For my first European trip outside Paris, I decided to go to Brussels during the weekend of Toussaint. (In France, everyone gets at least All Saints' Day off, if not an additional week and a half for students who are high-school age or younger). As I only spent a little less than three days there, I took the time to do a lot of planning in advance in order to visit as many museums, taste as much food, and see as many sights as possible.
One of the first things I noticed in Brussels was how very different it was from Paris. After exiting the train station, one can see a gorgeous cathedral built in the Middle Ages, a window-covered modern office building, and a 1920s art nouveau structure, all within a couple blocks of each other! Haussmann definitely never made the trip to Brussels... The city certainly has its charm, though, and I benefited from its small size by taking several walks around the city to see the many cathedrals, parks, and public buildings. The St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral was perhaps my favorite church, with its soaring spires and impressive "pulpit" (forgive my lack of Catholic terminology), though I was also impressed by the sheer size of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which was built in the early twentieth century.
Apart from the hidden treasures inside the city, I also visited several museums and famous sights. Among my favorites were the Atomium (built for the 1958 World's Fair), Mini Europe, the Musical Instrument Museum (where I saw all the "ancestors" of my favorite instrument, the piano), and of course the Grand Place (the main square in Brussels where one can find the town hall, a large church, and many little shops and restaurants in the 17th-century buildings). There are so many more things to see in Brussels than I realized, but I managed to visit a surprisingly large number of sights. Of course, as a political science major, I could not make the trip to visit Brussels without seeing the buildings that house several of the institutions of the European Union. Although most of the buildings were not open for individual visits, I was at least able to visit the European Parliament. Although we were only allowed to see the main chamber, I still enjoyed a "behind-the-scenes" glimpse into the world of European politics.
I could not talk about my time in Brussels without at least a brief note about the cuisine. Although I never had a real meal with strictly Belgium food, I did make sure I sampled many of the foods that are thought of as typically Belgium. Of the food I tried, I was probably least impressed by the "French" fries, which did not taste very special to me. The waffles, on the other hand, were even better than I had imagined. I tried both a light, crispy, rectangular Brussels waffle in a café and a hot, gooey Liège waffle, which I bought at a street stand. They were both absolutely delicious; I do not think I will be able to appreciate American waffles at breakfast as much as I used to! Last, but by no means least, I ate about a year's worth of chocolate, as I simply had to sample a little bit of chocolate from all of the major Belgian chocolate boutiques. In the end, my favorite chocolate came from Neuhaus, the creators of both the Belgian praline and the ballotin. My favorite Neuhaus chocolates were probably the truffles, with their perfect balance of bitter chocolate powder and creamy, sweet filling. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it...
Well, that is a little bit about my first venture outside France. It was a tiring three-day trip, but undoubtedly well worth the fatigue for the enjoyable experience!