Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas in Brussels

As the holidays near, I think its the perfect time to share some pictures and recollections of Brussels during the holidays last year in 2010.  Our flight was slated for Christmas Eve and suffice it to say, the week immediately before flying was rather nerve-wracking. News of airport closures and diverted flights all across northern Europe filled the news every single day while the media was flooded with horror stories of people stranded at airports waiting for days before making it home.

As departure day neared, I kept watch on developments in Brussels as the airport had run out of de-icing fluid due to various disruptions in the supply chain caused by the snowstorms. Fortunately, three days before departure, Brussel airport received sufficient de-icing supplies and the airport was reopened. As a last minute scare, the exact flight that took off the day before departure was diverted to an airport in Germany due to temporary closure of the airport. Luckily, everything went smoothly and I made it to Brussels in one go. Brussels Airport was actually quite quiet when we arrived although it was a bit disturbing to see a sea of suitcases sitting around no doubt due to the flight delays and cancellations. After getting out of the airport, this was one of the first scenes I encountered upon getting off the bus to reach my hotel in the Belgian capital's European Quarter near Schuman Metro station. In the background is the European Commission building.

My first impression of Brussels was that it was a rather flat, suburban city. There was an absence of tall skyscrapers as far as the eye could see and a lack of tall apartments. The European Commission building was quite likely the tallest building in the general vicinity. And as it was early on Christmas Day, the streets were quite deserted, restaurants closed and piles of snow everywhere. After dropping off the luggage at the hotel, I took the Metro to Heysel station, the nearest Metro to the site of the Brussels Expo 1958.

There, I did some walking around looking at miniatures of some of the most famous buildings of Europe at the Mini-Europe Park. I'd definitely encourage making the trip up there as the miniatures are extremely detailed and well crafted, although preferably when its a tad warmer. The temperature being a tad cold (or freezing I should say =P), that was soon wrapped up and I headed for the Atomium, the molecular shaped structure in the pictures above, one of the remnants of the Expo.  There were some minor exhibits discussing the Expo within the structure and the view from some of the 'atoms' were quite nice.  The uniqueness of this peculiar structure are captured in the photos below.

As the evening approached, I left the Expo site and headed for the Gare Centrale Metro station. There, I grabbed some of the well-known Belgian Frites at one of the busier shops

before heading towards the famed Grand Place, one of the most striking and captivating squares in all of Europe, particularly at Christmas-time. Along the way, it was impossible to miss some of the famed Belgian chocolate stores - beautifully decorated and well stocked with Manneken Pis chocolates :)

As I entered the Grand Place, I was pretty much bedazzled - large fir trees stood guard at the edges of the square with one large Christmas tree decked out in flashing Christmas lights standing tall at the center.  The city's striking 15th century Gothic Town Hall was colourfully lit on one side and the skeletal Maison du Roi on the opposite side provided a impressive feast for the eyes.

A life-sized manger scene was replicated off to one side of the square, complete with the entire stable, sheep and the three wise men (all figures of course, not real life).  To add to the holiday spirit and atmosphere, world famous soprano Elise Caluwaerts gave stunning performances of several well-known arias as the iconic town hall transformed into an operatic stage.

To top that off, a brilliant light show followed as the town hall was now transformed into a giant custom-shaped screen for a short but rather entertaining animated show set to some well-known Christmas jingles.

All in all, a brilliant start to the Christmas trip.

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