Saturday, May 5, 2012

Walking on Cobblestones

A friend came to visit me in Belgium. For the occasion, we’d decided to rent a small apartment in downtown Brussels instead of staying in a hotel. On our list of visits, we’d planned to explore a few cities including Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges. We’d use trains, subways and trams as a mean of transportation but our feet would also carry us around. My friend brought several pairs of shoes in his luggage. I’d packed three pairs in mine including a pair of high heel shoes for our evening outings. For our daily excursions, I’d planned to wear my cowboy boots with pointy ends.

When it came to the clothes we would wear on our daily excursions, we were both adequately prepared. In April the Belgian weather can be capricious and acting like winter. Therefore: hats, gloves, scarves and warm coats had all been considered with great attention. Unfortunately my cowboy boots had lacked such concern. My black boots were old yet had traveled many places. I’d never suffered a problem before. But then again I don’t remember ever walking for hours on cobblestones.

When I first arrived in Brussels Central Station, I ventured walking to our rental apartment. My friend would arrive two days later. Thus on my own I walked the streets of downtown Brussels dragging my heavy suitcase behind me. Inside my black boots, my feet felt fine yet the sidewalks leading to my destination caused me pain. With each step, my luggage bounced slightly in the air causing my arm constant pressure. I hadn’t been in that part of Brussels for years and the high tower of La Grand Place’s pristine cathedral became my guide. I knew our rental was somewhere nearby. Trying bigger avenues with larger and modern sidewalks gave me relief. Without too much trouble I finally made it to Rue Jules van Praet.  

Two days later my friend, Guy, eventually arrived. He also had to haul his suitcase along several Brussels streets. But he didn’t complain. His shoes were of the right kind. For our first lunch in the Belgian capital we headed towards La Grand Place. Unfortunately, most of downtown Brussels’ streets as well as sidewalks are both made of cobblestones that have survived countless centuries. There’s no way to escape the roman pathways that once invaded Belgium in ancient times. That day my feet were feeling fine, and together we proceeded towards one of the cafés featured around the square. I heard the large square is about the size of a soccer field. 

I took my friend to La Chaloupe D’or, a vintage café restaurant proposing Belgian specialties.  For my friend I ordered a Belgian beer called Kwak. The Ale was served in a glass that had no foot for standing but a balloon instead.  A wooden support helped the tall glass to remain straight. I ordered a Russian Milk or the equivalent of a Café Latte at any Starbuck coffee shop. That day, our lunch consisted of a Croque Monsieur for my friend and a Hawaiian Croque – that included a slice of pineapple – for my delight. I’m not sure where the Croque originated from, but nowadays the grilled ham and cheese sandwich seems a popular item on many Belgian lunching menus.  

In the evening, still wearing my cowboy boots we walked to Le Grand Sablon located thousands of cobblestones away. To my feet’s appreciation, we eventually encountered modern pavements that lead to our evening restaurant. We ate at a Brasserie called: L’Entrée des Artistes. Our meals finished and our bellies highly satisfied, we headed back towards our rental located near La Bourse, or the former Brussels stock exchange and vintage building. On our way, we passed a shop that advertized 250 various Belgian beers. Hundreds of glasses – each specifically made for one beer – were also on display and for sale.

“Let’s go have a last drink on the Grand Place,” my friend announced while glancing at a magnum of Chimay beer.
“And see the square lit up at night,” I continued. “It’s quite impressive.”

After ingesting a nightcap in one of the plaza’s cafés, we toured the sizeable square that was practically empty. The many visiting tourists had left for the day. Alone in the middle of the giant plaza, we were both in awe. Our heads kept on gazing up at the roofs of the various medieval buildings. Walking with my head up was not the best idea for my feet that had to advance slowly to prevent downfalls. The whole square featured cambered cobblestones, which was not the ideal surface to walk on while looking upwards.

“I feel dizzy when I’m looking up for too long,” I explained. “My head’s spinning.”
“Me too, but the view is mesmerizing.”
“Look at the roofing of these buildings over there, gold paint,” I continued. “Well, I’m not sure it is still gold paint today.”
“Tomorrow, we’re going to Antwerp,” my friend retorted. “It will be a long day, let’s go home.”
“Yes, let’s go,” I answered. “My feet could use a rest.”

The next morning, we were ready for our next adventure. Neither of us had been in Antwerp before but we both knew of the city’s notoriety. Antwerp was for centuries the prime commercial port of Belgium. Today, the port’s activity is still prominent. A train carried us to Antwerp Central train station. From there our feet would do all the hard work. We had decided to walk the large city. In the old train station partially modernized, a Starbuck coffee shop made me feel like I was in California again.

“Let’s have a Latte before we start,” I announced. “Look even the cups look the same here.”
“But everything is written in Flemish,” Guy retorted.
“Yes, we’re in Flemish territory,” I answered. “We won’t speak French here.”
“Dank u, Thank you,” retorted my friend amused.
“Better to speak English than French is this part of the country,” I continued. “Everyone speaks a little English in Belgium.”

 From the train station, the city’s cathedral guided us again on our venture. Arriving on the main square of Antwerp, we discovered ancient small dwellings made out of bricks. Amongst the miniature lodgings the giant cathedral stood erected, theoretically aiming to protect its inhabitants from a daring universe.    

“People have grown with centuries,” I commented.
“The doorways look awfully small,” declared Guy. “I can’t imagine living in such small houses.”
“Yes, it would be challenging.”
“Cobblestones here too,” my friend remarked as we walked.
“Yes, cobblestones everywhere,” I replied. “I wonder who really built all these roads, and with such small stones. It must have taken years if not longer.”
“Is it the Romans’ soldiers or the Romans’ slaves who did the work?”
“I have no idea.”
“Let’s walk towards the port,” my friend explained. “My map indicates that we can walk all the way to the MAS museum, using this route.”
“Sounds good.”

So, we walked and walked. On our route, we traversed an ancient gate that used to be part of the city’s protective wall in medieval times and arrived on a promenade adjacent to what looked like a large estuary. The sky was painted in a Magritte tone. White puffy clouds floated aloof in an extensive blue celestial landscape. 

“Walking on the promenade is easier,” I exclaimed.  “The pavements are flat and modern.”
“Look, there’s a café at the end,” my friend continued. “Let’s take a break.”
“Yes, and there’s a terrace too. Let’s sit in the sun for a while. I haven’t seen the sun for weeks.”

The esplanade café had a protected terrace where we sat. While my friend sipped yet another Belgian beer, I ordered yet another Russian Milk. While absorbing the sun my feet rested. But we had more walking to do. After a pleasant break we headed towards the MAS museum by following the estuary going north. Eventually a modern high-rise came into view. Around the copper color building sea water with boats docked.

“There’s a platform on the roof of the museum with a great view of the city,” I said. “There’s also a restaurant up there where we can have lunch.”
“We have many levels to explore first,” my friend explained. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
“Ok, I’m ready.”

Numerous escalators took us to various levels inside the museum. On each floor, we discovered a large room filled with a distinctive exhibition. Arriving on the 8th floors, we then had to take staircases to reach the restaurant and the roof. Finally stepping on the museum’s roof, we contemplated the view for a moment then looked for the museum restaurant. We were hungry. Unfortunately the restaurant had closed for the day. We had to find another place to eat. On our way out the museum, we both witnessed a young lady wearing high heels plodding in front of us.

“Look at her leopard shoes,” my companion retorted.
“I hope she’s not walking home,” I said.

Taking the main square cathedral as a guide again, we proceeded towards downtown. My feet were not happy. My pointy cowboy boots were jamming my toes. I started to slow down and held my friend by the arm. While arriving on the city’s square, we both had noticed the colossal cone filled with yellow painted pretending fries that charmed passerby. Inside the wee shop, a couple was busy feeding on a white paper cone crammed with fries.

“What about French fries?” Guy inquired.
“At the fritkot?”
“The fritkot?”
“That’s how people call such place here. You want to eat fries?”
“Why not.”
“You know Belgians believe they invented fries, not the French,” I interjected.
“I didn’t know that.”
“I always thought fries were from Belgium, but who knows?”
“Look at all the different sauces you can eat with your fries,” my friend observed.
“I like my fries with mayonnaise and ketchup.”
“I’ve noticed that,” Guy said smiling.
“Let’s sit somewhere on the square while we eat. My feet are crying for a break,” I lamented.

Our Belgian fries finished, we proceeded back to the train station. Although the sun hadn’t faded yet, it was getting late. On the train ride, I tried to take a nap but couldn’t. My friend on the other hand was sound asleep. How am I going to walk tomorrow, I pondered. My feet are killing me right now. Finally back at the apartment, we changed into proper evening attires. Not knowing what to put on my feet, I tried my high heels. My toes actually felt better. My high heels weren’t as spiky compared to my boots. That evening, we ate at a Tai restaurant just underneath our apartment building. Our rental was part of a small Asian neighborhood. Inside the large Thai restaurant, Buddha heads and bigger than life Buddha statues infused the ethereal atmosphere. 

“I love all the Buddha,” I explained.
“Nice looking restaurant,” said my friend.
“I’m glad this place is so close. My feet are hurting.”
“Cobblestones are hard on the sole of my feet too.”
“Even with your shoes?”
“Yes, so I can imagine what you must feel.”
“Pain,” I replied sighting. “In the high heels I brought along, my toes have more space but I can’t imagine walking with those shoes for very long.”
“We won’t, my feet are tired too.”
“Can we not hurry tomorrow?”
“We should buy you some other shoes, walking shoes instead of cowboy boots.”
“That might be a good idea. I have tennis shoes though.”
“No, real walking shoes. Comfortable shoes to wear while walking on cobblestones.”

The next morning, we headed for a shoe shop and found one nearby. With my new pair of black walking shoes, we ventured a tour of Brussels, two museums and more walking. My toes felt fine but my feet felt awfully flat. After a day of visiting, my calves started to harden.

“I’m feeling my calves now. My feet are too flat in my new shoes. I need to insert insoles.”
“We’ll go buy some tomorrow.”
“Thank you. I don’t know how I’m going to visit Bruges on Monday,” moaning.

When Monday morning arose my legs and calves felt like sticks. Overnight I had metamorphosed into a robot that lacked knees. But we wanted to visit Bruges. Resigning myself to more walking, we headed to Brussels central train station again and took a train to the small medieval city known for its beauty.

“Could we do a boat tour on the city’s canals instead of walking today?”
“We could do that.”
“I’ve been in Bruges before, a long time ago, but I can’t remember where the train station is and how far we have to walk to get to the city’s center,” I explained. “I hope it’s not too far.”
“I hope so too.”

The main Bruges’ train station was a small distance from a verdant modern pathway circling the city. Cobblestones eventually appeared into the landscape. Walking on the taxing stones was inevitable. Repressing constant pain, I advanced forwards trying to redirect my thoughts on something pleasant like a waffle. In the capital, we had tried waffles and my friend really like it. At the first café we encountered on our way, we agreed on the Belgian delicacy.

“My waffle taste good.”
“I love mine too.”

That Monday, the wind was particularly strong and cold. The entire day, a chill ran throughout my body although I was appropriately dressed. Instead of touring Bruges on an open boat, we decided on a Picasso exhibition featured in an ancient nunnery hospital. Every time I saw a bench, I sat. At that point, standing or walking had become a torture that seemed to have travelled upward. I was a mess. Walking on cobblestones is to be taken seriously. Not wearing the right shoes is a big mistake.

Today, I still wonder who built those timeless roads. Traveling into the days of the Roman Empire, I envisioned thousands of men positioning small cobblestones, one by one, for hours, days, weeks, and years.  


1 comment:

  1. My husband and 15 year old son always wear cowboy boots and plan to do so on their first trip to europe. I have tried to tell them they need to get some good walking shoes but the insist their boots will be fine. They may be sorry after a few long days on cobblestones.