Brussels

As much effort as we put into proving otherwise, we are still children at heart no matter our age. At no time is this more apparent than when we unexpectedly find ourselves confronting a smell, or taste, or sight of something long forgotten that makes us feel like we did long before attaining the overcelebrated title of maturity. For us, what transported our minds to a more youthful state was the window of a chocolate shop that lied down a glittering hallway in Brussels on a gloomy December day. Trimmed in glowing evergreen branches that illuminated the red poinsettia leaves running alongside it, the shop offered a cinematic picture of Christmas that beckoned us towards it. Practically pressing our noses to the glass, we peered inside the shop as elvish workers strolled about the gold and burgundy trimmed store. Sweets of every shape and size filled the shelves with the crown jewel of the collection being, in our mind anyway, the pralines which, befitting of their value, were neatly displayed behind a glass case much like a fine jewelry would be. The value of the two were indistinguishable to us.

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Across the hall, the aroma of fresh waffles and chocolate sauce demanded the attention of our noses, which we promptly followed only to be distracted by a nearly life size cookie depiction of St. Nicholas in a speculoos shop. Now, if the word speculoos does not send you salivating, you should know that the cookie can be best described as thin, crunchy, caramelized, and infused with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom among others. Perhaps now you can understand our distraction at the sight of them and also, perhaps, our childlike joy at finding ourselves amongst a heavenly array of sweets. There was only one problem, we were vegan and everything described above was most definitely not. Did I mention that the disposition of children is also very flexible? Along with our obsession over sugary treats, it appeared that we would be adopting that trait as well, if only for our weeklong stay in Brussels.

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Checking out a waffle shop

Like our other stops in Europe after finishing El Camino, our main purpose for traveling to the Belgian capital was to visit friends. This time, it would be to see Doriane, whom we had shared a house with in Spain in 2012 and who had traveled to the States to be a bridesmaid in our wedding in 2016. It was time to return the favor, and we were very glad we did, if not only to see a good friend, then also to experience the festive mood of the city as it kicked off its holiday season.

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Enjoying some Christmas tea with Doriane in her apartment
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On our way into the city

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The gilded buildings of Grand Place which most definitely earned its “grand” moniker. Like the skyscraper-laden banks of Shanghai’s Bund, it was hard to believe that a place so impressive had started as nothing more than a small market in a muddy swamp.

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The spire of the Town Hall. No matter where we went in Brussels, whether it be candy shopping, museum hopping, or looking for a cozy place to enjoy a hearty Belgian ale, our path always seemed to lead back to Grand Place. We were happy for this as our feeling of awe at entering the plaza never faded even after a week of countless visits to it.
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The buildings in the plaza were no less spectacular at night

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The crowded walkways of Brussels’ sprawling Christmas market
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Enjoying stew and fritters from one of the few vegan-friendly booths at the market
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Outside of Grand Place, we were never at a lack of finding buildings that peaked our interest. We were especially enamored by the tops of the buildings, which were usually pyramidal in form but varied from one to the next in how they went about from arriving at their point from their base. Some curved elegantly upwards towards a mushroom-like cap and others rose jaggedly like a set of stairs. Because of the uniqueness of each building, we were always making sure to look up as we wandered the streets of the city.

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The National Basilica of the Sacred Heart

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The famous Manekkin Pis, which we were surprised to find was an incredibly small statue lying unceremoniously on the corner of an intersection. We probably would have walked right past it if Doriane hadn’t pointed it out. While naked in this picture, the statue is usually wearing a costume, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century.
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We thought this building looked a lot like Gringott’s Bank from Harry Potter.

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If there was one thing we enjoyed more than Belgian sweets, it was Belgian beer
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Taking in a Magritte painting at a museum dedicated to his life and work. Relatively unknown to us prior to our visit, we were very glad to have been introduced to the surrealist artist, whose work tickled our brains as we tried to make sense of his unordinary depiction of ordinary objects.
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During our time in Brussels, it felt like we stumbled upon this group of musicians just as much as we did Grand Place. Their music added a jazzy liveliness to whichever street we found them on.
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Worthless junk or priceless antiques? That was the question looming over us as we toured an antique market in Brussels. After walking through it, we leaned more towards the former.
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Another city fixture that we fell in love with, along with sweets and beer, was Art Nouveau, an early 20th-century art form that inspired various architectural projects from the same era. We were always excited when we happened upon a building that we could identify as being Art Nouveau.
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An Art Nouveau-inspired bar, one of our favorites of the many we would visit while in the city

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As our time in Brussels, and, by a very long extension, our time abroad, came to an end, we nostalgically reminisced about all of our travels while traversing the city on foot. It was fitting then that we came across a shell marking the way of El Camino, one of our greatest adventures from our eight years spent overseas.
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Have I mentioned yet that we enjoyed beer…
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…and sweets while in Brussels?
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Decorating for Christmas in Doriane’s apartment on our last night
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I started the blog talking about how easy it is to feel like a child at times and will end it on the same note. On our last morning in Brussels, we were giddy to find that our shoes had been stuffed with presents from St. Nicholas.

And of course, no blog about a visit to Doriane would be complete without mention of her cat Pumpkin Pie, or as his friends know him, Pumpkin, whom we will pay homage to in the next two photos.

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Read on for a poem by Kate:

Mannekin Pis

Man oh Manny,
you really had to go.
Four hundred years of one steady flow.

You don’t seem to care
that people can see.
Don’t you want some privacy?

My only request
for the sake of this town,
is that when you finish, put the toilet seat down.