Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels. If you would like to take part please get in touch – email@example.com or @em_luxton – I would love to hear from you!
This week’s Postcard comes from Ian M Packham, the blogger behind Encircle Africa, who took part a couple of weeks ago with a fabulous Postcard From Sri Lanka. A scientist, adventurer, writer, speaker, travel obsessive, public transport buff, and accidental photographer Ian was a runner-up in National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s travel writing competition in 2013.
A quest for challenge has taken Ian to the summit of Mount Kenya, and, by way of a PhD in Biomedical Sciences, the length of Hadrian’s Wall. He completed his circumnavigation of Africa by public transport – the first solo and unassisted journey of its kind – at the end of September 2012, and visited Sri Lanka in August 2014. You can follow Ian on Facebook and Twitter @ianmpackham.
Welcome Back, Ian! Where have you been now?
Brussels, Belgium. I’ve always found Brussels hard to describe (I’ve visited four or five times now). On the surface it is an ordinary western city filled with diplomats and too many coaches during the high season, but dig a little deeper, by heading down a side street for instance, and it becomes a very different city of small traditionally-run family bars and restaurants that change dependent on the part of the city – from Belgian to Flemish, Turkish, and African.
This is perfect timing, as I’m headed to Brussels myself next week! Is the winter weather pretty bad there?
I don’t know anyone who goes to Belgium for the weather. If anything, it is worse than the British weather I have to put up with, but on my last trip in December it was surprisingly warm with clear skies. Having said that, it is better to be prepared for rain.
Can you recommend somewhere good to stay?
My last trip was just a day trip on Eurostar. Previously I’ve stayed in the north of the city, where there is a cluster of hotels around the old botanic gardens. It is close enough to be able to walk to the city centre attractions, but less frantic (and seedy) than some of the hotels in the very centre.
You go to Brussels a lot. What’s good to do there?
Brussels is great for just wandering around, stopping off in cafes and bars when the need takes me. I always like to swing by the Mannekin Pis, and see if the nude statue of a young boy has got any costume on that day (he’s dressed up for various special days of the year), and I always enjoy walking through the architecture of the Grand Place and Royal Palaces nearby.
What was the highlight of your latest trip?
My highlight this time around was walking through the woods, parkland and lakes to the south of the city called Bois de la Cambre in French. I never knew they existed before, but even in December they were well worth a tram ride to visit.
Previously, I’ve really enjoyed visiting the old royal palace of Teuven, now the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Given the colonial connection, much of the collection focusses on the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly the Belgian Congo), and includes exhibits like one of explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s original notebooks from his passage across the country from east to west.
Those woodlands sound lovely – I might have to make a trip up there myself! What kind of food can I look forward to?
The food is always good in Brussels, with plenty to choose from. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I think some of the best comes from the stalls parked around the city selling frite, waffles, ice-cream, and mussels even.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone thinking of heading to Brussels?
Brussels is very easy to get to on Europe’s train network, even from Britain by Eurostar. This means people can be tempted to move on to their next destination all too quickly. Give the city more time, after you’ve visited the major sights, and by relaxing I think you’ll see why I keep going back.
Did you pick up any helpful French on your trip?
Almost everyone speaks English so it’s not really needed, but ou est le grand place? is always useful around Brussels’ winding streets (if you can understand the reply).
And finally… What’s your favourite travel read?
My favourite travel read is probably something by Graham Greene. He has a great ability to capture the essence of a location on paper. I’m not sure any of his stories are based in Belgium, though Stamboul Train (Orient Express in the US) sees the characters passage across Europe to Istanbul.
NB – The two cityscapes of Brussels were taken by Ian. All others were from Flickr and link back to the owner’s page.