Brussels: Days of Future Past
In 2000 I dismissed Belgium and its capital as nothing less than nowhere-ville and spent most of my four hours waiting for a bus to Paris at the down and dirty north station. 18 years’ later and it’s still grim. Full of drunks, the homeless (other than nomadic me) and armed police.
If not for the fact the Train Hostel had shown up in my research notes my time in Brussels would have been almost as brief as before. I’d never heard of suburban Schaerbeek but that’s where I found myself. Even better I could see the Atomium (the symbol of Brussels with the silver balls) was also nearby. A plan was hatching.
SLEEPING WITH THE PAST
The hostel is amazing even if I’ve missed out on an authentic train carriage cabin and have to share a nine bed dorm. Initially this is fine until a few arrogant idiots show up eating and speaking aloud while I tried to sleep.
Faced with this and a chronic snorer, I end up with a duvet on the floor of the downstairs common area. Ironically facing a Train Hostel sleeping bag used as a wall decoration (and a subtle hint they are for sale).
Although peaceful by comparison, the floor numbs my back. Now I don’t entirely blame the hostel; there’s no way of telling idiots nor snorers, however they might have offered a free breakfast to compensate as I had paid for a bed I didn’t use!
They do though allow me to store my bags for the whole day while I get to seeing some of Brussels museums – though I dare say they would have anyway and if there’s anything I know about hostels, they hate criticism no matter how small.
SHADOWS IN THE RAIN
Around 6am I set out in the rain for a walk and that’s when I discover there’s very few cafes around and those I do find are closed (it being a Sunday). A few pattisseries are open but no coffee. Now I know why the hostel thinks it can and does charge €8 (way too much for a hostel no matter how good the spread).
My next morning walk is the longer than planned voyage to the Atomium. This really was a mistake, took more time than was necessary and I should’ve got a tram.
THE ATOMIUM: BRUSSELS BY DESIGN
In the surrounding suburbs there are plenty of bars and taverns and men who look like they don’t stray too far from them – still no sign of a cafe. I must be in the wrong part of town. A few more boulongeries, some eco architecture in the Green Biz building, a bibliotek and eventually those silver balls peer over the trees. It must be close now.
What I didn’t know is that you can actually go inside the Atomium. I had previously thought of it purely as a small sculpture like the little mermaid for example. Only when I approach it do I notice how big it is, its glass windows and all the usual tourist trappings.
I purchase a duel ticket which includes Brussels only design museum ADAM (now called Design Museum Brussels). The Atomium has been refurbished in recent years and this year is celebrating its 60th birthday. Inside, without giving too much away, is a treasure trove of 1950s futurist nostalgia, naturally I love it.
ADAM lies in the same cultural hub as the Atomium. When I call it’s hosting a Russian exhibition with a host of fantastic radios and a lot of product design much like that found in Helsinki. As an appendix to the Atomium, there are exhibitions referencing 1958. On only one floor there is quite a lot to see.
Outside and desperate to make both the centre (to book onward travel) and back to Schaerbeek I’m faced with a METRO ticket machine. It’s fair to say these things are rather irksome in that they take either coins or cards NOT notes. The stations are often unmanned so there is no one to ask for help.
It is simply not worth buying a €2 ticket with my card only to be charged £5 from my bank at home. Running short on time I solve the problem by jumping on a bus and paying the driver. To his credit he tells me the tram will be faster and the same ticket is good to go, so I go find one of those.
TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS
Back in Schaerbeek, Train World is an absolute essential! €12 might seem a lot but it’s one of those times I’m glad I didn’t balk. It is truly worth it and one of the best museums I have ever witnessed.
Beautiful usage of the old station using the former ticket office to show old ticket machines and uniforms. Excellent motion graphics, ambient and orchestral music blend into each other to create an overall satisfying entrance (you even have to scan your ticket to enter).
Everything at Train World appears to be in its right place, well considered and executed. Alongside the many train carriages through the ages are posters, a wonderfully evocative mock up of a station masters house, sections on bridges, signalling equipment and tunnels.
My favourite of the train carriages by far was the TEE (Trans Europe Express) which again has been tastefully thought out with all manner of artefacts garnishing the interior.
As I never spent much time in Brussels during 2000 I can’t compare the differences. 2018 offers no main square and as I’m not familiar with the lay of the land can’t recall how I got there. This visit centres solely on Schaerbeek and if shopping malls are your thing check out the amazing DOCKS BRUXSEL building and its cool WHITE cinema within.
My verdict? Brussels is not boring, it’s brilliant! If anything one of Europe’s most underrated capitals. Don’t be put off by the terrorists, go check out Belgium’s buzzing metropolis. With three museums done in the space of a few hours it was time to go home and whatever awaits me there.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
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The Day Begins (from Days of Future Passed) – The Moody Blues
Twist/Run/Repulsion (from Empires and Dance) – Simple Minds
Strangers (from Dummy) – Portishead
Showroom Dummies (from Trans Europe Express) – Kraftwerk
Trans Europe Express (from Trans Europe Express) – Kraftwerk
Everything in its Right Place (from KID A) – Radiohead
Evening (from Days of Future Passed) – The Moody Blues
Late Lament/Resolvement (from Days of Future Passed) – The Moody Blues