Greeted with a toga party, caught up in a homecoming celebration, and capped off with a mile-long street carnival, it was as if Brussels, Belgium, was expecting us.
“You’re only going to be here a couple of days,” the city seemed to be saying. “So I’m going to throw everything I’ve got at you. Including…wait for it…good beer!”
It was admittedly a bit of a shock when we had to wade through a throng of toga-clad youngsters to check into our hotel. Although I immediately started worrying about noise and drunken all-night shenanigans, these kids were actually very polite, easing out of the path to let three road-weary Americans through.
They kept the noise to a minimum, and I saw not one single shenanigan. They even shut the party down promptly at midnight. Polite, I’m telling you.
Even the hotel itself was a pleasant surprise.
The vast majority of Europe doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Caught in the grips of one of the most severe European heat waves in recent history, we were melting every night and waking up fatigued just to get down the road and do it again the next evening.
It’s rough when you look forward to a three-hour drive if only for the car’s cool air.
The Meininger Hotel in Brussels doesn’t advertise air conditioning either, so we were bracing for yet another sweltering sleep. But when we entered our room, it was quite cool, employing something called passive house for heating and cooling. And it actually worked! Way to go, Brussels.
So, waking late and well-rested for the first time in a week, we set out to explore the city. Brussels is a mix of old and new, with modern architecture and centuries-old buildings fusing together in a skyline that works, somehow. Likewise, the city is proud of its iconic sculpture from the 1700s as well as its thriving street art scene.
We were admiring that eclectic city vibe when we stumbled into a sizable crowd gathered on and around the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange. Initially thinking it was some sort of rally or protest like the one we saw in London concerning Brexit, we approached with caution.
To our great delight, however, it turned out to be the homecoming celebration for Belgium’s World Cup team. People were chanting and singing, waving flags with vigor, and kissing strangers. The football team arrived by motorcade just as we walked up, and the streets were filled with red and yellow and black smoke.
We celebrated the bronze-medal victory alongside the Belgians for a while, chiming in unison with the crowd: “We! Are! Belgium!” at what we hoped were the appropriate times.
But football homecoming celebrations are quite a long affair as it turns out. And we are not, in fact, Belgium.
So we slipped down a mostly-empty side street to continue our self-guided tour, taking in the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, where the king and queen were married, on our way to see the Royal Palace.
We searched for, but never found, the famous De Vaartkapoen sculpture. At one point, I suggested that we ask a police officer for directions to the statue since Google was not cooperating. But Angela vetoed that idea due to the fact that the sculpture depicts a young man tripping a police officer. A good call on her part, I think.
For several days, Brussels continued to surprise us with its weird, warm welcome. Angela and Ben bought clothes by the kilogram at a vintage store called Melting Pot Kilo. We all enjoyed a wide variety of ethnic restaurants including a Middle Eastern pop-up restaurant that could have held its own in downtown Riyadh or Marrakech. “See you tomorrow!” the owner imparted as we left. Beautifully witty since the restaurant wouldn’t be there tomorrow.
We watched the World Cup finals at a dive bar near Le Palais de Justice. But it was France versus Croatia, and the Belgians were already over it. We drank some excellent beers and Belgian ciders and did a bit of people-watching.
Then, on the way back to the cool of our hotel room, we found that Brussels still had one more surprise in store for us: a mile-long street carnival, complete with ferris wheel, log ride, and some serious gaming booths.
Oh Brussels, you crazy thing. You should save some surprises for the next time we visit.
Because I’m coming back. Count on it!