A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Twenty-second in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
With our pilgrimage to the D-Day beaches complete, it was a Thursday morning in Bayeux. Things were about to get hectic.
My provisional itinerary for the remainder of July called for a sweeping rail movement northward, traveling from Bayeux via Paris toward Copenhagen, Denmark, with a probable stop in between. A week-long sampling of Scandinavia would follow, with the ultimate destination of Helsinki, Finland, just before month’s end.
In fact, Helsinki represented the summer’s only truly fixed and immutable date, because it was to be the meeting point for my prepaid group motorcoach trip to Leningrad, USSR – now (and formerly) St. Petersburg, Russia.
In the end, after diverting from Copenhagen through Norway (Oslo-Bergen-Oslo), crossing Sweden to Stockholm, and hopping an overnight Silja Line ferry to Finland, this final peripatetic first-time tourist’s jaunt during Euro ’85 covered roughly 2,700 miles over 12 days, half of them spent sleeping on a train or boat.
First, with my 25th birthday approaching in only two weeks, Amsterdam seemed the logical place to begin the end stage party, though not for the commonly assumed reason. I’d never been more than a casual pot smoker, and had sworn off weed entirely two years before the trip owing to an adverse reaction caused by an especially potent tray of brownies, but perhaps a brief loophole might yet be found.
Like, “Resolutions not measurable outside North America,” or some such evasion.
As you might guess, the prime lure of Amsterdam was beer. I stocked several famous Dutch golden-colored lagers at Scoreboard Liquors, my part-time place of employment and the import brew capital of Floyd County, including Heineken (“greenies” as well as the export-strength dark version), Grolsch in swing-cap bottles, and a personal favorite, Royal Brand.
Among the many “old budget traveler’s tales” oft heard at home and abroad were wide-eyed accounts of voluminous generosity at the conclusion of the Heineken brewery tour, and I needed to find out for myself. Besides, there were rumors of extraneous culture in Amsterdam, capable of altering minds without the ingestion of substances – art, music, street life and Indonesian food.
It was decided. My mind was made up. The Netherlands it would be, and so my next two nights were spent in … Brussels.
The contingent was down to five at breakfast; someone whose name I cannot recall had left to go somewhere I can’t remember. I was drinking his share of the coffee as Bruce made an announcement: Earlier in the summer while in Greece, prior to running across Fred for shared leering at the nude beach, he’d struck up an acquaintance with a Belgian photographer living in Brussels.
The latter had extended an offer of lodging, and Bruce had called and left a message. Who wanted to go to Brussels?
I got numerical over the last croissant. While the six-mattress attic room rate had been affordable, options like “cheaper” or “totally free” were even more attractive – and saving lodging costs for two nights would buffer the budget in expensive Scandinavia. Bleary eyes were rubbed.
Did they even have beer in Brussels?
(That’s right: I’d read about Belgian ales in Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson’s books, but because almost none of these delicacies made it anywhere close to metro Louisville during the early 1980s, my radar screen was blank. I simply didn’t get it – yet.)
Within minutes, all five of us had decided to go to Brussels. Since the others were not rapid morning movers, there was enough time for me to view Bayeux’s famous medieval tapestry and have a glance at the wonderful cathedral before boarding the train to Paris just after lunch.
Although memories are foggy, we clearly would have arrived in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare, and taken the Metro to Gare du Nord. One way or another, by late afternoon we were in Brussels, where Bruce made another phone call to his contact, who profusely apologized because he could not accommodate us until the following day. Somehow we found a room for five at a cheap hotel, probably because Bruce knew enough basic French to be fearless in the inquiry.
I remember nothing about the evening. It’s funny how that works, and doesn’t.
Perhaps even funnier: On Friday night, I slept in the bathtub, though without soapy water. It was the last reasonably flat space after the others chose their spots. Bedding selections occurred after we’d pooled our resources to buy a massive amount of carry-out Chinese food and inexpensive French wine, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s embarrassing, isn’t it? My trip to Brussels was unintentional, but I might have made better of it than General Tso and cheap Bordeaux. I wasn’t drinking Lambic, and I wasn’t eating mussels, either. Did I at least have the presence of mind to purchase pommes frites lathered with mayo from a greasy street kiosk? Let’s hope. The historical record is mute on this point.
After a day and a half in Brussels, I still knew little about the Belgians apart from their cafes on the Grand Place, but on Saturday our host was free, and finally it all came together. In the morning we equipped ourselves with transit passes and started roaming.
There had been time on Friday to fulfill Bruce’s goal of seeing the Iguanodon dinosaur skeletons at the Museum of Natural Sciences, so on Saturday we began at the house of Baron Victor Horta, one of the most acclaimed Art Nouveau architects, of whom our photographer hotelier was a huge fan. His commentary was priceless.
Next came the Parc du Cinquantenaire, or park of the 50th anniversary, built in 1880 and home to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History. Here came another encounter with the Habsburg dynasty, for the ill-fated Maximillian, brother of Franz Joseph and for a short time the puppet emperor of Mexico, was married to a Belgian, Carlota. She was the daughter of Belgium’s King Leopold I (and sister of Leopold II, noted exploiter of the Congo).
Maximillian became involved in Mexico through the scheming of France’s Napoleon III, and when the latter’s support dissipated, the unlucky Austrian was captured and executed in 1867 by annoyed Mexicans led by Benito Juarez, who were uninterested in being ruled by European stooges, however progressively well-intentioned.
The point to this digression is that Maximillian possessed a contingent of Belgian troops, and because of this, a display case in the military museum was devoted to the episode, including a macabre photograph of the deceased in his temporary coffin. To this very day, it’s the photograph that I remember most vividly.
Thanks to a complete stranger’s hospitality, it turned out that Brussels was all right, after all. During journeys to come, there’d be great times for me in Belgium, but I had an early evening train to catch, and a couchette for sleeping in route to Copenhagen.
I said goodbye to my new friends. Somewhere out there in Canada, Florida and Belgium, I hope they’re well, and remember those days when we laughed together back in 1985.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.