Standing in the midst of Grand Place in the historic center of Brussels, admiring buildings from Belgium’s “golden age” in the 16th century, its hard to believe that I’m actually in Europe after months of chaos and uncertainty.
The great town hall in Grand Place at night
The gilded buildings of the town hall-constructed during Belgium’s golden era
I’m in front of the royal palace, which used to be the home of Belgium’s king
Despite the challenging times we’re facing, I’m incredibly grateful to begin work on my master’s degree as part of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Degree in Tropical Biodiversity and Ecosystems. Headquartered at the Free University of Brussels, I first came here to take introductory biology courses before I go on to specialize in the tropics.
After a month living in a new country, it’s easy to take the little differences for granted. A sugar-glazed waffle after a walk around the historic district, sampling an array of Belgian beers, each served in its own special glass, and of course, belgian fries: cut thick and best served with heavy sauces.
My first belgian waffle! Sugar-coated, it takes more like a doughnut.
I’ve also indulged in lots of chocolate and other sweets, called cuberdons, which a Belgian friend gifted me. They are gum-drop shaped, very sweet, and a bit chewy on the outside with a liquid center. What a sugar rush!
Belgium is also known for its masters of art. It was nice to visit the Royal Museum, beautifully constructed and housing an extensive collection of surrealist artist Rene Magritte. His paintings stretch the imagination, and each patch of blue sky takes you to a more open place. I loved admiring his sketchbooks and quotes scattered around his most famous paintings.
“Ceci continue de ne pas être une pipe.”Magritte’s most famous painting, a picture of a pipe saying “this is still not a pipe.”
Reve, meaning dream.
Belgium loves its cartoons, with street art dedicated to Tin Tin and the smurfs everywhere. Smurfette even guides you on a tour of the UN’s gender equality goals around the Atomium.
A mural dedicated to The Adventures of Tin Tin, a series of Belgian origin
Smurfs cover the underside of a bridge in the city center.
The Atomium is Brussel’s contribution to the 1958 world’s fair, an iron lattice with each atom containing its own world. Climbing inside, I could see the city below through snow, and up some retro stairs to view Pietr Bruegel’s famous paintings of 15th century life.
The atomium, 160 billion times the size of an iron crystal
The retro stairs connecting the “bonds” between the iron atoms
Pieter Bruegel’s winter scene. Each painting depicted a different “season.”
Beyond the city, Brussels has nice parks and forests too. Hiking through the slopes of the Sonian forest, you can imagine the smurfs hiding among all the diversity of fungus sprouting from fallen trees. At first glance, the temporate forest looks just like the ones back home in the eastern United States, with oaks and acorns and autumn foilage. However, there are also beech trees, chestnuts, and European ash providing ample forest cover.
Octopus stinkorn (Clathrus archeri)
There are also lots of new animals too. Eurasian wrens, round red-chested eurasian robins, red squirrels and Siberian chipmunks scamper among the forest. Plenty of frogs, slugs, and snails are scattered across the leaf litter.
A slug poking around some mushrooms
Amidst wearing masks and a pandemic, there are increasingly more restrictions as cases continue to rise. While restrictions were more relaxed it was fun to explore the city, and I look forward to continuing to adventure outdoors while maintaining physical distancing.