It’s nearly Christmas so I went to Brussels to get the sprouts in ready to start boiling. No, not really. I did go to Brussels though, for a quick little break with Heather.
We had to get up at a silly time on Wednesday morning, needing to leave at least half an hour to check in to Eurostar.
The check in process seemed to run fairly smoothly (they even had special cup holders to go in the trays carrying belongings through the X-ray machines) but then sitting around waiting to board with not much to do isn’t greatly fun. I also wasn’t that impressed that the passport control guy laughed at my photo!
Finally boarding we had a long walk to find our coach, at the very end of the train. Then we were whisked through English countryside before a boring tunnel. The other end brought more whisking (one suspects of a slightly speedier variety) but this time through French and then Belgium countryside, a cacophony of phone beeps announcing the arrival at each border. And so a little over two hours later (once we’d figured out the local time) we were in the bi-lingual (and really tri-lingual when you consider how much English is spoken) Brussels.
Of course on arrival we had to make it all that way back down the length of the train but we were finally released out into foreign lands. We hung around the station a bit but couldn’t locate our main target of the toilets so headed out to see if any were available elsewhere. The plan was to stroll towards the centre of town but in circling round the outside of the station things became a little confused and I ended up taking us the wrong way (something which should have been obvious given the low sun in front of us). Realising we’d walked quite some way in the wrong direction at least gave an excuse to try out the trams running up and down the road (a sign of Brussel’s excellent public transport system). So having had a brief glance at some of the urbanity on the outskirts (the main immediate impression being of a proliferation of pharmacies), we hopped on and ended up back to where we started by the south station. At least then we found a toilet!
Relieved we had a chance to try out more of the transport system, making our way down to the Metro underground system to be whisked away across the city to the other side of the centre and our hotel. The hotel has a whole designer thing going on, with each room having been decorated differently. We got bluebells on the wall behind the bed. It also has a “signature smell” wafting through the lobby and infusing the toiletries. Unfortunately the smell makes Heather sneeze! Oh, and of course there was a pharmacy across the road.
Out and About
A Church and A Tram
All settled in we set out to explore Europe’s capitol. Stepping out the hotel we noticed an impressive dome at the far end of the street. On investigation that turned out to be the Église Royale Sainte-Marie. It’s a strange little round building but impressive for a parish church and prettier than the things one tends to find back home.
The distant dome investigated we took a tram back into the centre of town eventually managing to get off a bit further on than intended by the Place Royale (the tram system is nice but it can occasionally be difficult to tell where the stops are).
The Place Royale is dominated by a building which at first glance looks more palatial then the church it is. When we arrived the square was empty and we happily strolled around, only for traffic to suddenly come charging through seemingly from ever direction, and splitting around low rails seemingly with no logic. Startled we made an escape to the safety of the statue in the middle, which turned out to be of the leaders of the first crusade. The traffic paused again long enough for us to tentatively make our way back out of the square to the Mont des Arts.
Mont des Arts
As well as numerous cultural buildings the Mont des Arts has numerous pieces of public art scattered around the open square. We wandered down the slope looking at each piece—it’s just a shame we didn’t know much about them! Still we enjoyed moving down past a memorial to those who aided the Jewish population in times of turmoil and a reclining figure to a stylised wolf. There were also figures in relief on one of the surrounding walls and a group of children with a dog which we saw on the way down and walked back up the hill for a proper look. Possibly the most interesting piece was the clock over an arch, with bells hanging down and figures surrounding it. As it was almost 3 O’clock we waiting for the hour to see if anything would happen but it seems not (it should do I think—it’s actually a carillon clock but it seems to be broken).
Putting that minor disappointment behind us we wandered down into the centre of Brussels, quickly finding ourselves strolling into the world heritage site Grand Place. From the first look it is a truly impressive sight, particularly when approaching down one of the narrow streets from the north, as we did, so almost the first building encountered is the town hall. Turning about one sees the tall, thin guild houses, the lower floors now mainly restaurants and taverns, before the “King’s House” (so called, though the natives are fond of mentioning no king ever lived there), built as a ducal counterpoint to the town hall’s municipal power.
There are more guild houses beyond that and the House of the Dukes of Brabant (which, though it looks to be one magnificent building is revealed by its multiple front doors to really be several). The entire thing is stunning, from the great spire of the town hall (which had been easily visible on the walk down to town) looming over all, to the gold gilding of the buildings glinting in the slowly lowering sun. It is difficult to drink in the architectural detail all at once, statues seeming to abound on every facade and surmount every corner and tower.
We span around and circuited and photographed, slightly open mouthed at just how much of it there is—one feels it would be possible to spend entire days to look at every detail. Eventually though we left, off in search of another of Brussel’s famous sights.
Doing a little reading before going to Brussels it seemed some people had found it a little difficult to find the Menneken Pis, expecting something bigger. So it was with a slight trepidation we set off in search. Off the Grand Place down a street lined with chocolate purveyors we went. It was nice to see on the way that the space invaders of my home town have also invaded Brussels! On easily finding our destination it was difficult to see how others could fail to notice it on walking past with all the tourists standing around the railings. The statue of a little boy peeing (and take your pick of legends behind its origin) is reproduced from everything from postcards to letter openers and a true symbol of Brussels. So of course we had to wait our turn at the railings to get the good photo!
As it was getting quite late we headed back towards the Grand Place, for there we knew we would find restaurants. I think we circumnavigated the square looking at each one before arriving almost back where we started and the White Rose. With a window seat and the twilight still glinting off the buildings outside it was a very pleasant place to dine (complete with gratefully received English menus, even it did turn out I was doing a surprisingly good job of translating the French to myself).
I had meatballs while Heather had the vegetarian friendly cheese and tomato tart. As she likes Belgium waffles that was an obvious dessert, though I plumped for a chocolate mousse. The food wasn’t exactly spectacular but the location made up with it, and considering where we were the price wasn’t too bad either (even if one does automatically think everything is expensive due to reading the Euros as Pounds).
An Evening Stroll
To The Pub!
Revived from dinner we made our way back out into the now dark Grand Place. Even at night it’s still spectacular, the street lights around the perimeter giving just enough illumination to pick out the wonderful buildings surrounding the square. We crossed and made our way out, passing by the stock exchange with no real target in mind. Wandering further through Brussels we enjoyed the surprisingly mild evening. Just as we were thinking it a shame that Europe doesn’t understand the British pub we turned a corner to find Churchill’s English Pub! Ahhhhh, proper beer.
Properly refreshed and rested we took a look at the little map provided by the hotel and realised we weren’t far from the cathedral. Wandering up the road towards it we had to go by memory as it turned out that I had foolishly been left in charge of the map without realising which left it lying in the pub. The cathedral wasn’t hard to find though, lit up prettily in its grounds. We were amused by the strange thin cattle sculptures outside. As we walked around to look at the building the hour came and was marked by a delightful little tune from the cathedral (turns out it has a carillon too).
Smiles on our faces from that jolly little interlude we made our way to catch a tram back to the hotel. Just missing one we got board sitting around waiting for another before realising we would only be catching it one stop, so we walked down the road to the insight hotel instead. And then to nice comfy bed.
Rested and ready to go we went to investigate Botanique right next door to a brief base. It turns out not to be what it sounds any more. It still has nicely laid out gardens but they have an air of neglect about them. Perhaps it wasn’t helped by the grey and drizzly morning we found ourselves in but the oft broken statues had a tired patina of age. The Botanique is these days, apparently, a centre of French culture, forming a concert and arts venue. Whatever it is, it was closed so we moved on to the tram stop which shares its name to head into town proper.
We got off the tram a little further on than the day before and soon found ourselves winding through little narrow streets until we emerged, via another church, at the law courts. Through the continued and heavier rain we could see that they may be described as large (apparently the largest building of the nineteenth century). There would have been a fine view across the city too if not for the rain. The depressing mood of the rain was at least lightened by what we took to be a group of students. They emerged from a car nearby and climbed onto a balustrade, before beginning to chant and shout in the direction of a nearby building. We had idea what they were protesting about, and as quickly as they started they seemed to stop again to merely stand around talking.
More of Brussels
We walked back down the hill exploring more of Brussels, past Notre Dame de la Chapelle with its funny roof on the tower (a typical feature of the churches here) before rounding the railway station. Along the way we were amused to see more evidence of the Brussels equivalent of Boris Bikes. Passing beneath the rail lines (which seem to be everywhere around the centre linking the numerous stations) we found more alien invaders stencilled on the wall and further signs Brussel’s quirk for comic strip art work on random walls. The road we followed turned out to lead us back toward Grand Place, passing the Manneken Pis again and on into the square.
The walking had given us an appetite so again we hunted for somewhere to eat around the among the beautiful buildings. Settling on a place almost diagonally opposite the restaurant of the night before we had lunch. While Heather went for croquettes I came over all un-continental with a cheeseburger. Again we had a window view over the square beneath us, with tourists and natives alike dodging the rain. One could get used to that.
After lunch we recrossed Grand Place for I had promised Heather a horse and carriage ride (which she deserved given my mood all morning). So off we clopped on a short circuit around the streets, me huddled in a corner but Heather fully enjoying and engaged in it. In typical fashion we had to sit for five minutes waiting for a lorry to unblock the street but then it was on around St Nicholas Church tightly surrounded by houses, the construction of which we were told helped pay for the church) and past the stock exchange again. Passing along the side of Grand Place we twisted through back streets typical of Brussels until finding ourselves at the Menneken Pis for the third time. The ride ended back where we started, just off Grand Place, next to the statue of Everard ‘t Serclaes, the arm of which we dutifully rubbed.
A Last Look At Brussels
With the afternoon wearing on we walked around without aim for a little while more, drinking in details. We took in the royal theatre and the lovely St Hubertus Royal Gallery (split into his and hers). There was a last return to Grand Place so Heather could have a photo taken on the carriage, which we’d forgotten to do earlier. We also found a rather groovy bigger than life statue of Charles Buls the mayor responsible for much of the Grand Place’s restoration.
Realising our time in Brussels was coming to an end we made sure that we were stocked with chocolates and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of truffles before taking a last trip to Churchill’s bar to recharge ready for the journey home. We thought the tram would be a short walk from there but, having gone down to the Metro and back up, there was no sign. We wandered in confusion for a few minutes before the realisation that in this area the trams actually run underground, something which excited me and disturbed Heather. Either way it did mean we could make our way back to the station to catch the Eurostar home, though a return may be necessary soon.
There’s a whole page of photos from the trip