By the time we arrived in Brussels we were exhausted. So my post here is in no way exhaustive or a representation of Brussels as a whole. We have yet to experience enough of it to have a fair and well-developed opinion. What we do have is one afternoon/evening, and a very small view of a very small corner of Brussels – that is – the Grand Place and surrounding streets.
We arrived by train in Brussels around 2:00pm in the afternoon, after our 2 nights in Ieper. We didn’t have any big plan for our 1 day here except food: Waffles, Beer, Mussels, and of course, Chocolate.
Our hotel, I must say, was pretty fantastic. We stayed at the Novotel Centre, a 3-5 minute walk from the Grand Place, and less than 10 from the train station. The hotel was filled with business men and pilots on layover. The screen up from advertised prices for €255,00/night for a standard room, so how I managed to score it for €80,00 online, I am unsure. The room was huge and immaculate. The hotel had a pool, hot tub and sauna (we did go for an afternoon swim, which was a nice break for our sore and tired feet and bodies). It was great to be so close to everything, again, because we were so tired.
Our limited plan was to follow the Rick Steves walk through the Grand Place. We didn’t really follow this, as much as find the Grand Place, and then wander. We went into some shops and checked out the insane number of beers, and we wandered into a fair number of chocolate shops, and brought a few samples home for us to enjoy. There is a chocolate being sold in almost every store in the area, though none are as famous as Godiva. I wanted to bring back from gluten free chocolate for my friend Liz (who is so kindly house sitting for us), but I am sorry to report that not one chocolate shop (and I went into about 20) had gluten free. In fact, many didn’t even know what I was talking about. However, gluten free beer was much easier to find. Side note: seems that there is a big love for “crocs” across Europe. Children and adults are wearing them everywhere and according to the store sign, it says “be cool.” Buying crocs makes you cool? I don’t understand….
The Grand Place reminded me, in many ways, of the banks of the Seine (minus the river). There were musicisns and students sitting in the middle, writing songs, having a picnic or playing a game of cards. Just enjoying the day on the cobblestone in the middle of the large square, as tourists walked in between them. This continued all day and into the evening as well. The Grand Place includes the town hall and former palace, and an old beer hall where Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto Now it is one of the most expensive restaurants in town.
As part of our walk to the square, we stopped and had our first, mandatory, Belgian waffle! These are not a breakfast food, but an afternoon snack. Topped with syrup, icing sugar, strawberries, kiwi, banana, chocolate, nutella – you name it – they are a popular treat (especially with the tourists – not too sure about the locals). The icing sugar option was AMAZING and cheap (€1,50) and better than any waffles I’ve ever had. They are sweet, with a caramelization to them and a little stickiness and it’s more of a bread dough than a pancake batter. Ray is looking forward to trying to recreate a more authentic waffle when we returns home.
Our wandering ended when we finally found Mannekin Pis – the statue of the little boy peeing that is suppose to represent freedom or something really important like that. He is dressed in a stupid outfit (given as a gift from some country, person or place) and of course, he is a peeing fountain. And it must be said, he is much smaller than expected. When we were in Munich our guide told us that the Munich glockenspiel was the second most overrated tourist attraction in Europe…after Mannekin Pis. He was right.
After 2 hours of wandering, we were too tired to stand. We returned back to the hotel, went for a swim and curled up with books until almost 8, when we realized we should probably go and eat. We wandered the side streets – or restaurant row. Here you have a series of long narrow alleys FILLED with restaurants, and of course with them employees trying to sell you on eating with them. Each place seemed to have the same price fixed menu of shrimp croquettes and mussels + dessert, and we had no idea what would be the most enjoyable. Neither Ray nor I was enjoying the hassling, so we went back into the main square and decided on a restaurant right on the square, and enjoyed our dinner as we watched the sun set behind town hall. It was an amazing experience, until we got the bill of course, and realized that they charged for EVERYTHING. My sauce with the steak, bringing ketchup for the fries etc. Most expensive (and not the best) meal we had all trip, but we tried not to worry too much about it because we had a great view, good service and a little peace and quiet in the middle of the chaos. Ray indulged in the local Beer, Muscles and Fries, and I enjoyed a little Belgian chocolate mousse at the end (I pretty much like chocolate mousse in every country – though none compare to the mousse made by the Italian Restaurant in Paris).
After our expensive meal we retreated back to our books and enjoyed a good nights sleep! Our train to Ede was leaving late the next morning, and I actually got a full 10 hours, which was exactly what I needed after 2 straight weeks of none-stop touring. I can’t say that I loved Brussels. It gets big points for the waffles, but less for the rest (mussels were better in Ieper as were the fries). Belgian beer is good, but can be (and is) purchased in Holland as well. The main square was…well….a main square. Mannekin Pis was overrated. So I’m not quite sure yet what it is that Brussels has to offer that should make me “love” it. If someone can tell me, than maybe I will consider returning. But until then I’m going to just put a checkmark beside it on my “places I have been” list and move on to more unexplored destinations (or return to our favourites again….and again).