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Day 12: The Flat of Anonymous Portraits in Brussels

in which your author barely makes it to Brussels and discovers the Airbnb to beat all Airbnbs

semi-overcast 80 °F

Day 12 would be a day predicated on precise timing. My flight to Brussels leaves at 3:30, and prior to that I want to take in the Fado Museum. My Airbnb host Pedro comes by at 11am to clean the place for his next guest; he has kindly agreed to allow me to leave my bags at his flat while I see a bit more of the city. We walk the long hills to his neighborhood and after dropping my bags off I stop for a terrific sandwich and coffee in a cozy café where I catch up on some writing. (Note to self: as much as I love having these entries posted and archived, there are definitely times when I question whether my precious time in these cities is best spent on writing, especially as writing and uploading the photos for each post seems to take around two hours. I wonder if there’s a way to slightly rejigger for the next trip?)

I make my way mostly downhill – have I mentioned Lisbon is the “city of seven hills?” (seems more like seventy) – toward the water where I was dropped off two days prior, and eventually come to the Fado Museum. I should have just enough time to explore here and get to the airport to make my flight. (Anyone want to guess where that assumption is headed?)

The museum is well structured, with a mix of video, audio, and listening booths. The history of this music is so tied up with Portuguese cultural and political identity, and many of the songs tell melancholic stories about poor outcasts and love gone wrong. As quote on a wall claims, “Fado is a poem that can be seen and heard.” There’s an acute sense of nostalgia as well, which connects to my present thinking about my dissertation. What’s clear is the riveting performance style; even without understanding a word of the language, some potent flavor of the drama remains.


I make my way back again through the winding, mostly uphill Alfama district where I began my stay, trying to time things out so that I retrieve my bags from Pedro’s flat with enough time to get to the airport.


Close to Pedro’s I pick up a Portuguese book printed in Lisbon in 1896 from an outdoor book cart.


Even though I’m walking quickly, all this meandering puts me behind my projected time, and I make the (probably not wise) decision to take the subway to the airport rather than a cab. I don’t have the correct change for the ticket machine, and the attendant sends me back up to break a twenty Euro; all of this is costing precious minutes! When I do finally get to the airport, I realize the terminal I need to get to requires an additional bus ride, and though the bus is full, the conductor must wait ten minutes. Gah! I have to wait to check in and receive my visa stamp, which takes another 15 minutes. Thankfully, the security line is short, but the officers dig through my entire suitcase which at this point is laden with liquids, and that takes time. I sprint to the gate…

…and THANKFULLY, they let me on board. If I had been two minutes later I probably wouldn’t have made the flight and that would have thrown off the entire rest of my trip. NOTE TO SELF: when connections like this require leaving and extra hour, leave TWO extra hours! Lesson learned.


The flight to Brussels is fine, as I chat with a friendly mother and daughter visiting Lisbon from Antwerp; the flight attendants amusingly try to to translate the title of my new Portuguese book and one even offers me 5 Euro for it! When I leave the airport, finding a train into town, it’s much cooler than Madrid or Lisbon. There’s an eerie quiet over the city, and the streets feel almost abandoned. (I find out later I was in a business district.) There are a few moments of unsurety, as I can’t seem to find any way of getting to my Airbnb, which is too far to walk with bags, and no cabs seem are coming by. I get on a bus which takes me 2/3 of the way before turning, and I get out and walk the rest of the way.


Any frustrations I felt on the trip to Brussels, however, are immediately ameliorated upon entering the absolute palace of a flat I’m somehow procured for myself. I’ve stayed in Airbnbs all around Europe and the US and no place has come close to the elegance of this place, run by a talkative professional art collector named David. He shows me around, and he describes his methods in purchasing all this stuff, much of which he either sells for a profit or uses to furnish the apartments of wealthy persons “too busy” to buy their own things yet who want to come off as cultured. (How’s that for a depressing and impersonal notion?) Portraits adorn the walls, mainly from the 19th century, though a few are older. David says he only knows about half of the identities, which lends an air of mystery – these people were important enough at their time to commission portraits, and yet their names are lost to eternity. It’s pretty stunning to be left alone in these rooms, and I shoot a video and upload to Facebook.


I shower and leave the flat to walk around a bit in Brussels, not finding much that still serves food. The city is much quieter and emptier than Madrid or Lisbon – also much more diverse, as the neighborhood where I’m staying abuts an African district. A helpful waitress in one brasserie advises me to walk toward a further neighborhood and I order a falafel at a late-night Middle Eastern place. The guy takes his time preparing it but it’s one of the best I’ve ever had, and I’m bowled over by the fact that they include fresh, crispy, magical frites inside the falafel! We’ve been doing it all wrong, America.


I find a small, cute bar a few doors down and order my first Belgian beer in Belgium. (Seems like an important travel milestone, right?)


A young woman named Audrey (which she pronounces like “Howdree”) with a guy friend invite me up to the bar and the three of us chat for the next hour; she’s the lead singer for a band called Best Good Friends, apparently a line from Forrest Gump. I ask them about Brussels, and they tell me the city is still reeling from the terrorist attack in the airport earlier this year, and that they didn’t feel a strong sense of local culture. (I had found it odd that I hadn’t noticed any mention of the attack in the airport; the pleasant mother and daughter I sat with on the plane say they had just instantly rebuilt everything and moved right along, which certainly is different from how we publicly memorialize tragedy in the US.) Audrey advises me to leave the city the next day and take a day trip to either Ghent or Bruges, which I start thinking about. I have a couple delicious, very inexpensive local beers here and walk back to my palace. (I find out much later I was in the same neighborhood as the birthplace of a more famous Audrey... Hepburn! Somehow missed that visit.) So far Brussels isn’t terribly exciting, but at least I’m getting the chance spend a night in what for all purposes is a 19th century museum!

Posted by coolmcjazz 09:31 Archived in Portugal Tagged lisbon fado

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