazing, with small chocolate shops on every street corner. I just had to try a little piece of chocolate at several different shops, and the amazing thing is that the chocolate can taste so different, and yet always so good. I imagine it is a little like wine in France; different varieties with different characteristics. I also sampled a delicious Belgian waffle with strawberries, bananas and chocolate. Yum!