Saturday was an intense day of country-wide sightseeing with a pair of excellent hosts, Betsy's Colombian co-worker Carlos (left) and his partner, Frank, a Belgian native. Both were eager guides with a lot of fascinating information and the day of adventure and conversation was even more special as it was National Day, the annual Belgian holiday much like our Fourth of July.
The first stop was at the "symbol of Brussels," the Atomium - a monument originally built for the 1958 Exposition. It's a 335-foot tall structure made up of nine steel spheres connected to form the shape of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. We'll be back another day to visit the interiors of some of the spheres, which contain museums and a restaurant, but today we merely visited for a quick photo opportunity. Oddly, our quick stop was hijacked by a busload of Chinese tourists who insisted on having their pictures taken with our "beautiful babies." I freaked them out by speaking a little Chinese but then they freaked me out by handing me camera after camera as they cycled through, stepping up in small groups to pose with the little blonde Americans at the Belgian monument. Once we got rid of them, we finally had the opportunity to take a picture of our own.
We then began a weekend trend of getting off the usual tourist path with a visit to the city of Hasselt where we enjoyed a magnificent brunch at The Palace, a stunning restaurant in a building that used to house a branch of the national bank.
We enjoyed a luxurious meal in an opulent dining room filled with Moroccan chandeliers and gilded everything.
One of the vaults is now used as an extravagant cigar bar. The thick steel doors open to a room of indulgence, still surrounded by the original safety-deposit boxes, complete with keys sitting in many of the locks. Most are open but dozens remain sealed as the four-dial, A-Z combinations have been lost to history. Who knows what treasures are sealed within the locked boxes?!
A stroll through the ancient city gave us our first glimpse of some of the National Day festivities as this group of uniformed fellows strolled by the charming town square.
Our next stop was an interactive history park in Bokrijk, an open-air museum consisting of old Flemish buildings that make up a complete village from around 1850. Historical interpreters throughout the grounds recreate conditions of the time. The farmhouse below left with wattle and daub walls housed the animals on the ground floor while the upper levels were occupied by the family and their food stores. The walls are made of timber framing with thin sticks running from beam to beam and the spaces are filled in with mud mixed with straw. The centuries-old building in the background of the photo above was made the same way and it's still in great shape. This constable was very funny. He pedaled throughout the town admonishing people and made Carlos get his hands out of his pockets, an activity apparently frowned upon on this establishment.
On Saturdays, the bakehouse produces several pies and loaves of bread which we had the opportunity to see in production but did not have the opportunity to sample.
A shepherd made his way into a nearby field with his crook and his faithful dog and we got right up close as the herd made its way toward us. It was cool to see a real sheepdog doing its thing in person and it was surprising how loud the chewing and grass-ripping of a herd of approaching ruminants can be.
We stopped in the town of Liege on the river Muese to see one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe but it was closed for the day so we sat at a cafe and had some beer instead. Then we made our way back to Brussels to catch up with the festivities of the big day. As we strolled toward the center of town we were swarmed by revelers and displays of both past and current Belgian military might.
A highlight was witnessing a group of revolutionary-era re-enactment soldiers firing their muskets on the Rue de la Regence.
As we made our way to our restaurant we passed tanks, a fighter jet parked on the street, every police vehicle imaginable and scores of proud soldiers of today's Belgian army.
At Chez Leon, we opted for as many authentic Belgian dishes as we could including mussels, meatballs in tomato sauce, fries, croquettes and our first foray into escargot. The snails were swimming in a lovely garlic butter sauce and Vaughn and I particularly enjoyed them. Betsy was bold enough to get one down but Quinn and Xander respectfully declined. Vaughn also loved the mussels and is eager for his next serving.
The fireworks bursting over the rooftops of the city followed by a street-side rendezvous with several of Betsy's friends from work capped a truly memorable day. We then went home and crashed until noon the next day. With the fading jet lag and the non-stop excitement of the day, Xander said later that Saturday night was the most tired he's ever been.