Crash course tour of Brussels

Here’s my tip if you ever have a layover long enough to leave the airport and explore for a few hours: hit up the airport tourism booth and ask the person for a map of the town, and just have them highlight the must-see sights. That’s what I did last year in Copenhagen and this time when I was in Brussels for a ten-hour layover. Here’s my crash course tour Brussels based on the tourism lady’s suggestions:

I had lunch at this burger spot that had free wi-fi and cool murals all over the walls. Not to mention it encouraged adding your own graffiti to the bathroom walls (which were chalkboards). The Basique burger I ordered was humongous. There was also a burger on the menu that consisted of raw beef with a raw egg in the middle. After consulting with my mom, she informed me that this is steak tartare, and that she used to eat it because it’s actually good. No thank you!

Chalkboard bathroom

Manneken Pis
I don’t know much about the history of this particular landmark, but it’s basically a small statue of a boy pissing. Oh, and they dress him up in random outfits. Apparently, he’s the pride and joy of Brussels.

Manneken Pis

Grand-Place Grote Markt
Finally, I was starting to like Brussels. Let’s just say that the train station where the airport shuttle drops you off is hardly charming or scenic – it’s almost dismal. But this main tourist square is beautiful. The buildings are an old, brown-beige stone color and are all complemented by the same red flowers. It looks really striking – the bright red petals contrast the stone buildings perfectly.

This is a pretty row of shops in a covered gallery. Too bad I had no money to shop at the moment!

Entrance to the galleries

Marche aux Poissons Vismet
Apparently this is the place to go for a good fish dinner. I wasn’t in the mood for a fish dinner, but wanted to check out the area anyways. The restaurants had the cutest neon-red lobster signs out front. I have to say that Brussels has some of the cutest shop-fronts I’ve seen.

Restaurants at Marche aux Poissons Vismet

Ste. Catherine
I don’t know what Brussels’ obsession with pissing is, but this church literally has built-in stone urinals on the outer wall. I actually saw some guy pissing in them – literally pissing on the church.

Ste Catherine church with Brussels' crazy weather in the background

Place de la Bourse Beursplein
I was trying to find this famous cafe I read about, Belle Epoch, but failed. However, I did see tons of police, helmets ready, and police cars. Not sure what was going on, but something was going on. I also saw St. Nicolaus Church in this area. It had this very simple, clean, limestone look from the outside, which I really liked.

Accordion player near St. Nicolaus Church

Souvenir time
As I was walking around, this jewelry store caught my eye – it was a really small shop, but had these beautiful Art Noveau-inspired rings. And the lady happened to accept credit cards, so I made a little impulse buy. Oops… But, in my defense, it is a really unique ring and it was my only souvenir purchase in Brussels.

Mont des Arts Kuntsberg
This is a more modern, artsy square. It’s also where the Museum of Musical Instruments is – a slender, elegant Art Nouveau building made mostly of glass windows with music-inspired designs and music-carved brass.

Museum of Music Instruments

Rue des Sablons
Apparently this is the place to buy chocolate (according to the map/guide from the tourism booth lady). Not sure if I got to the right place exactly, but this street did have really cute boutique shops and is anchored by a pretty church.

At this point, I was exhausted and my body was giving out on me, so I just headed back to the shuttle, passing by the crazy art station, full of skateboarders, and Place V. Hortaplein, which is dominated by a tall, glass office building.

Near Place V. Hortaplein

A bumpy ride to Brussels

Why do I do this to myself? This was my brilliant plan for the day I left Portugal:

  • 3:15 a.m. Wake up
  • 4 a.m. Shuttle pick-up to Faro airport
  • 6:30 a.m. Flight from Faro to Brussels
  • 10:10 a.m. 10-hour layover in Brussels begins
  • 8:50 p.m. Flight from Brussels to Warsaw

Why did I think that I would feel like running around Brussels after a jam-packed two weeks of traveling and after waking up at three in the morning? My idiotic logic strikes again!

Needless to say, I was not a happy camper in the morning. There were almost tears. At least I got a little sleep on the plane, but nothing solid. The little girl sitting behind me, kicking my seat and singing made-up songs about Ryan Air sure as hell didn’t help.

At least my experience with Ryan Air wasn’t bad – aside from all the fees, that is. Thankfully, they had separate lines for each destination at the airport which puts them past the cluster#%&@ easyJet prefers to operate in. And I gotta give it to the Ryan Air on-flight staff, they really push their merchandize. Through my sleepy slumber, I caught at least one enthusiastic announcement promoting some watch they were selling.

I got off the flight in Brussels – after an excited trumpet solo blasted over the speakers on the plane to celebrate our landing (make that our on-time landing) – and tried to figure out what to do:

  1. Brussels is an hour bus ride away from Charleroi airport
  2. The bus ticket lady was only accepting cash
  3. I had 15 euros in my wallet and $7 USD in my bank account
  4. The bus ticket was 13 euros each way

In the end I just got the one-way bus ticket to Brussels and hoped that I could exchange whatever Polish zloty I still had in my wallet in the city for enough euros to get me back to the airport. And hopefully use my credit card for anything else.

I dumped my huge backpack into a locker at the airport – lucky number 13 to be exact – and headed to Brussels with my heavy carry-on bag (8 kg to be exact).

Ode to Othello

As I was missing my cat and feeling guilty about leaving him for months, I ran into black cats in several cities I visited! So I’m sure he was with me in spirit.

Black cat in Amsterdam's Pata Negra
Another black cat in Amsterdam
Black cat in Porto
Black cat in Rome's ruins
Lisbon black cat
Black cat in Paris' Montmarte cemetery
My grandma's cat in Poland

Surfing in the Algarve

Frances refused to let us leave Portugal without taking surfing lessons, so we finally found a place that would take us last minute: Discovery Surf School.

As we sat on the curb at 8:30 a.m., waiting for our instructor to pick us up, we ended up befriending a couple Cuban guys from Spain that happened to drive by and apparently stopped after being struck by our beauty.

Our teacher, Marco, finally showed up and it turned out we were his only students for the day, which was good in the end because it ended up being more like a private lesson rather than a class where an entire group of people are all trying to catch waves at the same time.

Marco sure has the gift of gab! He was very nice, but admittedly, I was hoping to sleep in the van on the way there. Apparently that was not an option (note to self: don’t go out drinking the night before a day of surfing lessons). We drove all the way out to Praia Amoreira, where there were good waves that day.

Praia da Amoreira

I was nervous about learning to surf, but it ended up being so much fun! I definitely recommend it as an authentic experience to have in Portugal, which is supposed to have some of the best waves out there. I even caught a few waves and actually got up on the board. And I have the video to prove it:

But it was beyond exhausting. All that walking into the ocean against the current, paddling, dragging the board around, jumping on the board and pushing yourself up was beyond my physical capabilities at the moment!

Heading back to catch more waves

When we got back out there after a lunch break, we were not being productive. I didn’t even have the energy to push myself up on the board anymore. I barely made it paddling back to shore! And that was the end of our surfing lesson.

I’m so glad we ended up trying surfing. It’s definitely a rush when you actually get up and ride a wave, even if it’s just a little baby wave.

On the drive back to Albufeira, guess who wanted to talk the entire time again? Thankfully, Frances kept the conversation going, asking a million questions about Portugal while I drifted in and out of consciousness. And she enjoyed his very surfer-esque philosophies on life.

Lesson learned: if you’re surfing in Portugal, put on sunblock – even if it’s cloudy. I was too lazy to put any on in the morning, and ended up with a sunburned face, hands and feet. Yep – the few areas that weren’t covered by the wet suit!

Real surfers at Praia Amoreira that actually went in further than waist-high to catch waves

Nightlife in Albufeira

Albufeira is one of those resort towns that is known for its nightlife. Naturally, we had to experience that, too!

We toasted the evening with a bottle of our new favorite vihno verde, Gatao, on our hotel balcony while watching the sunset.

Then we headed out to the strip for dinner and drinks. There’s basically one main street that’s lined with restaurants, ice cream shops and bars in downtown Albufeira (which was also just up the street from us). What we really wanted to eat was burritos, but no luck. So we went to a restaurant deceptively called La Bamba, and had pizza.

After pizza, we went bar-hopping. First, we went to Shooter’s but the crowd there was really weird – everyone was either really young or really old. Where are the people our age???

So we went next door to Matt’s. Good lord, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so old! I guess dancing surrounded by 16-18 year olds will do that to you. Are we too old for this?

We finally called it a night, since we couldn’t take it anymore. That, and we had to get up early the next morning for a long day of surf lessons!

Sunbathing in Albufeira

Our first full day in Albufeira, we got up bright and early at 7:30 a.m. to take advantage of the hot, sunny day. I was a bit jealous to still hear people partying from the previous night, but oh well. In the end, we ended up falling back asleep for a couple of hours. Oops.

Praia da Oura (towards the end of the day, when it's not as packed)

Finally, we dragged our butts out of bed and headed to the beach. Of course, as soon as we put down our towels, some big Italian family with umbrellas and rowdy kids sat down literally next to us. We very un-subtle-ey moved to a different spot.

Praia da Oura was just so packed with people and screaming kids (granted, it was a weekend). At one point, a little girl who was walking around screaming, came right up to my towel and stood there just staring at me. I was sure she was going to scream in my face, but she didn’t.

We took a swim in the ocean and after baking in the sun, gave up on the beach for a while. There was just too much going on, and the tide was coming in, shrinking the sand space and crowding people together even more. Not to mention that it was feeding time (for us).

We relocated to the hotel pool which was much more peaceful, and stuffed our faces with cheeseburgers. Nothing like a good ol’ cheeseburger to fine-tune that bikini body! But, in my defense, I did swim a few laps in the pool afterwards. Then again, that only reinforced how out of shape I am.

Me in the Golden Beach Apartments pool

I baked in the sun for a surprisingly long time – and you literally feel like you’re baking. It’s unbelievably smoldering in Albufeira. But I was responsible (for once) and vigilantly applied my SPF 50 sunblock.

Algarve: Portugal’s southern coast

Waiting for our train to Albufeira at the Lisbon train station (Photo by Frances Uy)

Frances and I knew we wanted to end our Portugal trip in the south, since we were flying out from Faro. This southern region is known as Algarve and has many, many, coastline towns to choose from. Knowing our aversion to planning, we left booking our resort to the last minute – literally the day before we left Lisbon. The main towns we were considering in Algarve were:

  • Portimão
  • Vilamoura
  • Lagoa
  • Albufeira
  • Lagos

In the end, we decided to choose Albufeira for our Algarve stay. It seemed like the best balance of relaxing beaches and entertaining nightlife. Albufeira is a three-and-a-half hour train ride from Lisbon, so it was nice to roll through Portugal’s countryside for a few hours.

We arrived at the Golden Beach Apartments – and checked into room 13 of course. However, our room was awesome; a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen (perfect for making misto sandwiches a.k.a ham and cheese), balcony and living room. Plus, there was a pool, which comes in really handy when the beach gets overly packed with tourists and screaming kids.

Our view was of the ocean, over the rooftops of other apartments. It looks very mediterranean. At sunset, the sky is full of beautiful pastel colors. And when the moon comes out, it shines over the ocean and creates a glimmering path on the water. Most importantly, the apartment was literally up the street from the beach.

The view from our balcony at the Golden Beach Apartments