Sunday the 19th
We arrived in Abu Dhabi an hour earlier than expected. Long stopovers between connecting flights aren’t the most pleasant, nor are long flights themselves, but I was pleased to put my feet on solid ground. We found an area with settees and sofas lined against a backdrop painted to resemble a bookcase on one wall, and overlooking the runway through large windows on the other. A combination of novels and informative texts were stacked sporadically between the chairs behind a sign which clarified “THIS AREA IS FOR READING ONLY”. Most of these intimate areas were already occupied with tired-looking passengers, their body clocks as confused as mine in the process of becoming an international time traveller. These settled individuals were only slightly more peaceful than the zombies which trudged down the narrow terminal, trailing their fingers across the spines of seats and books alike. I was quick to seize a long black leather couch as soon as it became free and stretched myself out for a light hour’s snooze.
As we approached the departure gate, I witnessed a congress of cloaked individuals ahead. The two men wore what resembled white togas and the women were dressed in traditional black burkas. They were accompanied by a flight attendant whom acted as their guide, and soon they came to a moving sidewalk. They stopped, and following in their stride, we stopped after them. It was as though they had never seen an escalator band for they approached it with uncertainty and seemed amused when they stepped aboard. It was a cute and quaint interaction. Ahead in the terminal was another instalment of duty free goods. Abu Dhabi featured the standard assortment of booze and sweets and also large packs of tobacco products with branded lettering unlike what you might see in Australia. Although we had five hours to waste waiting for our connecting flight, the time passed rather quickly and it was time to board.
There is something about the smell of airports. The distinct and becomingly atmosphere coincides with the uniformity of the flying experience, but only when you step onto the tarmac is the real pungency of jet fuel realised. It is a thick and heavy scent that lingers heavily in the air and is almost sickening to an unfamiliar palette. Whether the encompassing mugginess is a direct result of the high concentration of emissions in this area or just the way in which the light bounces off the thick clouds in the night sky, I cannot be sure. The shuttle bus filled with standing passengers swerved around and between the crafts on the tarmac till it approached a slightly smaller airbus. We boarded in single file, climbing the steel steps duly impressed by the plane in front of us. Seeing it at level is almost frightening: a delicate hollow craft, weathered from previous flights, wherein we must have faith to carry us through the air to Brussels.
The view is even more impressive from my window seat at the cuff of the wing. So long it has been since I last occupied a window seat on the plane that I had forgotten how beautiful the scenery was from 40 000 feet. The textured pillows below resemble waves which extend into a glowing ribbon on the horizon, emitting white steam into the blue space above. As soon as the white plumes are sparse enough to see the green landscape below, a mosaic of fields appears broken by sporadic concentrations of housing developments. The balance between nature and urbanism across Europe is refreshing compared with the suburban/city style that I call home in the Sutherland Shire and Sydney. I cannot wait to get off this plane and into the heart of Belgian culture! I have been anticipating my return here since my last euro-trip and (considering the fact I have had no more than six hours of sleep since Thursday) I am desperate for a coffee.
We finally made it to a cafe in the Galleries Saint-Hubert. The marbled stone walls were framed with green bannisters and stood opposite a T-section in the centre of the arched structure. It had a humble presence and displayed delicious cakes its store window that looked as though your grandma had baked them from scratch. Both mum and I ordered a Flemish Coffee – a traditionally Belgian black coffee topped with a mountain of whipped cream. The Chantilly Cappuccino hit the spot and we satisfied the last of our hunger with a chocolate eclair from Pierre Marcolini. The soft shoe-string pastry was filled with a smooth chocolate cream and topped with a neat slab of milk chocolate adorned with pistachio nuts and candied hazelnuts.
It was 10:30 and finally time to check into the hotel. Mum and I were staying at the Hilton Brussels, a landmark on the Grande Place that opens up from Brussels Central Station. It’s glass revolving door (which mum had trouble manoeuvring to the amusement of onlookers) opened onto an ornate chandelier plated in gold with large loops of wire supporting glowing lights of the same colour. The furthest wall was replaced with windows from floor to ceiling which brightened the room with a fresh aura. This provided a serene area for viewing the outdoor patio, enclosed by the station and various other hotels. The scene was currently being erected for a fete of sorts, a small event that appeared to be a Spanish Soiree due to the vibrant colours and gathered fabric.
After a short run and a shower, we exited the hotel to find a surprising sight. The panels surrounding Brussels Central Station had been made to form a barrier spanning tape alternating blue and white colours. It read POLICIÉ and was accompanied by serious blue uniforms. Alongside the dozen police were individuals clad completely in black and a few more in khaki army print cradling sleek guns across their torsos. There was a bomb scare at Central Station. A suspicious looking parcel had been abandoned on the platform and the high-risk nature of the area and threat had drawn the attention of the elite response team. It had not quite been three months since Brussels Airport and Molenbeek Station had been the target of terrorist attacks. This sparked international uproar and brought increased security to the birthplace of international organisation and cooperation. Rather than stick around to view the drama unfold, we excused ourselves from the area and began to explore Brussels.
We departed from the area of high alert and began our self-guided tour at the Mont des Arts, or Kuntsberg in Dutch. First, we passed through the Place de L’Albertine where a looming statue of King Albert on horseback rose above his surroundings. It was as if this oxidised copper statue was standing watch over the town before him and standing vis-á-vis Queen Elizabeth in silent conversation. The statue guarded an artistic design feature in the form of a garden that was marked on our map as the “Square” Brussels Meeting Centre. The greenery was divided into four sections through which visitors could bypass the beautiful garden to the opposite staircase, but there was too much to see to rush our progression to the next attraction. The middle of the meeting place had a geometrical hedge which acted as a border to the red plantation and formed a square within the outer shape. A total of five such arrangements fell behind the statue of King Albert, made distinguishable by a faded green plant at each centre. To each side of this centrepiece lay a variation of this design at half its squared dimensions which included a tall shrub and pretty pink flowers. It maintained the theme of the bordering hedge. In perfect alignment with this second arrangement was a row of circular fountains that were cast into shadow by the leafy trees as the exterior element of this living art. This artistic garden was an attraction of the Mont des Art which stood to one side of the Meeting Point and sported a clock the size of the wall on which it was engraved. A square tablet held the golden arrows that skimmed the edges of the octagonal clock face but the artwork extended beyond this feature. Sharp spikes burst outward to point at alcoves occupied by knights, an extension of the clock hands with one character for each numeral. The finishing touch, a bell rigged into position atop the institution was manned by a smartly dressed silver figure in top hat, coat and tie.
The staircase behind the Brussels Meeting Centre and Mont des Arts provided a birds eye view of these two attractions and brought us to our next destination, the Place Royal or Kongingsplein. The crown made identifiable the king mounted on horseback at the centre of the square with flag raised above his head in a show of power and strength. This character was the Godfried of Bullion, the First King of Jerusalem and Lord of Bullion. The Palace of Justice on the Art Mountain was a sequence of white brick buildings currently occupied by exhibitions of such a variety that I cannot remember them well enough to list. The uniform buildings were three edges of a quadrilateral, the final section left open to allow access to the road. This had once served as a palace to King Albert and various other royals throughout the years and had therefore earned its reputation as a heritage attraction.
The Kerk Onze Lieve Vrouw ten Zavel stands with breath-taking ambience at the median intersection of the street which stretches between the Place Royal and Palais de Justice – our next destination. It was a gothic castle marked with a circular stained window above the archway entrance bordered with interchanging figurines and spires that came to a point at the centre of the window. Inside, the floor was lined with rows of individual chairs which doubled as prayer kneelers, each with an armrest at the head of the chair and a hook on which to suspend coats or handbags. Mum explained she recognised these chairs from her local church when she attended mass weekly with her family. More stained glass windows than we had seen collectively decorated the walls of the church in a rainbow of translucent colours depicting the life of Jesus Christ. Each artwork in the central column was posited above and between a column topped with the statue of an apostle. This feature appeared similar to the columns which lined the Petit Sablon Park opposite the church. We could see the black bricked tower and golden cap of the Palais de Justice when we exited through the archway. It’s oxidised facade made quite an impression yet we did not stay for long due to the scaffolding which obstructed our view. To the right of the palace was a monument honouring the fallen infantry of both WWI and WWII which lead to a clearing at which we paused to view the rooftops of the city below.
As I stared at the blueprint for our sightseeing tour thus far, my eyes were drawn to the green rectangle outlined in white to indicate the interwoven streets. This showed the location of the Parc de Bruxelles and Palais Royal at its edge, which was the park of Brussels consequent of the Royal Palace which is the administrative residence of the current king. It contains the Royal Offices, General Secretariat, Civil List and Military Households. Here, the king receives representatives of political institutions and foreign guests. To arrive at the palace, one could walk up the Rue Royale Koningsstraat or choose the scenic route through the luscious parklands. Topped with the national flag, this immense castle backed a private garden which wove pathways into the hedges of the front yard. The design of archways and columns that decorated the facade made an impression of importance which made me regret I had not arrived earlier to partake on a tour of the inside also.
We returned to the plane between Brussels Central Station and the Hilton Hotel Brussels Grand Place in the early afternoon. We had covered a commendable distance throughout our tour of the city centre which had left our legs tired and our droopy eyes begging for sleep. Whilst mum had managed a few hours of sleep on the commute with the help of her herbal pills, I had slept only two hours since rising early on Saturday morning. Allowing some room for error considering the confusion caused by changing time zones, I believe that equates to two restful hours of forty-eight since I awoke a few days ago. Having been ambitious of our capabilities to utilise every hour of this first day, we had to make a late cancellation to our dinner reservations as the sleepiness won the round. Mum and I shared a portion of bitterballen with a glass of champagne and the rest of our pralines from earlier that day. We were asleep before 7:00.
The bomb scare at Brussels Central Station was found to be a false alarm provoked by a recidivist on the terrorism watch list who falsely notified policy that he had been forced to wear an explosive belt into a public area. With a high security threat across Brussels due to the recent bombings and the increasing aggression fuelled by the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, this matter was dealt with seriousness and professionalism. The threat was neutralised when the report was found false the perpetrator was only carrying salt and biscuits in his belt.