We got up and enjoyed the best shower yet in our cute little room at the Hotel Lirico, then went to breakfast in the lobby. European breakfast will always be my favorite: bread, cheese, fruit and coffee.
We calculated that we should have exactly enough time to go see the Spanish Steps before having to head to the train station, so we set off that direction, checking the map regularly since we didn’t have time to get lost. It was already incredibly hot and humid in Rome and we were rushing.
A sign led us to an underpass at one of the major intersections, and the underpass ended up being a book store. That was very, very strange.
We only got a little diverted once, but managed to find our way to the steps. The area was packed with tourists. The plaza was super-cute, and I’ve loved to have shopped there.
Of course we’d arrived at the bottom of the steps, and the easiest way back to the hotel was to go up them. Plus it seemed important to climb them. We had to stop halfway up to rest, but we made it in the heat. The top was full of buskers, guys in gladiator outfits, and people painting landscapes and selling their work.
We rushed back to the hotel, a journey that seemed to be mostly uphill, even though we’d just climbed up to what we thought was the top. We checked out of the hotel, and the porter carried my bag down the stairs for me, thank god. We rolled our way over to Termini and bought tickets for the Leonardo Express from a machine. The train seemed to only have first class tickets, but they were fairly cheap.
The train pulled in a little late, and everyone hopped on. It was less of a crush of humanity than it had been at Civitavecchia, though, and the train was much nicer. Matt put our bags on the rack, and we got seats in a little elevated couch section in the middle where we had a good view of the Roman countryside.
One thing that surprised us about Rome is how quickly you leave the city. On the train, you pass Vatican City, a couple suburbs, and then it’s basically nothing but farmland between there and the airport.
We got to the airport half an hour later, and took the long walk to the terminal through the station. We found the EasyJet check-in: it was the one with piles of litter laying all over the place. (I assume that’s one of the reasons it’s so cheap.) The lines weren’t long, but there were only two desk agents helping people out. There was a proletariat line that we were in, and a line for their frequent fliers. That line got priority, which was fair.
Once we got to the front of the line, we stood there waiting for the agent to gesture to us, just like he’d been doing for everyone else. The French couple behind us got REALLY angry that we weren’t going, explaining that this was the queue and we should just go down there. They were definite asshats, those Frenchies. We went to the counter when the guy called us.
We checked in, went through security, and a French lady jumped to the front of the line at the scanner. We didn’t have a great opinion of them by that point, and were wondering how our trip to Paris would go.
Our gate was fairly empty, so we went to do some shopping in the terminal. I overheard something in French about our flight number and a new gate, so we checked the board and that was correct. By that point the EasyJet queue was pretty long, so we were a little worried about getting crappy seats. But a bunch more people showed up behind us, so we figured we were safe. We stood there for 20 minutes or so, and then they started scanning boarding passes. We went into the jetway area, and found the whole ramp full of the people we’d just been in line behind. We were used to the queuing, but it was about 20 degrees hotter in the ramp area.
We stood there for way too long, and then the line started moving again. We made it to the entrance of the actual jetway, and Matt and I were able to edge inside far enough to feel the air conditioning. We stood there for another 10 minutes or so, then slowly the line started moving toward the airplane door. (I still think it’s worth it for the price of EasyJet tickets, but holy crap. Prepare to stand in line for a hour.)
We managed to get a row to ourselves, which was awesome. We bought cans of London Pride from the flight attendant, and had a meal of the Italian version of Go Ahead (which I’d bought at Roma Termini) and my Pocket Espresso. (Note: don’t open a Pocket Espresso on a pressurized airplane. It will just go on your pants.) We had a good flight, and our British captain Gary got us to Paris-Orly ahead of schedule, at 4:20. We saw the Eiffel Tower from the plane, too!
We stopped at a little shop in the Sud terminal to get some food and drinks from a vending machine, then started following the arrows to the rental cars. They ended up being at the Oest terminal, but the walk wasn’t bad. We found Citer/National after some searching, and checked in at the desk. There was some mixup with the car we requested (automatic, with a trunk since we’d be keeping luggage in there for a while), so they ended up giving us a much nicer car: a Citroen C5. It was hella fancy, and we decided to name it President Mitterand.
I’ve never driven a car with GPS before, and I’m generally annoyed by it, but it made our getting around infinitely easier. We figured out how to program our destination after some futzing with it, and headed out on the highways of Paris. We only encountered a few traffic jams along the way, and then we were out in the countryside.
We could read most of the road signs, so that was good. (We didn’t know what ‘rappel’ meant, but thought it was pretty funny.) We learned that France is really, really proud of its rural areas: they put signs up showing you what kind of farmland you’re passing, or what industries exist in a town. We passed the Asterix theme park, too, which looked a little bit run-down.
We entered a toll road and paid with a credit card, with no idea what the toll was. As we saw the Belgium border coming up on the GPS, we wondered if there would be any remnant of the plaza that used to be there pre-EU, but there was no sign of it. Just a ‘welcome to Belgium’ sign in French and Dutch. We took the first roadside exit at Texaco to use the bathroom and get snacks. Matt got an individually-wrapped Belgian waffle, since obviously that’s what you’re supposed to do there.
We were shocked when we got out of the car: it was COLD there. Like, way colder than we had expected. I was in capris and flipflops, and I was freezing. After we left the building, I dug my hoodie and sneakers out of my suitcase in back.
We got back on the road and soon crossed from the French side of Belgium (Wallonia), to Flanders, the Dutch side. The President told us how to get to the hotel, and that all went well til we got to the center of Brussels around 9pm and encountered Pride. Like, the actual parade was going on right at that moment. We diverted and had to circle a few blocks, but we managed to find the hotel. There were cars parked three deep in the entrance, but the valet told us to leave the car there and helped us unload the luggage.
The Hotel Metropole was probably the fanciest building we’ve ever stayed in. The lobby was full of Japanese tourists taking photos, and the entryway was full of notes from celebrities who had stayed there. We had a gigantic room, and the rack rate was 450 euros (we paid $140). The bathroom had a huge tub and a towel warmer. There was a trouser press on the wall, which Matt tried out later.The TV greeted us by name in English, and there were 2 free Stellas and bottles of pop in the fridge. We looked out onto Boulevard Anspach, which was in a certain degree of disarray due to Pride.
We unpacked a little bit while enjoying our beers, then decided to go try Delirium Cafe so we could enjoy several of Belgium’s ten billion excellent beers. We set out and walked a few blocks as things got quieter and quieter, so we suspected maybe we weren’t going the right way. We also noticed that every other business there was a temp agency. We looked at the map and turned around, heading back down another street. We passed a battery store, and noted it for later: I’d realized only a few days into the cruise that the one thing I’d forgotten was my camera battery charger, and I was heartbroken over the idea that I might not be able to take photos. I was glad that we at least both had nice cellphone cameras, but it’s not the same.
We passed our hotel and went the other direction. The street became crazier and crazier, so we figured we were going the right way. The area around Grand-Place was nearing a disaster, with drunk people stumbling everywhere and empty cans and cups all over the place. (It was around 10:30 at that point.) We hurried through the narrow cobblestone streets in the area, knowing Delirium Cafe had to be nearby. But we couldn’t find it, after circling and passing places we’d already passed before. We finally saw a sign for it pointing down a street, saying the entrance was in the alley. We followed the arrow and there was nothing there, so we kept circling. Finally we ended up going the other direction on the street with the sign, and found the alley… and it was absolutely packed with Pride partiers.
I was exhausted and had zero interest in trying to get in there. We decided to go find somewhere else to eat, and come back to one of the bars in the area for beer. Everything in the area seemed to be closing down except for the bars, so we finally decided on the Sultans of Kebap right outside Grand-Place. It was going to be packed with drunk people later, but at that point it wasn’t too bad. Matt ordered the doner kebab, and I got falafel. That food was so good, it will haunt me forever. They had the best bread in the universe.
Refreshed, we headed back into Grand-Place and settled on a place called Drug Opera, for one reason alone: it was quiet. We got seats right at the bar and ordered beers. Finally I was really happy to be in Brussels. AND they had free wi-fi!
We had another round, and the place started to close down around 1am. They only charged us for one beer, and we were fine with that. We decided to stop by the liquor store across the street from our hotel, and ended up grabbing a couple of beers, a can of J&B and cola (Matt had seen them smashed in the street, and was intrigued), and Kriek Max. Holy crap, I fell in love so hard with Kriek Max. It’s delicious.
Back in the hotel, we watched a German-dubbed version of British Silent Library, and a Tosh-like YouTube show called Rude Tube. European TV is so entertaining.