Brussels, Belgium, is a turd with a candy center. The web of narrow avenues around the Grote Markt are very nice -- beer halls, skinny Flemish buildings, and cafes with heat lamps -- and outside of that are the gleaming mirror-faced buildings of new office parks. If you walk past that, though, you find dirty streets, abandoned construction projects, and filthy Soviet bloc-style tenements with prostitutes under blacklights in the first floor windows.
You can see the Rue d'Aerschot, the main drag for less than reputable window shopping in Brussels, when you come in by train to the north station. The ladies of the night pull back the blinds in mid-afternoon and pose smiling in bikinis like its a beauty pagent, or sit on stools and text on their phones.
From what I could tell, shoppers are either swaggering Belgian locals who chat up the girls or nervous-looking businessman who can't fully conceal their bespectacled heads in their hats no matter how hard they try. On the side streets are all the less popular prostitutes, who slap the window like trained seals when people walk under them.
I saw all I needed to of Brussels in one day and left for Bruges last Tuesday.
Bruges redeemed the nation and made Belgium the best place ever. The center of the town is an island surrounded by canals, with windmills and parks on the perimeter. It looks like a toy city of cobblestone and Flemish brick houses two windows across. You can see the whole thing from the top of the Belfry tower, and the chimneys and wind turbines of modern industry beyond.
Bruges is also likeable cheap. I pay 14 Euros a night for my bed (after 24-30 in Paris), got a huge plate of spaghetti with a mound of cheese for 3 Euros at a family restaraunt run by an Italian with Freddy Mercury's mustache, and picked up a tub of friets from one of the two dueling fries stands in in the Markt square.
While the French focused their culinary talent on wine and cheese, the Belgians wisely perfected beer, chocolate, fries, and waffles. Fries are the greatest snack food, and here you can get them with a random sauce. They have invented 5,000 different sauces and gave each a funnier name (Stoofvleessaus), although sometimes you can end up stuck with the weird fish mayonnaise.
The beer is the best, though. I went on a tour of Bruges' only remaining brewery with some people from the hostel and learned a lot about making beer, but mostly about how much Belgians love to drink it. The woman leading the tour held a passion for hops and malt that transcended alcoholism. She was offended by the idea of non-alcoholic beers and "gassy headache" cans like Budweiser. She humored me by naming some good Portland brews (Full Sail and Fat Tire), brewed in the Belgian tradition -- but only real Belgian beers can be ambrosial.
Four percent table beers are for kids, she told us, and real Belgians enjoy the triple brewed 12% blondes and the dark beers made by Trappiste monks with holy water, which have the nutritional value of "four liquid sandwiches." I have to believe her, because for two nights my only supper was hearty black beer, and I woke up feeling good as new.
One bar in Bruges has 300 Belgian beers, organized by the area their made in, their color, and their alcohol content. We just asked the waitress, who brought out Malheurs and Golden Draaks and other brands of liquid sandwiches in glass goblets and brandy snifters. The Belgians like a tall head on their beers. At De Garre, a nook in an alley the size of a hallway, they serve a strong beer called De Garre from the barrel, with three times as much frothy head as amber liquid.
I saw a few other sites in Bruges, but mostly the streets, canals, and squares of the city itself. I rented a bike on Thursday and took pictures of half of what I saw -- and also knocked the chain off and one of the pedals by jumping around like an idiot. There's a basilica in town that has Jesus' holy blood, recovered during the Crusades. A priest put a gold-rimmed vial on a satin throne for people to touch, and I impiously thought it looked like the black pudding I had in Scotland.
Saturday was some kind of holiday in Bruges (although nobody seemed to know what it was for so maybe they hold parades every weekend). The parade started in the big Saturday market square, where stands sold deep fried meat wrapped in bacon and hamburger patties wrapped in bacon and other foods not worth mentioning.
The floats -- all of them blared a different house beat, some of them were animatronic, and one of them smoked -- barely fit down the narrow cobblestone avenues. The Belgians riding on them danced and drank beers and bombed tourists with confetti and candy. They wore medieval costumes or cowboy hats, all the colors of the neon rainbow.
Railroad work put a series of wrong, missed, and missing trains between me and Amsterdam, but I arrived safely tonight.