Beer, chocolate, moules-frites, beef steaks and waffles. Consult any guide book and those are the culinary delights of Belgium and the products of which they are most proud, and so this brief trip to Brussels is a mission to do justice to all of them.First though it’s a Friday night in London, and just a little taste of living the dream, as we stay in the opulent luxury of the hotel at St Pancras, surely one of the most splendid buildings in the whole of England and without doubt one of the finest examples of Neo Gothic architecture you will ever see. The thought of breakfasting in its majestic hall and then climbing on to Eurostar is just plain exquisite.
So we have a couple of beers at the Betjeman Arms within the station complex, another in the Caledonian Road, then partake in only our second ever Ethiopian meal. For the uninitiated, this is an odd experience; where else do you finish off by eating your table cloth?? A couple of cocktails in the fabulous Booking Hall lounge at the hotel rounds off our evening in the most majestic of surroundings.
Saturday morning sees a leisurely enough schedule to wander around the colossal building and read up on its history; unbelievably this wonderful and majestic place would have been demolished in the 1960s had British Railways had their way. We owe a debt to those who saved it. In a nice twist it turns out that this whole place was the brainchild of architect Gilbert Scott, the very same man who designed Brownsover Hall, where we were married.
Eurostar pulls into Brussels Midi late afternoon; our Metro line to the hotel is shut so we have a 30-minute traipse across some of the city’s less salubrious areas. We walk briskly!
The St Gery quarter where we are billeted though is packed with bars and eateries so we seriously don’t have far to go for our Saturday night out. Beer is to Belgium as wine is to France, we have heard, and it is immediately evident, with bars boasting 200+ beers; menus with detailed descriptions of each beer; bars giving continuous service for over 100 years; bars with names like “The Beer Temple”, wow they take their beer seriously here! So for a first night out we do justice to this religion; we think four bars and a good selection of beers, but who’s counting. We also have a fantastically succulent steak before the night is done. Our room at St Gery is a funky and chic loft conversion atop a town house; we may have thought we’d done the beer culture justice, but the streets below remain thronged with chattering beer-swilling revellers with far more stamina than us, right through till 6am!
Being at St Gery, we are right at the heart of Brussels, making the start of Sunday’s sightseeing day easy. We are soon out past La Bourse, the old stock exchange, and heading towards Grand Place, the main square, passing a ridiculous number of chocolate shops on the way. Grand Place is more than grand; it is a magnificent, majestic and elegant square, stunning on all four sides, gold statues and ornate stonework decorating the imposing and glorious buildings which originally housed the guilds of the city’s craftsmen – including, inevitably, bakers and brewers. To our delight and surprise, this is surely one of Europe’s most wonderful squares; it really is a stop and stare location. Next up is the obligatory visit to the “mannekin pis”, the statue of the little boy peeing which has become, for some reason, the iconic Brussels image. It’s a lot smaller than you expect. We wander through what is Europe’s oldest shopping arcade, topped with a high level arched glass ceiling rather reminiscent of the arcades of Milan, and on up to the giant cathedral with its cavernous interior. On the way we pass Rue les Bouchers, probably our lunch destination. We try a bit of Belgian chocolate, but the waffles look to be smothered in ferocious looking sweet sauces, fruit, cream and chocolate, which puts us off until we spy a street vendor selling plain sugared waffles at 2 euros each, close to the cathedral. They are ok, but it’s frankly hard to see what all the fuss is about on that one! Before we hit Rue les Bouchers, we seek out Jeanneke Pis, an amusing gender antipathy to mannekin piss, being a small statue of a pigtailed schoolgirl squatting and peeing rather contentedly in front of the many onlookers! By the time we’ve done all this it’s closing in on lunchtime, but of course it would be rude not to have a beer aperitif, so we seek out a hidden gem, Au Bon Vieux Temps, a tiny beer den up an alley off a back street, just for one quick beer before food. Except we get talking to Claude, a lovely old gent, a proud Brussels man who clearly loves to welcome visitors to his local bar. We chat with him on all manner of subjects over three beers, and are made to feel very welcome in this cosy tucked away 17th century tavern, though he is completely astonished and appalled by our Brexit vote. It’s difficult to prise ourselves away from the offers of another round, but it’s got to be moules-frites time now, to tick the final culinary box. Whilst in the tiny tavern, the heavens have opened so we dash through the downpour to Rue les Bouchers, but we don’t dwell too long on restaurant selection!! The mussels come in giant pans and in huge quantity; Michaela’s in a cream and garlic sauce; Phil’s, somewhat inevitably, cooked in beer. The chips, another Belgian claim to fame, are very, very good too, crispy outside and fluffy within. We’ll take the savouries over the sweets any time.
And so to our second night out in Beer City. Just off Place Agora is a rather wonderfully named bar, the A La Mort Subite, translation: At The Sudden Death. Given that this place also sells a beer called Sudden Death, we just have to find it. In reality, the name isn’t so morbid, but is in fact named after an ancient Brussels dice game played in bars in the 19th century; the bar itself its fabulous and virtually unaltered in the 100+ years it’s been open, the staff, fourth generation descendants of the founder, are amiable and helpful. Oh, and there’s masses of beers as well as Sudden Death.
The top end of Rue les Bouchers is one of those tourist-trap gauntlets of restaurant owners calling you in. “Good cheap food, come see”. “Why not? You will like”. Our destination tonight already spotted, we ignore them all and head for the menu stacked with Belgian specialities, where it’s snails for starters, then an unusual dish from Ghent, a kind of creamy chicken casserole with leek and garlic. It’s good. Again.
St Gery is quieter tonight, a school night, none of last night’s revelry as we drift contentedly off to sleep.
With a late afternoon Eurostar booked, we have pretty much all of Monday as our last day, and so head off again past La Bourse to Grand Place. Last night we saw Grand Place in all its wonderful floodlit glory; it is a magnificent square at any time of day. Now the golden statues glint in the morning sun, coffee cups clink and school outings giggle and bustle, cameras click everywhere. Little wonder, it’s a terrific sight.
Across the main park sits the bulky but rather austere Royal Palace, we trek on past it and out to the European Parliament, where the Union Flag sits forlornly on the end of the line as it is symbolically elbowed out of the clique as a manifestation of the Brexit process. Unfortunately it seems the Visitor Centre (Parliamentarium) doesn’t open on Monday mornings, dammit. Some silly foreign rule we suppose…..
Seriously though, the huge Parliament infrastructure is dotted with historical notes, boasting proudly that the forefathers of the EU were to a man staunch Socialists; you know, it really isn’t so strange (take note, Claude) that Brits voted against being ruled by non-elected politicians of a definite political bias.
A bendy bus takes us back to the square, where – guess what – it’s beer time again. It’s actually the first time we’ve had a beer right in the square, at Roi Espagna (Spanish Kings), another old established Brussels bar, followed by yet two more which are institutions as much as bars – Le Greenwich, a chess players’ haunt, and Le Cirio, where another Brussels speciality drink, the Half and Half, was invented. It’s a mix of white wine and champagne, of all things!
So the last meal includes a main course of carbonnade, a beef and beer stew with, you guessed it, chips. The strong beer makes it a very rich concoction. The Metro underground tram back to Midi station is quick and efficient and we are soon ready for Eurostar, tired and full.
Well, Brussels is done, and apart from our poor effort at the sweet stuff, we’ve had a bloody good go at the treasured local traditions. Time to lose a few pounds, we fear. Until the next trip.