Brussels Pick Pockets, Budapest Baths, and Milan Football
Written by Connor March 19, 2013
After another hard week of school, it was Friday afternoon and as always the CIMBA community was getting antsy. At 5:30 we would be hopping on the airport shuttle bus and be off, yet again, for another week long break of European gallivanting. This time we were headed to Brussels, Budapest, and Milan.
Known by many people exclusively for its waffles, the city of Brussels actually has much more to offer than its famously delicious doughy dish. Home to nearly 3 million people, the city has the largest population in the country. In the past few decades Brussels has become somewhat of a center for international politics, providing a location for the NATO headquarters and many European Union conferences. It is an extremely demographically diverse country with only 70% of residents reporting to be Belgian born citizens. Unlike many large European countries, Brussels was lucky enough to escape both World Wars without major infrastructure damage so much of the architecture and famous building we were able to see dated back to the 17th century.
While it may not always be the highest ranking city of a euro-travelers list of places to visit, there are plenty of things to do, see, eat, and drink in Brussels. This weekend it happened to be the venue for the renowned Sensation Source of Light Concert. As a result, many students from CIMBA and other schools all over Europe were arriving in Brussels and neighboring cities for the concert on Saturday. The night we arrived, we checked into our hotel, The Van Belle. It didn’t take us long to realize that the elegant sounding Van Belle was not our best lodging decision. Not only was the hotel in a run-down part of the city, but the service was rude and unhelpful, we were placed in a room with 2 beds when we paid for 3 and lastly, the interior floor plan was designed like an inescapable labyrinth that was near impossible to not get lost in. Being said, we dropped our bags off as quickly as possible and Cooper, Lauren, Jill and I headed out.
After being in Italy for so long where the wine culture is so overwhelming, it was really nice to be in a place that takes such pride in its beer. The pub we went to on the first night was a cool place called Poechenellekelder (don’t ask me how to say that). The walls were decorated from floor to ceiling with puppets and manikins which made for a really fun atmosphere. The beer menu we were handed had over 200 options to choose from and when we ordered, the beer was brought to us in the bottle with a glass bearing the name of the specific beer you were drinking. Given that none of us had any clue what to order, we were able to ask the waiter for recommendations. He told us he was “required” to have tasted all 200+ beers on the menu. Tough job. Anyway, he was a huge help and we each were able to try a couple of delicious beers that we will most likely never have again. It was a fun and relaxing way to start off our spring break and literally gave us a taste of the Belgian beer culture.
The next day we had a waffle breakfast at one of the local cafes and then went to see the Grand-Place Square which is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The 17th century medieval buildings surrounding the square were amazing. Nearby were tons of one-euro waffle vendors and French fry shops along with a huge variety of stores to go shopping at. We spent a few hours walking around the city before heading back to get ready for the concert.
The Sensation Concert is an annual event held in different countries every spring. It features multiple DJ’s who spin electronica, techno, and dub step beats all night long. In other words you probably aren’t going to run into your parents pumping fists there. One of the only rules is that you had to wear all white to be let in, so as soon as everyone got all their gear on at the hotel, our group of 15 took off for the train station looking like a low altitude cumulonimbus cloud. The puzzled looks from pedestrians stopped when we got on the train that was filled with kids from all over the world wearing nothing but white outfits. The show started soon after we got to the concert and we spent the next 5 hours dancing, meeting new people, and running into unsuspecting friends from home. Everyone had a blast and we arrived back at our hotel just in time for breakfast!
The following day Cooper and I headed out to see the rest of Brussels. We first made it to the top floor of a building that looked over the whole city and then stopped at the famous and highly irrelevant Mannikin Pis statue which has somehow become the city’s most well-known landmark. Finally, while walking back to our hostel on a street with no one else on it, we were approached by a man who asked for a lighter. We told him we did not have one and he proceeded to come shake my hand after noticing the American accent. He then did some subtle movement with his leg when he was right next to me(a very light kick that was just to catch me off guard) and the next thing I know he was walking away and my wallet was no longer in my back pocket. I grabbed him and he held up my wallet in his left hand with a smile on his face. I immediately swiped it back and gave his friend (who was distracting Cooper by asking where the train station was) a strong shove and some choice words.
I had always heard about pick pockets but I never thought I would be the chump that it actually happened to. It just shows that you don’t have to be in a crowded spot or even in a bad part of town for them to pick you off. I was really shocked at what had happened while we were walking away and I took it as a huge learning experience. Unfortunately, it made me far more paranoid the rest of the trip and has made it much harder to trust anyone while traveling.
Later that night we went to another amazing beer pub called Delirium. This time the beer selection was, I kid you not, over 2000 different types. At one point, Delirium held the world record for the number of different beers on it’s menu to choose from. We were handed an enormously thick catalog that had in-depth descriptions for many of the beers on stock. Beers that you could never find at any other restaurant were all priced around 3.50 euro so we spent the night trying a few different kinds and then heading back fairly early.
With only a couple hours before our flight to Budapest on Monday morning, we decided to take a tour of Brussels own “Cantillon Brewery”. The brewery is located in the middle of the city and has been family owned and operated for over 100 years. It is unique in that it is one of the only traditional Lambic breweries left in the world. The term “lambic” refers to a type of natural process dating back to 12th century AD in which natural airborne yeasts are used to contaminate the wort and start the natural fermentation process. After receiving background information from the host, we were able to walk through the brewery and see how the beer is made. Everything in the building, from the open air cooling room, to the wooden storage barrels, to the aging hops was traditional. The beer making is so focused on natural process that employees are told to leave spider webs all over the building so they will catch insects that are attracted by the smell. At the end of the tour we were able to try two types of beer. I’m not going to lie and say I liked the somewhat sour taste, but seeing how the beer was made and knowing the history behind the process made it taste a lot better. Finally, after two hours in the brewery, we were headed to the airport and off to our next destination.
Often referred to as the “primate city” of Hungary, Budapest is the capital and economic stronghold of the country. As our tour guide explained to us on the second day, the country of Hungary has had a history of political revolution and instability. However, after World War II and the disintegration of communism in the country, Budapest has been a thriving part of the global economy. Split in two (Buda and Pest) by the Danube river, tourists can enjoy gorgeous views of the city’s beautiful architecture, bridges, and suburban hills, a characteristic that has made it a largely popular destination for European travelers.
The first night, we got in pretty late and after checking into the beautiful and extremely cheap Wombat’s Hostel, we met up with our CIMBA friends and headed out to one of the cool “Ruins Bars” that were famous around the city. The following day we woke up early and were able to do some city exploring of our own before getting on the guided tour. On our way to the Central Market Square we walked all the way along the Danube and were able to see all the huge steel bridges that connect the two parts of the city. The market was swarming with people and was located in a huge building with two levels. On the first floor, there were tons of food shops with every kind of meat, fruit, or vegetable you could think of. Upstairs you could find hundreds of different vendors trying to sell you some of the dumbest trinkets imaginable.
During the walking tour, our guide took us all around the city. Starting on the Pest side, we were taken to the St. Stephens Basilica before walking across the famous Chain Bridge where we saw the beautiful Hungarian Royal Palace and the red roofed Mathias Church. Looking across the river, we had a birds-eye view of Pest and could admire the gothic architecture of the Hungarian Parliament Building. It was pretty clear after the tour why Budapest is often cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
We dedicated the following day to visit one of Budapest’s famous thermal baths. At a price of about 16 USD (14,000 Hungarian Forints) we got an all-day pass to the biggest and most popular bath, Szechenyi. In the center of the huge building was an outdoor courtyard with three huge pools with fountains and lazy rivers. The pools were all hot tub temperature and felt amazing until you had to get out and sprint to the indoor saunas. Once inside, you could make your way through the facility, popping into different saunas, pools, cold baths, steam rooms, hot tubs, and showers. It was quite the way to spend a day and something you have to do if you plan on going to Budapest. But the long hard day of bathing in hot tubs heated by geothermal activity had to eventually come to an end. That night we were off to our third and final destination, Milan.
Like usual, it was late when we finally got to our hostel so that night we just kicked back and watched football highlights with Italian commentary in the common room. The next morning the owner of our hostel gave us a map and drew up an itinerary of things to do and see that day. So we hopped on the metro and headed towards the city center. That day we were able to see the amazing Cathedral Duomo and the Castello Sforzesco (a castle built in 1470 that once seated the Duchy of Milan). However we came upon our greatest discovery after walking into a football shop where we learned that Inter Milan FC had a home game that started at 7 that night.
Immediately after, we hopped on another metro towards the stadium to get tickets and potentially some Inter Milan gear. Once we got to the stadium we were approached by multiple scalpers trying to get rid of nose bleed tickets. The first guy offered us two tickets at the “special price” of 60 euro that was “just for [us]”! I was well aware that this was no “special price” and after a while of refusing we ended up bargaining down to 20 euro a ticket which turned out to be a great deal. Now that we had the tickets my next goal was to find a jersey so I didn’t look like a complete American. I managed to find a cheap one and it seemed like the night was turning out to be a lot better than we had originally expected.
We got back to the stadium right after kick off and made our way as close to the field as possible because the stands weren’t packed. While it wasn’t anything close to the atmosphere of the AC Milan Barcelona game that some of our friends went to earlier in the week, it ended up being a really exciting game that went into extra time with Inter Milan winning 4-1. Before we arrived in Milan we really had no plans other than seeing the city and the football game ended up making our trip there worth our time.
On Friday we pulled back in to our home sweet home of Paderno. We decided to take our last couple days off to relax, catch up on work, and save some spending money for next weekend. This travel break had not been characterized by the constant thrill and excitement that the first one had but at the same time the more laid back tone and smaller travel group had a lot of advantages.
I’ve probably lost 98% of the readers who started this novel long blog update but if you are still reading then make sure to stay tuned for my next entry. This weekend a few of us guys will be heading to the southern-most point in all of Europe, the tiny island country of Malta located in the middle of the Mediterranean for some snorkeling, fishing, and rock climbing adventures.