18 December 2011


I had spent almost a week in Belgium a couple of summers ago.  I decided to take a quick trip back, base myself out of Brussels again, and visit during the Christmas Market season.  I also used the opportunity to change out some old Belgian Francs I still had at the Central Bank (there is no time limit for changing the old currency to euros).

This was another one of those itineraries where my original plans were forced to be altered by United.  Originally, I had booked my flights to be on Untied to and from Frankfurt and on Lufthansa between Frankfurt and Brussels.  A few weeks prior to the trip, United contacted me to say that I needed to switch to the United departure from Brussels to Chicago and then to SFO from there.  They cited that the Lufthansa flight I was on was no longer available.  When I checked, the flight was still there, so what I suspect is that the Lufthansa flight was no longer being made available to me via United.  I really didn't want to change since traveling through Chicago in winter can endanger one's plans, but they really weren't giving me a choice.  Plus, the Brussels flight to Chicago would be using the updated 767 plane, which I tend to like these days.  I do have to say though that the flight attendants in First class in both directions were all very nice and provided excellent service.

Landing in Brussels was a new experience for me even though I had been there before.  Both prior times, arrival had been by train.  This time, I arrived via plane and it was pretty easy, especially since I cleared passport control in Germany.   I found my way to the train station at the lowest level, bought a ticket from the window (couldn't find any vending machines -- but they don't take non-Belgian cards anyway), and figured out the right platform.  They are in the process of renovating the airport - Central Brussels connection, so they charger an extra fee and there is a lot of construction going on in the station.

I took the train to its terminus at Gare du Mid/Zuidstation and then went down a couple of more levels to buy a 3-day metro pass and rode three stops to Louiza station.  The Conrad is about a 5-minute walk from the station.

The Conrad was very nice.  I had to wait just a few minutes for them to verify my upgraded room (Signature room with Terrace) was clean and ready.  The breakfast buffet was quite ample, and the lounge has a nice afternoon tea service available (with live music on Saturdays).

I immediately set out for the Central Bank, as it closes at 3:30.   I changed my money without issue, although you have to show your passport for the transaction.

Next, I headed to check out the location of a dinner I had planned for later that evening at Jaloa gastronomique.  This took me to one of the Christmas Market locations which had these great carousels with interesting things to sit on -- not your typical horses.  I also checked out an olive oil store that specializes in oils from Provence.

Later that evening, I had a very nice 9-course dinner that lasted about 4 hours.  I was not presented with a menu, so I had no idea what I would be getting.  I only knew the style of food (molecular gastronomy/avant garde cuisine).

Over the next couple of days, I took train trips to Ghent and Namur.  I had been to Ghent before on a short work trip, but never had time to really explore the city.  It is very picturesque.

Namur was a new destination for me.  It is a very old settlement and has a citadel located across the river overlooking the town.

To avoid any unnecessary delays on my return, I purchased my Airport train ticket the day before (sometimes the domestic train ticket window lines can be long).  The train I had intended to take was running late, so I watched and listened for the announcements about which train was leaving next for the airport.  Fortunately the next train was only a couple of platforms away.

Since I was leaving on a United flight, I would be using a different part of the airport than when I arrived.  Since United has a very small presence, it was a little difficult to locate where the United check-in took place, but I was eventually pointed to the appropriate area within the Brussels Airways Star Alliance area.

The flight over was very nice. Upon arrival in Chicago, I was met at the plane door and advised where to go for my next flight after re-checking my luggage and clearing customs.  I informed the agent that there was one problem from Brussels -- I was not given my ongoing boarding pass.  The agent promptly took care of it while I waited for my luggage.  Once I cleared customs, I got on the train for Terminal 1, cleared security (fortunately not crowded as it was the same security that all the domestic flights use).  My flight was on the same concourse at the International First Class Lounge and Arrivals Facility.  I was offered use of the showers and grabbed a quick snack in the lounge before heading to the plane.  Unfortunately, it went a little downhill at this point.  A 45-minute mechanical problem turned into a 4-hour delay.  I did eventually use the agents at the First Class Lounge to book me on a back-up flight, but my plane eventually left, getting me home much later than expected and having much less time to regroup for a quick turnaround for my flight to Newark the next day.

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