Blog: Terrifying & Terrific – Two Days Solo in Brussels

“On Friday afternoon, I escorted my friends from our hostel, Brxxl5, to Bruxelles Midi/Zuid Station. I watched as they shuffled solemnly onto the train, then sprinted alongside them for as long as I could muster as they pulled away, waving as I ran. Their train inevitably curved out of view, speeding over the endless horizon. Though I didn’t expect it to, it terrified me. I haven’t told them this, but the moment they left, I felt hollow and fearful. I was alone in the capital of Europe.” 

I’ve always fantasised about travel. It’s incredibly easy to picture the wonders that lie beyond your doorstep, especially with an active imagination. Throughout my life, I had secretly resented my friends for their own stories: Cambodia, China, Mexico, France, and an endless amount of sun holidays in Spain. It soured me for a long time that I camped, year-on-year, in the rain in Ireland, while people I knew were experiencing things far beyond what I could fathom. I was being unfair, as my parents have always done what they can for us. They even brought us on a three week holiday to the US in 2013, which was a huge deal for both me and for my sisters. The problem is that my wanderlust was insatiable, as was my envious spirit – I wanted culture shock and confusion, not the relatively familiar in a warmer climate. Florida’s theme parks and D.C’s neat streets were amazing to see, but they didn’t displace me enough.

Fast-forward to 2017, and after several months’ planning with FrenchSoc (NUI Galway’s French Society), a group of 25 students from the West of Ireland were set to embark on a journey to Brussels. There are a whole host of stories from the group trip – the unassuming little restaurant we had to ourselves on the first night, the spontaneous tour we were given by a friend’s cousin who lived in Brussels, my first experience of Ethiopian food, and the all-nighter four of us pulled on the group’s last night, with Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to ourselves at dawn. These are, perhaps, for another blog post. For now, though, I’ll focus only on the time I had to myself in the city, and how my independence ultimately made me feel.

When we organised the trip, we had originally intended for everyone to stay until the Saturday – unfortunately, though, plans fell through because of flight availability, and we could only get two nights in Belgium for the group. I had booked a later flight for myself – on the Sunday – as I wanted to have some time alone to explore the place. For months, I had been excited about the prospect – I wanted to sink into the city streets, and savour my own company. Even though I had been to a total of three countries prior to Belgium, none of which alone, I was confident of my abilities. I knew that solo travel was something that I wanted to do; I saw it as a personal challenge, even to spend a day alone in a city of millions, swallowed in a multicultural ocean. This considered, I felt no fear about it – I had no anxiety about being by myself in a city that is approximately 14 times larger than my own in terms of population.

We arrived in Brussels on the 5th of April, ears perked up to the sounds of the city, a maelstrom of French and Dutch drifting through the crowds. It was all so unfamiliar; ornate, gold-laced buildings daggering the skyline, cobbled streets weaving and winding – characteristics of Belgium’s chaotic charm. In the time we spent together, we quickly became acclimatised to our surroundings – landmarks were second nature, and by Thursday evening we were beginning to blend in, contributing to the cultural melting pot. But then, almost too soon, it was time for 24 of us to leave.

On Friday afternoon, I escorted my friends from our hostel, Brxxl5, to Bruxelles Midi/Zuid Station. I watched as they shuffled solemnly onto the train, then sprinted alongside them for as long as I could muster as they pulled away, waving as I ran. Their train inevitably curved out of view, speeding over the endless horizon. Though I didn’t expect it to, it terrified me. I haven’t told them this, but the moment they left, I felt hollow and fearful. I was alone in the capital of Europe.

Friday was a write-off for my solo adventures. I left Bruxelles Midi/Zuid and wandered in the direction of the city centre. I drifted aimlessly into shops, unenthusiastically perusing their dull shelves; the city and its people were grey, the hue of the city had faded. This continued for several hours; I saw shadows of my friends in the cobbled corners, carelessly loping through the streets. My feet dragged doggedly as they chased me; everywhere I walked, I was reminded of things we had done together. I had lost all motivation, and eventually returned to the hostel. That afternoon, I took a six-hour long nap. Then, when I woke up, I started to do some research; I read reviews on day-trips to Bruges and Ghent, desperate to make an escape from the city.

It was incredibly strange. I knew my friends were going to be leaving. I had planned my two-day solo-sightseeing in advance, yet here I was, pummeled by a brick wall, twisted and tangled in my bedsheets, alone in a hostel room while the sky was still bright. This is a feeling I still don’t fully comprehend, one I find exceedingly difficult to explain. Friday became a struggle with my mental health, a test of my strength of will that I had never anticipated.

I woke up early the next morning, determined to make something of the day. Firstly, I had to change hostel rooms, as I couldn’t secure the one I had been staying in for an extra night. Then, after moving my things into storage behind the reception desk, I set off on an adventure, stubborn to put the previous day’s failings behind me. I decided that the best course of action through the clouds was action.

First stop was kaffabar, an incredible little café I had read about on Tripadvisor before we arrived. It’s located on Place Rouppe, about a 4 minute walk from the hostel. I had one of the best breakfasts of my life here: three slices of fresh, brown bread with swiss cheese, ham, and quartered cherry tomatoes, a warm pain au chocolat, a double espresso, and a huge cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, ice cold. This, essentially, acted as rocket fuel, and kicked off an ongoing obsession of mine with the double espresso. Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day, and this one set me up for a combined total of about 20km of walking. The city became bright again, rays of amber sunlight illuminating the rooftops, bouncing in a frenzy of delight.

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From here, I made my way north – shuffled through the dreary eyed crowds congregating outside the guildhalls, wandered further away, passing Bruxelles Central Station, towards Parc de Bruxelles. I stumbled across le Palais des Beaux Arts (BOZAR), and spent some time admiring the exhibits before moving on. I found it curious, though, that adjacent to some of the exhibit rooms, there was a large sandpit set up for boules – a schedule mounted beside this informed me that public games took place here on certain days at certain times. I think this illustrates some of the eccentricity of Belgian culture; a facility for boules games juxtaposed with elaborate exhibits in a fine art museum.

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I crossed Parc de Bruxelles in the morning glow, with locals still on their morning runs, and turned right, circling around until again I entered narrow streets, losing myself in them, lead by sandy buildings through the east of the city until I wound up at l’Église Notre-Dame du Sablon: a Gothic-style Cathedral built in the 15th Century. It’s an ornate, imposing, and desperately beautiful building, one I recognised instantly – we had visited it briefly as a group. Outside, an antique market bustled, its crimson and emerald stalls huddled in the shadow of the Sablon’s spires. From gold-lined jewellery boxes to vintage beermats, miscellaneous goods were flogged by beaming Belgian vendors to their early-bird customers. I bought 12 beermats, and briefly spoke to a Japanese woman whose stall was gleaming with treasures – her Akita, though, was the star of the show.

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For those of you visiting Brussels in the future, looking for something a little off the beaten track, seek out la Rue Haute. This is a street in the Sablon district lined with vintage shops, galleries, and kitschy cafés. I walked from l’Église Notre-Dame de la Chapelle (not to be confused with le Sablon) at the start of the road, and spent at least an hour on this street alone, hopping from shop to shop. A stand-out on la Rue Haute if you’re in to your vintage fashion is Melting Pot – they sell clothes at a rate of €15/kilo, which, let’s face it, is fantastic value. I picked up a brand new pair of black dress shoes here, but they have anything you could ever imagine, all hung upon their racks and stacked upon their shelves. I continued on along Rue Haute, feeling miniscule pangs of hunger again, and discovered a couple selling hot dogs on the street. I settled on a dark sausage with fried onions and, as I had no idea what it was, sauce andalouse – it was delicious! I still don’t know what it is, if I’m honest. Deciding I needed a place to sit and eat, I ventured left up a narrow alley (Rue du Faucon), and found myself at the rear of the Palais du Justice. I sat at the foot of a stone staircase, beneath a pair of flourishing cherry blossoms, and savoured my meal in the sun.

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I climbed the steps and passed the Palais de Justice, immersing myself again in the streets of the city. Somehow, after what seemed an infinite sum of twists and turns, I ended up in the back streets of Ixelles – a district about a half an hour’s walk away from Grand Place. Until now, I hadn’t really paid attention to my location; I followed my gut, and my nose for discovery. I set a course in the direction of Grand Place, if only to establish myself a bit, and walked along one of the most bizarre streets I will probably ever walk. This was the Chaussée de Wavre – a neighbourhood of people with predominately African roots. The strange thing about the street was that almost every second shop was a fruit and vegetable vendor: there must have been 15 different shops, some next-door to one another, along the same, short stretch of road, each of which only sold fruit, vegetables, and exotic foods. As I made my way along the street, past the accumulating sum of shops, all I could think was:

“How are they all still in business? If I lived here, how would I even make the choice of where to buy my bananas?”

Madness. This street, though located in well-to-do Ixelles, was about as far-removed from tourist circles as humanly possible. Despite this, it remains one of the most vivid and memorable experiences I had in Brussels; my brow furrowing in confusion at the sheer saturation of tomatoes, carrots, and onions residing in the space of a half-kilometre.

I meandered airily back, looping towards the Sablon, then continued on towards Palais de Bruxelles. I descended the steps, and entered the shimmering marble halls of Bruxelles Central Station; I had decided to get a train to the Parliamentarium, for a quick, second look. We had organised a group visit here on Friday morning, but I slept in and missed the tour, so I wanted to travel back to the area to see what there was to see. At the underground platform, watching as I took a picture of the retro-style Brussels-Centraal sign hanging from the roof, a young woman chuckled softly to herself. I sat down beside her, and asked her wryly, in French, what she found so funny: she replied that I reminded her of herself on her own travels. What followed was a 25 minute chat, completely in French – the longest I’ve ever held conversation with a native speaker. I even cracked a few jokes! Her name was Kate, she was headed for Strasbourg, and she was very politically engaged – the chat was pleasant, and gave me an enormous confidence boost in my French-speaking abilities.

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I didn’t stay at the Parliamentarium for very long; there wasn’t an awful lot for me to do there, other than to amble around the area and take photographs. I was about to leave, when I noticed a clamour in the distance; crowds chanting and shouting, blaring horns and a city frustrated by traffic delays. Over a balcony opposite the Parliamentarium, I witnessed a crowd of hundreds of anti-Apartheid protesters worming their way through the broad boulevards

I started towards the city centre again, on foot, and covered about a kilometre before reaching a broad junction: to my right, far in the distance, I could see the gargantuan arches of Parc du Cinquantenaire, a vast public park I had intended to visit, but had forgotten to seek out. Sheer luck. The arches were akin to a desert mirage; aquamarine pools that loom in the distance, glowing enticingly in the light of day. For a time, they didn’t seem to be getting any closer as I walked in their direction.

Before travelling to Brussels, I was convinced that the Parliamentarium was the central European Parliament building – the one you always see on the news, flags billowing in a seemingly artificial wind. The building of sheet glass. This was not the case, at all, and I felt a small bit disappointed, convinced that I had mixed it up with Strasbourg’s Parliament Building. It turns out, I had confused the Parliamentarium with the Berlaymont – a building which, incidentally, is located on the same stretch of road that leads you to Parc du Cinquantenaire. First, I walked by the press building, and then, shimmering in the sun, I saw it. It sits roughly halfway up this road and, though as far as I’m aware there’s no public access, it’s a great landmark to see up close, and worthy of a photo or two.

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I eventually reached the top of the endless road, then stopped into a Carrefour for a water and some San Pellegrino. Perching myself on the grass just within the gates of the park, ice-cold San Pellegrino in hand, was one of the most rewarding moments of the entire trip. I had accidentally found two of Brussels’ more famous landmarks, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. I made my way towards the arches; these act as the centre of a colossal, U-shaped building that was built to commemorate Belgium’s 50th anniversary of independence. There are so many attractions here – AutoWorld (a museum dedicated to motor-vehicles of all ages) and the Military Museum are two that I briefly stepped into, though I hadn’t the money to enter either of them. The park is also home to the Temple of Human Passions and the Great Mosque of Brussels, all worthy of a visit if you’re interested. My experience here, though, amounted to relaxing on a park bench eating pistachio ice cream, as a family played frisbee on the grass in front of me.

Bliss.

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Eventually, I lifted myself from my seat, and caught a metro back to Gare Centrale. At this stage, my feet were absolutely killing me. I paced myself, strolling calmly through Grand Place, through throngs of fellow tourists, beaming from ear to ear. I decided to head back to the hostel for some rest; it was well needed. When I arrived, I was greeted by two familiar faces – two young Englishmen we had met on Thursday night, whose names completely escape me at the moment. They were very friendly, though – we played pool in the hostel for an hour or two,  drinking cans of Jupiler as the evening wound down. The three of us decided to go and get dinner in the city, and I can’t describe how great it felt to have people to share a meal with on my final night. One of the more important things to remember about solo travel, I think, is the sense of community at a hostel – you may be a solo traveler, but you’re not alone, and that’s something I got a taste of in Brussels. Cans of Belgian beer, a few games of pool, and a cheap Asian rice dish in the city centre turned out to be the perfect way to close the day: 24 hours previous, I had been planning my escape.

I can’t articulate how relieved I am that I stuck around.

I suppose the lesson, admittedly from the perspective of somebody who is yet to see a lot, someone left almost exclusively with his dreams of a world yet undiscovered, is that solo travel doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. It has its moments – I definitely experienced the lows – but if you persevere, push through the difficulty, and set off, open in mind and in spirit, you’re bound for good things. Promise.

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Have you ever traveled solo? What’s the best experience you’ve ever had while on you own, away from home? If you haven’t, would you? If you’d like, you can leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading,

Ciarán x

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