I don’t much care for the name Brussels as it reminds me of its namesake sprouts (ghastly cooked any way no matter how much Nigella Lawson tried to boost them up). I prefer Bruxelles, its French avatar which sounds far more exotic to my uncultured ear.
Instead of a rambling travelogue I shall round up our trip in 12 short points:
1. Never having been on the Eurostar in these past 4.some years I had built up great expectations and sort of imagined it being a bit like one of German ICE trains. Check in was a bit like at Heathrow only far closer at London's Waterloo station. The train itself was a sore disappointment, looked a bit worn out, had not much leg room and was quite like any other train within the UK. I think Virgin trains might have been a bit better. But the journey was smooth and on time so I cannot complain. The dotted sheep and countryside look exactly the same both sides of the channel and having a tunnel under it is a technological miracle I am thankful for. Our ‘Customer Service Train Manager’ was “Erve” whose lovely French accent made me and S giggle a bit. I like French names –they sound nothing like they are written. Like Hervé.
2. What’s nice about Bruxelles apart from being 2.something hours away from London is that there is no mad clutch of must see things and a two day break is a relaxed getaway as opposed to foot blister inducing manic rush.
3. Bruxelles has picturesque medieval streets and beautiful boulevards and we wandered up and down them wearing down some of the cobble. We took lots of pictures but have not even uploaded them yet. Strong sturdy trainer type shoes was a good idea.
4. The big buildings are not particularly impressive and the monuments were, well just monuments. There was a nice winter market near the Grand Place Square and we stood in the cold amongst the crowds enjoying a Belgian Waffle and some hot Gluhwein.
5. We went to the City Museum which is housed in a grand old building one side of Tourist Central, Grand Place or Grot Markt (Historic Square). The museum was nothing to write home about and its artifacts would have fitted comfortably in a very small room at the V&A. The Building was an altogether different matter. It had majestic vaulted ceilings propped up by solid beams, a sweeping central staircase, intricate stained glass windows and flooring that made me want to lie down and weep. The building could easily have been an architectural tour of its own.
6. We visited the famed Mannekin Pis which is the statue of a little boy peeing. Located on a street corner with a grill guarding it from the marauding throngs of tourists this little fellow is the pride and joy of the Bruxelles Tourism people. It’s one of those things that is built up in the mind as being magnificent and then in reality it disappoints. The City museum (Pt.5) had a whole room of the Mannekin Pis statue dressed up in costumes from all over the world. So many of the same in one room was deeply disturbing and quite gross.
7. We stopped often, each time in a cosy cafés or small restaurant and indulged in what the Belgians make best: Waffles. They were light and airy and we often had them covered in something: covered in dusting sugar or chocolate or the piece-de-resistance Whipped Cream.
8. Our only dinner in Bruxelles was at a restaurant called Le Cap, recommended by the dude at the hotel reception. We had no reservations and the restaurant seemed quite full but we were quickly given a table in a little cave like box next to a wall of wine bottles. The food was excellent and service was excellent and I must mention my dessert which was warm strawberries with peppercorns and ice cream. It was a perfect evening and we spent much of it chatting and laughing.
9. As always V & I popped into a little supermarket (the best way to buy some local food to take back) and bought some cheese. S&S were buying some biscuits in really cute tins (designed as biscuit shops, designated to brighten up any kitchen) and I was inspired and did the same, bringing back two tins of biscuits to London. All the way back I kept wondering who would eat all those biscuits as neither V nor I are great lovers of biscuits. Well, these were different. Three sealed packs inside each tin: Almond thins, Butter thins and Butter crumble. Since Christmas day I have eaten my weight in biscuits. Groan.
10. We went to the Comics Museum which is housed in an old Art Noveau warehouse designed by Victor Horta. It’s a magnificent building and really showcases the Belgian art form of comic strips to its very best. While most strips were in French or Flemish it was the skilled drawing and colouring that drew the eye and brought the characters to the forefront. The best and most famous of the Belgian comic strips is of course Tintin and there were numerous pieces of original artwork to look at beside great big cutouts, a few plastic statuettes and the rocket that took Tintin to the moon. I recently bought the entire collection of animated Tintin movies so I was quite thrilled.
11. The previous afternoon we went into the Tintin Boutique which sells everything Tintin in it. S bought a lovely big blue umbrella and we bought a framed Tintin print for our dining room.
12. I love taking tram rides or bus rides through cities because for me they provide a whole new perspective to the city, outside the touristy trail. We took a nice tram ride and I thoroughly enjoyed looking through the windows at the passing homes and quiet suburbia of Bruxelles.
It was a lovely two days away from the hustle of London. It was lovely traveling with friends. We didn’t go crazy with sightseeing or shopping – the calm pace is a luxury that Bruxelles affords. It was cold but not freezing. It was touristy but still homely. The waffles, biscuits and Tintin made it all perfect. As did the French accent of Hervé.