Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 9

Copenhagen (Denmark) - Billund (Denmark) - Hamburg (Germany) - Brussels (Belgium) - Ghent (Belgium) - Geraardsbergen (Belgium) - Beersel (Belgium) - Brussels (Belgium)

After 19 seasons, The Amazing Race finally made it to Belgium. But at least they did it right, spending almost all of a two-part episode visiting both predominantly Francophone (Walloon) and international Brussels as well as Dutch-speaking small-town Flanders.

Some notes on what the racers did, what they didn’t do, and more generally about Brussels as a destination for travellers:

Arriving in Brussels, all the teams of racers made one of the common mistakes of visitors to major European cities: They failed to realize that there are multiple mainline train stations serving the same city.

Brussels is relatively small, and all of its major train stations are connected — unlike those in, say, London and Paris, where you have to buy a separate ticket and change to the subway to make your way between mainline stations. Nevertheless, there at least four major Brussels stations (depending on what you count as “major”) served by international trains.

High-speed TGV trains from Paris (including direct trains from Charles de Gaulle Airport), Eurostar trains from London (via the Channel Tunnel), the Thalys from Amsterdam, and most other international trains all terminate at the Gare du Midi (South Station). So it’s easy to assume, as the racers did, that this is the most convenient station, and to get off there before trying to figure out how to get to their ultimate destination.

But Central Station is, not surprisingly, closer to the center of downtown and to many tourist hotels and hostels than is the Gare du Midi. And train tickets marked “Brussels” are valid to or from any station in the city, even if it involves a connection. Eurostar tickets sold as “Brussels” are actually valid to or from anywhere in Belgium, at no additional charge!

If you’re going to the European Quarter, and coming from the north (from the Netherlands or from Brussels Airport, or from northern Germany like the racers), there’s no need to go all the way to the Gare du Midi or to waste time and money backtracking by taxi. Get off earlier at the Gare du Nord, and change to a train to the Gare de Luxembourg, which is hidden directly under the plaza where I was standing when I took this picture, between the main building of the European Parliament (EP) and the Place de Luxembourg:

The original aboveground station for trains to and from Luxembourg and Strasbourg, the Gare Leopold, was seen briefly as the racers ran by. For a while it was a politically embarrassing squat, but with the expansion of the EP building to provide offices for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing new EU member states, it has now been incorporated as an essentially ornamental part of the facade of the EP complex. Alternatively, from Brussels Airport (Zaventem), there’s a direct bus to the Place Lux.

What I find most striking about the European Parliament complex is its openness to the surrounding public streets and plazas, in dramatic contrast to post-9/11 Fortress Washington — even though the EU has had its share of domestic terrorism, and protesters including the Indignados (the European predecessors of what became the “Occupy” movement in the US a few months later) have periodically marched on this and the other EU buildings.

The racers’ first task was to find a clue on a bicycle leaning against this stretch of railing alongside the EP building:

The bike with the racers’ clues was parked just on the other side of this bridge between wings of the EP building:

This really is a public road that anyone can drive a private car or small truck down through the EP building. And you can really leave a bicycle chained to these railings on the public walkway under the bridge, without having it removed or coming under suspicion of being a would-be bicycle bomber:

Unfortunately, the racers only picked up a clue from the basket on the parked bicycle, and didn’t get to ride the bike to their next destination. Even more unfortunately, that’s the fate of most US tourists.

Brussels has a growing network of Villo! “bikestations” with a distributed fleet of shared rental bikes. For a small weekly “membership” fee, you can pick up a bike from any of these locations and return it to the same or any other station. The system is designed as an alternative to walking or taking a bus or the subway, not for all-day rides. So there is no charge (beyond the membership fee) to use a bike for up to half an hour at a time, and progressively higher fees for longer rentals.

Once you figure out the system, and once there is a critical mass of bikestations in the part of the city or region you are visiting, a system like this can work quite well. On recent visits to Washington, for example, I’ve found the Capital Bikeshare cheaper and more convenient than the Metro for many cross-town trips within the District.

In Brussels and Paris, however, the bike-rental kiosks only accept “chip and pin” credit or debit cards, which are standard in Europe but still essentially unobtainable in the USA. There’s no way to buy a membership or use the system with cash payment or a US-issued credit or debit card without a “smart card” chip. The contractor who operates the system , J.C. Decaux (known in San Francisco as the franchisee that operates public pay toilets here!), told me they are aware of the problem but don’t see it as worth the expense to create a workaround for US visitors. [Peter Rukavina points out that even Canadian banks now issue chip-and-pin credit cards that can be used throughout Europe. Just not US banks.]

The racers’ clues sent them off to Flanders, where they had to find the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The reason random passerby-by knew of, and could direct them to, this particular small street is its fame (it’s even the title and subject of a hit Dutch pop song) as a fixture on the course of the “Ronde van Vlaanderen” bike race. It’s a small hill, but steep, with a grade that maxes out at almost 20% and a surface that starts out as rough-cut stone Belgian block (“pavés”) and then changes to even-worse rounded cobbles for the final pitch. Whether on a country lane or in a city square, cycling on pavés shouldn’t be taken lightly. They are included in bicycle race routes as a deliberate torture-test for riders. Perhaps it’s just as well that here again, despite the connection of bicycling to their clues, the racers didn’t actually have to travel by bike.

The largest festival in Belgium may be the annual 24h velo de Louvain-la-Neuve in October, which combines elements of Oktoberfest (with Belgian beer, which many consider the world’s best), music and dance festival, and Burning Man meets Bay-to-Breakers meets 24-hour bike race. Aside from beer and bicycling (and moules and frites, and the Belgian waffles the racers had to learn how to make), what’s the attraction of Belgium?

In the course of my work on travel-related civil liberties and human rights issues, I’ve spent a week or so in Brussels, consulting with members and staff of the European Parliament, in each of the last five years. I don’t really stand out as a tourist there, regardless of which side of the linguistic lines that cut through Belgium I’m on. I speak some French, and Walloons recognize Hazebrouck as the name of a town across the current border in France. For their part, Flemish people recognize “Hasbrouck”, the spelling used by the American branch of my family after they emigrated to the Dutch colonies, as a Dutch spelling. My family name even has a meaning if its etymology is assumed to be Dutch, something like “Rabbit Marsh”. Or, as the Flemish immigration inspector told me last month when I landed in Brussels, “Swamp of the Bunnies”. So I’m good with everyone, Flemish or Walloon, as long as I don’t dispute their assumptions.

Flemish and Dutch people who see my name in writing are often surprised that I don’t speak Dutch, and my father told me years ago of having had the same experience with Dutch-speaking international business colleagues. When I told the same immigration inspector that my ancestors had been Huguenots who spoke French rather than Dutch, he launched into a stern lecture: “If they spoke French, it was because they were forced to speak French by the French occupiers! You have a Flemish name. You are Flemish, not French. You need to know who you are.”

Fortunately, the communal conflict that constantly threatens to divide Belgium rarely poses serious problems for visitors. Nuisances, yes, but nothing that’s likely to put you in danger. Its best consequence for visitors is that the English language in Belgium is neutral ground between French and Dutch. As such, English has an acceptable local role as a political compromise that’s very different from its role as a purely “foreign” language in other countries where there’s a single national language. On top of that, the unspoken (and politically unspeakable) reality of the European Union institutions is that their de facto working language is English. So there are tens of thousands of Eurocrats in Brussels who live their lives largely in English.

To the Bruxellois, someone speaking English isn’t necessarily English or American but could as easily be a European expat from Slovenia or Sweden. Not everyone speaks English (Dutch speakers in Brussels are more likely to speak English than Francophones), but I’ve never gotten a negative reaction in Brussels to asking, “May I speak English?” Just be aware that every building, place, or street has both a French and a Dutch name. Sometimes they are merely different phonetic renderings of the same sounds, but sometimes the names in the two languages are completely different.

Brussels is one of the few places I’ve visited where I immediately felt that I could comfortably live. It’s human at both macro and micro scale, manageable to get around yet not tiny, and greatly enriched in culture and diversity, relative to its size, by its role as the capital of the EU. “Brussels” as shorthand for alien orders from EU authorities is generally a dirty word in the rest of Europe. But the European Quarter is only a small part of the city, and Brussels has retained its own distinct identities even while playing host to EU enlargement.

At the risk of falling into stereotypes (but how else can one characterize what one finds attractive about the “vibe” of a place?) and offending both Walloons and Flemings, Belgian food, intellectuality, manners, and ways of doing things seem to me to be a pleasing middle ground between French flair and Dutch pragmatism. And the prices of both food and lodging, for reasons I can’t fully fathom (please add your speculation in the comments) seem to be significantly lower in Brussels than in most other large European cities I’ve visited recently.

Belgium doesn’t have much of a distinctive image to American tourists, who can only tell where they are because, If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. The main downtown hotels are oriented toward business travellers, not tourists, which means that they have lots of vacant rooms during the summer and around holidays when the Eurocrats and lobbyists are on vacation. That makes Brussels a good point of entry for U.S. tourists, to soften the sticker shock when you arrive in the Euro zone.

To avoid depressing the local market of Europeans used to paying much higher prices for hotels than Americans, the distressed inventory of hotel rooms in Brussels is typically offered through discounters in the US. Even when travelling on business and not wanting to stay in a hostel, I’ve rarely had to pay more than US$100/night through Hotwire or Priceline — sometimes substantially less — for rooms at four-star downtown hotels in Brussels that would cost at least twice that in other European capitals or even provincial tourist centers. Restaurants in Brussels are similarly expensive by US standards but cheap by European, and particularly by French, ones.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 27 November 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Actually, the best Belgium-based film is "In Bruges."

Posted by: Wayne Bernhardson, 6 December 2011, 09:49 ( 9:49 AM)
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